Die Wergelder, Omnibus 1

Die Wergelder, Omnibus 1Creator: Hiroaki Samura
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632361950
Released: December 2015
Original release: 2013-2015

I was very excited when Kodansha Comics announced that it would be releasing Die Wergelder in English. At the time, I actually didn’t know much about the manga series beyond the fact that it was created by Hiroaki Samura, but that was more than enough to capture my attention—Samura’s long-running, award-winning series Blade of the Immortal was one of the first manga that I ever read and it remains a personal favorite. I’ve also throughly enjoyed Samura’s two short manga collections that have been translated, Ohikkoshi and Emerald and Other Stories. As Blade of the Immortal was drawing to a close in Japan, Die Wergelder was just beginning, the first volume being published in 2013. The second volume was released two years later in Japan in 2015. The first installment of Kodansha’s English-language edition of Die Wergelder, also published in 2015, collects both of those volumes.

Shinobu has made a mistake that may very well cost her life. After attempting to run way with a low-ranking yakuza member, along with a rather large sum of his syndicate’s money, the two of them are caught and Ro’s boss isn’t particularly happy with them. Normally Shinbou would likely have been killed without a second thought, but her background happens to make her uniquely qualified for a job that Ro’s boss needs done. She’s more or less forced into accepting and so suddenly finds herself embroiled in the schemes and rivalries of multiple groups. The world of organized crime is fraught with danger and made even more so with the appearance of Träne, an assassin hellbent on revenge against those who have done her tremendous wrong. And then there’s Jie Mao, an opposing bodyguard whose deadly combat skills make her a formidable foe. Shinobu does have the guts and brash attituded needed to survive, but that’s also a large part of why she’s in such trouble to being with.

Die Wergelder, Omnibus 1, page 64Die Wergelder is heavily inspired by or at least influenced by 1970s Japanese pink films—theatrical releases steeped with eroticism, nudity, and sex. More specifically, Samura is taking cues from Toei’s Pinky Violence series of films. (Träne’s dark long coat, wide-brimmed hat, and tale of vengeance would appear to be a direct reference to the Female Convict Scorpion films in particular.) Likewise, Die Wergelder contains fairly extreme content, including gratuitous sex and explicit violence. Women and men, although to a somewhat lesser extent, are brutalized and degraded both sexually and physically throughout the story. Die Wergleder is true to its lurid and exploitative roots and the series seems to be self-aware of that. With an additional heavy dose of sadism, it’s certainly not a manga to be lightly recommended to just anyone, though what it does it does well.

By far the most interesting and compelling characters in Die Wergelder are the women. They are easily the most sexualized and objectified as well, but they’re also powerful and terrifying forces to be reckoned with. In comparison, the men of Die Wergelder aren’t particularly memorable, even when they are impressively powerful their own right. Träne and Jie Mao are stunning to watch as they fight. As I’ve come to expect, Samura’s action sequences are dramatic and dynamic. The martial skills shown may frequently be unbelievable, but they are devastatingly effective. With all its brutality and torture, Die Wergelder can be exceptionally violent and gruesome even while being beautifully drawn. It’s a deliberately uncomfortable series, Samura pushing the boundaries of acceptability. Rape, murder, abuse, and unethical medical experimentation are all regular occurrences, and that’s just scraping the surface of the despicable, thrilling, disturbing, titillating, and vicious world that Samura explores in Die Wergelder.

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.

Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu

Junji Ito's Cat Diary: Yon & MuCreator: Junji Ito
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632361974
Released: October 2015
Original release: 2009

Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu was one of the manga releases I was most looking forward to in 2015. Junji Ito is primarily known for horror manga–his Uzumaki is one of my personal favorites in the genre–but in 2008 he had the opportunity to serialize an autobiographically-inspired manga based on his experiences living in a house with two cats. The result was Junji Ito’s Cat Diary, ultimately collected in a single, slim volume and published in Japan in 2009. The English-language edition of the manga released by Kodansha Comics in 2015 also includes the contributions made by Ito and his wife (Ayako Ishiguro) to the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake relief anthology Teach Me, Michael! A Textbook in Support of Feline Disaster Victims. I thoroughly enjoy Ito’s brand of unusual horror and I, too, happen to have the privilege of feline companionship, so I was very interested in Junji Ito’s Cat Diary. I expected it to be a manga that I would enjoy and I wasn’t disappointed; I absolutely loved it.

J-kun is the proud owner of a new house in pristine condition from floor to ceiling and he’s looking forward to living there with his soon-to-be wife A-ko. What he didn’t initially realize was that by inviting her to live with him he would also become host to two more guests: Yon and Mu. J-kun is convinced that Yon, one of A-ko’s family’s cats, is cursed. He’s a strange-looking feline with skull-like markings that would seem to confirm J-kun’s suspicions. Mu, on the other hand, is an adorable kitten with a pedigree and cute enough to melt even J-kun’s dog-loving heart. And so begins J-kun’s trials and tribulations as a keeper of cats, slowly falling under their spell as he grieves the loss of his perfectly-kept house. He warms up to both Yon and Mu, but they don’t quite exhibit the same amount of warmth in return, more often than not preferring A-ko’s company. But J-kun is determined–one day he, too, will enjoy Yon and Mu’s love and affection.

