The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Vinland Saga ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
The source manga for this series is one that I was long interested in but could never find the time for. Based on the first three episodes (which were dumped out all at once by Amazon Prime), I won't be making that same mistake with the anime adaptation. This has the very real potential to be a breakthrough hit.
Some of the credit for that definitely belongs to the animation job turned in by Wit Studio and director Shūhei Yabuta, whose previous directorial effort was the underappreciated Inuyashiki. The use of thick lines somehow seems appropriate for this story, and the sharp coloring, quality backgrounds, and distinctive but also realistic character designs all support a strong animation effort. The visual highlight is opening sea battle scene, where Yabuta's extensive experience as a 3DCG specialist shows in the 3D modeling of the bloody, intensely graphic warfare, but the animation effort in general takes few shortcuts. The overall visual style is probably most reminiscent of the later seasons of Attack on Titan.
The premise and story follow-through here are fairly standard ones: a man who is a renowned warrior one day decides that he's tired of the battlefield and so deserts from his elite unit under the premise of having died in the fight. In a village on the edge of civilization he tries to live a peaceful life and raise a family, but he cannot dodge his past connections forever. The problem is that his young son has such an adventuresome spirit that he stows away when his father has to go back to war, and a few village lads who have gotten hyped up on going to war, but don't really know what they're getting into, are also tagging along. That's bad since a former associate has put out a hit on the man, and that confrontation is starting as episode 3 ends. It's my understanding that the true protagonist of the story is actually the son (which is supported by the opener's visuals), so I'm assuming that this is ultimately going to be a “taking revenge for father” situation. The twist is that a distant land only known about due to the tales of one intrepid explorer also factors into the story.
What helps set the story apart is that it is at least partly grounded in actual history. Leif Erikson's discovery of Vinland is well-known, but details he spins here about living in Greenland and once being in good with a Norwegian king are also factual, as are the reasons told here for why Greenland and Iceland were settled in the first place. The massacre shown at the beginning of episode 2 is also an actual historical event: the St. Brice's Day Massacre on November 13, 1002. (What the anime doesn't mention here is that the Danes had given the English plenty of provocation for such an attack.) King Sweyn going to war over this is also factual, though the story does call into question (as historians do) how much Sweyn was actually motivated by supposedly losing a sister and brother-in-law in the attack; that he was out for profit was probably an at least equal motivator.
So far the story is setting up beautifully well. Episodes 2 and 3 are slower, but every indication points towards things not staying that way. Overall, this is one of the most promising debuts so far this season.
Vinland Saga is giving itself a bit of an unfair advantage by jumping into the season with a three-episode premiere, but my score would have been more or less the same if it had started with episode one on its own. This series has all the markings of an intense and gripping story, where character's actions have real consequences. Across these three episodes, there are moments of tension that seemingly come out of nowhere, triggered by something as simple as two characters making eye contact. Vinland Saga presents us with a world where it's easy to get yourself killed, and those inherently high stakes make for exciting viewing in and out of the battle scenes.
The ever-present sense of danger is made all the more powerful by the fact that it hangs over a strong cast. There's a genuine parental bond between Thors and Thorfinn, with both characters straying far enough from their archetypes to feel like real people. For all of his battle-hardened wisdom, Thors isn't made to look invincible, and at times he seems painfully aware that things are starting to spiral out of his control. For his part, Thorfinn easily avoids the “annoying anime kid” pitfall, coming across as a child who's eager to grow up, even if he's not entirely sure why yet. I even like some of the villains, with both Floki and Askeladd coming across as competent adversaries. The revelation that they were both ready for their negotiations to turn violent, along with Askeladd's reasonable speculation as to why Floki hired him for the job, make these guys seem like more than just cannon fodder. I always like a good antagonist, even more so when they're pitted against heroes with some real depth to their personalities.
As a period piece, Vinland Saga also has a great sense of time and place. The isolated village in Iceland feels like exactly the kind of place Thors would go to escape his life as a soldier, and we're constantly reminded that life in this era is anything but easy. If Askeladd's trap for Thors is any indication, we can also look forward to some clever tactics and battles that are more complex than just two dudes swinging swords at one another. Despite all the gloom and doom, there's still some good humor to be found, which helps to temper the more serious parts of the story and further endear the characters to the audience. This is just a nicely written and directed show across the board.
It's also easy on the eyes, with art and animation that match or exceed this season's other heavy hitters while sticking to a style that feels faithful to the setting. The fight scenes have a weighty, consequential feel to them, and the sailing sequences are reasonably convincing as well. I was looking forward to this series coming into the season, and I'm happy to see that my hopes were well-placed. Put Vinland Saga up near the top of your to-watch list.
I'm always a sucker for a good historical-drama anime. For as much as I tend to prefer genre pieces that indulge in all of the sci-fi and fantasy themes I've always loved, every now and then it's nice to get down and dirty in a world of (relatively) grimy realism. Vinland Saga is the newest property that Studio Wit has decided to tackle, and it's obvious from the get-go why director Shūhei Yabuta and the Wit crew would find the material so appealing. The first episode's opening naval alone brawl provides the exact mix of grit, world-building, and flashy action that made Attack on Titan and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress so immediately engaging.
After that, though, Vinland Saga slows down quite a bit, and the rest of the first three episodes we got today take their time to properly introduce the world that Thors and his son Thorfinn are surviving in. It's the year 1002 in Iceland, and getting from day today requires work and dedication. Thors' daughter Ylna laments that they cannot buy a slave to make some of their work easier; young Thorfinn struggles to win the mock battles the village children hold, and a Wiley old man named Leif Erikson tells the villagers tales of a vast and bountiful continent he once discovered that he named Vinland (which history buffs will recognize as the northeast coast of North America). Even more than the admittedly impressive and bloody action that we only get a few brief glimpses of, these introductory episodes do an excellent job of getting us invested in these characters and the trials that await them.
