Grim Reaper and 4 Girlfriends, the three-volume series now available in one omnibus edition from Yen Press, is unlike any manga you’ve ever read, and simultaneously exactly like every manga you’ve ever read. But done with purpose, this “all things to all readers” series achieves a rare feat of taking readers across the vast landscape of manga genres and elements, while telling a very particular tale—mostly successfully—and all in one-and-a-half-dozen chapters.
Little time is wasted in this brief work, with protagonist Kaoru Minaguchi dying almost immediately upon the tale’s start. Not particularly good at school and with no social life to speak of, he makes a perfect target for Airi, a grim reaper who reveals to Kaoru that she and her kind kill “no-lifers,” those who have no ambition, no outlook, and thus provide no contribution to society, as she stabs him, leading him toward the afterlife. But luckily for Kaoru, he’s able to convince Airi that he desires to be a “real-lifer,” and to prove it, he’ll find a girlfriend. But Kaoru’s attempt at life is about to become very complicated when four different, beautiful girls accept his haphazard love confessions, and he’ll have to balance all the relationships somehow or find himself without even one, and thus back on his way to the afterlife.
Although it crosses multiple genres, the idea of a violent, afterworld-featuring romantic comedy isn’t particularly novel. Storywriter Shin Suyama (the art is done by collaborator, CHuN), however, doesn’t stop with this foundation, crossing between styles and tones chapter by chapter, girl by girl, and even panel by panel. Grim Reaper and 4 Girlfriends seeks to be everything at once: a harem series and a satire of harem; romcom and horror; pure and ecchi. Airi and the four girlfriends themselves likewise join in multiple roles, allowing for a yandere, overachiever, idol, childhood friend, maid, imouto, tsundere, pervert, gamer, and more to exist all at the same time. Much of the humor in the manga is generated by Kaoru’s reactions when he discovers these alternate sides to the girls, with close-up frames of his responses proving to be the most entertaining panels of the manga (though others may argue for the the fanservice-laden drawings, particularly in the all-color initial pages).
A series that bounces between so many ideas risks alienating readers through exhaustion and by losing them by spending too much on the trees rather than the forest. But before that becomes concerning—while the humor of the series is still uproarious, the funny references to various classic series with slightly modified titles (Kimi he Todoke, Adoka Magica, and my favorite, My Neighbor Sparky, featuring in Totoro’s role a large creature that suspiciously looks like Pikachu) serving as fun Easter eggs, and the competition for “best girl” still stewing—it becomes clear that this manga is heading somewhere, particularly when a new plot point is introduced late in the tale. And as the series makes it way toward the end, the reader is left to wonder what could happen: Will this end happily? Romantically? In a ridiculous way? Or do the harbingers of doom, obvious and more subtle, suggest a more terrifying conclusion? Any, or a combination of these and others, is possible because of how wide flung the manga is in drawing in different tropes and character types, and thus haunts the reader even as he or she is mostly laughing along and at a jauntily pace.
The story does conclude in a relatively gratifying and compelling manner, if a bit too tidily, closing while raising a number of questions and finishing too quickly. But while Grim Reaper and 4 Girlfriends ends a little less strongly than the weight of the material behind it suggests it will, it feels right since it’s exactly where the series was headed all along, and thus matches the overall read, one that’s satisfying and a quick and clever reminder that if you’re unable to choose what kind of manga you want to read next—horror, comedy, harem, or supernatural, you can choose all of the above, and that choice can be result in a single, satisfying tale.
Grim Reaper and 4 Girlfriends is available from Yen Press, which provided a review copy for this article.