by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Vinland Saga ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Vinland Saga ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Vinland Saga ?
We begin the first episode of the summer season's most highly anticipated new series with the kind of impressive, bloody spectacle that Studio Wit has built its name on, but the sequence is little more than a whetting of the appetite, a promise to the audience that Vinland Saga will showcase the Viking action that many viewers have no doubt arrived expecting, even if it isn't at all what these first three episodes are actually about. Thors is undoubtedly a skilled warrior, but after the battle we see in the premiere's cold open, we're introduced to Thors's true passion: his family and his home.
Life in the year 1002 C.E. was easy for absolutely nobody, but it's difficult to imagine a more rugged and exhausting lifestyle than the one Thors and his kin have built, along with the rest of the people living in their small Icelandic village. To live is to work in these parts, whether that means farming, building, hunting, or simply scraping the ice off the roof of the house. Thors' daughter Ylva bemoans that the family doesn't own a slave, but Thors insists that they are above such cruelties. Thorfinn, Thors's young son, aspires to be a brawny man like his father, though he can barely make it past the opening blows of the mock-battles his friends hold out in the fields. Elsewhere, around a crackling fire, an old coot named Leif Erikson tells tales of the land he discovered across the sea years ago, where the harvest was bountiful, and the natives gave gifts of food and feathered headdresses. To the people of Iceland, this so-called “Vinland” is just a fantasy for the kids to dream about before they return to their duties. Then Ylva finds an actual slave, freezing to death in the snow outside her home, and that's where the trouble begins.
More than anything, Vinland Saga's greatest success in these first three episodes stems from how it uses Wit's signature textured style of animation to tell a slow-moving and human story of survival. Fans who are used to the more immediate spectacle of Attack on Titan or Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress might find this more measured approach to storytelling less engaging, but Vinland Saga doesn't present itself as a story about Vikings Doing Cool Viking Stuff In Battle. Thors is a father, a husband, and a man as much as he's a fighter, and none of what follows after that slave crawls onto his doorstep would have anywhere near the weight it should if the show dispensed with the world-building halfway through episode one so the hero could knock some heads around.
Instead, when a callous warlord named Halfdan comes to the island with a bevy of troops in search of his lost slave, Thors insists on buying the man instead. The slave is on death's door, insists Halfdan, and only a fool would trade half a dozen sheep for a corpse. Still, Thors strikes a bargain, and he makes sure to bury the poor slave when he does pass on just a few hours later. Ylva weeps at the fruitlessness of it all, and Thorfinn is struck by the wound to his father's pride and masculinity. However, Thors knows that freedom is worth even the heaviest price. In the following episodes, we learn that Thors realized this truth all too late in his life. For his clan, to leave the battlefield is worse than dying on it, so the only way for Thors to secure his family's freedom was to fake his own death and pray that his comrades never found him. Far too many anime these days make light of the institution of slavery, using characters' bondage as a ploy for cheap drama or titillation, so it's refreshing to have a series recognize the real weight that follows a world where a human being's life can be bought and sold on a whim.
But Thorfinn is more concerned with the “My father was a renowned warrior” part of the story, and after Thors old friend Floki comes along to conscript the former soldier back into the army, Thorfinn is only that much more driven to become a killer who will live up to his father's namesake. He only sees the surface of the story, the same dichotomy of glory and cowardice that makes all of the other village boys positively gleeful at the opportunity to sail out with Thors into battle. In one of the episodes' best scenes, Thorfinn goes digging for his fathers' old weapons, so he can show his rivals on the “battlefield” who's really the better soldier, and Thors makes a show of grabbing the knife out of his sons' hands by the blade. As his own blood drips to the ground, Thors does his best to impart some fatherly advice on to his son, who is much more like him than he wanted him to be: “A sword is a tool for killing enemies. You don't have any enemies. No one has any enemies. There's no one who it's okay to hurt.”
What makes these first three episodes of Vinland Saga so great is how they convey the suffocating weight of violence, despite featuring virtually none outside of that opening sequence. A bloody cloud hangs over Thors' head every single day, and someday it's bound to burst into thunder and lightning, washing away everything he's worked so hard to protect over the years. Vinland Saga understands the raw power of Thors' words to his son, even as it turns the gears of the plot that will ultimately make the man a killer once again. Floki tells Thors that if he and a small band of men do not join up under his old king's banner, then the village will be at the mercy of the army's blades. So of course, Thors goes off to fight, and of course Thorfinn sneaks aboard Thors' boat to join him. Even if you hadn't soaked in all of the OP's foreshadowing, this is a stock staple of these kinds of father-son stories. When a man spends three whole episodes cautioning his son about the horrors of war and violence, there's no doubt that the son is going to be there firsthand to witness the violence when it finally arrives.
So even though the third episode ends with only the slightest tease of Thors and the other village warriors fighting back against the mercenary assassins that Floki secretly hired, I'm not disappointed in the slightest. The action that Studio Wit provides will no doubt be cool, but I'm far more invested in the scenes of world-building and character development that give those bloody bouts meaning. Take for instance the day of Thors' departure, when Ari (and the rest of the departing warriors) pays Ylva a visit to try and secure her hand in marriage. Ylva is tired and having absolutely none of it, and Ari's goofy bravado helps humanize an otherwise standard cliché of the genre. Ari's mother comes by send him off with some snacks, and Ylva hardly seems to have recognized that she half-slept through getting proposed to. It's a funny scene, but Vinland Saga never loses sight of the melancholy running underneath it. Ari promises Ylva gifts once he returns from his successful raid of England, but even before Floki's men attack, it shouldn't be hard to read the tragic irony in this kid's story. From the moment they hoisted up their own fathers' old weapons and set sail with Thors for battles unknown, Ari and the rest of the boys took their first step into a world of blood and chaos that they never could have prepared for. At this point, they'll be lucky if they ever see their home again.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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