This is the book that teaches me the old lesson about judging books by their covers in the most literal sense. Way back in November when TCAF director and comics impresario Chris and I met with Akira Uemura, the editor of Erotics f, she filled our arms with delightful treats such as the Ono Kuma mobile phone strap that was on sale in the pop-up Natsume Ono cafe last year (something I really, really wanted, but which sold out before I got the chance to order it but which appears to be back in stock, so order away!), the most recent edition of Erotics f, and a standalone book called Kurokami no Helga.
When she slid a copy across the table to me, I was secretly rolling my eyes. Yawn. Pretty girl blushing, castle in the background, princely guy next to her staring wistfully into the distance? The cover screamed “princess rescue” or some other tired “for girls” storyline. And I have never cared for those storylines. Even as a kid, I was suspicious of these girls who were happy just to be married to the handsome stranger who carried them away from whatever peril they were in.
So while the issues of Erotics f were eagerly read and various mobile phone straps enjoyed in their turn, Kurokami languished on the shelf of unread books, where my eyes would find it every time I was looking for something new to read, and each time, I would think, “I guess I should read that at some point. But not now.” And I would grab a comic about a scientist or a dramatic romp through old-timey France, and forget all about Helga and her prince.
But this week, staring down the many books waiting to be read, I saw Kurokami and figured if I just read it, it would be done and then it wouldn’t always be there, a sulking reminder of a present not appreciated. And then I could get to something that I was actually interested in. But then I started reading and holy smokes! This book has nothing to do with being rescued by princes! In hindsight, I should’ve known that anything published in Erotics f would not be so dull as that. Also, if I’d taken a moment to actually read the obi wrapped around the bottom of the book, I would’ve noticed the giant “Recommended by Natsume Ono!!” accompanied by Ono’s renditions of the characters, which probably would’ve made me more inclined to give the book a chance.
Helga is “outside of time”, the only black-haired person in a town full of dreamy blondes. A town that is ruled/created by a mysterious “Girl”. Who appears to be some kind of puppet? (Don’t worry. I’m not spoiling anything with that revelation.) And the dreamy blondes hate Helga, fear her and want her dead. She is unclean somehow. I’m guessing it is the hair. But she has the dreamy prince type on the cover (Adolph, mayor of the town and “chosen” by the Girl) to shelter her. Her only friend is a girl her own age, Edda, who despite being as blond and prone to embarrassment and shame as all the other townsfolk, loves Helga. Until she “wakes up” and joins the sex free-for-all that the town tumbles into whenever the Girl goes to sleep.
The story is confusing and jumbled, especially in the beginning. A lot of unanswered questions. Why does everyone in town hate Helga? Why do they all call her “outside of time” so scornfully? Why does everyone adore Adolph like that? Is the red-headed guy a bad guy? Why is everyone going on about shame all the time? Fortunately, the writing is good, and the art, while leaning in the typical shojo direction, gets crazy and innovative just often enough to be interesting and not so often that you feel like Saku’s just showing off. Her panelling is really exceptional at times, perfect for the moment she is capturing, and she uses brush work in unexpected ways that I found compelling and intriguing, another reminder that this was not the typical love story I was expecting.
Even with the initial (and ongoing) confusion, the story barrels ahead, pulling the reader along with it. I couldn’t stop reading, even though I was constantly wondering exactly what was going on. I still can’t decide if the story would have benefitted from being longer, like maybe two books instead of this one, or if it would have suffered from having too much explained. The world-building here is shaky at best, and maybe that is not a bad thing. After all, a world created by a puppet girl in which a town full of blond people engage in municipal orgies, only to forget that anything ever happened? I can’t even imagine what plausible foundation you could come up with for that.
The twists and turns of the story are worth reading, even if you’re not sure why they’re happening. And the epilogue is heartbreaking. What makes Kurokami so compelling in the end, though, is Helga. She understands that everyone hates her; she is awake when everyone else sleeps; she lashes out at her creator; she does not hold betrayals against her betrayers, knowing what she does about the world she lives in. And yet she is exuberant, loving, and freckled. And you know I cannot resist freckles.