Revenge, compassion, humanity, love. Pointy weapons making minced meat of people.
Vinland Saga almost has nothing in common with Makoto Yukimura's previous much praised work, Planetes, except for his passion for technical realism. He grounds his work with research, yet at the same time leaving it open for creative exploration. It’s not dry and lifeless, and at the same time it’s not completely in the realm of fantasy. Vinland saga walks the thin line well. Razor blood soaked thin.
This manga is brutal. More brutal than Berserk, Vagabond or anything of that ilk. Not to slight those manga, but one
is a fantasy and the other is an adaptation of a romanticising novel. This manga is brutal because Vinland Saga's atrocities are reality-based and certainly not romanticised, whereas other manga usually are more fantastical or divided clearly between good and bad, right and wrong, black and white, or simply 'here is the protagonist, just root for him'. Not so in Yukimura's love letter to old fashioned beheadings, as Vinland is about Vikings.
Vikings pillage villages, they rape and plunder. There is no mercy and no survivors if they can help it. There is no such thing as a Viking displaying the positive nouns mentioned in the first sentence of the review. If Vikings arrive in your village, you will be killed or if you’re extremely lucky sold onto slavery, no matter if you’re young, old, man, woman or child. Based in reality and unflinching, our youthful protagonist, Thorfinn, is a passive-observer to atrocity and active-partaker to violence when it’s in his best interest, to further his goal. Revenge for his father.
Yukimura gets Thorfinn's flashback out of the way early in the story, and it’s a good decision as the boy is so fresh-faced, so loveable and innocent; his love for his father so pure, that to suddenly cut from the flashback back to the present and all the while leaving an essential gap in-between; the question that’s on the reader's mind for most of the manga is: how the hell did that young boy end up like this?
The flashback provides us with the motivation, the reasoning, but doesn’t reveal the details, the important montage of scenes showing a boy growing up and losing his humanity in the process; we don’t see it seep out of him gradually, which would be fascinating and make for great drama. As of this review, we have yet to see this transition from normal child to adult killer, but I have no doubt Yukimura will provide us with more glimpses of what that boy went through to get to where he is when the story begins.
Thorfinn is a jaded efficient killer. Silent and moody, he rarely speaks and when he does he is blunt and to the point. He watches the world burn and die around him without blinking because he is already burnt and dead inside. He can walk past a woman getting beaten and raped without a care in the world; this is the protagonist we're meant to root for. Yukimura doesn’t go all out and have Thorfinn inflict misery on innocents, which would make the manga even more interesting, but would also alienate a large percentage of readers too. As it is, as mentioned earlier, Yukimura walks that thin line with skill.
What Vinland Saga is more about than anything else is revenge. It is one of the best ideas to base a story around. Not the 'man on a mission' revenge, but the exploration of the concept, the idea of it all. Yukimura occasionally takes a break from the main story to focus on the concept via random characters, most humorously with a Christian priest who attempts to teach some Vikings about the concept of 'love' which they just don’t get. This side-plot not only explores revenge and forgiveness, but dovetails into Thorfinn's own predicament neatly, forcing him to reflect on what he's doing with his life.
The main story follows Thorfinn’s target who he sticks to like glue, always ready to challenge him to a duel to the death, his only requirement for completing his revenge. The brunt of all this rage and inexplicable adherence to honour, is an ambitious man seemingly lacking any of it himself, Askeladd seeks to rise in power through convoluted means and avoids becoming a cliché or a bore. His design is almost amiable at times, with a laid back expression on his cunning face belying his actual ruthful nature to achieve his goals. In short, he is not a one-note villain; he is many faceted like a few characters in the manga. Yukimura flips in and out of actual history through this man’s arc, giving the reader cliffs notes on the politics of the time.
The art, to be blunt like an axe disintegrating your face, is fantastic. There is a leap in quality from the first volume to the second, and it is maintained consistently throughout thanks to Yukimura and his budding assistants. There are plenty of memorable action sequences that are staged perfectly; lots of scope and perspective, and the composition is visceral. The violence is in your face and disgusting. Knife and sword thrusts are at times awkwardly landing into skin; fingers are thrust knuckle-deep into eye sockets. It all makes you squirm but you love it because you're reading it in the safety of your own 21st century home.
So the violence is remarkably gross and blunt, sometimes gratuitous to please the crowd, but mostly it’s just disgusting. The gore-hounds reading this will love it for that, but everyone else will feel repulsed, but in a good way because this is a story set amid war and conflict in the 11th century. What do you expect, bloodless elbows into the ribs?
The story travels around Europe, from Denmark to the UK to Wales to Iceland, we watch the invasion of England affect different players to the drama and pull them in towards each other through interesting means. There are sieges, manhunts, duels, chases, explosive action, edge of your seat tension, backstabs and unexpected partnerships, Vinland Saga has it all and is addictive reading while educating you along the way with its detailed depictions of an old way of life, from clothes, weaponry to customs and traditions.
Yukimura yet again uses the manga form to bring readers something a little different, a little more reflective of life outside of the pages. Vinland Saga is a dirty mirror of a past raged by a war not remarkable for its reasons or details, but for the ancient race that battled passionately in it. Vikings. Seriously, don’t mess with them.