Vinland Saga

Vinland Saga is a Japanese comic about Vikings that manages to be action-oriented, character driven, and well-researched. By hitting the mark on all three of these things, it’s much more of a success than it has any right to be.


Ultra realistic? No. Semi-plausible and serves the story well? You betcha.


Full credit goes to creator Makoto Yukimura, who previously wrote a manga of an entirely different order, Planetes. A sci-fi manga dealing with the day-to-day lives of garbage collectors in space, it has nothing in common with this, except that it’s also unique and surprisingly well-done.

As I said in the beginning, this manga is an adequate depiction of the Viking Age, arguably one of the most badass and manly historical periods ever, if not the most falsely caricatured. No, Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets, and they weren’t humorless savages. You won’t see any of those misconceptions here, because Yukimura did a fair bit of research, and actually incorporates historical characters into his work.


Meet Thorfinn.


Vinland Saga follows Thorfinn, a young Viking who is on a quest for revenge. The manga didn’t win me over from page one, but as we get to know some of the side characters, as well as more of Thorfinn’s backstory, I was not only won over, but fell completely head over heels in love.

Like a shonen manga (which this was for the first few chapters, until it was moved to a seinen anthology), the main character is not the most interesting one in the story. Thorfinn is cool, but he’s a small player in a much bigger story that is never overshadowed by action, though there’s no shortage of that, either.


You're probably familiar with this image, even if you haven't read the manga. It gives a good impression without revealing too much plot, which you're better off discovering on your own.


We get an excellent drama that is striking and believable. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself mentally fist-pumping as these characters overcome the external obstacles that face them, as well as their inner demons. Even Canute, a cowardly infantilized prince that serves as little more than a macguffin early in the story, evolves into something great.

Finally, Vinland Saga represents an incredible evolution in Yukimura’s drawing style. It looked great to begin with, but the difference between the first chapter and the most recent is staggering. Partly because the manga is now published monthly (affording the author more time to put into his pages), and partly because Yukimura has simply been working really hard. You can see improvements chapter by chapter, even before the switch to a monthly publication schedule was made. In this sense, the experience of reading Vinland Saga is somewhat like fast forwarding through Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, another manga which followed a trajectory of artistic improvement, albeit more slowly.

Overall, Vinland Saga is a terrific manga. Though the monthly publishing schedule means that the story will be metered out at a frustrating pace, getting caught up with the first six volumes was one of the most exhilarating manga experiences I’ve had in recent memory.

Author: Makoto Yukimura
Artist: Makoto Yukimura
Published: 2005-present
Licensed: No
Scanlated: Yes
Length: 7 volumes +

Shigurui

What an experience this was! The art, in a word, is gorgeous. The word that comes to mind after that? Horrifying.


(Not safe for work. Unless you work as an anatomical pathologist. Then it’s research.)

I would consider this a horror manga as much as I would consider it an action title. It’s downright macabre, as we partake in the fantasy that swords slice with laser-like efficiency through both muscle and bone. The manga is equal parts story and corpse parade.

Nevertheless, the plot manages to match the ugly face of its visuals. I will only spoil the first chapter: It’s 1629 in Japan. A one-armed man and a blind cripple engage in a swordfight.

The rest of the manga (so far) is a flashback of how these two people came to hate one another so much, and how they managed to develop into the two most deadly individuals in probably all of Japan.

My friends, THIS is a rivalry. We see the basic plot often enough, both in manga and in general. But rarely is it of this magnitude, and rarely does it possess the suppressed tenacity that almost causes the page to shudder.


Witness the psychological dysfunction of an era whose strict moral code is simply repulsive. What a bizarre move on the author’s part, to construct such a disgusting and hideous story in a period that is so often romanticized as a time where individual honor and courage was the prevailing form of social justice.


Yeah.

The characters are all insane, for different reasons. But it makes their drama no less interesting. I’d praise the characterization for being realistic, but having read this manga, I really wish it wasn’t.

Author: Norio Nanjou
Artist: Takayuki Yamaguchi
Published: 2003-present
Licensed: No
Scanlated: Yes
Length: 13 volumes +

Sanctuary

My Fourth of July weekend was glorious. I read Sanctuary.


Drink responsibly.

Sanctuary is a manga written by Buronson and drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami. You might know Buronson from his work on Hokuto no Ken, the most un-shonen shonen manga I’ve ever read. Ryoichi Ikegami is a Japanese artist whose beautiful style in no way resembles the style Japanese manga is drawn in. If you want a smart political/Yakuza drama with interesting characters that breaks the mold, these are probably the two best people in all of Japan to create it. And that’s exactly what this manga is.

