Ever since I watched the sun first dawn over the earth in the adaptation of his spellbinding Planetes, I have been entranced by the works of Makoto Yukimura. One of the great mangaka of the art form, Yukimura crafts works of great thematic ambition, telling stories not just of individuals, but of whole societies and ways of life. His works are driven by complex and sympathetic individuals, but his antagonists are never so clear-cut – as in Planetes, which is less preoccupied with condemning single heedless inventors than it is with critiquing a system that frames our total human value as our potential contribution to a capitalist engine. Vinland Saga is a work of equal ambition and insight, setting its gaze not on the potential of our space-age future, but on the tragedies of the past, and the violent cycles of medieval feudalism.
Vinland Saga opens by introducing us to Thors, a warrior famed within the storied Jomsvikings, and a man who by any reasonable metric would be considered a “success” within his society. Yet even as we’re introduced to his dazzling martial prowess, we see a cold sorrow in his eyes – and soon, his life of bloodshed is replaced by one of sturdy labor and seasonal duties, as he flees with his wife and daughter in search of a peaceful future.
The contrast between the fury of this production’s opening moments and the hard-earned peace of its ensuing scenes speaks to the heart of Vinland Saga. Though it’s certainly an action show, violence is framed as a necessary consequence of a violent age, not a way through which you prove your righteousness. Thors’ conversations with his son Thorfinn feel earnest, yet tragically weighted by the social expectations of a violent age. Thorfinn and his friends playing at war is contrasted against scenes of brutal bloodshed; and when Thorfinn says he needs a sword to “defeat his enemies,” Thors firmly takes him by the shoulders and says “you have no enemies. No one has any enemies.”
“No one has any enemies” is one of Vinland Saga‘s principle lessons, a prayer of social goodwill that Thors compliments with his dream of a distant, shimmering Vinland, a land free of strife and suffering. But Vinland Saga is not a sentimental work, and its conflicts stay mired in the blood and dirt of a country at war. Thors’ idealistic prayer is quickly supplemented by a new moral, courtesy of the raider and mercenary lord Askeladd: “everyone is a slave, even if they can’t see the chains.”
Askeladd stands as Vinland Saga‘s most interesting character, and embodies the complexity of characterization that gives Vinland Saga such a human touch. Initially introduced to the narrative as a heartless villain, Askeladd at times takes the role of mentor, tormentor, raider, defender, tactician, and father, reassessing his values and growing in his perspective, but always staying true to his perceptive, far-seeing self. He is a complex and endlessly engaging figure, a product of his era determined to rise above it, and a credit to Yukimura’s interest not just in larger societal forces, but also the millions of distinct individuals who actually move society forward.
He’s also one hell of a swordsman. Though I’ve written plenty about Vinland Saga‘s themes and characters, I should also emphasize it’s quite satisfying as an old-fashioned action-adventure. Directed by Shūhei Yabuta, the man who also directed Attack on Titan‘s 3D action sequences, Vinland Saga regularly demonstrates Yabuta’s flexible, 3D-oriented approach to handling action. Cameras swoop and spin alongside the show’s nimble warriors, and though the show’s action setpieces aren’t as plentiful as in a straightforward action drama, Yabuta’s team at Studio WIT do their best to make each major battle a thrilling highlight.
Vinland Saga also benefits from appealing character and background design. Thick-lined, expressive faces capture the individuality of Yukimura’s characters, while lush painted backdrops lend a majestic dignity to all the show’s drama. At certain times, particularly during the utterly stunning fourteenth episode, Vinland Saga rises from faithful adaptation into breathtaking elevation, intimately capturing the sorrow and desperate hope of a life in chains.
That said, outside of the big action setpieces, the show’s direction is generally conservative. Most scenes stick to relatively flat panel-by-panel adaptation, and the show’s animation flags considerably during its second half. The winter march that consumes much of that second half is a slog in both visual and narrative terms, while also featuring the show’s most pronounced character-writing hiccup. At one point, we’re essentially forced to accept divine inspiration as the motivation for a character to shift his personality entirety – an act of audience faith that felt like the one point where Yukimura’s thematic ambitions demanded a concession in terms of convincing, gradual characterization.
That said, that concession ultimately leads into some of the story’s most distinctive and thrilling segments yet, which points to another of Vinland Saga‘s strengths: how it gracefully adjusts its narrative shape and dramatic fundamentals as the course of its characters’ lives change, and what they truly value changes as well. That, in turn, reflects the show’s hard-fought idealism, as Vinland Saga‘s structural metamorphoses speak to its faith in our capacity for reinvention and renewal. Again and again, Vinland Saga directly articulates the inherent tragedies of human society, and yet Yukimura’s story is still filled with hope. It is precisely Vinland Saga‘s acuity of perspective, both in terms of individual actors and the structures they occupy, that make its tragic moments hurt so deeply, and its joyous moments inspire such hope for tomorrow.
On the whole, Vinland Saga is an imperfect yet tremendously impressive work, a story suffused with a thematic ambition and sharpness of perspective that raises its high above its genre peers. Populated with rich, sympathetic characters and adorned by breathtaking action highlights, it is a rich and rewarding adventure that might just inspire you to challenge the conditions of your own life. Beautiful, brutal, and fiercely intelligent, Vinland Saga is one of the best anime of 2019.