INTERVIEW: Makoto Yukimura Discusses His Inspirations & Historical Research Behind Vinland Saga

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Vinland Saga © Makoto Yukimura/Kodansha Ltd.

This interview has been edited and revised for clarity. 

Vinland Saga manga artist Makoto Yukimura made his first Canadian appearance last September as an honored guest at the Toronto International Festival of Authors and “The Pursuit of Purpose: Charting Vinland with YUKIMURA Makoto” event, hosted by The Japan Foundation, Toronto.  

Yukimura participated in an engaging discussion with Miles Baker, managing director of the Toronto Comic Art Festival, to discuss the research methods and storyline of Vinland Saga so far, as well as his work on his previous series, Planetes. During the TIFA event, he was honored and surprised to learn about his comparison to seinen manga artists Kentarou Miura and Takehiko Inoue. Yukimura planned to meet Miura for the first time before his death and heaped many praises for Inoue as well. 

At the “The Pursuit of Purpose” event, he also mused about the secrets to his creative process, artistic style, and the philosophies that are built into his narratives. 

Anime Trending spoke with Makoto Yukimura to learn more about how Vinland Saga was created, the manga’s historical research, and how his readers continue to inspire him.


First off, Yukimura-sensei, thank you for coming to Toronto and speaking with Anime Trending today. 

Yukimura-sensei: Me too, I feel very honored. 

Let’s start at the beginning. I’m curious how the Vinland Saga manga was first pitched to your editors as you were first getting it serialized. 

It’s a little complicated. When I first approached my editor to write the story of Vinland Saga, the story didn’t start where [Thorfinn] was fighting the English in England. Instead, I was planning on a story that started with him being a slave. So, the editor I spoke to at Kodansha said, “Well, that’s not going to sell! A story that starts from being a slave? I thought this story was about the Vikings and fighting, and you’re not going to go into that? How am I going to explain this to my editor-in-chief?” That was the first reaction that I received from my editor. 

Since I thought of this story, the part that I really wanted to work on was the main character being a slave, and from being a slave to becoming somebody who is exploring a new land. That was the part of the story that I really wanted to write. 

However, when I received this initial reaction from my editor, I thought to myself, “He might be right though.” This is about those people called the Vikings, and there were wars and fighting. Maybe if I incorporated these elements, we [Yukimura and the editor] could make this story very exciting. So, when we decided to do that, we actually got to excite the editor-in-chief, to the point that we can convince him, “This is going to be a story we can serialize.” 

Many mangakas who create historical fiction often visit museums, national libraries, or the country of origin that they’re doing their research in. Could you describe in detail what the research process was like for this series? 

So, I actually did visit the places that became the sceneries of my story, such as Denmark, Iceland, Norway, France, and England. Whenever I visit them, I try to use all my sensors such as, “Is it a warm place? Is it a cold place? How does the wind feel? How cold is the water?” So, those feelings, the sensations that I experienced at these places, would give me the details to write the stories about those places. 

However, the only place I never visited was Canada. When I really wanted to visit Canada, that was around when the outbreak of COVID-19 happened. All my plans had to be rescheduled. However, my story could not wait for me to come here to do the research. For the past three years, when I was writing a story about the Vinland, I wasn’t very confident about how this place would be. 

Well, I really hope you enjoy your first visit here. You’re also visiting PEI [Prince Edward Island], right? 

Yes!

For your research, did you consult historical sources like The Saga of Erik the Red or Saga of the Greenlanders? If not, what are the resources or research materials did you use?  

Perhaps, I did read the Saga of Erik the Red, as well as Saga of the Greenlanders. But it’s a massive amount of text that takes a while to read. Because there weren’t that many resources, I started to look into other resources that I can get my hands on as well. 

The world of Vinland Saga is really complex. Although it focuses on a conquest of Europe and the early exploration of North America, the series also includes characters with Imperial Roman heritage, like Askeladd, and characters who visited far distant lands like Snake in Miklagard. How did you feel about undertaking this massive historical scope and portraying it in your series? 

It was kind of matter-of-fact because the Vikings’ activity was very lively. It was something that I had to incorporate into my storytelling. The reason why I chose to write about Vikings as a main motif of my story is because they’re so violent. However, the Vikings were way more active than I ever expected in the first place — they explored such distant lands, so I had to factor that different aspect into my own story. The fact that I ended up writing about this massive world of the Vikings, I felt like I was led by the exploration of the Vikings myself.  

From what I’ve read most recently, your series has also drawn a Canadian connection involving the appearance of the Mi’kmaq Tribe on Thorfinn’s journey to Vinland in an area now known as Prince Edward Island. What were some fascinating things you learned about the Mi’kmaq culture and the land they settled on during your research? 

