Makoto Yukimura’s claim to fame before Vinland Saga was a relatively brief manga series called Planetes. It was a “hard sci-fi” series that focused on the lives of a team of orbiting garbage collectors. There was a default main character, but the series regularly mined its cast for emotionally rewarding gold, often inventing fluid action sequences set against the backdrop of Earth or the moon as seen from space. It ran from 1999 to 2004 and led to a faithful television adaptation.
I bring up the underrated Planetes because in 2004, Makoto Yukimura seemed unlikely to branch from workaday science fiction and human drama to a historical Viking action/adventure, but here it is: Vinland Saga, bearing all the hallmarks that made Yukimura’s last work so great. In 2005, Vinland Saga took off like a bullet in Japan, but it has only landed on America’s shores as of fall 2013. The silver lining of this delay is that Kodansha’s editions are being published as two-in-one books to make up for lost time, which only adds to the epic feel of each book.
What propels Vinland Saga into the realm of epic tales and must-recommend lists for fans of the Game of Thrones franchise are its revolving plotlines, which shift focus among the cast. The series is ostensibly about Thorfinn, a young warrior seeking vengeance for his father’s murder at the hands of a group of marauders. He has a standing agreement with their leader, the cunning and pragmatic Askeladd, to earn the privilege of a duel for every favor done on the field of battle. As if their working relationship wasn’t tense enough, their travels take them to the heart of England’s 11th-century turmoil against the Danes, which includes multiple dramatic treatments of historical figures.
“Turmoil” doesn’t begin to describe the violence, barbarism, and anarchy depicted, although occasionally there are light or tender sides. War is depicted in full gore, with bleeding wounds, dismemberment, and corpses picked apart by birds. However, action scenes tend to slip into a shonen mode, with hyper-kinetic weapon swings and motivations written across characters’ faces in revealing detail. Early on, Askeladd remarks on the relative safety of a camp just as a soldier in the background takes an arrow to the head, played for pure slapstick. The mood of each scene is reflected in the artwork, which is always clear and easy to follow, from dialog murmured along a mud trail to a fight between boats and an overhead bridge. Color segments brighten up each new chapter, as if already adapted from vivid animation. There are fair amounts of swearing to go along with the bloody combat, but these elements are not played for mere shock. The story itself is mature and weighs each character’s less than admirable traits against their clever, courageous, and caring sides.
Survival in a world of mercenaries and warring states means watching characters harden their hearts to adopt the art of murder and deception, but Yukimura’s storytelling frequently includes doses of nobility, sacrifice, and honor—even if they are quickly swallowed up by violence. One recurring theme is that of the ideal, true warrior, one who can win or otherwise prevent conflict without causing harm to others. Early on, Askeladd encounters this idea via Thorfinn’s father, who says under extreme duress, “A true warrior needs no blade.” Askeladd ruminates on the truth of that statement long afterward. This theme is also expressed in the character of a drunken, despondent priest who nonetheless preaches Christianity and a basic love of humanity to his captors. These scenes go a long way toward demonstrating that there are rational, compassionate voices in this harsh setting, even if no one rewards their leadership.
From the first to the third book, character momentum builds in a slow but satisfying manner, leading to personal growth and revelations among the Danish royal family, including King Sweyn and Prince Canute; Leif Ericson also makes an appearance. There have hardly been any female characters so far, save Thorfinn’s sister Ylsa, whose lighthearted exploits at home help counter-balance the grim stories of the front lines. Nudity and sex have not appeared, though the viking marauders clearly take whatever and whomever they find to their liking. I look forward to seeing how the cast expands and develops in future volumes, especially considering how many twists and long-term plot payoffs there have already been thus far.