Vinland Saga (Season 1)
Thorfinn is a young boy who grew up in a farm on Iceland with his family, where they lead (relatively) peaceful lives. However, Thorfinn's father, Thors, was once known as "the Troll" when he was a part of the Jomsvikings, so when the Jomsvikings themselves realize he's still alive, that life will be torn apart.
"You have no enemies. No one in the world is your enemy. There is no one you need to hurt." - Thorfinn's father, Thors, to his son.
This would be a contentious thing to say even today, much less in the era mangaka Makoto Yukimura chose to portray; the era of Vikings. Vinland Saga doesn't even come right out and say it immediately, instead leading off with an impressive battle montage of Thors during the battle of Hjørungavåg in 986. (A battle where the Danes sought to subjugate the Norwegians and make Norway a part of their kingdom.) As with most warrior cultures, the stigma and shame of having to "run away", regardless of context, is the core tenet of a show that doesn't celebrate the violence it shows, even if it might look like it does at first. But there is far more to Vinland Saga than just violence. Yukimura has clearly done extensive research of not only our history, but he also goes deeply into how people are influenced by the glorification of battle. How the hunt for power and influence is seldom good news for people who just want to live their lives in peace, even if those lives might be anything but easy.
Although the events are largely historical - the battle in Hjørungavåg is just the beginning of a larger saga spanning more countries in Europe, but England and Wales in particular -- Vinland Saga still plays it a bit loose with its characters. You can google/do deeper research of quite a few of the character you'll meet in this season and the next one, and their lives are bound to be described somewhat differently than you'll see here. Thorfinn is known as the one who spearheaded (no pun intended) the first attempt at creating a colony in America. There is no historical descriptions of his early adventures as a young boy/man on a journey of revenge, however; that lies solely in Vinland Saga's stance on violence and the glorification of battle. And just for the record, I'm absolutely fine with this.
Make no mistake about it; Vinland Saga absolutely does not pull any punches when it comes to the portrayal of battle between Vikings against other Vikings (or, later on, Englishmen), nor the casual cruelty of attacking smaller settlements and killing all its inhabitants to gain access to their resources. This show has not been compared to Berserk for nothing, to put it that way. Now, I've neither read or seen any of Berserk outside of a few clips of its most famous events so I don't know if they do this as well, but Vinland Saga has (thankfully) chosen to mix in bouts of levity and humor so as not to make the show too depressing.
Before everything gets ripped apart, Thorfinn was a goofy kid who listened to the tall tales of Leif Erikson - another character based on a real-life person, and one who's probably the most known for actually having first set foot on the lands of America (as long as you, well, ignore the people who already lived there, that is) - and dreamed of adventure in the same vein. Indeed, Leif himself is introduced as a bit of a goofball, which might seem like a slight, but to Vinland Saga, that doesn't really mean anything. In fact, his personality might be something long nurtured by his adventures that, while they might not necessarily involve any fighting, are still accomplishments worth championing. Despite Leif's goofiness, he's shown to be a capable seafarer, negotiator and, obviously, storyteller. He knows far more about the world than most of the other people we'll meet here, simply because rather than conquer, he wants to discover and learn, all of which has earned him keep observational skills. In fact, he's the first one to notice that something is wrong during the moments before an ambush, even before a seasoned warrior like Thors did. His goofy nature is probably something he does as a defensive measure, given his part in an environment that commodifies and even admires someone's ability to kill their opponent.
In that respect, Thorkell (historically known as Thorkell the tall, and boy is he ever) is both startingly similar yet entirely different from Leif. He stands at least one head taller than pretty much anyone you'll ever see in this show. When we first meet him, he's throwing entire pieces of lumber at approaching warships like he's playing the deadliest game of "pin the tail on the warship". He's sporting a wild hairstyle you'd almost expect to flare up like a Super Saiyajin at any moment, and he's a simple man by any measures. At first, he's seen taking the British soldier's side because, as he puts it, they are terrible at fighting, so if he's going to get his battle itch satisfied, he's going to have to fight other Vikings. (The real historic event, from the research I did, had more to do with his men being Christened at an increasing right, and him switching sides had more to do with dealing with an impending betrayal.) And again, similar to my point about Leif, his goofy and eccentric nature does a decent job of making his opponents (and also maybe us) underestimate his intelligence. He was, after all, historically known as a shrewd and sharp-witted man, and once he learns that Thorfinn is the son of Thors, he takes an immediate interest in the young man. Not that any of this stops Makoto Yukimura from portraying him as a bit of a man-child at times, especially in the last couple of volumes I've read of the manga.