There’s an old folktale that I really liked that was told to the generations of the Mi’kmaq. It’s a story about “Muwinskw,” which is translated as “The Little Bear” or “The Little Cub.” It was the story of a boy who was lost in the woods. It turns out he was adopted by a mother bear and was raised by her. The mother bear teaches this boy many life skills, such as how to fish in rivers. This boy, Muwinskw, becomes able to speak and communicate with the bears. The boy eventually is found by people and gets adopted back into the community of Mi’kmaq. He’s the one human being in the Mi’kmaq community who truly understands how the bears feel. 

In the winter, bears go into hibernation with their cubs. In the cave, both the mother and the young bear are sleeping, and there’s steam coming out of this chimney. The mother bear told Muwinskw that even in human society, when there is a chimney and there’s steam coming out of the chimney, that’s where people live harmoniously in that tent. It is the same for the bear. If there is steam coming out of their chimney, please do not disturb them. 

I really appreciated the great wisdom that was inherited in the story of living and coexisting with nature, and how there is no differentiation between human and animal. I really appreciate the heart of that story. 

The quote, “I have no enemies” has gone viral with many fans of Vinland Saga who are taking these words to heart. As the creator, what does it mean for you to see the impact of someone applying their experience with Vinland Saga to their own conflicts in life? 

I always reflect how I truly feel in my stories, so the fact that people resonate with my expressions, I really appreciate that. 

As a matter of fact, the quote “I have no enemies” is everything that I wanted to say through the story of Vinland Saga, summarized into this one phrase. Every time I see someone changing their profile name to something like, “I have no enemies,” it kind of makes me feel really happy because I think this phrase reflects a stubborn attitude. I think in our lives, we encounter somebody whom we avoid and call an enemy, and when we say “I have no enemies,” that is the stubborn attitude to hold onto. I hope we’re not asking too much of those people who believe in those words. That’s the only concern that I have. 

However, just by the fact that I believe “I have no enemies,” I think that encompasses all the fights that we don’t have to fight as well. 

Vinland Saga is a story of growth and change. In what ways, while creating the manga, did you grow or change? And what impact has the work ultimately had on you as a creator? 

First of all, it took me 18 years to write the story. When I started this story, I was 29 years old, and now I’m 47. Just from aging, I became more of a low-key person compared to when I first started. The story, as you know, is really rough in the beginning and violent, and as the story progresses, it starts to focus on the main character, who has grown and matured. I truly am glad that I had 18 years to execute this growth in the story. So, I believe that my age has affected the story, but I don’t think the story itself affected me. 

Right now, the Vinland Saga manga to my knowledge is split into four story arcs: the war arc, the slavery arc, the eastern expedition arc, and the current unnamed one. Out of the four arcs, which was your favorite to develop and work on, and which of them was your least favorite? 

The most difficult story arc was the slavery arc. However, the most exciting arc to work on was also the slavery arc. It’s because it was about a young man who held a strong grudge and had a strong preconception about this world. Coming from that, he grows into a completely different person, and I think drawing his growth was the most inspiring part of this story arc. I love to see the changes and transformation of a person, so I wanted to make sure that the changes that Thorfinn goes through were really convincing in the story. 

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We’re on to our final question, but this is a fairly open-ended one. What should readers look forward to as the story of Vinland Saga comes to a close?

That’s a difficult question. 

I’m surprised! The previous questions were harder. 

I actually don’t know what is going to happen at the end of this story! I believe that when the story comes to an end, everybody’s hope is to have a happy ending, but there are historical facts. That’s the part that’s really difficult for me right now. 

According to history, the ending of Thorfinn’s story is going to be tragic. Something really tragic is going to happen to the characters. “How could I make this not a complete tragedy?” That is something that I’m working on right now. What should I do? 

I mean, give the man a happy ending! It’s fiction!

Okay! I’ll try to do my best to go in that direction. 

makoto yukimura Japan foundation library photo with thorfinn
© Makoto Yukimura, Photo by William Moo

Translation: Misaki Kido 

Special thanks to Kodansha USA, The Japan Foundation, Toronto, and Toronto International Festival of Authors for helping to arrange this interview

You can follow more of Makoto Yukimura’s adventures on Twitter @makotoyukimura.  

Vinland Saga is available from Kodansha USA in English and more information about the series can be found here.

William Moo is a freelance writer who has previously written for OTAQUEST and MANGA.TOKYO. He enjoys watching lots of anime every season and reading from time to time. You can follow him on Twitter @thewriterSITB.
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