OP: 「MUKANJYO」 by (Survive Said The Prophet)
“Somewhere Not Here/Sword/Troll”
Zaiden and I are going to be providing tag team coverage of Vinland Saga for the next two cours. Z2 will offer the manga reader’s take, and I the pure-as-the-driven-snow new viewer’s take. Longtime RC readers will remember that RC has done this a couple of times before – for example, Z1 (Zephry) and I with Jormungand (which was ironically mentioned during Thorfinn’s dream in this premiere). When I covered that series, I was but the manga reader; now I’m the anime only watcher. Without further ado, let’s get started!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
I have so much I want to say after this truly astounding premiere of Vinland Saga. But the first thing I have to say it that I have to face the reality of a triple-episode release on a work night – I would like to give this premiere the exhaustive analysis that it deserves, and normally for a triple episode I’d do a very long post. But life is life, and mine doesn’t have a pause button. It’ll still be a long one, but not as long as it really should be. The short answer is – wow.
I think another topic that should briefly be touched on is the decision to release three episodes at once. I mean, if the intention was to get the audience hooked in, well – it damn well worked in my case. But I think that would have been almost as true with a single episode, and as much as I loved having a movie length serving of anime this stupendously good, I worry about having a three-week break right after the start of the series. I don’t think they’ll lose the audience, but a hiatus right after the launch strikes me as a legit concern.
Setting that matter aside, in terms of content itself, this was – as I said – stupendously good. No question Vinland Saga was seriously hyped in my mind (and not just mine, given that it won the LiA preview poll and leads the Random Curiosity one), but this is that rare case of a hyped anime that blows the hype out of the water. Yes, it’s probably an unfair advantage to have three episodes to compare against shows that only had one, but this was as good a premiere as I’ve seen for a very long time. I haven’t read Yukimura Makoto’s manga and I suppose manga readers might find something to complain about (as incomprehensible as that seems to me) but from a new viewer perspective, this was a virtuoso performance.
I’ll tackle the production side of things first. I was a bit worried that director Yabuta Shuuhei has done so much of his work in CGI, but he’s also helmed some excellent shows (like Inuyashiki). Those worries were unfounded – the direction is masterful here, and while there’s certainly some CGI (this is a military epic after all) it’s judiciously applied and surrounded by gorgeous hand-drawn animation and art design. I’d also single out Yamada Yutaka’s very cinematic mostly-piano soundtrack, which is among the best of the year. The cast is uniformly excellent, and overall Vinland Saga just looks and sounds like a first-class affair.
None of that would matter (well, it would matter, but not nearly as much) if the story weren’t up on the same level. But wow, the writing here is pretty amazeballs. A beautifully set up historical premise, a layered and sophisticated story with both scope and intimacy, and a cast of fascinating and well-defined (with alarming speed) characters. Vinland Saga is one of those series where even though the story is clearly a big one with many details as yet unrevealed, you feel as if you know what’s happening right from the start. You get a sense of who these people are and why, and an absorptive feeling of the world in which they live. This is some very eloquent and intelligent writing, to say the least.
We tend to hear “Vikings” and just lump them all in one big group of hairy, bearded Norsemen raping and pillaging their way across Northern Europe. I knew there was more to the story than that, but Vinland really does let us in on the multiple layers involved. Norway under the cruel tyrant King Harald (850-932), Iceland and Greenland peopled by those who fled their home rather than live under his tyranny, Denmark in perpetual war with the English. And looming far across the sea, “Vinland” – the American continent which yes, Leif Erickson did “discover” five centuries before Columbus and Cabot.
There are characters too numerous to mention given my time constraints who already make a big impression in this premiere, but the main character is young Thorfinn (Ishigami Shizuka), the 6-year old son of Thors (Matsuda Kenichirou). Thors is the de facto head of the remote village in Iceland where most of the premiere is set, and in truth, at this point in the story he’s the protagonist. And what a memorable one he is, too – a complex and troubled man with a dark past which has followed him to this distant place. You could sell me on Thors being the main character of an entire series and I’ll be ecstatic at the prospect, but it’s clear that Vinland Saga is destined to be Thorfinn’s saga (and he’s great too, so no complaints from me).
Another crucial character here is the aforementioned Leif Erickson (Ueda Youji). As we meet him he’s already an old man by the standards of the time, viewed with affection but a little condescension by the village brats who half believe his stories of the new world are fairy tales. Leif comes across here as a man whose time has passed, yet remains formidable – an explorer at heart in a society of warriors. This is a theme we see repeating itself already, as Thors is likewise a misfit – he hates war and slavery with equal measure, though the youngsters (not least his own son) have a romanticized view of war Thors knows is a cruel lie. Thors’ wife Helga (Takahashi Ao) is quiet and frail but nevertheless strong, and teenage daughter Ylva (Nabatame Hitomi) is already a hard and tough young woman with a crowd of potential suitors.
There are so many wonderful moments in these three episodes that I wish I could talk about them all in detail. The sequence with the runaway slave who Thors briefly saves and buys from his cruel master at the huge price of eight ewes – despite knowing the man was dying – is heartbreaking and incredibly revealing about Thors. But the meat of the story here is Thors’ past, which finally finds him after 15 years of peace. He was a captain of the Jomsvikings – a powerful viking mercenary army of the time legendary for their prowess in battle. He grew to hate war (starting with the birth of his daughter) and seized the opportunity to fake his own death in battle and flee into obscurity.
