Vinland Saga combines its grounded historical fiction premise with pulse-pounding fantastical action in a stunning production by Studio Wit. Micchy and Steve discuss the themes and thrills of the series so far.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
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You know, Micchy, I've been missing the Golden Kamuy
anime a lot. But while nothing will quite supplant Satoru Noda
's love of weird foods and disgusting nature trivia, I do have just the thing for those in need of more big broad beefy boys, and it's called Vinland Saga
B E E F Y B O Y S you say?
Oh, and also it's about the horrors of war, I guess.
Forget the horrors of war, I want to talk about the horror that is the dummy thicc cow.
Finally, a cow that can bench press me.
I'm (not) ready.
But Vinland Saga
is about much more than upsettingly large cows. It's based on a critically acclaimed manga about Viking exploits around the turn of millennium (just not this one). So I hope you like dudes with
Very Large Faces.
┃┃╱╲ In this
╱╱╭╮╲╲ we love
▔▏┗┛▕▔ & appreciate
Very Large Faces
Those aside, I think what jumps out at me first and foremost is how grounded Vinland Saga is as historical fiction. I mean, it is anime, so I certainly expect some liberties to be taken, but for the most part I can tell there's been much care taken to accurately portray the kind of life these people lived at this time. Characters like Leif and Thorfinn were real guys who knew each other, and the narrative is based on actual Viking literature, so the nerd in me thinks that's all really cool.
I actually went on a trip to Scandinavia a couple years ago and got to see some real Viking ships and artifacts like these. It was rad.
So much care went into establishing the setting, in fact, that the show makes sure to mention that the best time to sneak up on Vikings is on Saturday, when they're all butt naked.
The Vikings' commitment to cleanliness did stave off the diseases that decimated most of continental Europe, but unfortunately, bathtime does leave one open to sneak attacks. That's the sad duality of survival in 1000 C.E. And survival in Vinland Saga mostly entails a lotta stabbing, slashing, and other unsavory methods of murder.
I really like the bathing trivia, because it's legit a cool detail that rubs against the popular conception of Vikings as blood-crazed warriors who only care about conquest. And that seems to be Vinland Saga's overall aim, to portray a complicated and character-rich exploration of the full breadth of these peoples' humanity.
The first episode shows us this pretty much immediately, with a jarring cut from Thors's vision of his peaceful home to the blood-soaked corpse lying at his feet.
It's such a fascinating choice of subject material, taking a race of people so commonly characterized as barbarians and fleshing them out with the emotional complexity they absolutely possessed. That opening scene is absolutely brutal, as Thors slaughters men left and right with this look of resigned detachment on his face. Martial glory was important to him once, but he just can't deal with the human cost anymore.
Yeah, I love that it opens on this uncompromisingly brutal battle scene in the middle of the ocean—exactly what you'd expect from a story about Vikings—and then it resolves with the biggest, strongest, most unstoppable hero running away from it all.
Thors ends up becoming the moral backbone of these first few episodes, trying to live as virtuous a life as he can in his peaceful Icelandic village, while other forces conspire to drag him back into war. This push and pull between quiet introspection and the (supposed) thrill of blood-pumping violence is definitely one of the most compelling things Vinland Saga has going for it.
The irony of the huge guy who's good at murder arguing for the inherent value of all human life, whether friend or enemy or slave, is super fascinating. Viking legends talk of violence as something inspirational, but Thors has lived in violence and fallen out of love with it.
Can I just say that, in light of some recent trends in certain genres of fiction, it is so heartening that the first ethical dilemma we see Thors tackle results in the affirmation of a slave's humanity and right to liberty.
Even when the kids accept slavery as a normal part of society, Thors refuses to concede that a human life can have a price tag on it. Ylva's not trying to be cruel when she dismisses the slave's life; slavery that follows a war is just normalized to them. But these kids have never had to think about their enemies as anything but abstractions, and it shows.
It especially shows with Thorfinn. Thors is the focus of these first three episodes, but it's no secret that Thorfinn will eventually be our main character, and while Thors has the wisdom of age and experience, Thorfinn has been eating up stories of war and adventure with the zeal of a youngster.
And Vinland Saga
makes a point of showing that all the boys in the village think the same way. When war knocks at their door, they cheer, and it's contrasted painfully with Thors' visible despair.
As the only one with any experience, Thors literally has the biggest burden to carry, taking responsibility for not only himself but all the kids he's putting in danger by association.
That's an extremely poignant visual metaphor, but also I'm a child and the huge oar makes me laugh every time I see it.
Spoiler: the kids were extremely not ready for this.
But yeah, war to them is this ethereal masculine ideal where they can prove themselves as real men and earn a spot in Valhalla. Only Thors knows that it's just about killing other people like yourself for no glory at all.
Only Thors realizes that the real glory comes after fleeing a Norwegian tyrant who's destroying you through prolonged battle. Though I'm sure he'd frame it less as "fleeing" and more as having the courage to seek another solution.
While I don't think many people believe in Valhalla these days, men hurting both themselves and others in pursuit of some absurd paragon of supremacy is sadly just as relevant today as it was 1000 years ago. I'm eager to see how Vinland Saga
continues to work this angle, and I have a feeling I'm going to be saying this
I'm especially worried for this ray of sunshine:
He's SO CUTE and SO DUMB.
He's six! Six-year-olds do be like that, and his dad's doing his best to raise him right.
Thors is trying so hard to ensure that Thorfinn directs his strength toward protecting his family out of love rather than starting wars for revenge. Too bad Thorfinn's a lil' shit who just shows up on his dad's military campaign. :'D
It's so heartbreaking when we see the limits of even someone as powerful as Thors. In the end, he's still just one man, and he can't shield his son from the pressures of Viking society or from all the evils of the world.
Y'know, like this guy.
And don't forget the shroom guy!
Oh, I've been trying to...
Next time on Vinland Saga, Thorfinn faces the most dangerous threat yet: sketchy guys on the street trying to sell him mysterious red mushrooms. Thors is gonna have to have a real talk with the kid then.
Super Mario Vikings. Mushroom minion aside, Floki seems like a pretty great villain so far. He's a perfect foil for Thors, as someone who's making a living out of war instead of running away from it. Plus he looks and acts like a mountain of brick, mortar, and hate masquerading as a man.
He's not the only one of those walking around, though! The mercenaries he hires to assassinate Thors are basically flexing on each other via casual murder. It's sick and bloody, but that's what our heroes are up against!
True, but I like how Askeladd's conversation with Floki elegantly illustrates the contrast in their personalities. I don't know how long Askeladd's gonna stick around, but he seems like the kind of jerk I can love.
He sure doesn't play fair, though.
It just goes to show that for some people, it's never about glory or honor, but about showing off their power however they can. Good men don't use their dead sisters as a pretext for starting war.
Vinland Saga aims to explore these complex themes while telling a thrilling and compelling story, and based on this introduction, I'd say it's hitting all its marks.
It's a delicate balancing act to deliver a satisfyingly bloody romp while also criticizing the philosophies that lead its characters to violence, but so far Vinland Saga is pulling it off admirably. I'm bracing myself for a lotta pain, though; something tells me the good boy is not getting out of this unscathed.
I'm anticipating the rest of Vinland Saga
with equal parts excitement and dread, and if I had to put those together into a single facial expression, it would look something like this.
I feel you, Mr. Dragon Longboat.