Vinland Saga

TV (24 eps)
4.422 out of 5 from 15,762 votes
Rank #49

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.

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 The first arc of Vinland Saga has been touted as one of manga’s greatest prologues. As such, many were curious about how well the anime would fare. While it may seem like a mere revenge story at first, this 24-episode series acts as a GAR infused yet slow-burning meditation on vengeance and war, as well as the thrills and horrors that await. Moreover, it's a character study revolving around the arc's main protagonists: Thorfinn and Askeladd. They make up the tragic backbone of the show, and that backbone is powerful enough to cement this show as one of the best of the year.Visually, this show is both better and worse than one might think. The CG ships and occasional CG humans are enough to set alarm bells off, and their prevalence would help spell the death of lesser productions in terms of quality. Even this show can look terrible at times, since not every episode is as detailed as one another and some make use of awkward CG environments way more than others. Sometimes the animation can really falter, leading to jank frame rate issues like in two critical moments of episode 4, or just a few really terrible sequences. However, director Shuuhei Yabuta has improved significantly from his last full directorial work, Inuyashiki. On top of that, Studio Wit tends to make anime with worthwhile production values, and he’s been their main man when it comes to CG for years. He knows what he’s doing, and it shows more often than not. Some big scenes lack the weight they should, but Vinland is so chock full of them that Yabuta’s given plenty of chances to add a visceral sense of weight and detail into several of the more explosive or otherwise powerful scenes. Seeing Thorfinn’s face in great detail as he huffs in seething rage for the first time or witnessing the sheer impact of Thorkell punching a horse into the air made for some of the craziest moments of the year. Those aren’t even the more tremendous moments he gets to adapt from this arc, either. Some camera movements such as the few first-person perspective 3D sequences are also eye-catching. Even more impressive is the artwork. Most of the time, it’s incredibly detailed, almost on the level of something like the Gundam Origin OVAs or the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie. The art direction also leads to some stunning environments, like the horizons of Iceland or the golden crops of Vinland. Combined with Shuuhei Yabuta’s direction, some of these sequences that bask in the environments become breathtaking. A lot of the fight scenes have their incredible, weighty moments as well such as the first half of the fight between Askeladd and Thorfinn’s father in episode 4. The show straddles the line between looking amazing and looking terrible disturbingly often, which is a shame since without some of the jarring dips in quality here and there and with superior (or no) CG, the show would be one of the most well-produced anime of the year by far.The music is also a bit complicated. Yukata Yamada does provide a rather decent score for this anime, with a fair number of emotional pieces and early medieval tunes that often serve as highlights from the very beginning. The tracklist does seem a bit limited as evidenced by how the anime likes to make constant use of one singular piano track for most of the emotional scenes in the show. There are multiple piano tracks so some of them might even be used interchangeably. Additionally, a lot of pieces don’t quite feel tailor-made for this show or setting and instead feel like tracks that could have gone to any other dramatic title. The few that do feel perfect for the setting are not only some of the greatest tracks in the show but are unfortunately rarely used outside of the first quarter of the anime. I don’t mean to be too pessimistic with the soundtrack since there are still several nice tracks present, but the show ends up throwing a lot of them by the wayside and the ones the show uses more than a couple times don’t feel like they add a sense of identity to the show like say, Kaguya-sama’s OST did this year or like other fantastic OSTs such as Berserk 1997’s do for their shows. The first opening is honestly no better, feeling like a generic j-rock song with forced and hideous sounding screamo towards the end. It’s my least favorite piece of music in this entire show. The second opening, “Dark Crow” by MAN WITH A MISSION is a far more hype opening, with the wake-up call of the bagpipes at the beginning, and a rockin’ tone throughout. The first ED, “Torches” by Aimer, is a decently calming and pleasant enough piece, though it doesn’t feel as impactful with its chorus as I would have liked. The second ED, “Drown” by Milet, is more emotional and impactful, and it’s probably one of my favorite ending themes of the year. It’s perfect for the explosion of tremendous emotional moments and character development that is the second half of the show.The first few episodes of the show center around how the last stand of Thorfinn’s father, Thors, as well as the different phases of his upbringing before and after that moment, affect Thorfinn. He always had the potential for violence, after all, he and his people practiced war games all the time as they waited for the day they could finally join a war. However, he was still a child at heart, so seeing him turn from that innocent boy to an angsty killing machine is devastating. Few moments hurt quite as bad as the moment he resigns to his fate and accepts how horrible the path he takes is going to be in episode 6. That sigh of resignation seeing someone he hurt who genuinely wanted him to live the life of a boy again, and how that reminded him of the family he’s sure he’ll never see again, is a brilliant capstone to the first quarter of the show. Many have levied criticism of how stagnant he becomes in later episodes, as his single-minded drive to honorably kill Askeladd dominates his character. However, there are a few points worth bringing up to argue against that notion. He still has plenty of moments to be more than just that kind of person, like during his interactions with the then scared and reserved prince Canute, where he teases him halfway into the series. He’s not like Hajime from Arifureta or anything. He also thinks about how far he’s fallen from his father’s ideals, agonizing over how much worse he’s become since the man’s death despite how much he refuses to admit it to anyone else. His dreams and hallucinations are well-crafted reminders of his humanity and folly. These factors, as