Nearly a month into the new decade, many of us may have already cast aside the anime of yesteryear in favour of newer, shinier, easy breezier things. A group of AniTAY’s finest, however, wanted to take a look back at one of 2019's best anime: Vinland Saga. Axes will fly, beards will grow, and despair runs rampant amidst the Vikings conflicts that call the show home. DoctorKev, Ishamael, Requiem, myself, and one of AniTAY’s newest writers, Arcane, present our thoughts, feelings, and musings on Vinland Saga. Enjoy!
Note: We do not shy away from spoilers in this review, so tread carefully if you have not yet watched Vinland Saga (which you really should). You have been warned!
In my initial write-up for Vinland Saga on my personal blog, I pointed out how baffling it was to me that Amazon had yet again picked up a high-profile show and immediately buried it, despite the fact that this one was well-timed to be marketed as a Game of Thrones replacement for that show’s still-disgruntled fans of the recently, terribly-ended long runner. As I watched, though, I began to realize just how apt that comparison was. Being an epic, multi-part story that regularly kills off characters, not to mention the fact that this entire first season was merely the prologue to the story that follows it (figuratively in GoT’s case but literally here), Vinland Saga more than fills the niche that HBO left behind.
It grips you instantly with an utterly jaw-dropping opening fight scene that tracks Thors as he jumps across boats and viciously slays everybody in his path, and it’s all so fluidly animated that you may not realize you’re watching CG until it’s over. (If you didn’t know this was made by the Attack on Titan studio, that right there should give it away.) While we transition into an incredibly slow-burning plot from there, make no mistake: there is a highly engaging story here that very deliberately takes its time to play out over a long period of time in-universe, and luckily while you’re waiting for the payoff you get even more well-directed, brutal fight scenes, much like Amazon’s other wasted pickup from last year, Dororo. The characters are all deeply developed (shout out to my Anime Awards Best Villain pick Askeladd here) and the show is full of historical nods to the way these events really happened.
It’s very hard to talk in-depth about Vinland Saga without spoiling it, particularly going into the final episode, which absolutely reminded me of “Fire and Blood”, the first season finale of GoT in its execution and plot development, though the only real strike I have to mark against Vinland Saga is the decision to take this entire first season to adapt the Prologue Arc of the manga without being guaranteed a followup. As it stands, though, it’s still a thrilling-yet-thoughtful take on a brutal part of human history.
TL;DR: Did you like Game of Thrones? Vikings? Need something to fill that hole in your life? Give this a try. It’s on a service you already have!
Episode 24 of Vinland Saga concludes with the words “End of the Prologue.” For a story whose apparent primary character spends much of the runtime absent from the main action, I can forgive this. Vinland Saga is based on a multi-volume, long-running historical epic manga that covers decades in the life of a fictionalised version of Thorfinn Karlsefni, son of legendary viking warrior Thors Snorresson. Thorfinn is an angry young man who witnessed his father’s brutal death at the hands of the magnificent bastard Askeladd. Dedicating his life to the pursuit of vengeance against his father’s killer, Thorfinn joins Askeladd’s men during the Danish invasion of England circa the year 1000AD. Featuring other historical figures like Thorkell the Tall and Prince (eventually to become King) Canute, Vinland Saga is a mostly convincing portrayal of medieval European life - cold, short and violent.
I pity Thorfinn’s voice actor who doesn’t get a lot of work to do other than the occasional wordless scream of rage or frustration. Wily schemer Askeladd drives the lion’s share of the plot, and he becomes a complex, sympathetic character despite his frequently despicable actions. Man-mountain Thorkell is improbably huge and the closest thing in this grim show to comedic relief - a clown who can tear men in two with his bare hands. Future King Canute is the most problematic character - a feminine, soft-featured boy with long blond hair, he is often mistaken for a girl. Only after a certain point in the plot does his personality make a complete 180-degree-turn and it is too swift to be believable.
