My excitement going into Vinland Saga can best be described as cautiously optimistic. Obviously, I knew what the series was going into it. It’s consistently promoted alongside Berserk and Vagabond as one of the greatest manga ever, although I didn’t learn it was made by the same guy who wrote Planetes until a lot later. For those who don’t know, Planetes was a pretty good show from the early 00s that apparently did not live up to the manga’s greatness for those who actually read it. Personally, I think if an anime is high quality without capturing the true essence of the manga (like, say, Akira), then that just goes to show how strong the original author’s writing skills are. And with Vinland Saga being apparently better whilst getting an adaptation from Wit Studio, who have proven themselves in the past, it seemed like an anime that I would enjoy.
But of course, making an anime I enjoy isn’t that hard. Well okay, it is really hard because of how much time, effort, money, and all of the production-related bullshit that caused Stars Align to turn out the way it did goes into these cartoons. I’m saying that despite me thinking most anime suck, I’m not that hard to please. I just want the anime to have a point, hopefully I’ll find said point interesting, and all of the details the show adds from the animation to the characters contributes to that point in a way I find satisfactory. And while I didn’t know the actual story of Vinland Saga, I knew it was going to be about viking culture. If the series gave me a good insight into viking culture, then I’d at least be satisfied. Once you satisfy me first, then you can work at blowing me away.
I’ve got to say, I’m glad I waited until the show was almost done before jumping into it, because it is a very slowly-told story. Vinland Saga really takes its time immersing the viewer into its world and getting you to understand the characters’ actions, but never to the point where it felt like I was watching blatant setup. However, it’s still slow enough where I’d be impatient waiting for the next episode to air, which is also known as the good kind of slow.
What differentiates this series’ pacing from when a visual novel adaptation does the whole slow pacing thing is that it tells us more about the characters and what their role in the story is going to be with almost every episode rather than just bait us with dangling plot threads whilst having the characters dick around without telling us anything interesting about them. Although it’s not until the fourth episode when the tragic death that is the catalyst for Thorfinn’s revenge story occurs, what keeps me interested until then is being introduced to Thorfinn’s father, Thors, and setting him up as a great hero who is forced to go back to war less he wants the village to be put under siege. As such, Thors is the main character of a 3-4 episode arc that is satisfying to see on its own, before Thorfinn has to take the reign, and Thors is decently characterized for a nigh-invincible hero who’s meant to only be in the show for a short time.
And Thorfinn’s story is easy to get invested in once it starts because of how surprisingly complicated the boy’s own morals make it. Basically, his father, Thors, gets killed and he wants revenge on the killer, a vicious pirate named Askelaad. However, he wants to defeat said killer in a fair fight, so he ends up working for Askelaad in order to get stronger, which Askelaad has no problem with because he can manipulate Thorfinn’s pride fairly easily. That’s a pretty unique hook for a revenge story in of itself, but what makes it special is how it draws very heavily on what viking culture actually was like back then to justify the circumstances. Basically how vikings are a bunch of brutes who live the way they did because they genuinely believed they could go to Valhalla or whatever after dying. That’s the attention to detail that can really make your series feel epic.
This relationship forms the main crux of this show’s runtime, or at least what we have of this show so far, and I was pretty invested in it. That said, as much as I praise this hook, it can’t carry an anime for twenty-four episodes and I was getting a little tired of it until other characters like the viking brute, Thorkell, and the young Danish prince, Canute, came into the series. The reason why that hook wears out its welcome fairly quickly, as well as a big problem I have with the show in general, is that Thorfinn is not that interesting a character. It’s very easy to see how Askelaad manipulates the guy’s viking pride into his favor, because said pride is incredibly simplistic and has no time for anything else, which gets old pretty fast.
Honestly, I’d say Askelaad is the real main character, because he’s the one with interesting flaws that play a heavy role in the main story of what I can only call “Arc 1”. He’s the one who interacts with all of the important characters, he has understandable motivations and flaws – namely how he’s getting old and wants to support a ruler he can trust before passing, and he’s the one who always moves the plot forward whilst Thorfinn feels like a side distraction. The other characters are also of a similar caliber, with Prince Canute being a sheltered ruler who’s forced to grow up and do terrible things in order to surpass his father, and Thorkell being a huge Viking who loves to fight, but is able to use his head when he’s required to.
Thorfinn does not have that complexity. He is only really interesting during the few scenes when his abilities and motives are called into question, like his fights with Thorkell or when an old friend of his tries to convince him to return home, but otherwise he just wants to get revenge without thinking about the consequences. And for twenty-four episodes, that is not a very fun watch. I also learned that quite a few of the scenes where he’s forced to look at the reality of his situation weren’t in the original manga and were added in order to make things flow better. The fact that I couldn’t tell this until someone pointed it out to me is a huge strength of the people adapting the manga into a TV format. Yes the animation does not match the manga’s art and the CG can be distracting, but it’s still good enough where I feel like the tradeoff was worth it.
