“A True Warrior”
Was this an incredible episode? Probably the best episode so far within the summer season. How do I rate the adaptation of this episode? Not to be a pessimist or manga elitist or anything of the like, but I felt that while the first three episodes were a masterful expression of the original work, the fourth episode fell quite a bit short of what I’d hoped it to be. Of course, this episode was still amazing. That is something I could never take away from it with the sheer amount of quality animation coming from Wit, to properly back up the outstanding narrative that Yukimura has painstakingly crafted. But maybe it’s the curse of a manga reader to perpetually struggle in finding satisfaction, because I was left wishing it had been more. I suppose there was no issue with how they approached the intriguingly complex mannerisms of Askeladd, as well as Thorfinn’s subsequent descent into darkness. Those were conveyed with much emotional gravitas. But it was always going to be difficult, perhaps impossible, bringing to life both the martial prowess and dignified regality of Thors the Troll.
Seriously, from my perspective and based off how the manga went about business, Studio Wit certainly could have established a more formidable imagery of Thors in the minds of anime viewers that wasn’t so limited, impressive as it may seem. In the manga, Thors had a much more menacing and calculating poker face in the manga, keeping his worries buried deep beneath the surface without leaking hints of desperation like he did in the anime. You could feel it edge into him on the screen, whereas flipping the pages, you could see a much more stoic man who possessed nerves of steel. In the manga, Bjorn went at Thors a second time after getting knocked down by that hefty uppercut, with Thors putting him down yet again in an even more emphatic fashion. This was left out for some reason. And what disappointed me the most was that they didn’t animate what I would have considered the most iconic spread from the chapter which best encapsulated Thors’ personal philosophy – an all in one frame that showed him tossing the sword away without any trace of hesitation or fear or anger, fully accepting the cruel outcome that fate had prepared for him without complaints. Instead, this was all we got. Which begs the question from me, why focus on a shining sword, when its wielder had a far brighter resolve? I wanted us all to see Thors face as he threw it away, not the sword itself, if people understand where I’m coming from.
Askeladd respected Thors not because he sacrificed his life for the sake of others, he would have viewed that as foolish. It was because he realised that Thors had transcended earthly desires that was so typical among vikings, and faced death as an equal with such a proud and dignified demeanour. Offering over the leadership of his mercenaries, on top of being genuine awe at Thors inspirational strength and attitude, was hope that he didn’t have to kill such a great men who he respected. In fact, despite having only met Thors for this very brief moment in which their lives intersected, I would actually say that Askeladd already had a better understanding of Thors than both Floki and Thorfinn (who’ve known Thors more closely for a much longer time), representing something of a middle ground when it comes to the polarising spectrums by which they perceive Thors. I felt like the anime could have done more to hammer this home, because while Thors’ superior combative skills definitely played an important role in gaining Askeladd’s respect, it was ultimately his maverick outlook that permeated through to the otherwise remorseless and roguish mercenary leader.
Thors is dead and will no longer appear in the flesh ever again. Yet the examination of his legacy, specifically the emotionally substantive core of his philosophy and how it influences the other major characters, will continue being fundamental to Vinland Saga. We’re already seeing it. Askeladd heavily brooding – whereas he didn’t even spare a moment of conscience for any blood shed or lives previously lost at the hands of his men. And Thorfinn spiralling into a bottomless pit of anger, hatred and revenge upon those who cowardly conspired to kill his father. Guilt too with heaps of self-blame, because his father might have prevailed over the odds and not have died so unfairly had he not been taken as hostage. This turn in belief and personality surely can’t be what his father had in mind for him, but it’s certainly a natural reaction that can’t be helped and it may take him that journey of a lifetime to overcome this trauma which understandably seems to be defining his very being — to eventually comprehend what his father truly meant in saying that a true warrior needs no sword. After all, Vinland Saga will be the story of Thorfinn, son of Thors, and how he struggles and strives to come to terms with the pacifistic legacy his father tried to leave behind, in light of his own burning desire for revenge.
