[Slightly Edited From My MAL Review]
"God's divine creation is so brimming with love... and yet there is no love in the hearts of men." -Canute
Philosophical brooding, barbarous violence, political intrigue, and the stubborn refusal of hope to roll over and die no matter how dark the age- all in a beautifully drawn package. Makoto Yukimura delievers a prime example of the heights sequential art can reach. (Can you tell that I'm into this series?)
This series is brutal and it's mature, but those two things are not the same. There's no shortage of graphic carnage and gory battles, but any mangaka worth his or her salt can splash some buckets of blood around and call their story 'mature'. Where this story earns its praise for maturity is in how it handles that brutality. There is no romantization of the Viking Age here, the Norse glorification of violence is not just devastating the people they come into contact with, but even their own culture (suppose you're a Dane who DOESN'T want to go around murdering and raping everything in sight? Too bad- at best you'll be an outcast). In some way every character has to react to the violent culture of the Norse and their reactions are critical in determining their personality. Some embrace it, some run from it, some try to change it through politics, some find solace in religion, some despise it and lose themselves in the hatred of everything. While plenty of manga (and other media in general) simply use brutality for shock factor and call themselves 'deep and mature', this manga actually successfully uses the brutality as part of its main theme. But 'Vinland Saga' doesn't simply wallow in nihilism either (another easy trap for 'brutal' stories to fall into), it has rays of hope. Not easy to reach, sometimes not possible at all without going through Hell first, but still real.
This story uses brutality well, incorporating it into a deeper theme instead of losing itself to gore and nihilism; and it uses hope to counterpoint the brutality without resorting to saccharine slap-happy schlock. The only thing keeping 'VS' from a perfect story score is that the series has yet to reach its finale. So far, however, it has been magnificent. A proper ending and this series will be damn near Shakespearian.
Permit me to go off on a short tangent addressing complaints that the series gets 'slow' during volumes 9 & 10 (the 'Farmland Saga' arc). While it's true that there is far less spectacle and bloodshed than in the preceeding volumes, slowing things down at this point was critical. The story arc contained in volumes 3-8 had worked itself to its climax and natural conclusion. Trying to strecth that arc with yet more fighting or plotting would have been to "Vinland Saga's" detriment- the story needed a minute to catch its breath and make sure it stayed on course. Volumes 9&10 are where the story firmly and overtly establishes its theme, and handles character development that will be critical to driving the current arc. (And don't worry, the pace starts picking up again in volume 11- with plot developments that promise plenty more action to come).
Since it's on a monthly release schedule Makoto Yukimura can afford to go for quality rather than quantity. The first chapters were on a weekly release schedule, so they are somewhat less impressive (but still excellent, it's only that the monthly chapters are utterly jaw-dropping). It's clear that a great deal of research went into this series, houses, clothes, utensils, and weapons are all highly detailed- no settling for slapping some medieval stereotypes on the page and moving on. The panels are simple squares and rectangles with clear borders between them, broken up by the occasional splash page- with a series this detailed special care must be made to make sure each image is distinct and the flow is easy to follow. The aesthetic goes for a high level of realism, with very little stereotypical 'manga' influence (no chibis or gigantic eyes here). The art is absolutely stunning.
Characters make a story. If the cast doesn't have engaging conflicts and interesting development, neither the art or the plot will be able to make up the difference. Thorfinn is a ball of rage and pain as he tries to avenge the father he hardly knew. Canute is a timid and frightened young prince who must conquer or surely die. Askeladd's mind has plots within plots and is more than meets the eye. Thorkell.... OK, he IS pretty easy to figure out, but that's the point. Even the secondary characters have distinct and believable motivations and a few surprises. Nobody feels like a plot device or a cardboard archetype who's only there to do some specific thing because 'the story said so', the cast truly seems like real, flawed (often badly, occasionally horrifically flawed) people interacting with each other.
The cast is a masterclass in character development. The art is stunningly real. The story takes full advantage of its setting and subtly communicates a deep and mature theme- the ONLY thing I can see undermining this series is a bad ending when it finally finishes (not that I hope it will do so any time soon). I will confess I have a love for historical fiction that might make me more predisposed to liking a series of this nature, but given the examples I've provided I believe I can honestly this is a series any fan of serious manga needs to read.
Note: because I didn't want to spoil any big things, this review may or may not be a bit weird in the middle. Sorry for that.
Vinland Saga is an epic tale written by Makoto Yukimura, whom you might know from the manga (or the anime adaption) Planetes.
