Vinland Saga, Omnibus 9

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 9Creator: Makoto Yukimura
Translator: Stephen Paul
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632364456
Released: June 2017
Original release: 2016
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

Having read and greatly enjoyed Makoto Yukimura’s near-future science fiction series Planetes, I was very curious to see how he would apply his character-driven approach to Vinland Saga, a manga with a historical setting. The resulting work is phenomenal–in addition to earning multiple awards, including a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award, Vinland Saga quickly became and remains one of my favorite manga series currently being released in English. The ninth hardcover omnibus of Vinland Saga was published in 2017 by Kodansha Comics with a translation by Stephen Paul. It collects the seventeenth and eighteenth volumes of the original Japanese series, both of which were released in 2016, in addition to the continuation of “Ask Yukimura,” a section of questions and answers providing further insight into the series and its creation which is exclusive to the English-language edition of Vinland Saga. “Ask Yukimura” was absent from the eighth omnibus, so I was very happy to see its return.

Hild, a skilled hunter, may have saved Thorfinn’s life as he and his companions were accosted by a man-eating bear, but now that she knows exactly who he is, she is determined to take that life from him. Thorfinn has killed countless people during his time employed as a mercenary in pursuit of his own revenge, drastically altering the lives of the victims’ surviving family members and loved ones. It’s a past that continues to haunt him and Hild isn’t the only person to have come to harm due to his actions or who he will have to confront once again. Thorfinn hopes to atone for the death, violence, and destruction he has helped to bring down upon others by establishing a new nation of peace away from the wars, conflict, and struggles for power that plague Europe. But it is a very difficult thing to try to put a stop to a cycle of systemic retribution condoned by society. Thorfinn has convinced others of the worthiness of his cause, but now he must convince Hild who has every right to want him dead.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 9, page 191All-consuming revenge is one of the major themes of Vinland Saga. Yukimura explores how such a single-minded pursuit can dramatically change a person, impacting them on a deep, psychological level, and examines how that internalized violence is reflected in and perpetuated by the world at large. Much of Vinland Saga up until this point has been devoted to Thorfinn’s private struggles and growth as he has tried to come to terms with the irrevocable damage that he has wrought not only upon others but upon himself. With the introduction of Hild, Vinalnd Saga turns its focus outward, delving into the long-lasting and increasingly far-reaching effects of Thorfinn’s past misdeeds. Although this isn’t the first time that the series has shown this sort of tragedy, never before has it been made so cuttingly personal in the manga. Hild isn’t some nameless character met passing; Yukimura shows the entirety of Hild’s story–her life before her family was killed in front of her eyes and how she grew to become the fierce opponent who Thorfinn has no option but to face.

The parallels between Hild and Thorfinn’s individual quests for revenge are numerous although there are still significant differences and Thorfinn is much further along on his personal journey–while he’s chosen a path of peace, it remains to be seen what choices Hild will ultimately make fore herself. But even though Thorfinn is pursuing pacifism, he continues to be drawn into violent confrontations. A large part of why I find Vinland Saga such a tremendous series is due to the compelling character development that it exhibits, but another reason the manga is so incredibly engaging is the result of Yukimura’s spectacular action and fight sequences. They are exciting as well as meaningful, serving not only to move the plot along but frequently to provide an external expression of the characters’ internal struggles. How they fight and what they are willing to risk goes far to reveal who they truly are and what they value most. Vinland Saga continues to greatly impress me; I’m so glad that it’s being translated and look forward to future volumes with immense anticipation.

Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant

Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power PlantCreator: Kazuto Tatsuta
Translator: Stephen Paul
U.S. Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632363558
Released: March 2017
Original release: 2014-2015
Awards: Manga Open

Although Ichi-F: A Worker’s Graphic Memoir of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant isn’t Kazuto Tatsuta’s first manga, it is very likely the one for which he will be best known. Based on his experiences as a worker at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, the memoir provides an important and highly personal perspective on the ongoing recovery efforts following Japan’s combined earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters of March 2011. Initially submitted as an amateur work, Ichi-F won the Manga Open Grand Prize in 2013 which led to its continuation as a three-volume series published between 2014 and 2015. The English-language edition of Ichi-F was released by Kodansha Comics in March 2017. The entire series, including Tatsuta’s original one-shot, has been collected into a single, massive omnibus formatted to read left-to-right. Also included is an introduction by the journalist Karyn Nishimura-Poupée and an exclusive interview with the creator. A tremendous amount of work from the translator Stephen Paul and others at Kodansha has gone into Ichi-F in an effort to make the manga as accurate and as widely accessible as possible.

On March 11, 2011 a massive earthquake centered off of the northeast coast of Japan triggered a devastating tsunami which ultimately lead to multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Many people in Fukushima were required to evacuate and have yet been able to return to their homes due to the radiation levels in the area. Cleanup and recovery work, including the decommissioning of the plant, continues to this day and will continue for quite some time. Most of the people directly involved in the work are from the Fukushima area but others like Tatsuta (a pen name taken from the region for purposes of anonymity) are outsiders drawn by the promise of high wages, personal curiosity, and altruism. Despite the need for workers, it took Tatsuta more than a year after the disaster to secure clearance for employment at Ichi-F, one of the local names for the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Initially he was assigned to a shelter where he helped to manage a rest area for the construction workers, but eventually he would become one of those construction workers himself, at one point even serving on a team working inside one of the plant’s reactor buildings.

Ichi-F, page 39Ichi-F is primarily about the day-to-day lives and work of those employed at the nuclear power plant but Tatsuta also addresses some of the related recovery efforts and the issues caused by them in the Fukushima region as well as the some of the complications surrounding the publication of his memoir. In part the manga was created in response to the misleading, sensationalistic, and often inaccurate way that Fukushima and the surrounding areas are portrayed in the media. This is not to say there haven’t been problems with the decommissioning and cleanup–even Tatsuta’s account reveals social conflicts and questionable employment practices, not to mention that exposure to high levels of radiation is inherently dangerous–but some of Fukushima’s poor representation is due to ignorance and fearmongering. In fact, excepting the radiation concerns, much of the work outlined in Ichi-F, while being incredibly important, is outright mundane. Tatsuta explains in detail the safety procedures and regulations intended to protect the workers at the plant, showing just how difficult, time-consuming, and challenging the cleanup efforts are. Careful vigilance, caution, and concerted effort are absolutely necessary, especially to counter desensitization to the dangers involved, and there is always room for improvement.

Tatsuta’s own personal experiences while working in Fukushima are what inform Ichi-F. As such, it cannot provide a comprehensive look at the disaster and recovery efforts as a whole, but it does offer an individual perspective critical to the larger context. Tatsuta is an insider telling a story that’s often left untold because it isn’t particularly dramatic or exciting–the manga is a thorough, informative account of the work being done to decommission the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The manga can be a bit text-heavy at times, and the way that it has been modified to read left-to-right occasionally interrupts the narrative’s visual flow, but the memoir is both fascinating and accessible. Ichi-F is also the story of the people involved in the cleanup and the close relationships that Tatsuta develops while in Fukushima. What in many ways started out as just a job ends with Tatsuta caring deeply about and for his colleagues at the plant, the locals and residents of Fukushima, and the area itself. While the lasting effects of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima are tragic and some areas remain incredibly hazardous, conditions are slowly improving and recovery and revitalization is happening partly thanks to the efforts of Tatsuta and the other workers shown in Ichi-F.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 8

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 8Creator: Makoto Yukimura
Translator: Stephen Paul
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781682335406
Released: December 2016
Original release: 2014-2015
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