"Shrewd" might very well be a more appropriate attribute if you point it towards Askeladd himself. Ostensibly the main star of the first season of Vinland Saga, he's the one who gets hired to kill Thors, and he's not above using ambushes and deceit to get the job done. He lives the Viking raider lifestyle to the very definition of the word, but there is of course more to him than that. You can easily tell that his charisma is the main reason why his men stick with him, although he does have a very close friend in Björn, a berserker type warrior. There are many ways charisma can be worked to one's advantage, never mind the different types, and Askeladd definitely personifies the "devil may care" attitude of things. This is going to be deeply ironic later on, once we learn who he really is and what he's trying to do, but I imagine his initial way of dealing with things is going to be the main reason why people are going to love him or not. He is, arguably, more of a main character in Vinland Saga than Thorfinn, serving as the main reason why the latter has strayed so far from the path his father wanted him to take, but you'll never really wonder about his motives at any point, even when you learn more about him as you go. And sure, you could cheer for him and his goals, but you're still going to have to contend with the fact that him and his viking band still raid villages, kill all their inhabitants, and then steal all their belongings.
As an aside, it's worth noting that his moniker is lifted straight out of old folk tales from Norway; more specifically, the old folk tales gathered by Asbjørnsen and Moe. If you don't want to read anything about that, just skip to the next paragraph, but "Askeladden" is a name taken from quite a few of said folk tales. The name translates as "Ashen lad" more or less, and in said tales his real name was "Espen", where "askeladden" was more like a derogatory term he got for usually being tasked with keeping the fire. He'd usually be the youngest of three brothers, and his folk tales tended to center around him outwitting his two older brothers and whoever else he needed to outwit. He would mostly face the old "age = wisdom" trope and counter that, as the tales were more about the dangers of letting your age make you more stubborn when it comes to exposing yourself to new ideas or different cultures. Said tales were made and usually took place after Norway left its Viking era behind. The only thing the two Askeladden characters have in common is that they mostly won their battles through the use of wit and strategy rather than brute strength.
Name origin aside, this all culminates in the character of Thorfinn. The first season of Vinland Saga basically covers his early (and happy) childhood memories before his father's death, and then the remainder deals with the loss of his father and what that ends up doing to the boy. It deals rather heavily in what it takes to turn someone into a killer, and it's clear that Thorfinn himself is slowly losing sight of what his father wanted, never mind the fact that he's turning into the same kind of person that Askeladden is. Even as he tries to make himself think he isn't, as he refuses to kill Askeladd when he sleeps, because that would be a cowardly assault on the defenseless. It has to be a proper duel, and it has to be earned. (And three guesses as to how Askeladd himself makes Thorfinn earn that right; none of which count if you're going to try to be a smartass about it.)
It's worth noting that the first part of Thorfinn's role in Vinland Saga is one that's been entirely made up - and again, I would like to iterate that I'm fine with this - to serve as Yukimura's stance on all of this. And part of this is Thorfinn spending so much of his time stewing in his own anger and hatred towards his father's murderer, that he fails to notice he's slowly turning into what he hated about others, although I suspect he knows this on a subconscious level; he who fights demons and all that. (Having read much further in the manga, I hope you'll forgive me for revealing that he will be facing more direct consequences of his actions later on.)
There is so much more to be said about many of the other characters you will meet in the show. There's Thorfinn's sister and mother Ylva and Helga, who are left back on Iceland with all the uncertainty of what has happened to not only Thors, but also Thorfinn, outside of what Leif could tell them. Thors's death was bad enough, but with Thorfinn gone, all they can do is to keep the farm alive by their lonesome - which was difficult enough, since Helga's health wasn't the best, and Ylva, despite being immensely strong, could also only do so much. This also unfortunately includes people who are about to become victims for Askeladd's troops, of which Thorfinn often worked as a scout. There are other characters who would end up being a part of history, like Prince Canute (Cnut), a soft-spoken young man who was raised more by his retainer Gunnar than his father, Sweyn Forkbeard. Vinland Saga most likely differs more from his historical counterpart here, as I could find no evidence that his father sent Canute out to die for the benefit of his older and physically stronger brother. His character did however make another historical nod later in the manga (and presumably also the second season of the anime), so his character development still fits the show itself.
