OP: 「River」 by (Anonymouz)
If there were ever a sure thing in anime, it’s Vinland Saga. The manga is among the most highly-regarded of the last couple of decades, and the first season of the anime was a masterpiece. Not flawless – even most masterpieces aren’t – but thoroughly great. But that said, there was the fact that this season moved from Wit to MAPPA, and in truth any move away from Wit pretty much amounts to a downgrade unless it’s to Bones (which would never happen). As well, this arc of the manga – widely referred to as “Farmland Saga” by readers, sometimes derisively – can be divisive.
As such, there was at least some intrigue going into this premiere. And considering director Yabuta Shuuehi (who followed the series from Wit to MAPPA, thank goodness) has been teasing the sequel since before the first season ended, it’s been a long time coming. We do know that it will be 24 episodes, which gives it plenty of time to adapt this arc fully and even add some original material (we’ll return to that topic). That could be a split cour, but if so there’s no indication of it yet (which makes Spring look even more ludicrously busy).
If you follow mangaka Yukimura Makoto’s twitter (which you should as he tweets some good stuff, sometimes in English), you saw that this week he shared his editor’s original take on this saga – “Fist of the North Star plus Anne of Green Gables”. That’s a combination that really shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does. Yukimura is writing about the human condition here, in comprehensive terms. This is not a Viking war saga, even if it has Vikings and wars in it. What he does by tying these elements together is humanize the story in a way it never could be if it were just another action series about the beardy guys with funny helmets.
It might perhaps be a case of lucky timing, but there’s a symmetry in that both seasons of the anime start with a story about a slave. It’s also worth noting that in both cases the anime added a lot of original material – in the first instance to flesh out the backstory of Thors, and in this case that of the slave Einar (Takeuchi Shuunsuke, who continues to impress). Not only was this the right decision in both cases, the fact that it blends so seamlessly with the source material is a great credit to series writer Seko Hiroshi, one of the best in the business.
In effect, this plays out as if it were the premiere of a series in which Einar is the protagonist – the fact that we understand the context only makes it that much more effective. We get a taste of Einar’s life in the north of England with his mother (Shiota Tomoko) and sister (Touyama Nao), happily living on a smallholder farm. But we know the history, and we know what happened to peasants in the north of England a lot of the time in those days. Indeed, the family has already lost the father in a previous Viking raid, and while Einar “trains” in preparation for the inevitable next one, it’s obvious that he’s going to be no match for what’s coming for him.
The attack, when it comes, goes exactly as you’d expect – to wit (MAPPA?), how it almost always did. These are Thorfinn’s people, we can never forget, and utterly brutal and savage when it comes to conquest. The mother’s sentiments are nothing in the face of harsh reality, and neither is Einar’s determination to protect them. There were only two likely possibilities for people like Einar when the Vikings came – death or slavery. For his family it’s the former, for Einar the latter – starting with a sea voyage back to the Norse country that many captives did not survive (despite the Vikings best efforts to the contrary, for they were valuable property).
It’s not until Einar and his fellow slaves are taken to market that the story begins to return to the familiar. His escape attempt is fruitless and met with brutal reprisal – he’s a stranger in a strange land, with no home left to return to even if he could. There no reason for anyone in his position to hope for more than survival at the whims of a moderate master – that’s what it meant to be a slave in this time and place. But Einar’s luck begins to turn with the arrival of Leif Erickson, (still) searching for Thorfinn and falsely led to believe he was one of the slaves. Einar hears Thorfinn’s name, and thinks to himself how lucky Thorfinn is to have someone searching tirelessly for him (and he’s right). It’s the difference between the two of them – Thorfinn is still a person, and Einar is not.
Einar’s second bit of luck, seemingly, is to be bought by the (seemingly) kind Ketil (Tezuka Hideaki). Not only because Ketil appears to be a decent sort and is a farmer to boot (though that was hardly unlikely in this setting), but because Thorfinn resides at his farm (in some context that’s not yet clear). Einar remembers that name, clearly, and that’s going to alter the course of events in ways that aren’t clear but are certain to be significant. We don’t know in exactly what frame of mind we’ll find Thorfinn, but it seems very likely he’ll have much in common with Einar – two young men with the anchors of their lives gone forever, searching for a reason to keep living.
In sum, this is all simply great. My honest assessment is that the backgrounds and animation are not as gorgeous as Vinland Saga’s first season, but while that’s sort of a shame it was something I totally expected. Having Yabuta and Seko back is the main thing – even if they can’t completely hold the line on production values (Wit’s standard was impossibly high) they can shepherd Yukimura’s story exactly as he would want (and to be clear, the series still looks really good). In terms of depth, subtlety, and just general literary sophistication, Vinland Saga is just out where the buses don’t run. We don’t get anime like this often and when we do, we need to treasure it – to appreciate just how special it is and how lucky we are to have it. And to have it back…
ED: 「Without Love」 by (LMYK)