Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
A shady pharmaceutical company is taking advantage of a mysterious bacteria only present in the groundwater of three remote towns in the world by turning the women of those towns into breeding machines for their cancer research. They may see their work as noble, but to Träne, a woman beaten but not broken by their system, it is what robbed her of her home, her innocence, and in many ways her life. Now she demands wergeld, the ancient Germanic practice of paying recompense to those wronged, and with unlikely yakuza allies and street-smart Shinobu, she's going to teach them the meaning of her name with tears of blood.
Can you put a price on a life? According to the ancient Germanic practice of wergeld (also spelled “wergild”), you sure can – the word means “man payment” and refers to the price, often in coin, payed out to the victim of a crime, or his family if the victim is dead, by the perpetrator. That's the concept behind Blade of the Immortal author Hiroaki Samura's newest series to see an English translation, and while it takes the entirety of the this two-volume omnibus to really get to that point, it's a dark, interesting read from the beginning...albeit one that is really not going to appeal to all readers.
Die Wergelder is one of those books that is rated “M” for a reason, and you disregard its shrink wrap at your peril. The omnibus has graphic rape, sex, an uncensored vagina, lots of violence, and basically pulls no punches. If dark, gritty seinen is your thing, then this should absolutely fit the bill; however, if you just like kickass women, be aware that this is substantially different from most of the Dirty Pair genre knock-offs that make it into English. It's not a manga for the faint of heart.
Samura subtitles the story “Bad Bitch Action,” which certainly implies a sort of grindhouse sensibility. (He does mention in the afterward that he was inspired by grisly camp films of the 1970s.) Interestingly enough, the protagonist we follow most closely is the one who least fits that label: Shinobu is a former teen runaway from the remote Japanese island of Ishikunagijima who falls in with a low-level yakuza thug named Ro. When his scheme falls through, she finds herself recruited by his yakuza family, and though she agrees to go on one mission on her home island with them, she also refuses to officially join. Shinobu becomes more intellectually curious about what's become of her hometown – somehow it has morphed into an off-shore red light district, despite being five hours from the mainland by boat. This and a meeting with a German woman named Träne, although she calls herself Nami Savasova and pretends to be Russian. Träne is from a remote German town wiped out by a pharmaceutical company called Hill-Myna...who now has a strange hand in what's happened to Ishikunagijima and the remote Chinese town of Hwamei, which also became a hotbed of prostitution. It's Träne who really pulls Shinobu into the story, and it's Träne who better wears the title of “bad bitch”...although once you learn her backstory, it's totally justified, which rather takes the sting out of the appellation. Two other women complete the quartet of protagonists, Chinese assassin Jie Mao (who works for Hill-Myna) and Korean Soli Kil, a street kid taken in by the yakuza family who are trying to figure out the monetary secrets of Ishikunagijima. At this point Soli plays a bigger role, but it's unclear how much Jie Mao knows about what Hill-Myna is really doing, so it seems possible that she may switch sides at some point. More interesting is the fact that the yakuza are clearly the good guys of this piece, with Hill-Myna cast as the villains. It's a fun switch to be certain, and also one that plays with traditional ideas of who will go how far to get what they want. Even though the yakuza do want the cash that Hill-Myna is making on the island, when they find out the truth of what's being sold, they're disgusted, setting up an unusual moral dynamic for the story.
As for what is the primary commodity of the three towns controlled by Hill-Myna, which I won't reveal here, it is the subject of the only questionable image in terms of censorship in the volume. I suspect that the censoring of the image may have been done by Samura himself, as it looks as if part of the picture has been actually cut out, but I admit to suspicion given the subject matter and the fact that we get a clear image of a man sticking his fingers into a woman's vagina with no censorship. (That it is revealed later to be prosthetic on a created “mermaid” may have something to do with the explicit nature, at least in terms of getting around the rules.) Regardless, despite its questionable look, the image does not detract from the overall quality of the artwork, which uses Samura's trademark realistic style that shows his classical art background. If you want to see female bodies drawn more realistically, this is the place to find them.
That said, the objectification and commodification of the female body is a major theme of this work. It is perhaps unsurprising given both the inspiration and the theme of the book, but it will not sit well with all readers. The idea that Träne is fighting back against her objectification by seeking her wergeld is both interesting and defensible, and Samura does treat Shinobu with more respect, particularly in a scene towards the very end of the book. It's half played for titillation and half played to show the horrors of what Hill-Myna is doing, and despite Träne's willing participation or the moments of humor Samura injects, it's fairly uncomfortable and smacks of what scholar Susan J. Douglas calls “enlightened sexism,” which is basically summed up as women buying into sexist images and ideas as somehow giving them power over men.
Die Wergelder is an odd mix of fascinating and disgusting, a much more hardcore manga than we typically see in English. If you've read Samura's work before (this bears a passing resemblance to the title story of his anthology Emerald) it is less likely to be a shock, but it is still a very harsh story that never shies away from anything, from rape to how to live out your sex-with-a-mermaid fantasy. At its heart, this is a story about women getting much-deserved revenge, and no matter how you feel about that plot, Samura still manages to make it something you can't quite stop reading...even if you sometimes want to.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A
+ Gritty, well-drawn art with dynamic action scenes and a firm grasp of anatomy. Second half of the book clears a lot of things up and gets really good. Respects Shinobu and Soli despite exploitative qualities.
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