It helps that the show looks gorgeous. There are certainly complaints that can be made about the pacing of the show, but Vinland Saga will never not look good in a very natural way. The coastline of Iceland looks decently snow-y without bagatellizing the hardship the people living there faced, and even when you're taken to England, the show does a decent job at portraying the various locations. Much like Junichi Sato with Aria, you can tell Yukimura really did his research here, both from a geographical standpoint as well as a cultural one. This doesn't always extend to the characters or the character animation, though. While some of the action sequences look great (which is ironic, Vinland Saga's message taken into consideration), others don't have the same kind of grandeur. By and large, though, the show does a decent job in setting the stages for both battles and other kinds of confrontations. The music is also incredibly nice, especially at the beginning when the mood is still somewhat light and the scenery looks appropriately pastoral, and the first half of this season is even curtailed by the incredibly beautiful "Torches" by Aimer. I'm vastly less enthused by the show's opening themes, though, being more modernized rock anthems that feel a bit at odds with the show.
Reading Vinland Saga - because if it wasn't clear enough before this, I read the manga before I watched the anime - has been an experience for me. It's been incredibly interesting to see a presentation of our culture and our past from an outside view, especially with such care and attention. While the anime altered the order of things a bit, it's very much been made in the spirit of the manga and, non-historical additions aside, I have to tip my Viking helmet in admiration of the work put into this masterpiece.
And since Tim joined me for the synchro of this show, I'll let him have some closing words of his own.
Like Stig, I really liked Vinland Saga as well. Stig tried to get me to watch it all the way back in 2019, but for one reason or another we just never did. That finally changed in summer 2023, just around the time season two of the series had begun to air. (And yes, we will have that review up sometime next year as well.) It's definitely not the usual isekai/high school comedy/slice-of-life series we typically synchro together. In 2023 we tried to break away from these kinds of shows when we watched more mature/action-oriented series like SPYxFAMILY, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury (though we dropped that), and currently Frieren: Beyond Journey's End. And, well, this series we're talking about in this review as well.
Having grown up in America and not Europe, and not learning much about 10th century Europe growing up in school, a lot of the loose historical inaccuracies in Vinland Saga were a bit lost on me. But I could tell Makoto Yukimura did his research when it came to the look and style of the era, and the show as a whole looks GREAT. It could've been so easy to make this a cheap cash-in done 14 years after the manga began, but Wit Studio did a fanstic job with the series, with everything from the facial expressions to the cold snowy mountains that make up a lot of the scenery. Kudos to them!
I was less enthused about the character of Thorfinn, the main lead. In a series with so many bombastic, cunning, and smart characters, I found myself caring more about him when he was a child than as an adult. It's not that I don't understand WHY he's angry - he is being used as a glorified hitman by the very man who killed his father before his eyes as a kid - but instead of learning or growing up from the experience, he continues to be an angry little child, just in a taller, more adult body. The only thing Thorfinn learns during his 12 years with Askeladd is how to kill people better. His communication skills are horrible, and he cares for absolutely nothing but the opportunity to kill Askeladd, going against his own father's teachings of letting things go; anyone and anything else is simply a burden to his goal. It gets to the point where Askeladd - the leader of a pack of murderous Vikings who steal, loot, kill, and even defile the women of the villages they attack - comes off as the more interesting, positive, less flawed character of the two, one who actually keep his head cool under most circumstances. It came off to a relief to me that Thorfinn was NOT portrayed as invincible as an adult, and he certainly does NOT win every fight he partakes in.
Aside from Thorfinn, I found myself liking most of the other characters, once you get past that everyone except for maybe Leif, Ylva, and Helga are violent, horrible people deep down, some just more jovial about it than others. (Like the literally larger than life Thorkell, who was my favorite character in season one.)
I don't think I have much else to add here. This was originally to be a collaboration review, but I think Stig said just about everything there is to say about the series. I'll just add that Vinland Saga is one of the most gripping anime that I've ever watched with Stig. It's unabashedly violent, cruel, and at times disturbing, but like with Re:ZERO, it never crosses that line to unwatchably bleak. There's always a shred of hope in the series even when a character dies; the journey will still go on. And I can't wait to find out what happens to Thorfinn when we start on season two together in 2024.
An unflinching yet interesting look into our history, warrior culture of which vikings were a branch of, and the people who gets caught up in its rampages. I could not recommend this show any more. — Stig Høgset and Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: The show does not shy away from portraying violence in all its gory. (Not a typo.) Skirmishes between millitary units is one thing, but you will also have to watch Askeladden or others - even Thorfinn - attack and kill noncombatants for entirely self-serving reasons. Older teens and up ONLY.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream on Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Vinland Saga (Season 1) © 2019 Makoto Yukimura / Kodansha / Vinland Saga Production Committee
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