The premise of Vinland Saga, however, will remind lots of people of Berserk rather than Planetes : in a medieval setting, a young fighting prodigy by the name of Thorrfin joins a gang of Viking mercenaries. The reason for joining the gang is a little odd though: Thorrfin wants to kill Askeladd, the leader of the gang, to exact vengeance for the death of his father, Thors. Thorfinn does Askeladd's bidding to earn the right to a duel, because he wants to kill him in a fair fight. And by "doing his bidding", of course I mean killing countless people. So yeah, the part where they brutally kill anyone they see is also a part where Thorfinn is comparable to his "older brother" Guts.
I will end the comparison with Berserk there, because Vinland Saga takes an entirely different road: it follows the road of Planetes, and decides to be "realistic" (there are of course times where the limits of human strength are completely ignored, but not in a way that it gets too crazy for a manga like this). This realism, in combination with the violent nature of lots of the acts in the story, gives a lot of strong feelings of semi-disgust at what humans are capable of. Because after all, the main focus isn't the blood, but the acts of those who made people shed blood.
And then we see our main character, looking at it passively, or actively taking part in the atrocities if it will get him closer to killing Askeladd. He is a wrecked man, lost his humanity, and only has vengeance, killing and death left in his life. He doesn't care who or what burns or dies, simply walks past his "comrades" (he doesn't see them as such, but they're in the same gang) raping women. He'd kill anyone, and I found myself looking at him thinking "... I'm supposed to like this guy?"
On the other hand, we have his nemesis: Askeladd, the epitome of what any Viking would want as a leader: strong, intelligent, calculating, and just all-around powerful. HE is the guy one could most easily root for, because Askeladd too has goals in his life. Of course he does! After all, the best part about Vinland Saga isn't even the great storyline: it's the way all characters come to life. No Viking is portrayed as a demon, nor are they supermen: they are all just guys who have been hardened by their tough lifestyle, and pillage to live. When it comes to the main and important secondary characters, there are two choices: they develop, or they die before they can develop.
Speaking of development: any review about Vinland Saga will probably have to address that arc. The arc after the big plot twist at the end of the prologue (which i won't spoil here, of course). The arc of the farmlands, where Thorfinn changes. For anybody who hasn't read VS: don't worry, it isn't as weird as it sounds. For those who did read it: I read the 121 chapters that are out now in one sitting, and the arc was great. It may have felt slow reading it one chapter a month, but the development happening in this arc was really great. Having an arc that is less focused on fighting and more on character development isn't bad!
Oh well, I guess I'll end my review by talking about the artwork then: and the art... is great as well! I'll give some samples here:
Look at these gulls!
So yeah, the artwork is great too. I doubt there are many artist who could do better than this.
Story: 8.5/10 great, compelling story; pacing is good except for the somewhat slower farming arc
Characters: 10/10 I don't see how this could be done any better.
Art: 9/10 Doesn't get much better than this
Overall: 9.2/10 Great read!
Final note: Vinland Saga is a monthly series, and will probably become quite lengthy. So it will probably be a very long time until we get to see it end. However, I personally feel that this shouldn't discourage you to read it, because it worth all the time you give it!
Well this is sort of a rollercoaster ride, the manga starts great, then it has a bit of a .. well, not bad but worse period and after that it becomes an awesome manga again and just when you think this is going to be amazingly great .. enter farmland, now I understand that character development is important and that you need something like this, but for a manga that is very combat oriented with a norse/viking theme going to life on the farm for 10 chapters now, it's a bit too much, it's slow and annoying at this point and from the way it is going it will probably last for at least another 4-5 chapters ( mind you at the time I'm writing this review I've only read 64 chapters ).
The story is nothing special but it's well written and generally enjoyable, however with the recent turn of events it is difficult to know where this is going, which is not necessarily a bad thing, however it does seem weird to see the entire motivation of the hero up until now being removed.
The art is great, detailed, definitly a good looking manga, although the style doesn't really resemble a manga.
The characters are mostly enjoyable, interesting and generally well made, however there are a few things that bother me and the biggest one is the prince's change, to me it was too sudden and it was not believable, it just felt forced. The second one is more recent and it is the change of the main character, a bit understandable from a certain point of view, but definitely weird, it's unexpected and not in a good way, he's now a polar opposite to what he was and it feels unreal, it doesn't really hold .. it is also bad that it was never really explained how he got to his current location and in his current circumstance, although it's not that hard to imagine how it happened given the recent events, it would not have hurt to be shown.
Overall it is a good manga however, recent chapters are really bad, they are boring, irelevent, they just feel out of place in the manga and if this continues it is really turning in to at most a mediocre manga.
EDIT : Uhm y, small edit here, left the original review and individual grades but am gonna change the overall to 6, too many filler chapters, this entire farm arc has just been going on for too long, almost 3 years of nothing happening in this manga and its just getting old.. really I just can't recommend it to anyone at this point, my advice would be to just wait for 3-4 years and start reading it then if its even still going by that point because the current arc is just padding.