For a time it seemed as though the fate of the English-language edition of Makoto Yukimura’s epic award-winning manga series Vinland Saga was in question. Happily though, Kodansha Comics has been able to continue releasing the series. While the seventh omnibus reached a satisfying conclusion to one of the series’ major story arcs, it was still obvious that Yukimura had more to tell. I honestly believe that Vinland Saga is one of the strongest manga currently being released in English. It is also a personal favorite of mine, so I was thrilled when the eighth hardcover omnibus was finally released in 2016, collecting the fifteenth and sixteenth volumes of the original Japanese edition published between 2014 and 2015. Unlike the past few omnibuses of Vinland Saga, there is no additional content directly relating to the series (I was sad not to see the continuation of the “Ask Yukimura” section), but it does include an extensive preview of Kazuhiro Fujita’s The Ghost and the Lady, another historically-inspired manga available from Kodansha.

Finally free from his life of slavery but still bound by the violence of his past, Thorfinn travels back to Iceland in order to briefly reunite with his family before setting into motion his plans for the future. Accompanied by Einar, Leif, and “Bug-Eyes,” Thorfinn intends to colonize Vinland in an attempt to create a peaceful settlement far removed from the wars and violence seemingly inherent to the Norse way of life. But before that they must first secure the resources and supplies needed for the venture and support from others will be hard to come by–Thorfinn has very little to offer a potential investor except for ideals and his own life. Initially it seemed that they could secure the aid of Halfdan, a wealthy landowner who was already planning to become a relative of Leif’s by marrying his son to the widow of Lief’s brother, but then the wedding doesn’t go quite as planned. Thorfinn and the others may very well have gained themselves a few new enemies when they flee Iceland with Gudrid, the runaway bride.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 8, page 50From the beginning, many of the women in Vinland Saga have been strong, memorable characters (Thorfinn’s sister and mother in particular are marvelous), but for the most part the focus of the series has been on the stories of the men. However, with the eighth omnibus there is a notable change in the manga with he introduction of Gudrid who becomes one of the main characters of Vinland Saga. In fact, a great deal of the plot currently directly revolves around her. I absolutely adore Gudrid. Like Thorfinn, she is struggling against the constraints of what is considered acceptable by the culture and traditions of their society. She has absolutely no interest in marriage or in behaving like a “proper” woman; her heart has always been set on exploring the world around her and expanding her horizons. Gudrid repeatedly proves that her worth is equal to or even greater than that of a man. Eventually, her persistence and brashness pays off although the circumstances surrounding her becoming a sailor are admittedly less than ideal.

Gudrid isn’t the only great female character to be introduced in the eighth Vinland Saga omnibus. Among others, there is also Astrid, Halfdan’s wife, and Hild, a young woman who proves once more that Thorfinn can never truly escape his past misdeeds. While many of the previous omnibuses have been battle-oriented, the eight omnibus tends to pay more attention to the characters themselves and their relationships. However, there are still a few excellent action sequences and Yukimura’s artwork continues to be dynamic and dramatic even when physical violence is not as prominent. For example, Halfdan exudes an aura of intensity and power–the way he is drawn and visually framed is frequently reminiscent of the way King Canute was portrayed, emphasizing his status and influence. This, of course, makes it even more satisfying when Astrid calmly, quietly, and fearlessly puts her husband in his place. (I really hope to see more of Astrid in the future.) Vinland Saga remains an incredibly well-done manga. With a growing cast of fantastic, complex characters, an engrossing story exploring themes of freedom and violence, and excellent artwork, I can’t wait to read more.

Complex Age, Volume 1

Complex Age, Volume 1Creator: Yui Sakuma
U.S. publisher: Kodansha Comics
ISBN: 9781632362483
Released: June 2016
Original release: 2014
Awards: Tetsuya Chiba Award

I almost passed over the English-language debut of Yui Sakuma’s Complex Age, but I’m very glad that I took the opportunity I had to read it. Complex Age, Volume 1 was first released in Japan in 2014 while the English-language edition of the volume was released in 2016 by Kodansha Comics. I believe that Complex Age is currently the first and only professional work by Sakuma to have been released. The manga began in 2013 as a one-shot which won the Tetsuya Chiba Award. (That one-shot is also included in the first volume of Complex Age.) Then, in 2014, Complex Age was relaunched as a series. While the original one-shot and the longer series don’t appear to be directly related when it comes to characters and plot, they do share a similar basic premise—an adult woman who is growing older and coming to terms with what that means for her hobbies and interests. I actually didn’t know that was what Complex Age was really about before reading the first volume. I thought it was simply about cosplay and since cosplay—the passion of the series’ main character—isn’t a particular interest of mine, I wasn’t anticipating that the manga would be story that I would end up so closely identifying with.

