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.

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.

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.

Mushishi, Volumes 8, 9, and 10

Mushishi, Volumes 8-10Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345505606
Released: July 2010
Original release: 2007-2008
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

Every once in a while I come across a work that stays with me long after I first finish reading it and that I find myself revisiting time and again. Yuki Urushibara’s ten-volume debut manga series Mushishi is one such work. Heavily influenced by traditional Japanese folklore but retaining modern sensibilities, Mushishi is a nuanced and layered manga which can either be simply enjoyed as a collection of atmospheric and subtly unsettling stories or more deeply appreciated for its complex underlying themes and philosophies. Mushishi quickly became and remains one of my favorite manga. The series has been received positively by fans and critics alike, earning Urushibara several awards and recognitions including a Japan Media Arts Award and a Kodansha Manga Award. Mushishi has also been the basis for multiple anime among other media adaptations. In English, the series was first published in print by Del Rey Manga and was later released digitally by Kodansha Comics.

The final volume of the English-langauge edition of Mushishi, first printed in 2010 and released digitally in 2014, is equivalent to the eighth, ninth, and tenth volumes of the series’ original Japanese release published between 2007 and 2008. Keeping with the episodic nature of Mushishi, the volume collects fourteen stories that for the most part aren’t directly tied to one another or to earlier chapters, but which share similar ideas and themes with the rest of the series. Family relationships are very important in Mushishi as a whole, but stories like “The Milk of the Valley,” “The Hidden Channel,” “Aquamarine,” and “The Thread of Life” in particular explore the deep bonds between mothers, including surrogate mothers, and their children. Other stories, like “The Final Bit of Crimson,” “Stars in the Jar of the Sky,” and “The Scented Darkness,” are about other realities and worlds, or at least about aspects of the natural world that aren’t fully understood by humankind. On the other hand, “Sunshowers,” “The Mud Weeds,” “The Whirlwind,” and “The Eternal Tree” are stories which show that when dealing with possession by or control of mushi, greater understanding can be both a curse and a blessing.

Mushishi, Volume 10, page 155The remaining three stories collected in the volume, including the series’ two-part finale, specifically involve Ginko (the manga’s protagonist and linking character), his personal relationship to mushi (primordial creatures that are closest to the original form of life), and what are known as “masters” in the world of Mushishi. Each master is associated with a specific geographic area and are responsible for maintaining the connection and balance between the natural world and all of the beings found within it. They are described as the living embodiment of the promise and rule of life. Although each of the three stories are technically found in different volumes of the series, taken together they form a particularly interesting narrative and are very illuminating when it comes to Ginko’s character. “The Bed of Grass” returns to Ginko’s past, firmly establishing why he is who he is and revealing the origin of his deep connection to and somewhat unusual attitude towards mushi. That connection is extremely critical to and further developed in “The Bottom of Winter” and in the series’ conclusion “Drops of Bells.”

Ginko’s devotion to life, whether it be human, mushi, or some other form, is perhaps the most prominent narrative driving force behind the entirety of Mushishi. At the same time, Ginko is also very aware that sometimes life cannot and should not always be preserved and that coexistence isn’t always an option. The intent is to find an appropriate balance, but what that balance should be is often debatable and mistakes are made. Ginko frequently acts in a role akin to that of a master and on several occasions throughout the series even considers taking the responsibilities of master upon himself. The decisions that he makes as he considers all of this in the final volumes of Mushishi are especially poignant. Mushishi is a manga series about many things, but at its very heart it’s an exploration of relationships, not only between humans and the natural world of which they are only one, inextricable part, but between people as individuals and as members of larger social groups. Mushi provide a seemingly supernatural element to the series, but ultimately the focus of Mushishi is on the very real, varied, and changing struggles of individuals living in an evolving world that they cannot completely control or understand.

Mushishi, Volume 7

Mushishi, Volume 7Creator: Yuki Urushibara
U.S. publisher: Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345505590
Released: May 2009
Original release: 2006
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

Mushishi, Volume 7 by Yuki Urushibara was originally published in Japan in 2006. It was the first volume of the award-winning manga series to be released after the first of several anime adaptations began airing. 2006 was also the year that Mushishi earned Urushibara a Kodansha Manga Award, having previously won a Japan Media Arts Award in 2003. In English, the seventh volume of Mushishi was initially published in print in 2009 by Del Rey Manga and then was later re-released in a digital edition by Kodansha Comics in 2014 along with the rest of the series. Mushishi is one of my favorite manga and one of the first series that I made a point to follow and collect as it was being released in translation. I love the manga’s atmosphere, subtle horror, and the obvious influence that traditional Japanese folklore and legends have had on Urushibara’s storytelling in the series.

The seventh volume of Mushishi collects four stories. Interestingly, the mushi in these particular chapters tend to be somewhat tangential to the real issues that the characters are struggling with. While the mushi have an impact on the way events unfold and develop, it is the interaction between people that forms the core of the individual stories. “Lost in the Blossoms” is about several generations in a family of skilled landscapers who obsessively care for the embodiment of a peculiarly beautiful and ancient cherry tree. In “The Mirror in the Muck,” a young woman falls ill after the man she loves leaves her behind, her love sickness putting her life in real danger. A young boy has become a host to a mushi that attracts lightning in “At the Foot of Lightning,” but the even greater problem is the nearly nonexistent relationship between him and his mother. The volume concludes with the series’ first multi-part story, “The Ragged Road,” about the head of the Minai, a clan of mushishi responsible for investigating forbidden mushi no matter what the personal cost.

Mushishi, Volume 7, page 3While Mushishi generally tends to be episodic, “The Ragged Road” directly ties in with an early story, “The Sea of Brushstrokes,” collected in Mushishi, Volume 2. The Minai family serves under the Karibusa family which is responsible for recording and protecting information about mushi; the fate of both families is intertwined with that of the forbidden mushi. I especially like “The Ragged Road” because it further develops the world of Mushishi. The other three stories in Mushishi, Volume 7 technically do as well, but because they’re only loosely connected to previous chapters their contributions to the series’ lore generally add more breadth rather than depth. Still, bits of the characterization of Ginko, the manga’s protagonist, continue to be revealed with the telling of each story, showing just how much of an outsider he is even within the community of mushishi.

Although the plots of the individual stories collected in Mushishi, Volume 7 aren’t directly connect to one another, they do all share some similar themes. In some ways, the manga feels more horror-like than some of the previous installments of the series. Mushi in the case of this volume are creatures that can steal away a person’s senses, identity, life, or even soul. But as terrifying as that can be, the most chilling thing that Ginko encounters aren’t mushi but failed human relationships. I find these four stories to be some of the most heartbreaking in the series for that reason. Ginko is faced with situations where, while he can deal with the mushi, he is powerless to completely ease the distress of the people involved and their troubled families. However, as sad and tragic as some of the stories in Mushishi can be, there’s still an underlying sense of hope that in time people will be able to heal and move forward through their pain.