Original Run: July 8, 2019 - December 30, 2019 Number of Episodes: 24 Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Historical Based on the Series Created By: Makoto Yukimura
***Warning, the following may contain spoilers for Vinland Saga. Reader discretion is advised.***
It is the early 9th century on the frozen shores of Iceland, where young Thorfinn (voiced by Shizuka Ishigami) lives with his family. One day, Thorfinn’s father goes off to fight for the Danish during their conquest of England, and Thorfinn sneaks along. However, before reaching their destination, Thorfinn watches in horror as his father is killed by the Viking pirate Askeladd (voiced by Naoya Uchida).
This act of violence steers Thorfinn onto a path of revenge as he determinately follows Askeladd and his crew to the battlegrounds of England. At every opportunity, Thorfinn challenges Askeladd to a duel, with the result always being a humiliating defeat for the former.
A decade then passes, and the war is ending with victory almost assured for the invading Danes. An older Thorfinn (voiced by Yuto Uemura) has become a fierce warrior, second only to Askeladd. With still many battles on the horizon, the true might of the Vikings has not yet been realized.
I want to make this connection only once for it has little bearing on the rest of this series, and, thus, the rest of this review. Nevertheless, the visual similarities between these two shows were immediate, and I wouldn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Being from the same animation studio, Wit Studio, Vinland Saga’s art style was strikingly similar to that of Attack on Titan’s. That said, the two series were quite different, and it would be unwise to go into Vinland Saga thinking it is Attack on Titan but with Vikings.
Vinland Saga, although action-packed and quite violent, didn’t have any of the traces of mystery or fantasy seen in Attack on Titan. This series was an adventure story set during the Danish occupation of England in the early 9th century (the heyday of the Vikings). Granted, it was an adventure story with endless amounts of brutality, death, and atrocities, but it was an adventure story nevertheless.
With that out of the way, let’s genuinely begin this review by saying Vinland Saga was an insane amount of fun. If I had to narrow the reason this show worked down to a single point, it would have to be because there were no good guys in this story. All of the main characters, as well as the vast majority of everyone else met along the way, were dangerous. However, that, in itself, is not the same thing as saying everyone in this series was a villain. Using the most basic definition of these words’, Vinland Saga only had protagonists and antagonists.
So we are all on the same page; a protagonist is the character or characters a story centers around, and they are the ones who move the plot onward. An antagonist is an obstacle that is trying to block the protagonist’s forward progression. These two designations often correlate with the idea of good guys and bad guys, but those black and white labels don’t fit within the context of Vinland Saga.
Of this series’s three primary protagonists, I would argue Thorfinn was our lead since he was the one introduced first, and he had the largest character arc of the story. Thorfinn, by the end of the show, was a rage-filled killer whose whole dedicated his life to avenging the death of his father. Although he would only fight those who wanted to hurt him and he could be merciful, Thorfinn also looked on as an entire village was slaughtered. Yes, the show didn’t give any evidence that Thorfinn participated in the massacre, but he didn’t appear broken up about it either.
The second of the three protagonists, Askeladd, would have most likely been the bad guy in any other series. After all, Askeladd was the reason Thorfinn wanted revenge, and he was also the person who ordered the killing of that entire village. Still, much of Askeladd’s actions – albeit better thought out and more strategically-minded than his foes’ – weren’t uncommon in this series. He wasn’t any more virtuous or monstrous than any of his counterparts.
As for the third of the three primary protagonists, Canute (voiced by Kensho Ono), well…we’ll get to him.
Vinland Saga had nothing to do with the triumph over evil. Its story was set in a time when wars were fought for glory, conquest, and riches (which isn’t to say wars of today are fought for more noble reasons). Therefore, this series was more about gamesmanship; everyone was trying to outplay one another. This made action scenes, and there were a lot of them, exciting because victory went to whoever was the flashiest and the most cunning.
For Thorfinn, his smaller size lulled people into a false sense of overconfidence. Most underestimated him, and those who did quickly found one of his knives sticking out of their neck. There were only a handful of people aware enough to add Thorfinn to their calculations, which proved Thorfinn’s value as a warrior. Unfortunately, those who did recognize his abilities were also the toughest fighters of the series.
Askeladd, for example, was one of those who knew what Thorfinn was capable of doing. To Thorfinn’s disadvantage, though, this also meant Askeladd knew how to beat him every single time they fought. For everyone else, Askeladd preferred to use his brains rather than his strength. If he could find a way to avoid a battle, he would take it. He didn’t do this out of kindness; no, he did this because he knew that even the strongest sometimes could lose when luck wasn’t on their side.
