Vinland Saga, Omnibus 7

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 7Creator: Makoto Yukimura
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781612628035
Released: September 2015
Original release: 2013-2014
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

I honestly believe Makoto Yukimura’s Vinland Saga to be one of the best manga series currently being released in English. An epic tale of revenge, idealism, and the tremendous cost of violence, Vinland Saga is an incredibly engaging work with impressively compelling characters. In addition to being a personal favorite of mine, over the course of its publication the series has also won a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award among other honors. Kodansha Comics has been releasing Vinland Saga in English as a series of hardcover omnibuses. The seventh omnibus, released in late 2015, collects the thirteenth and fourteenth volumes of the manga originally published in Japan in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The seventh omnibus of Vinland Saga also includes two exclusives: the continuation of “Ask Yukimura,” where Yukimura responds to questions about the series, and a four-panel tribute comic by Faith Erin Hicks, another creator whose work I greatly admire.

After years of hard labor, Thorfinn’s freedom was near at hand until he and his fellow slave Einar became involved in an escape attempt. They helped Arnheid, Ketil’s favorite slave and mistress, aid her enslaved husband as he tried to run away from another farm. The attempt failed, resulting in multiple deaths. Now the three of them—Thorfinn, Einar, and Arnheid—must face the terrible consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, Ketil and his sons are returning from Jelling with King Canute and his finest warriors following close behind. In addition to dealing with his slaves, Ketil must also prepare for Canute’s inevitable attack before the farm falls into chaos. Canute plans on taking Ketil’s farm and wealth for his own in order to expand his kingdom, determined to create a paradise on earth for all who suffer from war and violence. Although he would prefer a peaceful resolution, Canute is more than prepared to stake his claim through questionable political maneuvering and force.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 7, page 92Like so many of the other omnibuses of Vinland Saga, the seventh is brutal and at times even gruesome. The artistic detail and research that Yukimura has applied to the portrayal of the day-to-day lives of eleventh-century nobility, warriors, merchants, and slaves has also been applied to the battles and wars they wage. Men and women are beaten to the brink or point of death; limbs are severed; skulls are crushed; eyes are gouged out—Vinland Saga is an intense and violent series. But that violence isn’t idealized or glorified by Yukimura. Even while an individual’s martial skill and battle prowess are respected and admired, violence is shown to be the truly terrible and destructive force that it is, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Some of the most important themes in Vinland Saga revolve around violence, how it impacts people and society, and whether it can be avoided or whether humanity is trapped in a never-ending cycle of bloodshed.

In addition to the plot of Vinland Saga as a whole, violence and its effects are also crucial to the development of the individual characters. Many of them are trying to break free from the violence that pervades their lives, facing moral quandaries over how to enact their ideals. The characters of Vinland Saga aren’t safely philosophizing over what is ethical, they are literally risking their lives for what they believe in. But even when their ultimate goals are the same, they approach them differently. Canute is now in a position of power as king and will use any method necessary to ultimately achieve his earthly paradise. Thorfinn, on the other hand, is reluctant to use violent force in order to gain peace. And there are plenty of other characters in the series who fall somewhere between these two perspectives. Seeing the realistic interplay among all of these different worldviews in the series has been immensely engrossing. Vinland Saga is well-worth reading even in part, but I sincerely hope to see the rest of the series translated as well.

Mushishi, Volume 6

Mushishi, Volume 6Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345501660
Released: November 2008
Original release: 2005
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

I discovered Yuki Urushibara’s award-winning manga series Mushishi more by chance than anything else, but it quickly became a favorite and I made a point to collect the manga as it was being released in English. I’m very glad that I did–replacing my copies would cost a fair amount since Mushishi is currently out-of-print and increasingly difficult to find. Fortunately, Kodansha Comics released the entire series digitally in 2014. Mushishi, Volume 6 was first released in print in English in 2008 by the now defunct Del Rey Manga. In Japan the volume was initially published in 2005, the same year that the series’ first anime adaptation began airing. (The Mushishi anime is also a personal favorite and I re-watch it frequently.) In addition to being popular enough to warrant multiple adaptations in a variety of different media over the course of its publication, Mushishi was also a recipient of a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award.

