Vinland Saga – Eps. 1-3 (First Impressions)

I don’t group episodes together anymore when I review them but since Amazon released the first three episodes of Vinland Saga all at once, I’m making an exception this one time. That’s clearly how they want me to first experience the show. And yes, I am pretty stinking late to the party. I would’ve gotten to it sooner but my brother also wanted to watch this show and he’s lately been busy with finding a job. Combined with this being on Amazon of all places (seriously, this is their second anime release this year), it kind of slipped our minds…whoops…

So the usual disclaimer: this is a very blind first impressions post. The still ongoing Vinland Saga manga is held in very high regard but somehow, I’ve only heard of it recently with this anime adaptation. I’m going in completely as a new viewer. And as for historical accuracy, that’s probably not what the show is empathizing. Some characters including the protagonist, Thorfinn Karlsefni (Shizuka Ishigami), were indeed real people but chances are, Vinland Saga‘s depictions are heavily fictionalized. While that might bother me, I might be able to let it go with this show as what we’re getting is very, very good.

My best guess as to why Amazon released three episodes of Vinland Saga back to back was to better hook people in on the show. Although that left the show on a two-week hiatus, I think the decision made here was the right one. I’m not going to lie, this series is a really slow burn. It’s advertised as a revenge story set within the Vikings’ war with the English and, well, I definitely see the Vikings but the revenge part sure is taking its sweet time. You just know the one getting the axe is Thorfinn’s father, Thors (Kenichiro Matsuda), but three episodes in and the man has yet to get the axe. He might very well die in Episode 4 but even then, that means it took Vinland Saga four episodes/two hours to get the ball rolling. It’s hardly record time is what I’m trying to say.

Make no mistake, I actually applaud the slow and steady approach. The biggest advantage granted here is that Thors gets to come across as an actual character and not a throwaway casualty to the plot. There’s some layers to this man; he’s a one man army but he has long abandoned his hunger for battle and glory in favor of a quieter, more modest life with his family. When his old comrade, Floki (Atsushi Ono), shows up to recruit him for an upcoming war with the English, you can see the reluctance on Thors’s face. He doesn’t want to fight but is forced to prevent his village from suffering the consequences. All the young men get excited to fight but the actual veteran in the crowd simply stands solemnly. No one but Thors really knows what they’re getting into.

This of course plays into Thorfinn’s relationship with his father. Since he’s just a child, he’s very enamored with the idea of fighting and even dying for glory. He’s impatient too, wanting to get his hands on a real weapon and ultimately sneaking on board one of his village’s ships so that he can have a part of the action. Thors naturally doesn’t want his son to be caught in the violence and tries to tell him that there is no enemy where killing them is okay. But because he’s young and because he thinks all there is to battle is stabbing the bad guy, Thors’ words don’t reach his son. The only way Thorfinn will ever truly understand what his father means is by seeing the battlefield firsthand and unfortunately for Thors, it’s looking very likely to happen.

I really enjoyed watching Vinland Saga build up to its inevitable tragedy. Floki bears a grudge towards Thors for his decision to flee from battle and secretly hires a group to bandits to kill him. The bandits successfully execute a plan to trap Thors’ ships. Thors hopes to ditch his men so that only he has to fight and now it seems very unlikely he’ll have the chance to execute this plan. It all doesn’t bode well. Even though it is badass seeing Thors use non-lethal takedowns without breaking a sweat, you question how well he can keep this approach going. The lives of his men and his son are on the line here; there’s bound to be a point where he needs to unsheathe his sword. And even when he does, will he even make it out alive? No doubt, having Thorfinn here is deliberate. Whatever happens to his father, it’ll have a profound effect on him and the story going forward.

The only thing that I’m currently puzzled with the story is how Vinland factors in. Historically, Thorfinn follows the footsteps of Leif Erickson (who appears in this show as a retired explorer) and travels to Vinland which is that Vikings called North America when they discovered it centuries before Christopher Columbus. That place is mentioned a couple times in this show. In one scene, Leif recounts his discoveries to a group of children, including Thorfinn. In another, Thors talks about it to a dying slave he and his daughter, Ylva, found in cold, suggesting it as a place where the slave could be free (oof, the irony). Clearly, Vinland is going to going to play role here but how exactly it will when the story is preoccupied with a war and Thorfinn’s inevitable quest for vengeance is beyond me. At the rate the story is going, it might be a while before we find out.

One area that I’ve become less skeptical of is the art. When it comes to animation quality, WIT Studio has become one of the best anime studios out there but when I learned that Vinland Saga would incorporate some CGI, I got a little wary. CGI has been a weak area for them (looking at you, Attack on Titan Season 2). But now that I’ve seen Vinland Saga, I’ve noticed that they don’t use CGI as often as the trailers would lead you to think. It’s largely used for more complicate shots during the action and even then, it didn’t look half-bad. And past that, the show looks pretty darn great. The backgrounds, especially when they take place at night, look lovely. The coloring walks a fine line between grim and bright. The thick line work on the characters suits the violent nature of the story. All in all, this show looks great.

I’m hearing people say Vinland Saga will be the anime of the Summer 2019 season and possibly 2019 as a whole. Personally, I don’t want to go that far until I’m farther in the show or finished it. I can see the potential though. This trio of episodes was fantastic from its pacing to its characterization to its production value. All the show needs to do is keep it up and if it can, then great. For now, I’ll just say that I really liked what I saw and I’ll continue watching Vinland Saga.

OP: “Mukanjyo” by Survive Said The Prophet

ED: “Torches” by Aimer

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