The plot: two men, Hojo and Asami, through their brilliance and intestinal fortitude, resolve to rebuild the nation of Japan. Their plan is complex, but it breaks down to this: one of them will journey underground, working through the Yakuza and ascending its ranks until he controls all of it. The other will similarly infiltrate the Diet of Japan, and fashion it into the political organization of his choosing. The final goal? Create a “sanctuary,” a country that they’re proud to call their own.



They’re not Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent,
but they might as well be.

Does that sound absurd? Good, because it is. You’d have to be nuts to try and do something like this. But this pair possesses the exact combination of brilliance and insanity to have a chance in hell of getting it done. One of the testaments of this manga is that you see (and even feel) the weight of this enormous task. No one could do it alone, and as they move forward new obstacles appear, so their plans must warp and change as reality dictates. However, they do run into people with similar vision, people who sense that something’s deeply wrong with society’s uncommitted attitude in the face of relative financial prosperity. When these likeminded individuals find themselves admiring the strength and willpower in Hojo and Asami, they become allies. When it makes them angry or jealous, well… things get complicated.


I plan on naming one of my children "Mr. Tokai".
You’ll understand once you’ve read the manga.

This story is blessed with fantastic characters. Buronson does a fantastic job of creating a varied cast of interesting and believable people. You always understand people’s motivation, even if you don’t agree with them. (Okay, except for one or two of the female characters. There are strong women in this manga, though.)

I’m not a fan of politics or nationalism (I spent the holiday weekend with a Japanese comic book, after all), but reading this was an engrossing experience. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys well-written crime fiction, or political drama.

This manga made me cry. Only once, mind you. But it did. I spent the majority of my time either in stunned silence or laughing at how awesome the twists/turns/characters were. At the end of the day I find myself wondering not how good it was, but how soon before I read it again. And that, my friends, is the mark of a truly great piece of fiction.

Author: Buronson (Sho Fumimura)
Artist: Ryoichi Ikegami
Published: 1990
Licensed: Yes (out of print)
Scanlated: No (but scans of the licensed version exist)
Length: 9 volumes or 46 issues (complete)

New Grappler Baki


Author: Keisuke Itagaki
Artist: Keisuke Itagaki
Published: 1999
Licensed: No
Scanlated: Yes
Length: 31 volumes (complete)

Let’s get some chronology out of the way: Grappler Baki is a 90-volume-and-counting story that continues to this day. Broadly speaking, there are 3 main series that tell the story. The first is Grappler Baki (42 vols), the second is New Grappler Baki (31 vols), and the third is Baki: Son of Ogre (18 vols at the time I’m writing this).

New Grappler Baki is the middle storyline. It’s the only manga of the series that is both completely published and completely scanlated. Most fans watch the 48 episode anime series Baki the Grappler, which summarizes the first manga, and go on to read New Grappler Baki. That’s not a bad way to go about things, though I maintain that the manga is immensely superior to the anime. I’ve read about 64 volumes total of this manga franchise, so I’m no expert, just a huge fan.

The plot in a sentence: Baki Hanma (our hero) seeks to defeat Yuujiro Hanma (his father). Baki’s father is the strongest man on the planet, a force of chaos that can topple armies without breaking a sweat. Like most shonen, the main plot takes a backseat to the myriad of characters that step in and out of this world, where strenuous martial arts training can turn anyone into an uebermensch.


It is so easy to lose yourself in these battles and characters. Punches send people flying, ammunition shells are tossed into mouths and chewed up, and kneecaps explode. Nevertheless, the martial arts techniques appear interesting and somewhat legitimate, as do the injuries characters sustain (the latter realism being to a fault, if anything). In addition, most characters are motivated purely by a passion for fighting. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad guys and we’re usually rooting for one party over another in any given battle, but the desire to become stronger and overcome one’s personal limitations underlines the series in a refreshing way.

Imagine if you will, two enormous and powerful men deciding to engage in battle. This endeavor is done entirely for sport, to perhaps prove one school of martial arts superior, or something else equally basic. Anything goes, and whatever honor is exhibited by each fighter isn’t praised, but is merely accepted as personal preference. The battle begins, with artwork that pulls us in and demands our attention. The fight is a meteoric event, a clash of titans that resembles a lightning storm as much as it resembles a street brawl. As strikes are exchanged, the fighters’ ideologies bubble to the surface, and as their personal histories flash before their eyes, their life philosophies are challenged, defended, and uplifted.