Mushi are creatures which are invisible to most and which few people truly understand. But even so, they are an integral part of the natural world, said to be very similar to the original form of life. Mushi’s influences on humans, though not necessarily intentional or malicious, can be both good or bad depending on the circumstances. Some people, like Ginko, have made a profession out of studying mushi. These mushishi gather and share invaluable knowledge about mushi and about the world. By closely observing mushi and their environment, mushishi are able to recognize signs of impending disaster, explain what would seem to be the unexplainable, and identify when and where balance to the natural order must be restored to avoid dire consequences. The work of mushishi is inherently dangerous as they are frequently dealing with the unknown, but their perseverance can also be extremely rewarding, allowing them to some extent to leverage and even control the abilities of mushi for their own purposes.

Mushishi, Volume 6, page 133Mushishi, Volume 6 collects five chapters of the series. Except for the presence of Ginko and mushi, none of them are directly related to one another, however three of the stories deal in some fashion with the powerful phenomenon known as kōki. Whereas mushi could be considered primordial, kōki is an even purer and more basic form of life from which the varied multitude of mushi originate. Kōki is portrayed as a river of light, the glowing liquid proving to have both harmful and healing effects depending on how it is used. Mushi are intensely attracted to these rivers and will seek them out. In “Heaven’s Thread” this becomes a problem for humans living near the light flow–mushi that prey on other mushi sometimes catch a person instead. Humans can also be infected by decaying kōki, as is seen in “The Hand That Pets the Night,” negatively impacting families for multiple generations while also benefiting them. The third story in Mushishi, Volume 6 delving into kōki is “Banquet in the Farthest Field” in which a sake brewer unknowingly attempts to replicate the taste of the liquor of life with unintended consequences.

The other two stories collected in Mushishi, Volume 6, while still unrelated, both explore the loss of a loved one. Mushi’s involvement in “The Chirping Shell” is actually fairly minimal as the chapter focuses on a man coming to terms with the tragic death of his wife and learning to forgive in the face of an even greater imminent tragedy of which the mushi are an omen. “Under the Snow” is likewise about a young man in denial who is grieving the loss of the life of his little sister. In this story snow-like mushi literally suck the heat from his body, but they also serve as a metaphor–because of his sister’s death Toki has become numb to the people and the world around him. Many of the stories in Mushishi can be read on multiple levels like this, which is one of the reasons that I love the manga so much and find it so enjoyable to read and reread. The series frequently feels like a collection of folktales and stories of the supernatural, but at its heart Mushishi is very often about an individual’s personal struggle when confronted by something in their life beyond their control or understanding.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 6

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 6Creator: Makoto Yukimura
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781612628035
Released: September 2015
Original release: 2012
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

After some delay, the sixth omnibus of Makoto Yukimura’s magnificent historical manga series Vinland Saga was finally released in 2015, nearly a year after the previous installment. It was a year in which I waited anxiously—Vinland Saga is one of my favorite manga series currently being published in English and I hope that it does well enough that Kodansha Comics can continue to released the manga. (Currently, English-reading audiences are only guaranteed to see one more omnibus, but even if the translation ends there the series is well-worth reading.) The sixth Vinland Saga omnibus collects the eleventh and twelfth volumes of the original Japanese edition, both of which were released in 2012, the same year the series won a Kodansha Manga Award. The series has also earned Yukimura a Japan Media Arts Award. As was the case with the last few omnibuses, sixth also includes a question and answer section exclusive to the English-language edition in which Yukimura discusses the series.

As the result of the Danish invasion of England in the eleventh century, Canute has successfully taken control of the county. He must still find a way to maintain that control, though. He is no longer the weak young man he once was, having grown into a powerful and cunning king who will do anything necessary to establish his ideal society. In order to gain his current position Canute had to arrange for the death of his father. Now he is turning his ambition towards Denmark and his older brother, hoping to secure rulership there as well. Meanwhile, Thorfinn, a young man from Iceland and a former mercenary who was once Canute’s bodyguard, lives his life in slavery. However, after working diligently for years clearing forested land for his master, his freedom is tantalizingly close. Thorfinn, too, wants to one day shape a world free from war and violence, but his current circumstances make such hopes little more than dreams. But as the political turmoil in Denmark increases it becomes difficult to foretell anyone’s fate, whether they be slave or king.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 6, page 120I continue to be immensely impressed by the depth of storytelling and the character growth and development found in Vinland Saga. Particularly striking is the nearly complete reversal in Thorfinn and Canute’s respective outlooks on life. Thorfinn, who was once a fearsome warrior dealing in death and destruction, wants nothing more than peace and a way to somehow atone for everything that he has done. Canute, on the other hand, originally abhorred violence but now willingly employs it, considering it to be a necessary evil for the sake of creating a prosperous kingdom and protecting its people. I also find it fascinating that as both Canute and Thorfinn continue to mature and make their way in the world they are each beginning to follow in the footsteps of and even embody the ideals held by their respective fathers, for better or for worse. Canute has learned to successfully use his power politically and strategically as a leader while Thorfinn now fully understands how destructive such power can be.

