Wolfsmund Review: A parade of pointless sadism? Or a fine piece of revisionist fiction?

As far as titles set in the Middle Ages (or whatever fantasy settings that mirror that period) go, there’s no denying that the bar for many has been set incredibly high. Such a time period, of course, embodies the idea “life sure ain’t fair, the fuck are you gonna do about it”. These stories involving folks that have to flounder about to in order to overcome harsh environments and extreme oppression tend to offer plenty of room for character arcs paved in blood and guts. Stories like  Vinland Saga, Berserk, Vagabond, etc all easily satisfy those looking for well-drawn violence and well-handled characters so it would make sense to expect much from Wolfsmund as well (which happens to have been written by one of Kentaro Miura’s assistance during his lengthy breaks). I can’t say Wolfsmund holds up in all areas as well as some of its better genre contemporaries, but there is certainly enough to make it stand out.

The storyline of Wolfsmund so far is exclusively held in with a small space in early 14th Century Switzerland, where 3 the three different groups of the Swiss cantons, all continue struggling against the Duchy of Austria, who has violently taken over the land of their forefathers. In an effort to stymy the rebellion against the Austrians, the border fortress known as Sankt Gotthard’s pass is kept under strict watch so as to effectively weed out the rebels or those who would enable them. The pass that would lead would be rebels into Italy is under the watch of the sadistic Bailiff Wolfram. The focus of the story at first is placed upon individuals who for one reason or another  need to make it past the treacherous checkpoint in order to accomplish their goals, whether those goals be to simply looking for asylum or to pass weapons/information to those who would oppose the Duchy of Austria. The story takes a semi-episodic approach, each starring a pair of individuals. The most notable common denominator between these stories is Wolfram, the one man standing between the characters and their goals with a gleeful smirk. Wolfram is essentially one of the most unabashedly accurate portrayals of the “Magnificent Bastard” trope you’ll ever find in storytelling. He takes the utmost pleasure in tormenting those who garner suspicion at the pass both mentally and physically before bringing down the law. Through his harsh treatment of suspected rebels, Sankt Gotthard’s earned the nickname “Wolfsmund” (The Wolf’s Maw).

yes, at the time two executioners were needed for swift decapitations. One to hold the axe in place and the other to hammer it down.

It should suffice to say at this point that this is the type of manga in which expects loads and loads of heavy content. Gut punches are plentiful, hopes are dashed and lives are trampled unfairly. The structure of the early volumes allows readers to see the rebellion from multiple different perspectives as it changes focal points every couple of chapters to focus on different characters. Because of this Wolfsmund isn’t a story in which you’ll find one incredible character arc to follow from beginning to end which will understandably be a turn off for many. Though the individual characters won’t offer too much to remember, in the long run, they do behave quite believably for the roles they’re given. Through these characters, we see many of the smaller, more personal battles taking place during the rebellion. From from a young lady’s journey to escape capital punishment for her dead father’s role in the rebellion, to a meek  Swiss pub owner who becomes a paid informant to satisfy his wife’s vain desires and to get back at the men who enjoy mocking him. It is with these smaller scale conflicts that the setting is fleshed out, the facets of the rebellion become known, and the foundation of the reader’s hatred of Wolfram expanded. The semi-episodic approach doesn’t always work, however. Mileage with the extreme cruelty that these characters are often put through will vary, of course, but there are definitely instances of the author being mean for the sake of meanness. For me, it was chapter 10 that showcased the height of this manga’s indulgence in torture porn-y shock factor, and it was then I began to question whether or not I would be able to stomach any more of this kind of storytelling. Thankfully, Wolfsmund, as it turns out, is not a one trick pony.

The 2nd half of Wolfsmund (of the 6 volumes available as of this review, so volumes 4-6) shifts the focus away from the daily lives of those just of the characters and the details of the upcoming revolt against the barrier station, to the revolt itself. There was more than enough going on in these volumes to garner preference over the 1st three. The siege of Sankt Gotthard’s Pass is truly a battle on many fronts, which is what makes it so riveting. Both sides employ various tactics via exploitation of many resources and their environment. The attention to detail that went into making the setting feel as much like 14th century Switzerland was always a strong point of the manga, and the display of siege/anti-siege tactics do well to continue that trend. From different types of traps (boiling oil, pits, soldiers poking blades through holes, etc), to Greek fire that isn’t put out by water, to even attempting to crawl up latrines, no possible option for success is left unexplored. It makes for an interesting exchange of one-upmanship for both sides. Another pleasant surprise was how the most important characters aren’t given ungodly amounts of strength. Sure there are few characters that can take on more than one foe at a time, but this is a manga that won’t let the reader assume that they can’t be cut down at any given moment. Another thing is how armored soldiers are at an advantage against anyone who isn’t fully clad in a one-on-one duel, regardless of whatever skill the un-armored combatants bring to the table. What that means is that there will be no slicing through breastplates and chain mail as if they’re made of wet tea biscuits here. After nearly ten chapters of violence, this arc reaches a decisive conclusion during the sixth volume. Although the series has not completed its run, there is already enough payoff for the series to end and leave the rest to history. Right now it seems the manga is on hiatus, as the author is probably back to working with Miura to continue delivering his ongoing epic.  A trade off I can’t say I’m bothered by.

From what these 6 volumes have to offer, Wolfsmund isn’t likely going to be anyone’s new favorite manga. While certainly a good and fun read, Wolfsmund simply does not have enough to offer in terms of layered character writing. There certainly was potential for just that in this setting, and with these characters. If more time early on was spent on fleshing out the main players of the rebellion a bit more then, that could have worked wonders for me in terms of emotional investment (at the expense of maybe a couple of chapters of people being trolled at the barrier station). The only character whose fate I cared for at all was Wolfram, and as effective of a moustache-twirler I found him to be, he is still entirely one-note. I was also somewhat annoyed to see how one character in particular who seemed rather interesting in the 1st volume was offed in the 2nd, when I felt that said character could have offered more to the story than was allowed. If an anime for this is ever green-lit, then certainly hope these concerns of mine are done away with.

Still, what we have here is a short yet overall satisfying experience that has enough to stand out amongst titles that share in its genre, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the top.

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