I’ve been meaning to get around to this one for ages now. Let’s finally mark it off the to-do list, shall we?
When it comes to Seinen, I usually see three names come up before anything else: Berserk, Vagabond, and Vinland Saga. Berserk is my favorite manga of all time, so seeing Vagabond and Vinland Saga being so often mentioned in the same breath has had me curious for ages. Now, at long last, we’re going to satisfy that curiosity in regards to the latter.
Vinland Saga didn’t quite grab me at first. There was something there in those first few episodes, but it felt more like a promise than a proper hook. Still, I stuck with it, hoping that it would make good on that promise.
And hoo fuckin’ boy, did it ever!
After faking his own death on the battlefield, warrior legend Thors takes his family and flees to the peaceful snowy hills of Iceland. Growing up, his son, Thorfin, develops a strong yearning for adventure and a fascination with a land of legend: Vinland. Unfortunately, Thors’ past catches up with him, and he’s assassinated by a pirate named Askalaad, on whom Thorfin swears revenge. Luckily, Askalaad allows Thorfin to travel with him and his crew, so Thorfin doesn’t need to bother hunting him down. But will our young protagonist survive long enough to get the vengeance he pursues? And more importantly: should he?
This show tells one hell of an ambitious plot. Hell, this entire first season, all twenty-four episodes, is just the prologue to the actual story! It technically hasn’t even gotten started yet, and already it has told one of the most shocking and interesting revenge stories I’ve ever seen!
Granted, it isn’t perfect. While the first few episodes set the stage perfectly, they are predictable to a fault. Gee, I wonder if Mufasa- I mean, Thors is going to die. Wow, Thorfin became a screamy anime edgelord, who could have seen that coming? There are a few surprises here and there, but none of them are especially memorable. It isn’t until the later episodes that this show truly becomes shocking; hell, I sat up and shouted many shocked profanities in the last episode.
Our protagonist, Thorfin, is definitely one of the weaker characters, at least in this stretch of the story (apparently he becomes amazing in the manga, but I haven’t read that yet, so shush). He’s so forgettable that I genuinely mixed up his name with another character in the first draft of this article! He’s basically season one Eren Jeager, all screaming and vengeance and being an absolute moron. Definitely one of the less interesting aspects of the show.
Which is a shame, because his opposite, Askalaad, is easily the best character! Whereas Thorfin is stupid and hot-blooded, Askalaad is cold and calculating. Yet he isn’t heartless. The dude has grand goals deeply tied to his backstory, all of which makes him one of the most unpredictable and intriguing characters in the story. He’s like a puzzle that you slowly piece together bit by bit, episode by episode, until you finally understand what he truly wants. Plus, he’s got so much charisma that you can’t help but like him.
Most of the rest of the cast is fairly one-note, but there are a few standouts that make the story truly interesting. Thorkell is just a giant force of destruction and thus makes a great antagonist for the early game. Prince Cascus is a phenomenally interesting character, going from soft-spoken religious coward to cold-blooded ambitious king. There are many others, such as the drunken priest or the well-meaning fool Ragnar, and they’re all fun, if somewhat forgettable.
As the show goes on, you can feel the writing getting better and better. The first few episodes are incredibly predictable, though done well in their execution. Then, as the story progresses and things grow in scale, it becomes harder and harder to predict what is going to happen next. This all culminates in the final episode, which delivers one of the most shocking twists I’ve ever seen in an anime!
It also explores some truly interesting themes that I wasn’t expecting. Sure, you get your usual ‘revenge bad’ stuff most revenge stories have. But then you have more interesting stuff; what is love to a people devoted to war and murder? Just what is evil in the teachings of the Catholic church? Are the beliefs of any religion ultimately just the interpretations of their followers? Is anyone free, or are they just a slave to whatever they devote themselves to? These are just a few of the questions that the characters within this story explore, and they make the narrative far more interesting to think about than just ‘revenge bad’.
Now, let’s talk about the presentation. This is a Studio Wit show, so you can bet your ass there’s gonna be some top-tier action animation. And there is; several of the fight scenes in this show are drop-dead gorgeous, and not one scene in the whole package looks bad. But the use of sakuga here is definitely more tame than what we saw in the likes of Attack on Titan.
That said, the cinematography of this show is downright gorgeous. The use of color and shadows is frequently used to marvelous effect. We even get some really interesting scenes with some abstract imagery!
Although I do think it was a bit cheesy to get a shot of Askalaad’s brain as he desperately tries to think through a problem.
Music wise, this show is… okay. None of the music is bad, each track compliments the scene it plays in perfectly, but it isn’t especially memorable. Plus, there were a few scenes where it was actually kind of distracting; this might just have been my headphones being weird, but the music sometimes felt unusually loud compared to the dialogue or sound effects.
As a whole, I think the first season of Vinland Saga was amazing. Definitely not flawless, but definitely one of the strongest seasons of anime that I’ve watched in a while. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I would highly recommend doing so. It’s a show that only gets better with each episode.
Now I need to go read the entire manga before season two happens. If it ever does; Wit has a habit of abandoning ship partway through a show.