Guardian Enzo’s Take
Sometimes, you know, you look for the words and they just don’t come easily. That’s what I feel like after this episode of Vinland Saga which, while it may have ended in a poetically predictable manner, executed the journey with a grace and dexterity you seldom see in anime or any other narrative art form. This series is very, very special, there’s no two ways about it. Nothing revolutionary or avante-garde – just brilliant traditional storytelling at its most breathtaking.
Given that we were looking at a three-week wait between Episodes 3 and 4, I did a staggered re-watch of the first three eps. Obviously because that layoff felt like forever, but also because I wanted to as closely as possible simulate the experience of going into this episode after a normal interval (like a starting pitcher doing side work when he has to skip a start on his regular rest). Honestly it wouldn’t have matted – as soon as #4 began I was immediately right back inside the story emotionally and intellectually, and would have been whether I’d rewatched the first three of not. The storytelling here is so articulate that it’s always crystal clear what’s happening at any given moment – and not having to scramble to keep up, your mind is free to grind on all the subtext (and there’s a ton of it).
In effect, this show is executed so eloquently that there’s not much left for me to do, really. I can gush of course – I’m good at that. And speculate. I’d heard over and over how the first part of the manga is – while still excellent – the weakest. I know some things were re-ordered for the anime but it’s hard to see how much better Vinland Saga can get, really. As I said last time I would gladly line up to watch any series with Thors as the protagonist – he’s an incredible man and an incredible character. But in some sense I think Yukimura Makoto intentionally embraced the much tougher task of writing a series with Thorfinn as the protagonist, because while Thors would have allowed him to deliver riveting drama, Thorfinn allows him to ask the questions he really wants to ask.
This was riveting, tense, exuberant and shocking from start to finish. Thors takes out an entire ship of Askeladd’s men – 28 in all, without killing a damn one of them (he even throws an oar to one man he knocks into the water). And that includes right-hand man Bjorn (Yasumoto Hiroki, not really that cool-headed here) who’s eaten a “berserker mushroom”. Yet all the time Thors is aware – and we are too – of the odds stacked against him. If he were alone he could take out as many men as Askeladd threw at him – he might need to resort to killing some, but he could do it. But he has two ships worth of farmers and green farmer’s sons – and one little boy – to protect.
No, this is only going to end one way, and I think it was Thors’ endgame all along even if he did try and miraculously avoid it. The challenge and the duel (which was a beautiful thing) was a desperation play, and Askeladd accepted because he knew he held all the cards either way. And because he’s too much of a badass himself to pass up the opportunity to feel the might of someone like Thors (as if there were anyone else) in battle. Even if Bjorn hadn’t roused himself and taken the dirty way out by holding Thorfinn hostage, Askeladd still wasn’t going to let Thors walk away with his ships and crews.
The funny thing, though, is that when Askeladd asked Thors to become the leader of his company, I feel absolutely certain he meant it (and his look when he realized that the answer would be what he knew it would proves it). The idea of serving under a man like Thors – to be in the presence of a warrior so strong and inspirational – was a once-in-a-lifetime shot for Askeladd, and he took it. A mercenary yes, but he’s neither a fool or a philistine. He knows greatness when he sees it and has the sensibility to want to be a part of it. But it was never meant to be, and he knew that.
Thors lived – and died – by the philosophy that came to govern his life after he fled the Jomsvikings. “A true warrior doesn’t need a sword” – these words confuse Thorfinn, naturally, and all the more as his heart is broken by the fundamental lack of justice in the world. What we see in Thorfinn is a boy who’s in the process of rejecting his father’s way and following his own. He’s always seen the way of the Vikings as the true path, and now that he’s seen his father struck down in cowardly fashion, his bloodlust has a firm and specific target.
Even if Thorfinn were to kill Askeladd in revenge for his father’s death (which it’s hard to imagine him doing as a six year-old, even if he did manage to stow away yet again and his sheer force of will commands their attention and Askeladd’s respect), his bloodlust isn’t going to be sated. But surely Thors’ words will forever be at the back of his son’s mind as he walks his own bloody path – a nagging presence he can never quite shake off, no matter how many men he kills and how many battles he wins, asking the difficult questions Yukimura wants to ask. And that struggle inside Thorfinn will, I suspect, be the spine of Vinland Saga through its entire narrative course.