To say that today's selection has high expectations is a serious understatement. It's long been a favorite of the scanlation scene, and many despaired of it ever being released in the US. Vertical was in the process of making their own plans to release it, only to have the license snatched away by Kodansha themselves to release on their own. Is Vinland Saga as epic as its history?
VINLAND SAGA (Vinrando Saga), by Makoto Yukimura. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2013.
During the Middle Ages, a ruthless band of Vikings attacks a Frankish village. The Vikings win the day in part to their ruthless leader, Askeladd, and in part due to Thorfinn, a young man whose age belies both his strength and his rage. He has good cause to be rageful, as we flashback on Thorfinn's carefree childhood. Back then, he had a family and dreams of being a great warrior like his father Thors. Thors may have been a wise and caring man then, but he carried dark, bloody secrets in his past and it is those secrets which lead him to venture away from his village and family. Those same secrets are the reason Askeladd is hired to hunt Thors down, and their encounter changes Thorfinn's life forever. Now Thorfinn fights and lives for one cause only: revenge.
So, was Vinland Saga worth the wait and struggle to bring it to the North American market? The answer is a resounding YES.
I'll admit that I've long had a sweet spot for Viking history, so already this manga gets credit for focusing on a culture and history I enjoy and for choosing such an unusual time and setting for a manga. As a self-admitted history geek, I'm very pleased to see that Yukimura did his research, and aside from a few little things (like the Franks speaking modern French), the times, places, cultures and people are historically accurate, at least as much as possible. Honestly, the only major anachronism is its best developed character - Thors.
Poor Thors. He's got the makings of a great man, with his great strength, keen mind, loving heart, and a healthy dose of humility and thoughtfulness. Unfortunately for him, Viking culture put greater value on one's abilities as a warrior and leader of men, and Thors wants to put his marauding days behind him. It is only under great duress that we get to see why he was once so feared, and sadly it is his sense of decency that undoes him. His is a commanding presence, and his absence is just as keenly felt by the audience as it is for Thorfinn.
Because a good two-thirds of this volume is a flashback about Thors, it's kind of easy to forget that Thorfinn is supposed to be our lead. The contrast between the happy child of the past and the angry young man of the present couldn't be greater, though. Because of that flashback, you understand where Thorfinn is coming from, but he's not an easy character to like. As is, he's sullen, haunted, and barely suppressing his rage. He avoids the company of all other when off the battlefield, and speaks very little. When he does, he has no kind words to share, and while he obeys Askeladd on the field he clearly hates the man to his very core.
Askeladd is the thread that ties the stories of the past and present together, and while he could have been a simple villain, he's simply too congenial and too much of a trickster to fit such a role. His cunning makes him a great general, someone who can change tactics as needed on a moment's notice and use unconventional strategies to win. Off the battlefield, he's surprisingly easy-going and even a little snarky, even with Thorfinn. Still, he is no angel. He is a mercenary, after all, and he is a man who must fight to survive. He has no pity for those below him and has no room in his life for decency or fairness without profit for him. He may be a bastard, but he's an interesting bastard, and he completes the plot threads between the past and the present.
As you may have guessed from those last few paragraphs, this is a very character-driven story. There's certainly a fair bit of action (mostly in the beginning), but much of the time is spent establishing Thorfinn's family and community in the past, as well as establishing his situation in the present. The extended flashback does kill some of the plot momentum, but it's necessarily to create context for Thorfinn's present and give the story much of its great depth.
Time will tell if this manga lives up to its title as a saga, but as is Vinland Saga is a great historical drama supported by its extremely well-written characters.
Yukimura's art is surprisingly cartoony when compared to his previous work, Planetes. It's still very much grounded in reality, save for the odd exception (like the toad-like Frankish lord), but the eyes seem wider and the faces much simpler. Still, they're quite subtle and expressive, and look just as good in action as they do in calmer scenes. Action scenes are fluidly drawn, and while Yukimura makes frequent use of speed lines, he never lets them obscure the actual action. The page composition for these scenes verges on the cinematic, with the way the scenes cut from panel to panel. His historical research extended to the art as well, and everything from the buildings to the clothing to the boats is both well drawn (if rather homely) and historically accurate.
Kodansha is releasing this in hardbound 2-in-1 omnibuses, in a style closer to library binding. There's a 2-page color splash page in the front. After each volume, there are a few goofy 4-komas (including some rather amusing ones dedicated to Thorfinn's sister, Ylva), along with beautiful renderings of things like the floorplan of Thorfinn's family home and some of the weapons. There's also maps showing where the characters are in relation to one another and in relation to Europe as it was in the 11th century, as well as translation notes. There are also some amusing pictures of Yukimura in Viking costume when he received an award for this series. Finally, there's a snippet of an unrelated Japanese historical story, "For Our Farewell Is Near," about the Shinsengumi.
Vinland Saga is shaping up to be an epic release, and one I would heartily recommend to others.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is ongoing in Japan, with 12 volumes available so far. The first omnibus, containing the first two volumes, has been released and is currently in print.
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