Does one meh main character compared to the three awesome ones (as well as some other good characters) prevent the show from being amazing? Of course not. Especially when said main character gets involved in some of the best action scenes I’ve seen this year. Vinland Saga’s fights are basically this really cool mixture of well-choreographed blows and mind games in order to strike at the opponent’s weak spot, and it does said mixture without killing the momentum. Honestly, if Demon Slayer had not come out that year (Attack on Titan’s action is cool too, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen from that series before at this point in time),Vinland Saga would have really stood out as 2019’s anime action gem.
But I think I prefer Demon Slayer’s action despite the shonen mentality where the characters can monologue about their moves for ten minutes before performing said move because it’s semi-realistic whilst also being more imaginative. Hitting Thorkell’s weak spot to paralyze him or Thorkell chucking a spear at a guy’s face from ten miles away is brutal, but the soccer match of death as well as the demon with the arrow powers is also similarly brutal whilst having more originality to it.
However, what does prevent this show from being amazing to me is that it feels like a prologue to something greater. And I have an issue where my praise for anime that just feel like it’s getting started is limited. Flower of Evil can be seen by me as great despite only covering a fraction of the manga because it really explored the destructive nature of humanity and teenage insecurities whilst resolving some very important plot threads in the thirteen episodes of that we ended up getting. However, I can’t say the same for Made in Abyss or Land of the Lustrous, which only felt like they were getting interesting with their stories towards the end, only to blue ball me hard.
Vinland Saga is a bit unique in that it does provide closure to its main hook, but by the time it does, said main hook had gotten boring to the point that I was desperate for it to end, and I had been watching the series mainly for the new hooks that it introduced regarding Canute’s ascension to the throne. So when Askelaad finally dies as part of a gamble to help Canute whilst saving Askelaad’s home, denying Thorfinn of his revenge, the only thing I cared about was Thorfinn realizing that he had done all of this bullshit for nothing whilst furthering Canute’s own character arc, which obviously is not going to get resolved when your anime only covers the prologue. Otherwise, I was just glad to finally be done with that portion of Thorfinn’s story, and hopefully he becomes an interesting character on his own terms if they ever decide to make more of this anime. Which is not guaranteed by any stretch of the definition, but it would suck if they didn’t.
If I had to explain things clearer, you guys remember Hunter x Hunter? You know how it’s considered one of the best anime of all-time by those who watch it? Well how many of those fans would say that if the only thing that existed of Hunter x Hunter was the first twenty-six episodes aka The Hunter Exam arc? Yes, what I’m basically saying is that Vinland Saga so far is the equivalent of said first arc, and personally, I don’t consider the accomplishments within that time frame to be worthy of being called amazing. The slowness probably didn’t help, but if it wasn’t for the pacing taking its time, we wouldn’t have gotten the amazing moments and characters required to make the story stand out. I’m not really sure if it’s possible to keep the level of detail that makes this show great whilst, say, having Askelaad’s death happen in the middle of the series rather than the end. All I can say is that I don’t think the payoff we ended up getting was enough to make the show a classic. It was definitely an emotional end for many people, sure. I just don’t think the story that ending was attached to needed the number of episodes it got.
And that’s why I couldn’t in good conscience recognize Vinland Saga as one of the best anime of the decade. I don’t feel like I want to rewatch the show anytime soon in its current state. It’s even marketed as the prologue to a much greater story by the creators, and I want to see that story. It’s definitely going to be in my top five of the year whenever I get around to discussing that topic. But for now, Vinland Saga lives up to the hype, but it doesn’t surpass it, and I wasn’t that hyped to begin with. 8/10 for me.
Some of you probably know that my favorite Wit anime prior to this series has been Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, which is also an 8/10 in my book. Does my adoration of Vinland Saga surpass that anime? It’s honestly hard to say. Kabaneri obviously does not aim for much more than campy action, but overall that series is just so viscerally satisfying as both a fast-paced action series and a successor to Guilty Crown without directly copying what made that series so fun. Vinland Saga is much better written, but it’s also incredibly slow and Thorfinn is not a very fun main character. It’s like comparing whether you prefer Corey Yuen’s Righting Wrongs to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Obviously The Irishman is a very well-told epic, but Righting Wrongs has Cynthia Rothrock fighting Karen Shepard.
If you forced me to choose at gunpoint though, I would probably still pick Kabaneri, just on the basis of its main cast and fast pace. Obviously Vinland Saga has a more well-realized/developed cast, especially with the villains and how some of them ended up being the good guys, whereas Kabaneri’s villains are mostly people who have been perverted by the atmosphere they live in without much depth to them (I’m not just referring to Biba by the way. The villain in the movie was like that too). But Ikoma, Mumei, and their companions were just simply fun to be around on the basis that they were quirky fun people whose experiences on the train have changed their outlook on life. And the action camp in that series is just beautiful and an overall more satisfying visceral experience on the whole.
Also, it had a pretty cool dance scene. Vinland Saga didn’t have Thorkell doing the Can-Can, so missed opportunity right there.