「目覚め」 ( Transcription: “Mezame” (Japanese: 目覚め) )
To use an expression I’m perhaps overfond of, Vinland Saga is out where the buses don’t run. It operates on a level that’s simply different from almost any other anime. It’s not a question of better (though it certainly is for my taste), it’s just that nobody else tries the stuff this series does. Golden Kamuy at times, though it comes at its peak moments from a very different angle. Hunter X Hunter at its most psychologically intense. Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu. There are others I’m not mentioning, but it’s a pretty damn short list.
It’s funny, but I was getting definite Askeladd vibes from Snake during the opening scene this week (maybe because a bastard that magnificent is sorely missed). There was just something in those eyes, that expression – and it’s funny because at that very moment Thorfinn saw the same thing and went into full berserker mode. Snake was testing him of course, having sized Thorfinn up and quickly determined that wasn’t a mass-produced model. I’m sure Snake learned exactly what he wanted to out of that exchange, and filed it securely away for future reference.
There are a lot of interesting repercussions from this fracas, both immediate and theoretical. Snake makes it pretty clear that if Fox and Badger try and take some revenge, there will be serious hell to pay (and he doesn’t seem the type you want to disobey). If I were in his shoes I’d want someone like Thorfinn fighting for me, though I don’t know of Snake will go in that direction. Snake’s provocation certainly planted a seed of doubt in Thorfinn’s mind about whether he’s as fine with dying as he thought. When faced with a foe worthy of his respect (and Thorfinn can spot the difference at this point), his instincts took over and he reacted.
Most obviously, the cat is out of the bag now about Thorfinn – at least in the general sense. Snake and all his men know, Olmar knows (and that means Ketil too, soon enough). Most importantly Einar knows, and for all that he seems a simple man in many ways, Einar is nobody’s fool. I think Einar is still in shock for a good while after the incident. As Thorfinn’s injuries are being treated by the kindly Pater (Yanaka Hiroshi), Einar is still railing about the injustice of it all. And when Pater offers Thorfinn one of his old shirts to replace the one shredded by Fox, Einar admonishes him for not saying thank you. Thorfinn has a good excuse for his poorly developed social skills, but Einar doesn’t know that yet.
Eventually Einar’s mind goes where it was always going to go sooner or later. He asks Thorfinn loaded questions – have you see war? Have you killed, and – at “yes” – how many? Thorfinn doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, and doing so would have been completely out of character. Thorfinn understands where this line of questioning is headed and pre-empts it by telling Einar flat-out that he’s “no different” from the men who destroyed his village twice and murdered his family. It would be wrong to say that Thorfinn is at peace with that, but he certainly has no illusions about it. He asks Einar “do you hate me now?” – to which we do not hear an answer, but the question itself implies that Thorfinn cares about that answer.
That whole final scene (in my mind it will forever be the “cricket scene”) was one for the books – truly exceptional even by Vinland standards. Starting with that cricket, and the way the metaphor played out in the present and in Thorfinn’s nightmares. Einar and Thorfinn are each wrestling with demons as this plays out, one awake and the other asleep. In my view no one can possibly begrudge Einar the rage he’s feeling here (and Thorfinn certainly wouldn’t). This moment is a crucible for his character, no question.
To me there’s room for interpretation about what actually happened here (and it was different from how it played out in the manga). Watching it in real-time my instant reaction was that I didn’t want Einar to try and strangle Thorfinn, because that didn’t feel right for his character. The question then is, did he? My reaction in the moment – and on second viewing – is that Einar is not strangling Thorfinn, but struggling with himself. He wants to, but he also knows how pointless it would be, and the “violence” here is the magnitude of the turmoil Einar is feeling. Most viewers seem to have a different take. I believe they’re wrong, but I’m not sure we’ll ever know with certainty what Yabuta really intended here.
What really sells this scene for me, anyway, is what happens after Thorfinn wakes up (without any telltale bruises on his neck, and Einar is a very big and strong man). Einar shows his true mettle here, boiling this down to the same point I referenced last week – Thorfinn was way out of line saying nothing good had ever happened to him. Einar knows it, and he doesn’t even know as much as we do. It’s a petulant, ungrateful attitude for Thorfinn to take. Maybe he doesn’t have to always be looking for some reason why he should go on living – that he’s lucky enough to be able to is reason enough to seize the moment. When Thorfinn is lost in nightmares, it’s Einar who pulls him out of them. That’s what finally draws an expression of gratitude out of Thorfinn – and well it should.
It appears as if this initial four-episode run may amount to the prologue of Season 2, much as Yabuta structured the first season. Next week the camera will shift and several old friends (and enemies) will return – Canute, Thorkell, even Floki. I have pretty much total faith in wherever Yukimura and Yabuta choose to take this story – around every corner have always been new dramatic marvels to savor, and I see no reason to expect that to change. Vinland Saga may not be in a class by itself, but it sure doesn’t take long to call the roll.
I think this is the first time that someone just saying “thank you” in an anime has ever brought me to tears. I don’t find Vinland Saga an easy watch but scenes like that make it absolutely unmissable.