Junji Ito's Cat Diary: Yon & Mu, page 31Junji Ito’s Cat Diary is immensely entertaining. Ito has kept his signature style used when drawing horror manga and has applied it to a collection of stories that are closer to being gag manga. The illustrations can be intentionally grotesque and creepy, with an emphasis on J-kun’s exaggerated expressions as he reacts (and overreacts) to the events occurring in his household and the horrors of pet ownership. A-ko, too, is drawn in such a way that her disconcerting appearance adds to the atmosphere of horror in the manga. For the most part, the cats are simply cats (at least when J-kun isn’t hallucinating from lack of sleep); it’s the humans who come across as maniacal. Junji Ito’s Cat Diary looks like it should be a horror manga and has all of the genre’s visual stylings, but it really isn’t. The humor is even funnier because of this deliberate disconnect between the actual stories being told and how they are being portrayed.

As someone who tends to enjoy Ito’s work and as someone who tends to like cat comics, I was already in a position to particularly appreciate Junji Ito’s Cat Diary. It may certainly not work for everyone, though–the manga is a weird mix of horror and comedy, the grotesque and the adorable–but I loved it. In general, the stories in Junji Ito’s Cat Diary are less about Yon and Mu’s antics and more about J-kun’s reactions to their behavior and his changing relationships with the two cats. Yon and Mu are actually very normal as cats go; the humans in the manga are the ones who come across as eccentric and a bit odd. Junji Ito’s Cat Diary is hilarious but at the same time the manga maintains and oddly disconcerting and even ominous atmosphere. Ito simply excels at taking the mundane and transforming it into something truly devious and bizarre. I’m not sure, but perhaps I should be concerned by how much I can identify with the stories found in Junji Ito’s Cat Diary.

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.

Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition

Maria the Virgin Witch: ExhibitionCreator: Masayuki Ishikawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632361905
Released: August 2015
Original release: 2015

I rather enjoyed Masayuki Ishikawa’s short, three-volume manga series Maria the Virgin Witch. Although it was a bit uneven in places, possibly because the series ended sooner than was initially planned (granted, that is my own speculation rather than something that I know for a fact), I liked the series’ quirky characters, historical fantasy, and peculiar mix of humor and more serious philosophical and theological musings. Because Maria the Virgin Witch wrapped up so quickly and left many questions unanswered, I was happy to learn that Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition had also been licensed for an English-language release. Originally published in Japan in 2015, Exhibition is a collection of sides stories, a mix of prequels and sequels to the main series. Kodansha Comics released the English-language edition in 2015 as well. It is a relatively slim volume, but I was looking forward to spending a little more time with Maria the Virgin Witch and its characters.

Each of the short manga in Exhibition focuses on a different character of Maria the Virgin Witch: Viv, Maria, Joseph, and Ezekiel. Viv’s story is the only multi-chapter manga in the volume. It follows the English witch from when she first arrived on France’s shores, traveling on a ship filled with soldiers and other witches sent to reinforce England’ armies in the Hundred Years War. This is long before she befriends Maria, but Viv’s enthusiastic and reckless approach to battle, in addition to wreaking havoc, becomes a source of inspiration for Maria’s own efforts. The next story is just as much about Maria’s familiars as it is about Maria herself, taking place during the main series and showing a typical day away from the battlefield after Ezekiel joins their small group. Josephs’ story, like Viv’s, is a prequel to Maria the Virgin Witch, recounting Joseph and Maria’s first adorably awkward meeting as he seeks her aid for France’s war efforts. The volume ends with a story about Ezekiel, not as an angel, but as the human child of Maria and Joseph, providing a nice epilogue for the series as a whole.

Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition, page 44The stories in Exhibition are obviously intended for readers who are already familiar with Maria the Virgin Witch and who have already read the entire series. Although the short manga in Exhibition aren’t necessarily directly connected to the main narrative of Maria the Virgin Witch, by their very nature there are some spoilers involved and the collection relies on the reader having previous knowledge of the series’ characters. Exhibition is less devoted to expanding the world and plot of Maria the Virgin Witch and more focused on further developing the manga’s characters and their personal stories. And by telling the stories of the individual characters in Exhibition, more about Maria herself is revealed. Even when she isn’t immediately involved or present, Maria plays an important role in all of the short manga. Exhibition shows many of her different sides: Maria the friend, Maria the master, Maria the lover, Maria the mother, and so on.

Whereas the main Maria the Virgin Witch series had a rather serious story that was accompanied and punctuated with humor, overall Exhibition consistently tends to be much more lighthearted and comedic in nature. It’s a fun collection for fans of the series even if the stories are generally fairly inconsequential. None of the hard questions raised by the main series or the lingering plot threads are really addressed. Maria’s lineage and backstory still remain obscure. (If anything, I’m left wondering even more about her origins and who she really is.) Not much in the way of additional worldbulding is present in the volume either. Instead, Exhibition offers readers the opportunity to enjoy a collection of stories that are charming, funny, and even a little touching as they celebrate the characters of Maria the Virgin Witch. And because the characters are such a large part of what makes Maria the Virgin Witch so appealing, Exhibition is a perfect send-off for the series.