Animated by Wit Studio of Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress fame, this is a generally propulsive adaptation, barring a slow portion in the middle of the series. It never looks anything less than good and the action sequences are animated breathlessly. I get Berserk vibes from Thorfinn and Canute who remind me of Guts and Griffith, respectively, though there’s no fantasy here - this is a straight-laced historical epic and I hope that Wit Studio continues to produce it for years to come.
TL;DR: Compelling and violent with complex, multifaceted characters, Vinland Saga is the best historical anime I’ve seen in years. If you like live-action shows like Vikings, give this a try.
Vinland Saga has a serious pair of balls on it.
We have heard fans say “this is just a prologue, you have seen nothing yet” for various anime before. Sometimes, they are even right. However, it is almost always in defence of an anime from, oftentimes, fair criticisms. Namely, criticism that a series “never really went anywhere.” So when Vinland Saga finished its inaugural season with such a claim, I was floored to see it said so blatantly — the sheer gall of this anime!
What made it even more exciting and jaw-dropping is the idea that this first season is not even the main event. This was just a prologue; bigger, grander things are to come. Vinland Saga is already an epic in every sense of the word, making it hard to believe (and very exciting) that we are just now entering the main narrative. While that word has been thrown around rather haphazardly lately (including by yours truly), Vinland Saga owns it in every possible way. It truly does live up to its reputation.
Manga readers touted this as something special, and I have to agree. We have seen some great manga adaptations in the past, even some stand-out historical fiction - Golden Kamuy comes to mind. However, Vinland Saga stands above them all. The entire world feels real, partially because it is inspired by history, partially because the characters that populate it are so vibrant.
What is strange regarding the main cast is that its lead, Thorfinn, is far from the most compelling. Normally this would be a strike against a series, but here it allows the supporting cast both good (or what passes for “good”) and not-so-good alike to shine. This is most notable in our own AniTAY’s favourite male character, Askeladd, who is as close to a prototypical Magnificent Bastard as the trope allows. Without spoilers, I will say I much prefer Askeladd to pretty much everyone else in the series.
On top of all this, Wit Studio, brings their A-game to the series with an adaptation that surpasses even Attack on Titan. While being hidden behind Amazon’s paywall has likely limited the series’ reach as opposed to Attack on Titan, the series certainly deserves to stand next to its more famous sibling. Vinland Saga is undoubtedly worthy of praise and your attention.
TL;DR: Askeladd you magnificent bastard! I read your manga!
Vinland Saga is an uncomfortable masterpiece.
It presents a world of vicious brutality where bad things happen pretty much all the time. The trauma that our ostensibly ‘main’ character Thorfinn goes through leaves psychological scars so severe they’re almost visible. My wife, after witnessing a couple of episodes, henceforth referred to the series only as “that awful misery show.” It is very difficult to make a show that’s this hard on its characters and this vicious overall work as something you want to keep watching.
But Vinland Saga does it.
It does so with masterful, intentional storytelling. One of the narrative’s strongest points is the attention to detail, its willingness to take time to tell the story right. Take the foundation of Thorfinn’s backstory: the death of his father, Thors (lot of Thor names back then. Viking age equivalent of Jayden/Kayden/Brayden). Where a lot of shows would’ve relegated this to a flashback, or one or two establishing episodes, Vinland takes a full four episodes to tell the story in full detail. In doing this, Vinland makes you care about Thors, which gives his subsequent death impact and leads you to empathize with Thorfinn, understanding the pain that drives him. The show also has a couple of one-off episodes - particularly one with a family that temporarily adopts Thorfinn, only for that not to really work out - that feature characters we’ll never see again (usually cause they’re, y’know, dead) but remain examples of excellent storytelling.