Violence and the dynamics of power are major themes in Vinland Saga. In particular, the series explores what it means to turn away from violence and if it is even possible for someone to do that with the world and human nature being what they are. Yukimura has so far done an excellent job showing how a violent society affects the people living within it and how difficult it is for them to change that culture when it is held as an ideal. Vinland Saga incorporates many exciting and engaging fight scenes and battles which, like the rest of the manga, are dramatic and well-drawn. However, that violence hasn’t been glorified by Yukimura. Instead, a large focus has been put on the tragic consequences that result from those encounters. The action can be brutal and shockingly gruesome, but perhaps even more important is the tremendous psychological impact on the characters as violence perpetuates more violence in a seemingly endless cycle. Vinland Saga remains an exceptional series; I’m looking forward to reading more of the manga a great deal.

Mushishi, Volume 5

Mushishi, Volume 5Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345501387
Released: August 2008
Original release: 2004
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

The manga series Mushishi was Yuki Urushibara’s professional debut as a mangaka. The manga began serialization in Japan in 1999, lasted for ten volumes, and was the basis for multiple anime adaptations and a live-action film in addition to other media. Over the course of its publication, Mushishi would earn Urushibara several awards and honors, including a Japan Media Arts Award in 2003 and a Kodansha Manga Award in 2006. Mushishi, Volume 5 was originally published in Japan in 2004. The English-language edition of the volume was initially released in print by Del Rey Manga in 2008 and then in an electronic format by Kodansha Comics in 2014. Mushishi is one of my favorite manga series and one of the first that I made a point to collect in its entirety. Fortunately, I discovered the series as it was first being published in English, so I was able to complete my set before the manga went out-of-print and became expensive to find. However, I am glad that the digital version is now available for readers who missed the series’ original run in English, though.

Mushishi, Volume 5 collects five stories which, as is usual for the series, largely stand on their own. Ginko’s doctor friend makes a brief reappearance and there are a few nods to some of the series’ previous chapters, such as those exploring Ginko’s past, but it’s not necessary to be familiar with those references to enjoy the stories in the fifth volume. In “The Sea Palace,” Ginko visits a remote island where it is rumored that people are reborn after they die, suspecting that mushi may involved. His search for unusual mushi continues in “Eye’s Fortune, Eye’s Misfortune” when he happens upon a clairvoyant traveling musician with quite a story to tell—blind as a child, she credits a mushi for giving her sight. “The Coat That Holds a Mountain” follows an aspiring artist who leaves his rural village to study in the city, his success coming with unanticipated consequences and costs. In “Flames of the Fields,” a village’s mushishi makes a drastic decision when an unknown, invasive grass threatens lives and livelihoods. Finally, in “The Snake of Dawn,” Ginko is asked to do what he can to help a young mother who is slowly losing all of her memories.

Mushishi, Volume 5, page 202As a mushishi, Ginko travels across Japan striving to learn as much as he can about mushi. Some mushishi see the creatures as little more than dangerous pests that need to be eradicated. Ginko, however, approaches mushi more liberally, recognizing the need to treat them with caution but also advocating for the sanctity of all life and for the coexistence between humans and mushi whenever possible. Mushishi, Volume 5 presents several scenarios in which this harmony has actually been achieved: mushi that facilitate life, mushi that provide healing, mushi that grant health and strength. In some cases, though the results may still be tragic, what would normally be seen as an unwanted side-effect of interacting with a particular mushi can be used to a person’s advantage. But the fifth volume also shows that people must still continue to be vigilant and take great care when dealing with mushi and their powerful influences. This is a concept that of course extends beyond the mushi themselves; mushi are both representative of and a metaphor for those things which humans don’t fully understand or know.

