Thorfinn is a young Icelandic boy around 1000 A.D., the time of the great Danish empire. His father, a once-renowned viking legend, has settled his family far away from war, only to be found and called back to the battlefield.
Thorfinn stows away with his father, only to watch him die. Thorfinn swears on his family’s lineage to avenge his father’s death and spends the better part of the next two decades chasing his father’s killer and getting caught up in the Danish expansion into what is now the United Kingdom.
Thorfinn is a sad and broken boy. While I am tempted to use my three credit hours of psychology to explain his issues in an in-depth whitepaper, I remember absolutely nothing from that class because I was a terrible student. But the main gist is that Thorfinn is consumed by rage and no one wants him to be this way. His village wants him to come home, Thors (his dad, who he gets his name from) encouraged him to take a different route, and he is constantly told to overcome his hatred. But this is what makes him such an interesting character. You are rooting for him to overcome himself as a person and to accept the world, and the love, around him. Will he do it? We can only hope.
Thors is probably the most impactful character in the entire show. For those who have watched/read Game of Thrones, he is like Ned Stark. The well-loved, powerful, man who chooses an alternative route than what the world tells him to. His reward? Death. We can mourn them all we want, but the reality is that those who are more compassionate than the world often suffer this way. Thors was an unattainable ideal in a world that was too cruel and monstrous for him to be a part of. Where he wanted to be free of the mindless violence and find peace in life, the world would not let him. The impact that he left on all who met him is noticeable and feels as if it actually makes a difference in our story. We rarely see an impact as deep as the one that Thors left, and if you decide to watch this show, you should pay attention to him and his words carefully.
Askeladd is possibly the most well done anti-villain I have ever experienced (Sorry, Isabella). I talked about the impact of Thors on all the characters, but Askeladd felt most impacted by him. His character is shrouded in mystery and we rarely get to hear what he is thinking. Thorfinn is the protagonist, but he is not the main character. Askeladd is a rival, a father, a leader, and a scapegoat. I wish that I had a good comparison from other anime or books I have read, but Askeladd might just be unique in the sense that he impacts so many people in so many different ways. So even if characters often develop away from him, we still see him impacting their lives in a way that often furthers their goals at the cost of his own.
Canute is not the typical member of the Danish Royal Family. Where King Sweyn is large, dark haired, and cunning, Canute is feeble, blonde, and naive. The most interesting element about Canute is that he is a Christan convert. His faith plays an integral part in the fate of all our characters, so much so that I wish I could talk about it but… I can’t.
Thorkell is a mega-chad viking. Nothing rustles his jimmies more than sliding one of his axes (or a giant log) through the body of literally anyone. Unlike a lot of the other characters, there isn’t a ton of depth to Thorkell. Thorkell eats. Thorkell drinks. Thorkell fights. At the same time, Thorkell is ultimately one of the most critical pieces in the development of Thorfinn, Askeladd, and Canute. The show makes him toe the line of terrifying villains and being happy enough that you can’t help but like him. If you ever meet someone who says they dislike Thorkell, you know that they hate thai food, League of Legends, and whatever else makes people happy, but also causes them pain.
Vinland Saga is a fantastic example of a certain checkbox that I like to have ticked in the emotion category; I want to desire something from the story. Shows can make you feel sad, angry, happy, or whatever else you want, but the ability to make someone long for an outcome is the next level. Level one is feeling an emotion, level two is making you long for an outcome, and level three is being memorable while doing so. Vinland Saga really takes you through the longing wringer. I wanted Thorfinn to find a conclusion to his journey, I wanted Askeladd to find the words to say, I wanted Canute to find himself in his experiences, and so many more. Askeladd and the emotions that his story brings alone are phenomenal and worth all the praise that can be given. But, for some reason, I can’t bring myself to say that this was memorable. I think that the sidelining of Thorfinn and the amount of Danish history needed to truly appreciate the characters diminishes the value that the names and stories of the characters bring, but the show is incredible nonetheless.
Thors’ biggest contribution to the show was provoking everyone to consider what it is to be a true warrior — something that seemed to weigh heavily on our cast. I can’t say that I really came away from Vinland Saga knowing myself what the show was trying to tell me about what a true warrior was, but it made me spend a lot of time trying to understand the culture as portrayed by the show, and comparing that with Thors and his ideals. Maybe there is an answer that I missed or perhaps there really is no good answer as to what a true warrior is. Either way, I spent a lot of time thinking about it and engaging with the characters so thumbs up from me!