Of course, the true star of the show is Askeladd, a true example of a Magnificent Bastard if there ever was one. You should hate Askeladd, God knows his actions would warrant it. Watching him execute a village of innocent peasants, not out of hatred or religious belief or even sadistic pleasure but strictly for cold pragmatism is one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever witnessed in an anime. But you don’t hate him, because the show won’t let you. Askeladd is among the most complex, layered, and charismatic characters in recent memory, and it’s his relationships with the show’s characters that drive the plot. His finale, if we call it that, was spectacular, fitting, and very powerful. Oh, and of course there’s Thorkell, who’s awesome as hell and is very likely the only character who’s actually enjoying himself. He just wants to drink mead and kill dudes, and you have to respect it.
I would be remiss if I failed to applaud the excellent animation, particularly during fight scenes where the direction does an admirable job conveying the chaos of battle without disorienting the viewer. It certainly never shies from the brutality, but it makes it beautiful, in a weird kind of way. Vinland is also gifted with a tremendous musical score, which is appropriately epic and emotional.
TL;DR: It’s not a series you’d want to put on if you need an emotional lift or pick-me-up, but Vinland Saga is a masterclass of narrative skill and a feast both auditory and visual. It’s an absolute must-see.
Vinland Saga is a series concerned with humanity, with how we define ourselves and how others define us. It pairs that concern with an affecting and intentionally complicated exploration of war at its most beautiful and most revolting. It focalizes these thoughts around two primary characters and their decades-long journey within and through that war and their own humanities. And it is phenomenal.
As much as Thorfinn is an engaging character, his development is mostly relegated to the first quarter and last few episodes of the series. Askeladd, on the other hand, is the real protagonist of Vinland Saga’s prologue and the series’ most engaging character. I have always been attracted to villain-types, to those characters that forgo traditional bounds of good and evil in favour of something morally grey, generally reprehensible, yet entirely empathetic and captivating. Vinland’s character writing is strong across the board, but it is Askeladd that carries the series through to the end of its prologue and beckons it towards the future. In the most assured moment in anime in 2019, Vinland Saga ends by both removing its most engaging character and asserting to the viewer that this is where things begin. In Askeladd’s sacrifice, the series attests to how we must bring about our own futures, highlighting the actions we take to embody our desires. It is the series’ continuously evolving reckoning with purpose and how we maintain our autonomy along the way that most resonated with me. It manifests in Thorfinn’s blind rage and single-minded determination, and it manifests in the decisions Askeladd makes that ultimately bring us out of the prologue and towards Vinland.
Vinland Saga’s major blemish, however, comes at the shaking hands of Canute and his too-sudden character shift. While the arc of his character makes sense if given the appropriate time, the truncated switch from fragile pacifist to stoic, hardened future-king views as relatively unbelievable and jarring. Though he is undoubtedly an integral character — and his relationship with Ragnar is touching — his development happens too fast and too conveniently when compared to Thorfinn, Askeladd, and even Thorkell’s glacial yet consistent growth. For a series so delicate with its portrayal of how we grow and what begets that growth, Canute’s sudden change is both disappointing and reminiscent of shows in which fully evil characters come to the heroes’ side through one passionate conversation. It is unrealistic in a series grounded in realism, and the one imperfection on an otherwise perfect production.
In its final moments, Vinland Saga stands at its outset. Though a second season remains unknown, the anime remains a compelling and honest exploration of the ways we survive and grow when we fall into the crucible of change. Augmented by engaging direction, beautiful art and animation, and a nearly impeccable cast of characters always already in the midst of revolution, Vinland Saga reminds us of the beauties and horrors of war, the constraints of purpose, and the freedom in manifesting one’s destiny.
TL;DR: Uncomfortable, brutal, and beautiful, Vinland Saga’s testament to purpose, sacrifice, and the costs of moving forward mark it as one of 2019’s best shows and one of the best anime of the decade.
Want to hear more about our thoughts on Vinland Saga and AniTAY’s favourite anime of 2019? Check out our AniTAY Awards and the accompanying podcast!
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