Nagisa Kataura is twenty-six years old, lives with her parents, and works as a temp worker for a tutoring agency, but in her spare time she is an accomplished and admired cosplayer. Her favorite character to cosplay is Ururu from the anime Magical Riding Hood Ururu who represents everything she wants to be as a person. Nagisa pours herself into her creations and is known for her attention to detail and high-quality work. She does all that she can to achieve perfection and to completely embody a character. However, despite cosplay being such a huge part of her life, she keeps her hobby a secret from her family and coworkers. Now that she’s an adult it’s become even more difficult for Nagisa to share her passion with people who aren’t already accepting of cosplay; it’s considered by many to be a frivolous hobby more suited for much younger fans. As she ages, Nagisa becomes more and more self-conscious about her cosplaying and the criticism that she receives becomes harder and harder for her to take. And yet Nagisa still loves what she does and cosplay is a very important part of who she is.

Complex Age, Volume 1, page 32At first, I wasn’t sure that I really liked Nagisa. The opening chapter begins with her preparing for an event at which she will be cosplaying Ururu, putting an incredible amount of effort into making sure that everything is just right. But while she is at the event she is exceptionally rude and judgemental of the other people there, her behavior culminating in an outburst in which she harshly and publicly criticizes another cosplayer for not respecting the hobby and for not taking it seriously enough. However, as Complex Age progresses, Nagisa becomes a much more sympathetic, or at least understandable, character. The reason she is so sensitive is that her confidence, self-worth, and personal identity are almost irrevocably intertwined with her cosplaying. And so what Nagisa perceives as an insult to the hobby becomes an insult to her personally; when someone else is more talented or more physically suited to portray her favorite characters, she can only see her own faults and limitations being emphasized in comparison. She’s genuinely afraid that she is getting too old for cosplay and that voluntarily giving it up or being rejected by others because of her looks or age would result in her losing a large part of herself.

Before reading Complex Age I didn’t know much at all about the behind-the-scenes work that goes into cosplay, but the manga generally  incorporates those sorts of interesting details quite nicely into the story. I’m still not particularly interested in or personally invested in cosplay myself, but Complex Age still resonated with me a great deal. Like Nagisa, I’m an adult interested in media and hobbies that many people look down upon or generally associate with a younger age group (in my case, manga and comics among other things). I also know quite well and understand the dangers of allowing a passion to define one’s self or to impact one’s self-esteem. I have dealt with and, if I’m completely honest, continue to deal with many of the same uncertainties, insecurities, and struggles that Nagisa faces in Complex Age. While so far I do like the series, I think that the Complex Age one-shot about Sawako, a thirty-four-year-old woman letting go of her passion for dressing in Gothic Lolita fashion, made an even greater impression on me. (Also, Sawako’s husband is pretty great.) I’m very curious to see if Sakuma will take Nagisa’s story in a similar direction or if ultimately the Complex Age series will be a little less bittersweet than its predecessor.

Thank you to Kodansha Comics for providing a copy of Complex Age, Volume 1 for review.