I particularly enjoy the strong influence that Japanese folklore and legends have had on Mushishi. Some of the chapters take direct inspiration from existing stories while others easily fit in with those traditional tales. But there’s another aspect of Mushishi that I find especially interesting because in some way it runs counter to its seemingly supernatural elements—the actual study of mushi. In part, to be a mushishi is to be a scientist and a researcher, someone who pursues and gathers knowledge. Much of Mushishi, Volume 5 deals with rarer and unknown mushi. By investigating them, Ginko and other mushishi are in a better position to make more informed decisions in situations in which mushi are involved. Acting without complete understanding can be extremely dangerous, therefore knowledge is an incredibly powerful and valuable tool granting some amount of control over the world. Mushishi realize how important and vital the accumulation of knowledge truly is and they take their chose profession very seriously.

The Summit of the Gods, Volume 5

The Summit of the Gods, Volume 5Author: Baku Yumemakura
Illustrator: Jiro Taniguchi

U.S. publisher: Fanfare/Ponent Mon
ISBN: 9788492444403
Released: July 2015
Original release: 2003
Awards: Angoulême Prize, Japan Media Arts Award

Baku Yumemakura’s novel The Summit of the Gods (which, sadly, hasn’t been translated into English) was published in Japan in 1998 and would go on to win the Shibata Renzaburo Award. In 2000, Yumemakura was paired up with the immensely talented artist Jiro Taniguchi to create a manga adaptation of the novel. The Summit of the Gods manga continued to be serialized through 2003 and was collected as a five-volume series. The manga also became and award-winning work, earning an Angoulême Prize and a Japan Media Arts Award among many other honors and recognitions. In addition to being one of my favorite manga by Taniguchi, The Summit of the Gods is actually one of my favorite manga in general. As such, I was waiting with great anticipation for the publication of the fifth and final volume of the series in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon. I was thrilled when it was finally released in 2015.

Photographer Makoto Fukamachi followed the legendary climber Jouji Habu to Mount Everest to document one of the most difficult and dangerous ascents to ever be attempted: a solo climb of the southwest face in the winter without oxygen. The agreement between them was that neither one of the men would interfere with the other’s climb no matter what happened. But when Fukamachi’s life is in danger Habu rescues him anyway, putting his own life and the success of his ascent at risk. Fukamachi ultimately survives, returning to Japan to find a media frenzy; not only was Habu an infamous climber, his assault on Everest was an illegal one. And then there’s the matter of the camera that Habu had in his possession. Believed to have belonged to George Mallory, it draws considerable attention once its existence comes to light. Fukamachi’s connection to Habu and to the camera makes him a person of interest as well. Even without the additional scrutiny from the public he would find readjusting to a normal life after his fateful Everest climb to be challenging if not impossible.

Summit of the Gods, Volume 5, page 2013Three stories have become irrevocably intertwined in The Summit of the Gods: the story of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s’ final climb and disappearance on Mount Everest, the story of Jouji Habu’s efforts to become the greatest known climber more for himself than for any sort of fame, and the story of Makoto Fukamachi as he strives to untangle his own feelings about climbing and about life by trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding those of the others. The Summit of the Gods can be read in two different ways. It can be approached simply as a compelling tale of adventure and survival or, either alternatively or simultaneously, as a stunning metaphor for any human struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds. Climbing requires great physical and mental fortitude, and life can be just as demanding. The characters in The Summit of the Gods not only pit themselves against nature, they challenge themselves to overcome their own personal weaknesses and limitations.

Facing oneself—being able to objectively recognize the extent of one’s own abilities and admit the possibility of failure—isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. It can also be a very lonely thing. This, too, is emphasized in The Summit of the Gods through Yumemakura’s writing and Taniguchi’s artwork. Even when working together, the climbers must ultimately rely on themselves and can only trust and depend on others so far. In the end they face the mountain and face their personal demons alone. The characters also show a constant struggle against their own insignificance, a hard-fought battle to find meaning in their lives. Taniguchi’s vistas are gorgeous and sweeping, showing just how small a person is in comparison to the rest of the world. But this also makes the climbers’ perseverance and achievements all the more remarkable. The Summit of the Gods is a phenomenal work with great writing and fantastic art, effectively telling a thrilling drama that also has great depth to it.