Thors makes for a great heroic figure, and he's contrasted excellently by his more impetuous son. When a rival leader from across the water comes hunting for a slave that Thors and Ylna have saved, Thorfinn is filled with the desire to become stronger, so he can one day kill such enemies. Thors, who escaped the life of a warrior after the battle that opened the episode, simply wants to make a trade for the dying man. Ylna doesn't understand, and Thorfinn only becomes more driven to the life of a warrior when old comrades of his dad's come a knocking, but Thors' actions speak volumes, even when his words sometimes fail him. No man deserves to die in bondage, and no boy should grow up believing that one life is worth more than another.
There's an air of subdued dread that hangs over Thors' head, and it grows ever darker as he and his fellow villagers are pushed back onto the battlefield by the conniving Floki, especially when Thorfinn stows away on the soldiers' ship. Even without all of the foreshadowing in the show's opening credits, its obvious that Thorfinn is heading down the same path that led to Thors becoming a killer, and I was so happy to find myself as invested as I was in what might become of this son and his father. Even without the action scenes and the cool historical setting, this story would still strike a chord because of how confidently executed it is. My biggest complaint is hardly a complaint at all: Episode 3 ends on such a cliffhanger that I couldn't help but be frustrated, because the show was so good that I didn't want it to end. The summer got off to a Slow Start for me, but Fire Force and now Vinland Saga having hit the ground running, we've finally got a solid lineup of must-watch shows coming together. It's just a shame we'll have to wait another three weeks to get our hands on the next episode.
Former soldier and “hero” Thors is very deliberate in how he refers to his past profession. “I used to earn my living my killing people,” he at one point declares; and when his son Thorfinn goes snooping for his old weapons, Thors chastises him with the blunt “a sword is a tool for killing. Who were you planning to kill with this?” While the young men of Thors' village cheer for his return to battle, and dream of joining him and proving their own manhood, Thors secretly plans to send all of his starry-eyed supporters home. War is no place for glory, and killing is not the measure of a man. Soldiers are not “true men” - they are simply killers, the same as any other.
Vinland Saga was one of my most highly anticipated anime coming into the summer season, due to the profound excellence of its source material, the strength of its adaptation team, and perhaps most importantly, my affinity for the worldview of its author, Makoto Yukimura. Yukimura is a humanist, a realist, and a student of history, and both Vinland Saga and his similarly searing Planetes paint stark, vivid portraits of human nature and human enterprise.
Planetes is a story about how mankind's efforts to conquer space will ultimately end up solidifying the injustices of modern capitalism - how the rich first world nations will devour space's resources, letting the consequences of that ambition fall on the everyday workers and nations with no international voice. Its characters dream of being the winners in an allegedly meritocratic system, but instead suffer the consequences of being bound to their assigned stations. While Planetes illustrates the inevitable endpoint of unchained capitalism, Vinland Saga looks backwards, reflecting on how very different times motivated a similarly passionate youthful population to self-destructive action, ultimately consuming them as grist for a great and terrible machine.
Children playing with toy swords are contrasted against bloody, senseless slaughters, the childhood fantasy and grim truth framed as a tragic cycle of human nature. Thors dreams of escape, a land free of slaves and wars, but his Vinland might be a fantasy of its own. Even in Iceland, the land he fled to in order to escape his bloody past, society is defined by chain-bearers; men like the brutal Halfdan, who claims that “the only way to make a heretic a human is to bind him with the law.”
I was somewhat worried that Vinland Saga's adaptation would drain the thematic bite from this material. Helmed by Attack on Titan's 3D action director and adapted by much of that production's same team, I feared the anime would run the risk of making its battles simply “awesome,” as opposed to the ugly, pointless affairs they truly are. Vinland Saga's first scene only amplified my fears, as it exemplified both that concern and my greatest production-related concern - that the focus on 2D and 3D integration would undercut the show's art design, and leave many of its greatest setpieces looking flat and artificial. That first fight is quite impressive in a technical and choreography sense, but it ultimately left me with a variety of misgivings leading into the show proper.
I needn't have worried. No amount of fantastical fight choreography could diminish the poignant philosophy of this story, or the righteous anger it directs towards the arbitrators of mankind's cruelty to mankind. The simple, peaceful life Thors has earned is illustrated through beautiful backgrounds and copious character acting, his quiet love of his family clear in their every interaction. The evocative soundtrack does a phenomenal job of building tension all through these first three episodes, as the clear disconnect in the attitudes of Thors and his young supporters creates a natural sense of escalating dread. And whenever violence once again rears its head, it is a sudden and terrible thing - Halfdan maiming his own supporter to make a petty and superficial point, creeping soldiers murdering their enemies as they bathe in a stream, a priest begging for mercy as soldiers act like the killers they are. The only beautiful things here stand far from the horrors of war; the moment the sun rises over Thors' village, or the tale of a kinder land he relates to a dying slave.
Vinland Saga's original manga is a masterwork from one of the medium's true greats, and quite likely the strongest source material of any show this season. Vinland Saga's adaptation is somewhat hampered by less-than-ideal CG, but otherwise a faithful and beautiful retelling of its original story. There are stories that show the best of us and stories that show the worst of us, and there are also stories like Vinland Saga, that unflinchingly depict the horrors of human nature, yet still believe there is a better land beyond the horizon. I urge you to watch this very special show.
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