I’m watching Vinland Saga, and so should you

     What do you usually think when somebody tells you a particular anime is based on some more or less true historical events? Chances are that it’s yet another take on Oda Nobunaga with some weird spin – all the characters are girls or the setting is changed to a high-school, or something in a similar vein. If not that, Japanese do love a good old Victorian setting, Alice in Wonderland included (or no Alice, for a change). One way or another, in all likelihood I‘d freak out after hearing that such a thing like Vinland Saga does exist. Really, what are the chances that a Japanese dude could make a compelling story about damn Vikings? With no anime girls (pretty much), no high-schools and (virtually) no slap-stick comedy?

     So yeah, Vinland Saga does exist, and it exists quite impressively. The original story began its life with a manga by Makoto Yukimura back in 2005, and it’s still going on. To tell the truth, I haven’t read the manga (yet), and it’s both a good and a bad thing. Good for allowing me to watch the anime without any prejudices but also bad for missing out on some good stuff. Getting into Berserk quite a while ago shortened my list of long manga that has some terrific art and even more terrific and grandiose story, but there still were two entries left – Vagabond and Vinland Saga. With Vagabond I’m sort of stuck because it’s actually an adaptation of a quite a lengthy novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa (still not finished reading that). If that name says anything, you know it’s Sengoku period at its best. No anime as of yet, though. And then there’s Vinland Saga. All I knew before going in was that it’s kinda accurate historically, has a decent story and the art certainly isn’t the shabbiest. Turns out, that’s true, and even more than that.

Vinland Saga

     Some of you might wonder what really that Vinland is. And yes, even if the show briefly mentioned if, it might be not too clear that it’s actually America. While some people claim that there were many people who crossed an ocean to the American continent before Columbus – Chinese, Romans, Phoenicians, Polynesians, it’s a clear fact that Vikings did so without a doubt. There’re some archaeological findings of the Viking origin in Newfoundland, so celebrating (or weeping for that matter) Columbus as the first European reaching the New World isn’t really credible. So yeah, Vikings (to be more exact, Leif himself, according to the sagas) discovered Vinland and made a dwelling there. What exactly happened after that isn’t clear, though for some reason the settlements weren’t very long-lived, so the history may be revealed only through archaeological excavations or Scandinavian records (that aren’t completely trustworthy). Anyway, it’s a fascinating page of the history of the Northern Hemisphere and I’m glad it gets more attention. Only, to my knowledge Vinland Saga is more concerned about England so I’m not sure how Vinland itself will be tied to the story. Unless, of course, the story can always use the metaphorical rout – Vinland as the West, the (almost) unreachable paradise, a dream, Valinor of Tolkien mythology. After all, coastal Europeans always seemed to be fascinating by the ocean at their door and strange tales and speculations about what lies beyond that.

Vinland Saga

     Anyway, let’s go back to the show itself. The thing that grabs attention right away is the strong worldbuilding. I wonder how much research had to be done in order to get most of the historical details right. In principle, events that happened a thousand years ago are so far removed from the present that it’s extremely hard to get the details right, or at least to a level when no expert could object. In the first place, sources are so few that we can’t be sure everything happened in a way we think it did. For example, someone might excavate a thousand-year-old spear but apart from being a single data point it can’t tell for sure whether such spears were extremely common or one-of-the-kind. Speaking about the war-attire, I’m very happy that there’re no horned helmets in Vinland Saga. It’s has become such a cliché of Viking-times that not everyone questions whether having horns on a helmet really would do more good than harm. Hornless helmets on the other hand look pretty believable and historically accurate. Brownie points for that!

Vinland Saga

     Viking period or not, it’s still an anime (or manga, that doesn’t matter in this case). And I’m not really sure how to feel about various anime-isms embedded here and there, be it typical comedy-relief characters like Ari the clumsy. Tell me he’s not a long-lost brother of Leo from Scrapped Princess. I could link him with Puck from Berserk or even Megumin from KonoSuba. Ylva is a typical strong (but a bit dorky) older sister type. You can look no further than Revy from Black Lagoon or Misato from NGE to find a similar soul. Thorfinn himself so far feels like a very shounen protagonist. There’s plenty of time for him to become distinguished but so far he’s just a kid on a verge of a looming adventure. By itself a such variety tropes isn’t necessarily a bad thing – they may make the viewers feel more comfortable – who would watch an anime that doesn’t behave like anime? Especially when the setting so unfamiliar.

Vinland Saga

     I can live with random people behaving like anime characters, but it gets a bit more complicated when the story contains some real historically distinguished individuals like Leif. Somehow I doubt that the real Leif would turn out to be such a quirky dude, more interested in getting an Indian headwear than making a living on more ordinary terms. I don’t think such an attitude would’ve worked among ancient Scandinavians, so count me a bit skeptical about such a portrayal. You could point out that the whole Fate franchise is based solely on such historically-based (emphasis on “based”) transformations. That and all the adaptations making Oda Nobunaga a high-school girl. That’s fine, but there’s still a difference – Fate doesn’t try to make a statement about its historical accuracy – it began when two guys met up and thought “Wouldn’t it be fun to make all the historical figures meet up and fight?” – “Yeah, and let’s add magic!”- “Absolutely, and let’s make King Arthur a girl!”. As far as I understand, Vinland Saga positions itself as a more historically accurate fiction. Yes, fiction, but still based on reality – no Studio Dean Dragons or mana transfers. But oh well, I don’t know and probably nobody does for sure what Leif (and others) really were like. Having read some Scandinavian sagas in my portfolio doesn’t make me an expert by any means.