Muhammad Ali, retired with Parkinson's disease,
interrupts a fight by punching Baki in the face.

This manga is a blatant exploitation of the male power fantasy. Over here in reality, we know the unfortunate truth about combat: human biology is enormously vulnerable, and no amount of training or hard work can change that. An unexpected grazing of the chin can be enough to make the most battle-hardened man lose consciousness, and a stab to the gut would put anyone out of commission. But you can forget all of that when you’re reading Baki, because these characters have pushed far beyond those limiters, purely by how badass they choose to be.

At the same time, adorable touches here and there both ground the story and make it feel relevant. When Yujiro Hanma infiltrates Washington DC to mock Former President Bush about his effeminate driving, it’s handled with a humor and matter-of-factness that just works. And don’t worry, I won’t spoil a thing about what happens when Yujiro meets Muhammad Ali and decides to size him up. You’ll have to read the manga to see what I mean.

Shamo

Author: Izo Hashimoto
Artist: Akio Tanaka
Published: 1998
Licensed: No
Scanlated: Yes
Length: 25 volumes (on-hold)

The story of Ryo Narushima begins when he is admitted to a reformatory school for murdering his parents. He’s a bad guy, but you’ll pity him at first. That’s inevitable, when you see how skinny and frail he is and the horrors he endures at his monstrous reformatory school. But your opinion of our devilish protagonist will change, and at what point in the story your opinion does change will probably say more about you than you realize or intend.

He begins a repentant and neurotic mess, but the tragedy of Ryo Narushima is that he is wholly indoctrinated into an unforgiving world of violence, growing more depraved and twisted with every passing chapter. Will you love Ryo, hate him, pity him, or... envy him?

If you’ve read the works of Kazuo Koike (Offered, Lady Snowblood, etc), then you’re used to grim manga storytelling built upon a tapestry of violence, rape and unbridled enthusiasm. What you’re not used to, however, is this tapestry marvelously applied to the shonen formula, without ever feeling gratuitous or self-parodying. Yes, there’s the shonen notion of progress, and an ever-continuing set of obstacles for our "protagonist" to overcome. But make no mistake, this is no shonen manga.


Yes, that's the same character.


When a shonen hero says he’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done, he doesn’t really mean it. When Ryo says he’ll do whatever it takes, he will. Whether that be provoking a world-class boxer into fighting him in a televised match by raping his girlfriend, taking steroids in preparation for said fight until his heart almost explodes, biting off a man’s penis in self-defense, or working as a gigolo to make ends meet, you can be sure that Ryo will pursue the goals his ego sets before him, in the most un-heroic yet effective way possible.

The art style is fantastic, presenting a wide range of facial expressions and body types in a realistic and effective way. This is necessary, because the transformation of Ryo from a skinny 16 year-old to an utterly ripped gangster and beyond is gradual and nuanced (to explain all that entails that “beyond” would constitute massive spoilers, and ruin what was a rather unexpected surprise).

For beautifully drawn Machiavellian seinen, please do yourself a favor and check out Shamo. It won’t disappoint.

Blue Heaven

Author: Tsutomu Takahashi
Artist: Tsutomu Takahashi
Published: 2002
Licensed: No
Scanlated: Yes
Length: 3 volumes (complete)

This manga is a fast and easy read. At a slim 3 volumes, the story begins quickly and the pace never slackens. A cruise ship performs a rescue mission on a small abandoned boat and finds all but two of the crewmembers dead. Once these two crewmembers are brought onboard the cruise ship, all hell starts to break loose. The “how” and the “why” are best left unspoiled.



Stories that adhere to a single plot and stay on point are somewhat rare in manga, so this is very painful to say, but Blue Heaven feels rushed. So much happens in the span of these three volumes, and part of you will want to spend more time with these characters once it’s all over. However, if this were a 35 volume epic about a cruise ship that slowly succumbs to total depravity, you can bet that it would never be licensed, and scanlations would be stuck at around volume 26 or so. So at the end of the day, while this is a short piece, that fact works for it more than it works against it.




The art style if fantastic, which should come as no surprise if you're familiar with Tsutomu Takahashi's other work. The scruffy and sketchy characters that populate this story look cool, and fit into the grim milieu perfectly. If this were an American comic, the fantastic illustration would have been butchered with poor-quality digital coloring, or even worse, high-quality digital coloring that would undo the brooding atmosphere entirely.

If you're any kind of seinen fan, check this out. It's a solid story, and if it disappoints at all, it’s because there isn’t more of it.