One of the most interesting conversations in the show was the one between a slave girl and Thorfinn. Now, unrelated to Thorfinn looking like a caveman, he rarely talks. So when a slave girl assumed that he was also a slave and he had to explain why he was not, his opening up felt meaningful. But it also brings up the idea that you can be a slave to many things. A drunk is a slave to his ability to get alcohol just as much as a debt slave is chained to the money he owes. So while Thorfinn is correct in a traditional sense, he (and others) might need to reevaluate their status of slavery to less concrete things.
There is pain associated with being Christian. You question if God’s love is truly boundless when we live in a world as cruel as we do. You feel the pain of sin. You feel the pain of unworthiness. You feel the sorrow that comes with stanning anyone but Chika from Love is War. Canute took all the pain he felt though his faith and struggled with the weight of it. Are we, as a faith community, subject to the world or are we able to create an Eden here in our time? Can we find good faith in God’s eyes by biting the bullet to make the future better? Perhaps we can never find out until it is too late.
Vinland Saga is a two season show with very different directions in each season. Season one is largely about Thorfinn coming of age, how he integrates into the viking world, and the establishment of our cast. Season two is all about the convergence of the powers that be and the rise of Chritianity in Northern Europe. The only weird part about the pacing is the transition from Thorfinn being the pace-setter and the main focus to him taking a bit of a backseat to the rest of the world. I would have liked to have the multiple perspectives started sooner in the show because that was a really intriguing part of the experience as a whole. Besides that, there is an inevitability to Vinland Saga. People will die. Someone will win and someone will lose. You are just along for the wild ride of rooting for your favorite party.
If you are someone who looks at the section scores before I explain myself, then shame on you. Do not pass go and do not collect $200. Does Vinland Saga have fantastic moments of animation? Yes, undoubtedly. Does it have consistency issues? Yes, undoubtedly. Some of my favorite moments were the loss of inhibition during fights. Nothing quite gets your heart racing more than the shadowed faces right before a sword gets swung through someone’s body. However, the CGI was jarring at moments or just was outright unnecessary. There is a moment I recall where a single person in a scene walking in a distance was CGI’d and it was so off-tone that I wished they had just omitted the scene entirely. CGI aside, because I know that it is largely a developing technology in anime and is used for budget reasons, some of the shots were just weird. “Here he goes talking about mid and far shots again.” You are dang right. I love my boy Thorfinn, but holy moly his hair was a mess for the animators and some of the shots made it look like he was wearing a blond beaver instead of a head of hair. Eighty percent of the shots or more had to be gorgeous, but the twenty percent of the shots that missed really pulled me out of the immersion and left a bitter taste.
Over the course of my reviews, I am sure that you can build a sense for what exactly I am looking for in a perfect score. What excites me about watching more and more anime is that I find new elements that tickle my fancy. Vinland Saga makes the world feel dynamic. While you are following one character, the world is changing, armies are moving, and political plots are being carried out. Years after seeing a character, they will have been following their own path and reacting to the world. The show never lets characters be stagnant, and because of that, we feel like the world is alive and converging our story.
I was in a voice call with Nick Mo. while writing this and listening to the soundtrack — which is now something I do for music whereas before I just listened through the show. I asked him this, “What does Danish music even sound like?” The answer was that we had no freaking clue. The soundtrack feels more like something I would expect from a Celtic or English story, which I’m more familiar with. Perhaps Northern European music all sounds like violins, pianos, flutes, and war drums. Either way, I am down for that. The soundtrack is fantastic for the show. Period pieces almost always benefit from playing into the musical tropes associated with that time because it really transports people into a mindset of that show. There are moments of all out brawls with beating drums, scenes with triumphant returns to celebrate what our characters overcome, and there are times of tormented sorrow literally just for Thorfinn. Sorry, buddy. So while the show matches the music for every occasion, the opener and the closer feel wildly out of place. We have sworn off judging the openers and closers before and I will stick by this, but I want it to be known that they were a tonal miss for me.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||5||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||5||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||4||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||3||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||2||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||1||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||2||3|
Be prepared for Vinland Saga. There is no beach episode, we never set foot inside of a school, and there are no rice balls to snack on. Despite the copious amounts of blonde people, most anime seem to lack, Vinland Saga is an incredible tale. The cast is likely the most autonomous and interesting ones I have watched in the past couple months, and the world building creates the perfect conditions for our characters to shine. Especially if period pieces like this are your jam, there should be no hesitation picking this one up.