Vinland Saga – Anime Review
Synopsis: Around the end of the millennium, Viking, the mightiest but atrocious tribe, had been outbreaking everywhere. Thorfinn, the son of the greatest warrior, lived his childhood in the battlefield. He was seeking the land of reverie called Vinland. This is the story of a true warrior in an age of turmoil. (Official Amazon Synopsis)
Review (Warning: Minor Spoilers, and Major Spoilers for Episode 1-3, to Follow):
Linny: A crucial and early requirement to enjoying Vinland Saga is knowing that despite it seemingly starting off with Thorfinn, son of Thors, as the protagonist, the ‘real’ protagonist isn’t obvious until much further down the line. Most of us are used to shows that very quickly and immediately establish and focus on the main lead but Vinland Saga does the complete opposite, using Thorfinn and his quest as a way to gradually build up a more compelling narrative. Another thing to note is that the ‘heroes’ of Vinland Saga are anything but heroic. Almost everyone is driven by selfish or extremely personal goals and many characters engage in cruel, brutal and barbaric acts. If you like your shows to have a clearly good and pure hearted lead, then Vinland Saga simply isn’t for you. Also, this is a series definitely geared towards those who enjoy grand and epic tales that focus on more than one person, especially given that the preview for the next season seems to heavily hint that we will be following an entirely new cast, sans Thorfinn, our ‘through line’ for the series.
Tom: Thorfinn may be the vehicle with which Vinland uses to gradually worm its way into grander, more compelling events, but he’s also Vinland’s biggest likability obstacle. For Vinland’s first three episode the focus is set squarely on Thorfinn’s father, Thors, a battle hardened man who also possess a strong sense of justice, and a warm heart. He’s a stalwart hero you can’t help but admire, but that also means he has little avenue to grow, so when the series’ throws him to the wolves, and we reset focus to Thorfinn, experienced viewers will likely have see this coming a mile away. Thorfinn becomes the classic tortured hero, one who must undergo great self discovery in order to become even half the man his father was. The problem is that Thorfinn’s journey is a long one, and as even the series itself notes (The final episode’s title being “End of the Prologue”) Thorfinn’s journey into manhood is really only just beginning. This is an epic, meant to stretch on for a long, long time (heck the manga has been running since 2005!) Thorfinn’s far off development might be okay if he possessed any likable traits. The boy is crude, crass, violent, and focused solely on avenging his father. It’s understandable, and while losing his father makes Thorfinn’s sympathetic, it becomes difficult to feel for the kid when he only continually furthers his own misery, trapped in a cycle of self-fulfilling angst and turmoil. I don’t doubt this is what the manga’s author intended, but if Vinland Saga is going to appeal to you, it’s not likely for Thorfinn himself but everything and everyone going on around him.
Linny: As one would be justified to expect from a show about Vikings, Vinland Saga is brutal and violent. It isn’t explicitly focused on showcasing gore but there are definitely scenes of physical torture and ruthlessness associated with the brutality of war. Even the story itself is heartless with the few kind hearted characters in the story often passing away in a tragic and unfair manner. What’s undeniably intriguing about the show though is its political power play and strategies as the characters try to outwit each other through all kinds of schemes and plots. It quickly becomes a cat and mouse like game with all sorts of twists, turns and reveals as each character pursues their own, unique goals , from revenge to power to sheer survival.
Tom: At the center of the political intrigue and power plays sits Vinland’s real star, and greatest asset: Askeladd. Askeladd features from early on. He’s the man who killed Thorfinn’s father and is the leader of a band of mercenaries. Initially Askeladd’s role seems relegated to being Thorfinn’s long sought goal. But as the series gradually shifts attention from a stagnant Thorfinn, we come to find that there’s far more to Askeladd than was ever let on. It’s this expansion of Askeladd’s character, and the depth to which he affects the story, that turns Vinland Saga from a ho-hum experience, into a fantastic one. The series evolves even further, with a late introduction for the character of Canute. He’s the shy and quiet prince of the Danes, and an important piece to Askeladd’s grander schemes. But Canute has an internal struggle all his own, and it’s these two characters combined that elevate Vinland Saga to a truly memorable and gripping experience that Thorfinn, even by season’s end, feels incapable of offering.
Linny: Askeladd is indeed the star of Vinland Saga and his journey from villain to protagonist does so much for the show’s appeal and engagement levels. His character development and backstory reveal add not only layers to his personality but also to the show itself, earning him the support of viewers even if they don’t always agree with his methods and actions. Given the sore lack of long lasting, likable characters otherwise, it’s likely that Askeladd is going to be the reason most viewers remain invested. And of course, Prince Canute is another character that viewers could find themselves drawn to as Tom has already pointed out. On a more minute scale, the inclusion of Thorkell, a former comrade of Thors, adds a bit of glee and even comedy to the show as Thorkell’s unadulterated enjoyment of combat gives him an almost childlike charm through his enthusiasm and honest disappointed reactions when denied the chance to engage in combat. Truly it’s everyone around Thorfinn, and in spite of him, that makes Vinland Saga worthwhile.
Tom: Ultimately Vinland Saga is a slow burn. Thorfinn isn’t compelling enough a lead, meaning viewers who aren’t enthralled by the visuals, which are consistently stellar by the way, or sucked in by this particularly bloody era of history, need to wade through 8 to 12 episodes before Thorfinn is sidelined for a far more interesting and compelling narrative. I think it’s worth it though, especially for the season’s absolutely epic conclusion. Vinland Saga already has a 2nd season in the works, and that’s where I might draw the line. By Season 1’s end the most compelling elements of the story are seemingly left behind as Thorfinn’s journey continues in a different direction. But that’s for another review. As Season 1 stands it’s an anime title I’ve grown to love and appreciate and I think stands as one of the Fall’s greatest offerings. It’s a slow burn, but without a doubt a worthwhile one.
Linny: Thorfinn’s complete devolution to a revenge hungry and obsessed feral creature is made all the more frustrating and tragic given his father’s noble values and character. One could make an argument for him being a portrayal of the extremely detrimental effect violence and loss can have on a young soul but that doesn’t negate the fact that Thorfinn isn’t exactly protagonist material by any measure. For all the time and early introduction we get with Thorfinn, he is ultimately just an excuse for us to follow Askeladd’s journey and thus for anyone completely unfamiliar with the series, I would once again remind them to approach the show as The Askeladd/Canute show rather than the Thorfinn show. Overall, Vinland Saga is best enjoyed by those who have a penchant for violent tales woven around historical settings and can appreciate highly flawed and even deplorable protagonists and most importantly are willing to invest into a lengthy, multi-episode long, build up to something actually enthralling.
Vinland Saga is available for streaming via Amazon.