Princess Jellyfish, Omnibus 1

Princess Jellyfish, Omnibus 1Creator: Akiko Higashimura
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632362285
Released: March 2016
Original release: 2009
Awards: Kodansha Manga Award

Akiko Higashimura’s Kodansha Manga Award-winning Princess Jellyfish wasn’t a manga series that I expected would be licensed for an English-language release. Anecdotally, josei manga hasn’t historically done particularly well in the North American market. And on top of that, Princess Jellyfish is a longer series, currently ongoing at more than fifteen volumes, which can also make licensing prohibitive. When Kodansha Comics announced that it would be publishing Princess Jellyfish in print in English, fulfilling the hopes of many fans, I was thrilled. My knowledge of Princess Jellyfish stems from the 2010 anime adaptation directed by Takahiro Omori which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, as the anime only adapted a small portion of the series, it left me wanting more, so I am very excited to see the original Princess Jellyfish manga available in translation. Kodansha’s release of the series is an omnibus edition with a larger trim size and color pages included. The first omnibus, published in 2016, collects the first two volumes of the series as released in Japan in 2009.

Tsukimi is the youngest resident of Amamizukan in Tokyo, a communal apartment building catering to a particular type of woman who is completely and utterly devoted to her specific interests despite societal expectations—the fujoshi. Chieko, the manager of Amamizukan, collects traditional Japanese dolls and kimono. Mayaya is obsessed with Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Jiji has an intense appreciation for older, distinguished gentleman. Banba is fixated on trains. Mejiro is a reclusive boys’ love mangaka. And as for Tsukimi, ever since her mother took her to an aquarium as a child, she has adored jellyfish. Tsukimi’s love of jellyfish is one of her remaining ties to her mother who died of illness many years ago. It’s also that passion that leads to her chance encounter with Kuranosuke, the illegitimate son of a prominent politician who she initially assumes is a stylish and fashionable young woman due to the way he was dressed at the time. Their meeting will not only have a great impact on Tsukimi, but on everyone living at Amamizukan.

Princess Jellyfish, Omnibus 1, page 227Like the residents of Amamizukan, Kuranosuke goes against society’s set roles and expectations, but in his case he’s doing it deliberately rather than it being an unintentional side effect of an obsession. Princess Jellyfish plays with the notions of outward appearance and self-expression in some really interesting and satisfying ways. I’m generally skeptical of stories that put an emphasis on beauty and looks or that make use of dramatic makeovers (for various reasons, Tsukimi and the rest of the Amamizukan fujoshi become targets of Kuranosuke’s enthusiasm for fashion and makeup), but Princess Jellyfish is a series that recognizes that a person’s appearance is only one part of an extremely complicated whole and that attractiveness is much more than skin deep. It also recognizes that there is tremendous power in someone being able to influence other people’s perceptions of who they are and that first impressions are often rightly or wrongly based on what can be visibly seen. Kuranosuke understands this and uses that knowledge to his advantage, as does the series antagonist Inari—a woman paving the way to the demolition of Amamizukan to make way for new urban development. Through blackmail and her own sex appeal, she leverages the importance placed on appearances and society’s inherent sexist prejudices for her own benefit, often finding the circumstances to be distasteful but the feeling of being in control of them intoxicating.

While it is the impetus for much of the story’s forward movement in the first omnibus, the threat of losing Amamizukan is only one of many intertwined plot threads in Princess Jellyfish. Tsukimi’s maturation as she continues to deal with the pain of her mother’s death and begins to fall in love for the first time is very important to the series as is Kuranosuke’s complicated family history and relationships. Although Kuranosuke is heterosexual, considering his custom of dressing as a woman his presence in the manga brings additional elements of queerness and gender fluidity to the series which I especially enjoy. (Also worth mentioning: the Princess Jellyfish translation notes are very thorough and valuable in explaining some of the nuances of Japanese word usage and terminology in regards to various gender and queer identities, which can be quite different from their Western counterparts.) Princess Jellyfish incorporates a fair amount of comedy which is one of the reasons the manga has such charm. But while Kuronosuke’s fashion choices and gender performance can result in humorous situations, the series treats him as a person and not as a joke, which I greatly appreciate. In fact, Princess Jellyfish has an entire cast full of wonderful characters which is perhaps the series’ greatest strength.