But just because Askeladd liked to think his way out of tight situations, that didn’t mean he couldn’t fight his way out. Part of what made Askeladd so awesome was the fact that he was one of the most formidable warriors of Vinland Saga. He had no problem taking on fifty-plus men single handily.
Then there was someone like Thorkell (voiced by Akio Ootsuka), who was my favorite character of the show, who didn’t bother with elaborate plans or strategies. Thorkell was so powerful, his mere presence on a battlefield was enough to instill a crippling fear in his enemies.
For that was the thing about Vinland Saga; it was a historical-fiction series. The story was historical not only because of its setting but also because there was no magic, no mythical beasts, no enchantments of any kind. But although no one was firing lightning bolts around, the story was fiction because something tells me someone chucking a spear and accurately skewering four men over a mile away might not be the most accurate. It does, however, make for a really cool moment I can promise you that.
Vinland Saga knew how to keep groundedness and epicness in balance with one another. You could believe that the world of this series did exist, but there was also plenty of service to honor the legends from our history books.
Essentially, you have a show that was more than happy to go a bit crazy while still telling a story interesting enough to hold your attention for twenty-four episodes. If we don’t consider such a series a success, then what else can you ask for instead?
I want to make a distinction. There is a difference between deep characters and entertaining ones. Aside from Askeladd and Thorfinn, Vinland Saga didn’t spend a lot of time exploring who these characters were before the events of the series. What this show did do was bet that it could create moments badass enough to make up for its lack of foundation.
Mission accomplish if you ask me.
Be that as it may, Thorfinn, although pretty damn cool when fighting, was a tad irritating when he wasn’t. You can only say “Piss off,” “I’ll kill you,” and “Shove it,” so many different ways before they start to lose meaning.
Especially during his duels with Askeladd, Thorfinn hardly showed any signs of growth. He would make the same mistakes over and over again and refuse to think he was doing anything wrong. Granted, it didn’t help that there would be long stretches of the show when I would forget he was even around.
Let me say that again.
There were long stretches of this show where I would forget one of the primary protagonists was even a character.
So many other people – Askeladd, Thorkell, etc. – so thoroughly eclipsed Thorfinn that he sort of felt pointless to the story.
I certainly wouldn’t say no to a continuation to Vinland Saga, but I haven’t the faintest idea where else this story could go, and I can’t say much more on the subject because I don’t want to give anything away.
Speaking of protagonists, earlier, I mentioned Canute. Here is an example of how even a twenty-four episode anime can still manage to rush a few things.
For the first half of his time in this series, Canute was a weak-willed, pampered prince who would jump at his own shadow. He let others push him around, and he didn’t even have the backbone to speak for himself. He was cowardly, meek, and pitiful. Considering how the story was at this time, it was fitting. If you thought I was going to bash Canute because of how he was, you were mistaken.
Canute’s personality wasn’t a fault of the story. It made sense for the plot, and he filled his role adequately. The same was also true for the second half of his time in Vinland Saga.
Near the end of this series, Canute had turned into the future king of a mighty nation. He was sure, confident, and he commanded respect from all around him. He was the opposite of who he was, and again, for what the narrative was doing, this was not a problem.
The issue I have is the transition between these two points. Instead of Canute transforming into this other character, it happened within an instant. It felt as if this series was in a hurry, and it needed to hit points A, B, and C before it could begin its next phase. The problem was, this was such a colossal change for Canute that it didn’t come off as natural. You could feel the awkwardness of it all because Thorfin went through a similar metamorphosis but over a much longer period.
And while we are on the subject of suddenness, that was the last episode of this series. Vinland Saga went from one hundred miles an hour to a hard zero. No hints at a second season, no promises of more to come, just done. For a show that was immensely satisfying, its final send-off left much to be desired.
With only a few hiccups in a twenty-four episode series, I think you could do a lot worse.
Ask yourself, do you want a story that continually gets more and more exciting the further along it goes? Do you want a show that can be a ton of fun, but will also make you go “Holy s@#$,” with its brutality? Do you want a tale that will take you through a time when violence and adventure went hand in hand?
If the answer is yes to any of those questions, then I think what you need to do is obvious.
Vinland Saga has earned a recommendation.
But these are just my thoughts. What are yours? Have you seen this series? How would you advise Vinland Saga? Leave a comment down below because I would love to hear what you have to say.
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