This josei/shoujo astonishes you with great fighting scenes and an intricate mystery plot, but may disappoint romance-wise for several reasons. Yet in the end it is a story about a relationship, for better and for worse. In my opinion, worse. Is action shoujo a flawed concept by design? I hope not. But Koroshi Ai, while mostly enjoyable, sure makes you wonder.
Koroshi Ai is one of the pixiv-born series, which I will be calling “ASMR-manga” starting now, because they get their popularity thanks to a particular tone/mood and when serialized cultivate it. In Koroshi Ai it’s a suspenseful romance where a fox eyed cool assassin hits relentlessly on a stoic bounty hunter girl and she is “nah, pls go away, nuh-huh”. The thrill comes from the duality – is this courting playfulness or a cat-and-mouse play? What are his true intentions? Why is she so non receptive to his advances? You want to see sexy times, but is this even safe? The same duality reigns supreme in the setting too, where a funny fluffy relationship is wrapped in a setting with so many deaths. Children suffer a lot of trauma here, I must give a warning.
The focus is squarely on the male lead. Fox eyes are a rare, important feature, since they are essentially a mask. Foxlike characters are impenetrably smiley most of the time, playful, socially adept, and seemingly eager to serve, until they show their eyes – and you know the shit has become real. Song Ryang-ha fits to the letter – he is murderous as hell, this is the nine tailed fox in the room you have to ignore to appreciate this work, actually. At the beginning he fully reminds you of a small sadistic predator: he gifts tortured bodies to the female lead and resides in rundown buildings. He mellows pretty fast. Credit has to be given to the author for his understated but powerful design. Ryang-ha always attracts your view. He is smooth, sleek, functional, ever casually stylish in his suits – he evokes the image of an S-class armored car you'd see with a convoy, or a timeless elegant pistol. He is dangerous because he is, very naturally, and therefore classy. The story offers several attractive guys with different flavors in leading roles, but Song remains the undisputed star, you read for him and then do the inspirational “for him” desktop collage.
The female lead, Chateau, feels simpler in design. She is somewhat similar to Saber from Fate visually, similarly very quiet and stoic, cute all the more for not understanding it or caring about romance.
What else does Koroshi Ai do right? The atmosphere of night shoot-outs and high-class crime! This shoujo has an unprecedented amount of violent night mob raids. The human fodder is rough, scary, armed, and professional. Brains fly, buildings burn, snipers on the roof work as a team and coordinate ground troops. I love the attention to the bladed weapons, the care with which they are drawn, and a very unnerving blademaster child bodyguard who uses them the most. The little guy will be a force of nature if he grows, but it’s unlikely he’ll have a chance with his attitude.
The drawing style is delicious, backgrounds rule much more than I could ever expect. There’re hiccups here and there, the author messes up feet, for example, and Chateau’s weird hips bug me. This is not an in-your-face shounen with two-page spreads too, the panel composition is much calmer here. Instead this manga offers detailed tasty interiors you expect, you want to find in this kind of story – a cruise ship, a hotel, a private castle, dingy hideouts, mafia offices, an abandoned factory. All come with realistic layouts, a big amount of items, and great nighttime lights. There are suits, weapons, and cars all around. And, of course, as I have mentioned, terrific shooting scenes. Character designs are clean, tidy, maybe even sweet – fitting for the demogprahic, but not flowery. On the side manga offers funny yonkoma about its characters, costumed special pages, and lush colored covers you badly want on your walls.
What doesn’t happen in this manga? The amount of everyday dating “porn” is low, they have no time to eat cakes together. They don't show any skin either, this manga is low on naked bodies. And there’s no competition between the leads at all – Chateau loses to Song on the first few pages and stays helpless in his hands, which a) may be unnerving; b) lowers her agency and makes her ultimately disappointing as a character.
Which brings us to what is likely the core question of action shoujo. Is there a place for a female lead in an action story? As Koroshi Ai progresses, as it weaves its very complex and sometimes hard to follow, yet fairly consistent, plot (be ready for a multitude of reveals, cliffhangers, flashbacks, and schemes), Chateau becomes more and more of a princess in destress waiting for her prince. Together with her initial extreme reservedness it turns her into an object around which everything revolves. She’s both the main driving force and the main problem of this manga in all regards. No, yes, she has an inner conflict, and she has an annoying tendency to attack stronger fighters inefficiently when she throws a tantrum, but she becomes a prize valued not because of her personal qualities, but because of her past/her accidental role in the events. Is this the desired outcome? Does this please readers?.. Interestingly, even Song becomes less foxy in the second half, with his irises visible most of the time. I guess the whole tone of the work slightly shifts.
Overall, from my point of view, I would say that the implied pureness of the female lead makes her empty and unrealistic in her profession and/or setting. Sure, diving under enemy bullets is also not reality, but it makes more sense character-wise than going along a blood trail unprepared. As a result both sides of this manga are wounded:
– If you like action, you will be likely annoyed by the totality of the female lead’s careless powerlessness. She acts, but she’s woefully inefficient, and it is not a good look. Then you have to suspend your disbelief when true professionals do stupid things to save her.
– If you like romance, you have to be content with teasing and tension only. Because of Ryang-ha they often look like lovers, but as of chapter 55 when all hell is loose in the plot already I can’t yet say confidently it is sexual/romantic and not parental for him. They have never truly connected because of the striking difference in experience and conduct, after all.
Nonetheless, the shootouts are good, the ikemen are good, I like fox eyes, and I simply can’t ignore how happy seeing a josei/shoujo romance with so many quality fights makes me. Actually, there isn’t that many series with modern firearm action out there in all demographics, so what we see in Koroshi Ai must be cherished and appreciated. Chateau may be true to her name and become this static beautiful fortress to conquer in the later chapters, but the men here go all out, and I am fully on board with seeing them show off, struggle, suffer, expose their dark secrets. Shoot on, guys, for what this manga could have been.