By Mitsuhisa Kuji, translated by Ko Ransom (Vertical)
All I can glean regarding pseudonymous woman of mystery Mitsuhisa Kuji is that she has worked as assistant to both Kentaro Miura (Berserk) and Kaoru Mori (Emma, Anything and Something), but that simply means that we can appreciate her solely through her work, such as this darkly nihilistic and bleakly beguiling historical re-enactment of the legend of William Tell as collected in this first English-language volume of Wolfsmund…
Set in the 14th century and drawing on historical records, the serial debuted in 2009 as Ookami no Kuchi: Wolfsmund in Seinen publication Fellows! – with four tankōbon volumes collected thus far – and details the struggle of three autonomous alpine cantons, Uri, Unterwalden and Shwyz, for freedom and independence from the oppressive domination of invaders from what will become the Habsburg Empire.
Unconventionally, the oft-told tale centres around the monolithic fortress of Wolfsmund, situated in the Sankt Gotthard Pass: an impenetrable barrier station between mountains controlling the population’s ability to move, flee or obtain allies, intelligence or war material, and a crucial trade bottleneck between Germany and Italy.
The chilling black drama begins in ‘Liese and Georg’ as a highborn lady and daughter of the downtrodden proto-nation’s liberating hero undergoes appalling hardships and indignities at the hands of her most devoted servant in order to pass through the forbidding gate to freedom.
However all her determination and her bondsman’s wiles are as nothing to the insidious observations and deep suspicions of Wolfram the Bailiff; sadistic sentinel with an angel’s face, and undisputed master of Wolfsmund.
Although the wayfarers find sympathetic souls in the village around the castle – especially the seductive female innkeeper – their flight ends in discovery, combat and inevitable, inescapable doom…
The dark fable continues in ‘Johanna and Klaus’ wherein a lethally competent woman warrior undertakes to preserve her master’s treasures and the resistance’s war chest by passing through Wolfsmund to Italian bankers in Lugano. After also spending time with the enigmatic Guesthouse Madam, the deviously competent Johanna also fails to fool implacably diligent Wolfram and she is taken.
However, once inside the castle her true plan comes into play…
The notional stars of the legend at last appear in the final story in this initial volume.
The legend of ‘Wilhelm and Walter’ had long inspired the savagely repressed peoples of what will one day be Switzerland and, after a meeting with the innkeeper, Tell senior and junior opt for the unprecedented option of scaling the mountain rather than passing through the Wolf’s Mouth.
Wolfram however is a coldly calculating custodian and has made provision to counter even the most hare-brained and impossible attempts to escape his jurisdiction…
This is a harsh and visceral saga best enjoyed by older readers, and there’s a powerful aura of woodblock-etching (even a feeling of Albrecht Dürer) to the stark, uncompromising illustration that perfectly compliments the daunting milieu, adamantine scenery and cruelly brutal episodes in which assorted freedom fighters of “the Eternal Alliance” repeatedly try and fail to pass through the fortress gates and fool the cruelly beautiful sadistic angel in command.
However, with the mystery of the lovely libertine innkeeper to tease things along, this book feels more like prologue than main event and I for one can’t wait to see what comes next. After all, even if we know our eventual destination, it’s the journey that really matters…
Wolfsmund is printed in the ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.
© 2010 Mitsuhisa Kuji. All rights reserved.