Vinland Saga

     One of the positives of such a crossing between contemporary Japanese and historical Viking cultures also has some undoubtedly positive sides, for example, the show’s view of the world which works quite well for both cultures. To be more precise, it’s a rare case these days that brings back what 80s OVAs were famous for – gritty “manliness”. Just remember all the numerous contributions to the genre of Yoshiaki Kawajiri and the like. That period focused more on sci-fi but historical fiction works just as well, surprisingly well. It’s no wonder that the mangaka has confessed of being inspired by the spirit of Fist of the North Star. I think it’s really great that creators try to rekindle fan passion for such kind of shows – those 80s OVAs for me have always been a joy to experience, especially since nowadays the market is saturated by other kinds of things – isekai and stuff. Well, technically the same Fist of the North Star is still alive, though it mutated into Neck of the North Star or something like that. Vinland Saga so far avoids such a misfortune. The first fight scene itself was an epitome of “manly” – slashing a mast with one swing, cutting everybody open like it’s no big deal, jumping like Spiderman on crack… Physics certainly goes on holiday at many of such moments, and that isn’t the greatest thing I can say about the show. But it certainly does look cool. Quite appropriately, there’s also a grittier side to the show. Take for example a conversation when two people almost get into a fight because one had cut off the others arm as a revenge, because the other had cut the first one’s brother’s leg off. Yeah, fun times, fun times.

Vinland Saga

     Another good point about the show is that it doesn’t outright celebrate manliness and leave it at that. After the hectic first battle, Vinland Saga goes on great lengths to contrast the foolish and naïve eagerness of the village folks enthusiastically enjoying a prospect of war and a helplessly solitary Thors who actually knows what it’s like to participate in one. By itself it’s nothing groundbreaking but it’s great to see a show exposing its themes right on and being clear but not obnoxious about that.

     Speaking about the artistic side of the anime, I also have mostly words of praise. For the most time the show simply looks and sounds competent without being extremely outstanding, and that is enough to keep Vinland Saga at least on the same level of the better shows this season. I guess my only critique would be about the use of CG in the first battle. To be frank, the battle itself looks really great (no wonder another Wit Studio’s child is Attack on Titan). Dynamic movement doesn’t look as terrible as that in Hand Shakers, far from it, but inevitably it invites CG, lots of it. It isn’t bad, really, its only fault is that it’s noticeable. And, as almost always, that forms a dissonance with the 2D stuff, and that’s no good news. On the other hand, CG used for the sea looks way better. I could even say that a 2D sea wouldn’t look so otherworldly and mysterious. What CG really can do flawlessly is to show contrast between what’s normal (usually the characters) and what’s not (usually some weird characters or strange environments). So, CG always is like a double-edged sword, an no one should know that better than the show’s director Shuuhei Yabuta, who’s profile contains many titles with roles involving directing 3D sequences. And it looks like Vinland Saga in that respect is going to be a million times more competent than the new Berserk anime. Thank goodness. Music is another department that deserves to be praised. I’d listen to Aimer’s EDs over (probably) anything else, the OP sounds energetic enough and the general symphonic feel of Yutaka Yamada’s OST works very well with the grand scale of the story.

     It’s hard to say much about what really happens in Vinland Saga because its start is rather slow. But that doesn’t matter, really. Not every show needs to throw the viewers into the middle of confusingly complicated things a la Baccano. Vinland Saga spends most of its time establishing the world, the people, the customs, the way of life of the Vikings. And that’s great – a solid worldbuilding right from the start most often than not pays back every second spent on it – with interest. Sparking broader ideas may also be counted as a success of the show – I got an urge to resume watching that TV show Vikings. Or go and read more of Scandinavian sagas. Oddly enough, at the moment I’m reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods where some Viking mythology also has place. Coincidence, but a nice one.

      In the end, Vinland Saga is a very strange and on the surface very un-Japanese piece of entertainment. It attempts to be historically accurate and succeeds (more often then not), it still doesn’t stray far from being a creation having deep roots in anime and manga narratives. Either way, so far it achieves what it wants – to tell an entertaining story, to captivate and to keep your humble host glued to the screen. Does it survive three episode rule? Like hell it does.

     Have you started Vinland Saga? What are your thoughts about it?

***

     Aaand a few words about me, as I have been absent for quite a while. I guess that, looking from a philosophical point, the laws of physics work every time everywhere. Just like the second law of thermodynamics suggests, entropy spontaneously is never decreasing, so consequently your stuff brakes, your table gets messier and messier, plans become corrupted and so on. In the same manner, Newton’s laws of motion state that things that are still are likely to stay still and things that move will likely keep moving. Similarly If I write blog posts continuously, I’ll continue to do so but once I take a break it’s going to be quite difficult to get back into the rhythm, and it is. But oh well, things are going on, I’m alive and kicking and even if at this point consistent weekly posting might be a bit too ambitious (got to start from the bottom), anime hasn’t disappeared from my life and hopefully won’t, at least in the near future. So yeah.

     Have a good day! Or night. Or whatever you need depending on your timezone.

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3 Comments

  1. Well…I have been away myself for quite a while (I just returned yesterday) but it’s nice to see you are alove and kicking! 😊 I haven’t watched this yet, but seeing as I am behind on watching anime it’s not likely I will be seeing this one soon. I have added it to the list though, as it sounds pretty cool indeed 😊

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