History was always my favourite subject in school, because what’s not to love about it? You spend years learning about all these ancient civilizations and chart their growth and fall through time. Even more than that, you learn about the wars they fought, and the heroes that fought in them. Granted, growing up partly in India and partly in the U.S., most of the history I was taught revolved around those two countries. We had lessons on medieval Europe, and the major events that occurred there – The Hundred Years’ War, The Renaissance, The Spanish Armada, The French Revolution, Napoleon, and so on. Just things from mainland Europe, and snippets into Europe’s naval powers’ race to colonize the “savages” across the globe.
What we weren’t taught were the less “mainstream” histories. That vikings and samurai existed were the only things we learned (in class) of the countries I’ll be talking about in this. Almost all of my knowledge of Japanese and Norse history now comes from the holy triumvirate of books, video games, and manga.
Now I know not to look to James Clavell’s Shogun when I need a biography of Tokugawa Ieyasu, but novels like Clavell’s Asian Saga, or manga like Vagabond, Kingdom, or even games like Total War: Shogun and the Assassin’s Creed franchise (I’m playing Odyssey right now, and BY GOD am I stunned by the world) offered me easy and entertaining access to these histories that I might otherwise never have learned about.
What makes me think about this now is this sort of renaissance that historical anime is going through. Golden Kamuy just had its third season greenlit, and Vinland freaking Saga is currently airing. (My heart begins to hope for a Vagabond adaptation.) They’re both wonderful series, but I’ll refrain from discussing Vinland Saga too much because the plot there is rather more linear than that of Golden Kamuy, so it might difficult to talk about it without spoiling it.
Let me offer a simple summary of Vinland Saga, to try and convince you to see it. It tells the tale of Thorfinn – based on the Norse explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni – a young Viking boy who serves as an assassin and fighter on the ship of Askeladd, a Jomsviking warrior. He doesn’t do this because he feels a thrill for battle, if anything he uses it to vent. He stays and serves on Askeladd’s ship solely because he wants to stay close to his true quarry – the captain of the ship, and the man who slew his father.
Doesn’t that sound like a great story? Now drop it into 1013 A.D. Denmark. Right in the middle of a succession war that ended with one of the greatest Norse kings ascending to the throne. Great historical series can be written around times of peace, but to me, the ones that appeal the most are those that take place in turbulent times, during or just prior to conquests, or after the death of a monarch/leader. You throw a group of normal characters into this period of strife with some sort of task or goal to complete, and watch them struggle to survive. I mean, that’s the formula that many of my favourite series follow – Vinland Saga, The Lord of the Rings, The Witcher, Percy Jackson. Characters in series like these are tempered by the trials they face, and they grow immensely through the story as a result. Thorfinn is no different. Watching him grow from a surly, shaggy-haired boy into the man he is now in the manga is a tremendous journey. The only thing better than it in Vinland Saga is the fighting.
Reading bloodthirsty Vikings slaughter each other with axes and broadswords in large-scale combat is exhilarating in its own right, but then there’s Thorfinn himself. He’s still a young boy, lacking the physical strength of the men he fights against – so he opted to go the way of the rogue. Dual daggers, moving fast, ducking under ponderous swings to gut his enemy, or slipping behind them to slit their throats before they can scream. In combat, his is the most frightening visage – a blond shadow bearing down on soldiers. His hawklike amber eyes the last thing hundreds of Viking men ever see. I can’t wait to watch him fight in the anime. I can only hope that Studio Wit handles the fights like those in Seirei no Moribito, or Samurai Champloo. Anything less would be a travesty.
Golden Kamuy is a show I didn’t know about prior to the anime airing, but once I began watching it I quickly, quickly fell in love with everything about it. Its author, Satoru Noda, wanted to shed some light on the culture of Northern Japan’s indigenous Ainu peoples – and so he did, by placing them squarely in the middle of a Wild West-style treasure hunt involving survivors of the Russo-Japanese war, escaped convicts, and copious amounts of bear-hunting. Seriously, if these characters didn’t have a plot to follow, every bear in Japan and Russia would have died in a matter of days. It’s gruesome and gory, with characters routinely being tortured, severely injured, or dying graphically. It’s also hilarious. Not the deaths, but the characters (sometimes the deaths). When they’re not fighting each other, the cast’s interactions with one another are comedy gold.
Take this scene that I’m going to show you without any context for instance. (Mild spoilers)
Then there’s Asirpa’s wide range of expressions, all of which are beyond exceptional.
Almost every character introduced in the manga/show is quirky or unique in some fashion – and their quirks are used to great comedic effect, usually in the lulls between combat or tensions. They serve, along with Golden Kamuy’s Ainu cooking mini-episodes, as breathers for the reader, letting our heart rates stabilize after watching our intrepid heroes barely escape death again.
The supporting cast and the “villains” of the show are spectacular personalities, from the legendary Shinsengumi “demon” vice-captain Hijikata Toshizou; to the mangaka’s favourite character – the man of boners – Nihei Tetsuzou; to one of the best villains I have seen in anime – Lieutenant Tokushirou Tsurumi. This last one takes command of a legion of soldiers, dissatisfied with their treatment after the war, and seeks the gold to give them a better future.
Most action anime villains who command large numbers of troops don’t care for their subordinates – they see the soldiers under their command as tools to be discarded when their use is at an end. Lt. Tsurumi is different. He is charming, silver-tongued, and cunning. He knows each of his soldiers, he has handpicked them, and in many cases has very personal histories with them that have drawn them to him. His men don’t follow him because of the promise of gold – they follow him out of devotion. Several of his soldiers (and others he meets) are even shown to be in love with him. He wins their devotion by manipulating them, preying on their various weaknesses and traumas until they believe that he is the only person capable of loving them.
On the other side, he’s ruthless and brutal in his treatment of those who oppose him. He has no qualms about torturing those same men whom he displays so much care for, if he believes them to be working against him. To me, he’s a wonderfully amoral character, slightly mad from the shrapnel that damaged part of the front lobe of his brain, but somehow more brilliant for that loss. While the protagonists – Sugimoto Saichi and Asirpa – are amazing characters with terrific chemistry, Lt. Tsurumi is the one who makes this show as good as it is.
So, if you have a hankering for the Wild West, but instead of sand and heat it’s all terribly cold and snowy; if you have a need to learn about how best to eat ground squirrel, or which parts of which strange animals ought to be eaten raw; or if you just like watching men stab and shoot each other to death, then Golden Kamuy is the show for you.
There’s more historical action manga I’d like to talk about – Vagabond, Ares (low fantasy rather than historical, but definitely worth reading), Hyouge Mono, Kingdom, Historie, Rurouni Kenshin, the list is pretty damn long – so I’ll save it for another time. For now, if you read this far – go watch Golden Kamuy (ignore the bad CGI bears, they’ll be dead soon) and Vinland Saga.