I think the essence of Thors comes when he tells Thorfinn “There are no enemies. There’s no one it’s OK to hurt.” The cruel part of this is that Thorfinn, small as he is and though he loves his father, is already enamored with the Viking ideal of winning glory (and dying) in battle, and going to Valhalla. We can see the path Thorfinn will follow, and so can Thors. When Thors’ old comrade Floki (Ono Atsushi) shows up in a warship and tells Thors’ that the Jomsvikings have signed on to support the Danes in their coming war with the English, it’s clear this is not an invitation but a threat. And indeed, Floki has hired a mercenary named Askeladd (Uchida Naoya) to assassinate Thors – something he appears to have done in defiance of his commander (Helga’s father) out of a personal grudge for Thors’ act of desertion.
There’s a strong sense of tragedy to all this. Thors’ intention is to leave the young men of the village who’ve naively followed him (and Leif) behind in Norway, safe from battle, but the group is ambushed by Askeladd’s mercenaries in the Faroe Islands. Worse, Thorfinn has stowed away and is now in harm’s way too. Even here Thors refuses for the moment to kill in battle, but with the life of the young men and his own son on the line, one suspects he may have to choose to kill or die (and in fact, both may happen). And Thorfinn may get his taste of blood here too, setting him down a path that Thors would have given anything to steer him away from. This was a cruel and violent time, and a cold and brutal place, and while nobility is always to be admired, it probably never had much a chance against enemies this strong.
Truly, that was a wonderful introduction to this series. It delivered on every level – smart, emotionally powerful, sweeping and personal in equal measure. Vinland Saga is the sort of show that shines like a beacon in the creatively dark tunnel in which anime currently exists, a reminder that there are still incredible stories out there to be told, and committed and talented people to tell them. Three weeks is going to feel like a very long time.
This post was delayed and my take will be short because I’m still on vacation in the Netherlands. Also Enzo’s covered most of what could be said, and you might feel a bit too full to digest my words. Nevertheless, I’ll try covering new ground by offering my own unique take as a manga reader when compared with Enzo. Vinland Saga is one of my Top 5 manga, which should tell you about how excited (and scared) I was at the prospects of it receiving an anime adaptation. As one of those source material folks, I’ll hop on the wagon and profess that Wit’s adaptation has mesmerised me so far. This is everything I could ever have wanted from a manga to anime adaptation. Both the substantive story and the unique art style have been faithfully brought to life in true form, and I find the slight alterations to be beneficial.
They’ve opted for chronological order (which I actually preferred), starting from when Thorfinn was a very young boy, whereas the manga began with teenage Thorfinn. And this means we go back to a time where Thorfinn still lived with his family, allowing us to witness the influence that his father Thors had upon him. First off, Wit explicitly showed anime original snippets of Thors’ past ventures, giving us much needed context behind why he became such a pacifist. In the manga, Thors days as a warrior were mostly given lip service in passing conversation between characters, so I was delighted to see his combative prowess from the past realised on the screen. These were beautifully animated, with the choreography and music to match. And this quality persisted throughout all three episodes too, demonstrating the consistency and impeccable talents of Studio Wit. I must also commend that for once, I didn’t feel put off by the use of 3D CG, which remained subtle in a way that augmented my own experience.
As for the story, it mainly focused on Thors. We have Thors laid out heart and soul, as this man wrestling with his bloody past alongside a desire to atone. He will happily make steep concessions like exchanging 8 ewes if it means being able to save someone – even if they’re destined to die either way. While some characters might look down on how he fled from war and became this soft and pacifistic family man, which would be pretty expected given the context of that time period, modern viewers can look upon him as being an individual similar to Muhammad Ali — one of the greatest sportsmen of all time who made one of the biggest sacrifices for his own beliefs. Despite being backed into a desperate corner when their escape got cut off by hostile enemies or when Halfdan marched into the village with his men, he’s attempted to stay true with his own beliefs by non-lethally incapacitating the ambushers or patiently negotiating with an unreasonable slavemaster. There’s an evident strength of conviction that I find admirable, and I also encourage the viewers to see the dignified majesty in Thors’ bearing. It’s easy to see why he’s so well loved and respected by the fellow villagers in Iceland.
Many other major characters who will drive the series for episodes to come have already been introduced. As a consumer of fiction who highly values personalities and characterisation, this pleases me to no end because they’re all so varied and fascinating. Throughout the rest of the series, we will see the different ways in which Thors and his philosophy are perceived and interpreted by three different characters – Floki, Askeladd and Thorfinn. A triumvirate of sorts. Though I don’t want to spoil anything and while I wouldn’t describe it as an obvious theme, it will be very much alive and present throughout the story, and I will seek to continually explore it as the series goes on.
Zaiden’s Concluding Thoughts
We end on a cliffhanger, figuratively and literally. The rag tag Icelandic entourage has been waylaid by a group of experienced and ruthless mercenaries. Can Thors singlehandedly prevail over Askeladd and his band of merry men? To be honest, I expected the first three episodes to just about cover the events just past this point. But I suppose this three week wait makes it all the more excruciating for anime only watchers, while manga readers know we’ve hit the highest point just before a rollercoaster is about to plunge. What can I say? This adaptation has managed to deliver in such a way that I suppose Berserk is crying over there in the corner, at the stark difference and unfairness in their respective treatments. But hey, I most certainly won’t be complaining since they haven’t bungled it up and I’m extremely excited to see how the rest of this adaptation will play out. Though the three week wait for Episode 4 won’t be easy at all. As always, thanks for reading this post. Hopefully me and Enzo haven’t overdone it here and if you have any suggestions or feedback about the format, let it be known in the comment section below.
ED: 「Torches」 by (Aimer)