well as his stagnant nature, also serve as a form of tragedy. Not only is he painfully aware that he could drop this and not continually sully the message of the man he ultimately idolized, but he also serves as a reflection of who his target of hatred, Askeladd, used to be.By the time the halfway mark rolls around, Askeladd becomes the true star of the show. He’s long since grown past the vengeful killer he was as a child and has become a cunning man of ambition. He is the epitome of the glorious side of the show, with his glorious cackles being the cherry on top of each crazy plan that gets executed. He’s a proper magnificent bastard who would honestly be a standout character even if he were just a glorious, over the top schemer with a strong personality. However, he’s far more than just that, both as a foil to Thorfinn and as a person in his own right. Each reveal about why he became the man he is, about his feelings towards everyone around him, and about why he sees something in both Canute and Thorfinn, adds more to his personality and his journey throughout the series. To spoil his journey any further would do you a disservice, but let it be known that he is easily the richest character in the entire show, and my favorite character to have been introduced to the anime landscape this year.There are other noteworthy characters beyond just the main two. The aforementioned Canute has a surprisingly natural and tactile sense of progression when it comes to his development, and even when he’s still in nervous prince mode, he has a few cute interactions courtesy of Thorfinn teasing him. Thorfinn’s father, Thors, leaves a lasting impression for someone who only lasts for 4 episodes and whose death is used as the sole motivator behind Thorfinn’s revenge quest. One might think of him as just this perfect ultra badass dad who’s so good he doesn’t need to kill because that’s just wrong. He’s also a bit of an oaf at times, like when he can’t fix a pot and complains about it being too hard or when he’s too nervous to properly tell his wife to tell his kids that he loves them when he departs. He certainly has this brick shithouse giga chad vibe that the series exploits to great effect in the early episodes, but it’s the little things and how his actions affect the likes of Thorfinn and Askeladd during his final moments that make him surprisingly compelling. Another minor character from the early part, Ylva, is one of the more fun takes on the beleaguered teenage daughter and big sister character. She's one of the more entertaining and comedic characters of the early part along with Leif Erikson. In fact, seeing what she does following the death of her dad and disappearance of her little brother is perhaps the most compelling part of the 5th episode. Leif himself is even more humorous as the sort of adventurous and sarcastic goofball before the fourth episode changes him and steels his resolve for when he reappears later towards the end of the series. There are more characters that get similar levels of detail and charming presentation, including some of Askeladd’s Vikings and the larger than life ax-wielding maniac, Thorkell. There are other characters who get their own powerful emotional moments. However, this review would drag on and risk containing critical spoilers if I continued. The slow-burn narrative is a deeply somber one. Several episodes subject the viewer to horrifying village raids, the most soul-rending of which occurs in episode 14 which features a girl struggling with her faith before watching her entire village get slaughtered. There are many impactful deaths throughout as well starting from the death of Thors. Almost every major death is handled brilliantly. Thorfinn’s character is a miserable one as he laments the death of his father and his deals as Thorfinn kills and kills in a series of raids and wars. Everyone is richly characterized as people, adding further weight to the tragedy of the many deaths of the show and how people cannot simply be described as allies or enemies as if it were a black and white matter. Thors was right, and he died proving that fact and getting his murderer to spare the lives of everyone who accompanied him. There are plenty of glorious moments, like the entirety of episode 7 or some of the major developments characters go through later on. There are several epic battles between GAR as hell Vikings whose feats live up to the kinds of tales that real-life Vikings and villagers from this show’s time period boasted about and wrote into mythological canon. However, even with characters whose might rivals the likes of Beowulf himself, the show never forgets that they are people engulfed in war, and that there are many tragedies and atrocities that come with that kind of territory. Victories are grand but also fleeting, and even the most painfully meticulous and drawn-out plan Askeladd comes up with that lasts the entire third quarter of the show, is filled with sorrows before paying off spectacularly.Are there errors? Sure. Some of the dialogue reeks of words and phrases that could have never existed in the time period the show takes place in. Sometimes water doesn't react to anything moving in it and there are some animation errors. The CGI is pretty terrible. The anime original scenes in the 5th and 6th episodes as well as towards the end aren’t quite as good as most of the adapted material. Thanks to every bit of dialogue being written and spoken in one language, it’s a tad jarring when characters apparently switch languages. The 7th episode should have been the first episode as it loses some of its hype when following up one of the most somber moments in the entire show, and it would have better conveyed what the show was going to be from the beginning than the current first 4 episodes do. However, barring that last one being a potential reason for many being disappointed in Thorfinn’s character and how Vinland puts other ideas and plots above its revenge story plot, none of these are significant issues. How can they be with characters this expertly written and writing this incredibly presented? Even if the audiovisuals are a bit inconsistent and not as great as they could have been, they still support most of the show’s incredible moments. Even if there are lulls here and there, the show’s characters and payoffs more than make up for it. Nothing is going to stop Vinland Saga from being one of 2019’s greatest, not with a core and finale as powerful as this.Written and edited by: CodeBlazeFateProofread by: Peregrine, who will be retiring after this review. What a wonderful show to send him off with. I wish my friend well.

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