Vinland Saga

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

There are times where you only need a handful of episodes to know that the show you’re watching is truly something special, and that it will go down as one of the greats. It recently happened with Watchmen, and it also happened with Vinland SagaIn less than one season, this show established itself as one of the best shows of 2019, and if only it manages to stay as good as it is now, it may go down as one of the best anime of the modern era.

Adapted from Makoto Yukimura’s acclaimed manga series of the same name, Vinland Saga is a bloody and at times horrific story set in the early 11th century. It tells the story of a young Icelandic kid who is taken under the wing of his father’s killer and his band of mercenary Vikings. At the same time, we seem to be following several characters and factions’ rise to power, as the Danes invade England. It’s bloody, it’s emotional, and you won’t look at History’s Vikings the same way again after this.

What Makes It Great

Vinland Saga comes from the same animation studio that brought us Attack on Titan, and it shows. WIT Studio did some awe-inspiring work on the action scenes, which are not only bloody and brutal, but exquisitely choreographed and fluid in the movements as characters swing their swords and axes left and right. From the opening scene of the very first chapter, WIT throws you into a ruthless and violent world, and it first uses that violence to grab your attention, knowing the audience will undoubtedly feel the excitement of a grand battle before the show slows down and reveals its true intentions. 

Even more impressive is the way Vinland Saga can create a suspenseful atmosphere out of nothing more than a scene where characters sit around and strike up a conversation. Subtle facial expressions, quick editing, and excellent voice acting goes a long way to make you feel like everything and anything can kill you at any moment, so neither the audience nor the characters can truly relax for even a moment. 

Of course, it isn’t only the fast-paced action that looks stunning, but the immense landscapes too. Much of the show takes place in snowy locations, and the animation has done a beautiful job portraying the vast beauty as well as the harsh and unforgiving environment its characters must live through.

The true aces up Vinland Saga’s sleeve are its story and its character development. In only a handful of episodes, we have seen more character development than other shows go through in several seasons. Our main character has gone from being a happy-go-lucky, joyful and inspired little kid to a vengeful, angst-ridden teenager with complete disregard for human lives other than his own. Even his father’s killer/captor is more than just the antagonist. Instead, Vinland Saga makes this antagonist a fully fleshed out character with his own morally dubious yet completely understandable motivations that the audience can identify with – even if he’s still a murderous asshole. 

What It Brings To The Conversation

What differentiates Vinland Saga from other historical anime is the way this show uses history to make its world feel real. We do see actual historical figures appear in the show, and historical events are references or even recreated, but more than that, the show is interested in replicating a sense of realism in the way violence and death are portrayed. 

Unlike fantasy shows (Attack on Titan, Game of Thrones) which use fantasy elements (giant humanoid beasts, dragons) to tone down the violence by masking it with a veil of magical realism, Vinland Saga doesn’t really distinguish between right or wrong, good and bad. Instead, everything is a part of a life. Death can come at any second, which is why this show goes to great lengths to fill every moment with dread, as you never know if this will be the last time you see one of the characters. 

Vikings pillage and plunder because that’s what they do, and armies murder, rape, and destroy everything in their path because that’s what happens in war. Just as soon as you’re starting to get close to one of the Viking leaders, they go ahead and literally kill everyone in a village they captured to avoid feeding them, reminding you that no one in this world is above committing atrocities. (And unless they’re on the receiving end, none of the characters really care about those atrocities.)

Indeed, for the most part, the violence in Vinland Saga is not played for “hype” or excitement, but as a cruel reminder of how brutal and unforgiving life used to be – and, in many ways, still is. The question of what makes a true warrior is one that permeates this whole season, and so far the answer that the show keeps falling back on is that a warrior is one who chooses not to fight. To be a warrior is not something you should aspire to, but instead something to be feared, for it brings nothing but pain and suffering. That’s a rare thing to see in an action-packed anime.

Death is not used for shock value, but instead great weight is placed on every single death, knowing it can have immense repercussions for a character’s psychology going forward. Grief is a big part of Vinland Saga, and the longer the show goes on and the more characters we see die, the more they’ll impact the main ensemble in ways neither the audience nor the characters themselves can imagine.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

If you’re tired of action shows that simply glorify or exaggerate the action in order to make you forget about their uninspired plots, then Vinland Saga may be the show for you. Yes, the action is still exhilarating, but unlike most shows or movies, you dread the next fight because of what it will mean to the characters engaging in battle. 

At the same time, Vinland Saga is taking its time, and slowly building up an epic story by focusing on its characters. In such a short amount of time, it allows you to feel like you already know these characters and fully invest in their futures. This is a show that’s playing the long game in order to fully live up to its potential. And if it continues to be this good, it just might do it.

Watch This If You Like: Vikings, Attack on Titan, The Heroic Legend of Arslan. 

Vinland Saga is streaming on Prime Video.

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