D-MAIL MANGA REVIEW: VINLAND SAGA
A review of volume 1 - 16
Original text: october 2014
Editing and rewrites: january 2017
Genre: Historical, drama, action, seinen
Author: Makoto Yukimura
Years of publishing: 2005 - present
FOREWORDBefore I start let me very quickly explain what a D-Mail review is since I intend to do more of them in the future. A D-Mail review is a review I wrote at an earlier stage but for one reason or another never bothered to publish. Now since some of these are quite old they’re also kind of well…crap. So in order for them to be interesting and fun to read I edit them and in some cases (like this one) rewrite entire paragraphs. Thus in terms of date of writing they kind of flip flop back and forth through time. Much like the eponymous e-mails from Steins;Gate. Hence the title. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way let us commence the review!
A while back I read the first two volumes of this series and to be completely honest…I wasn’t terribly impressed. Lots of over the top action, lots of comedy and really not a whole lot of depth or complexity. So very much not what I expected from a historical series about Vikings. Buuut…I eventually did pick up the other volumes and ho boy am I ever glad I did! This series is written by one Makoto Yukimura who’s debut series Planetes (which is fantastic btw) also had a rather rough start. However I will say that in the case of Vinland Saga this seems less down to the author and perhaps more due to early publication issues. You see for the first half year Vinland Saga was published in Weekly Shonen Magazine. And this brought with it two major issues: first of all this is a shonen magazine and Planetes was very much a seinen series revolving around issues and feeling that are really only relatable to an adult. So Yukimura was already a bit out of his depth here. And far more problematic then this was that it was a weekly magazine. And as any Shonen Jump authors will attest, creating manga for a weekly magazine is murderous! The rapid rate of publication leaves authors with very little time to draw and even less to write. Weekly series live on a week by week basis so each chapter needs to be exciting and easy to grasp. In other words Vinland Saga was very much misplaced there. And Yukimura apparently agreed because shortly after it started Vinland Saga was shifted to Monthly Afternoon, a seinen magazine. Needless to say this did the series a world of good. Over the course of just two volumes the tone shifted from lighthearted adventure to very serious historical epic and while it remained a rather action packed series the emphasis became much more focused on its plot, characters and themes. But much more on that later.
Now while the first two volumes are easily the weakest they’re not exactly utter shit either. For starters the start of the series itself is really quite promising. Iceland, circa 1100 AD, and our protagonist: Thorfinn is only six years when his dad is killed by Askeladd. A charismatic but ruthless privateer. However through a cruel twist of fate Thorfinn ends up on board of Askeladd’s ship and becomes a member of his gang of ruffians and from there on the series is very much about these two characters and the very complicated relationship they have with one-another as well as various quests they and their merry band embarks upon. Now if this premise sounds sort of familiar to fans of Berserk, that’s not so weird since this series takes major inspiration from Berserk. But then if you have to take inspiration from anything for your grand scale epic, Berserk is probably the best thing you can choose.
From volume three onwards the series becomes much more serious in tone and begins to focus heavily on the characters and their increasingly complicated relationships as well as the various political machinations that are happening at the same time. And it takes this to unimaginable heights with lots of intrigue, character drama and some very unexpected twists. Including one final twist at the end of volume eight that changes everything. And from there on the series goes from a sort of historical Berserk-lite to becoming a completely different beast entirely and it’s all the better for it.
At this point the series becomes very much it’s own thing. No longer focusing on massive battles and large scale intrigue but rather on more personal questions. Like the nature of violence and where it derives from. Or the meaning of good and evil within the context of the human condition. It becomes less a story of an entire empire and more one of a single character and his journey towards finding a way of life where he can accept himself for who he is.
And now we get to the real meat and bones of this series. While at first a lot of the characters seem like stereotypical heroes or villains they are anything but. All of them have an extensive background history, their own character traits that make them stand out and above all their own values and beliefs which for a lot of them actually changes over the course of the series. Thorfinn starts off as this young and naïve kid and grows up to be one very angry teenager who has to qualms taking other people’s lives. He has this single minded determination to avenge the death of his father but anyone he kills in the meantime are irrelevant to him. There is an almost Shakesperian paradox to his character which makes him so very complelling to read about. Especially when you keep in mind that he is actually the protagonist and so the person we’re supposed to be rooting for. Askeladd on the other hand might at first seem like an almost comically stereotypical villain with his rather swashbuckling attitude and blatant disregard for human life. But the more the story progresses, the more you learn about how he came to be who he is and what his true golas are, the more you start to wonder whether he is even a villain at all and whter or not Thorfinn's thirst for vengeance is even justified.
And that’s another thing this series does extremely well. This is a historical series and with a few exceptions here and there history doesn’t really have heroes and villains. And neither does Vinland Saga. Yukimura takes the position of a chronicler moreso than a storyteller. He presents the events to us but doesn’t force any opinion on them down our throats. Which is something I can only applaud.
As mentioned this series went from a weekly publication to a monthly one and the change is very clearly visible. In the first two volumes the art is kind of mediocre. Character designs are stylish but lack detail and backgrounds are often lackluster or just not there at all. If you keep in mind that this was drawn in a week it’s still mighty impressive but overall not much to write home about. Then from volume 3 onwards (which was when the series went from weekly to monthly) the art slowly begins to improve. It’s not immediately noticeable at first but when you for instance look at the first chapter of volume 5 and compare that to chapter one the difference is made abbundantly clear. And from there it more or less stays consistent which is to say mouthwateringly beautiful.
The amount of detail put into each panel of this manga is just astonishing. Every crease in the character’s clothing, every wrinkle on a character’s forehead every fingernail on a character’s hand is drawn in painstaking detail. And that’s just the character designs. The backgrounds are even more impressive. From volume 3 onwards there’s almost not a single panel that doesn’t have a fully drawn background often with huge amount of detail. Which, coupled with some brilliant lighting really helps to truly make early medieval Europe come to life.
Now I could talk a whole lot more about how the first few volumes are not that great but I think I made my point so let me instead disclose a more personal thing about my take on Vinland Saga. Which is that I love the shit out of it and there are few series I enjoy reading this freaking much. Great characters, a terrific story full of huge twists and beautiful artwork make Vinland Saga one hell of a manga. So it should come as no surprise that this is a series I highly recommend checking out.
The series has been licensed by Kodansha Comics who in the past few years have released the first sixteen volumes in stunning looking hardcover omnibuses, each bundling two volumes. Honestly this series is worth buying for that alone.
RECOMMENDATIONSThe first recommendation is a very obvious one: Berserk. Vinland Saga is heavily inspired and if you like Vinland Saga, especially the first eight volumes, you’re gonna looove Berserk. Like Vinland Saga it’s an epic tale filled with huge battles and tons of intrigue. Only even larger in scale and unlike Vinland Saga, Berserk is fantasy. But it’s good fantasy, that’s unlike any other fantasy. Read Berserk is what I’m trying to say. Berserk is love, Berserk is life.
Second recommendation is almost a blind recommendation because it is for a series that so far I’ve only read the first volume of. But that volume was good enough to be worth a recommendation and it’s also the only other manga I know that is also set in Medieval Europe. And that manga is Wolfsmund. This series takes place a little later in the middle ages and revolves around a castle in Switzerland that happens to be the entrance to a major passage. The story revolves around the people that attempt to cross said passage. I say attempt because these stories generally don’t end well. Like Vinland Saga it presents a historically accurate representation of the middle ages. Though fair warning: it is quite a bit more violent and messed up than Vinland Saga so beware of that.