Now that History’s Vikings is scheduled to end their final season sometime next year, its like Odin himself willed it that WIT Studio, the animation studio behind Attack on Titan, should helm the anime adaptation of Makoto Yukimura’s popular manga series Vinland Saga.
The historical-drama anime premiered its first three episodes on Prime Video earlier this month, and it is a violent and bloody good time with exquisite action scenes, fleshed-out characters and an intriguing story about coming of age in a cruel world that takes enough from real life to satisfy history buffs.
From the opening scene, the audience is thrown into a cruel and violent world, as Vinland Saga starts right in the middle of the actual Battle of Hjörungavágr in the year 987. As expected from WIT, the battle is one very bloody affair, but the choreography and fluidity of the movements as characters swings their swords left and right is awe-inspiring. The beauty of the scene and the blood-pumping thrills of the action may trick you into thinking that the show will glorify violence and the way of the Vikings, but the series has more on its mind.
Vinland Saga doesn’t shy away from showing the horrors of war and the foolishness of those who glorify it in their ignorance. The show puts its poignant philosophy front and center, as it directs its anger towards those who show cruelty to their fellow men. Thors, the first character we meet, is the perfect example: a renowned former mercenary, the Viking (or Jomsvikings) became disillusioned with his lifestyle and faked his own death during a battle, and now enjoys a peaceful and simple hobbit-like life in Iceland.
The story feels grounded and relies on historical facts to make us believe in these characters. Thors’ son, Thorfinn, grew up listening to stories from his father’s friend, Leif Erikson, who journeyed to a distant and bountiful continent to the west. Erikson also tells of the story of the colonization of Greenland Iceland by Norsemen escaping from war, and the second episode even shows the very real St. Brice’s Day Massacre in the Viking-colony of Northumbria, which will sound familiar to fans of Vikings. Given it is doubtful that the last season of the History show will span 200 years of history, Vinland Saga serves as the best sequel to that show.
Though only three episodes have aired, there’s already plenty of character development at play that teases a very tragic if intriguing future for the show. We see how the young boys from Thors’ village seem excited by the prospect of their first battle, while the village elders dread what awaits them. There are hints of a deeper backstory that connects Thors’ wife and the leader of the Jomsvikings, but the real standout is the parental bond between Thors and Thorfinn.
Throughout the first three episodes Thors grows wearier of his son’s affinity for warfare and enthusiasm for battle, and the lingering shot of Thors’ disappointing look whenever his son talks about battle gives more insight into his character and what he has seen than any flashback could. Thorfinn’s eagerness to grow up despite the audience knowing better helps him avoid falling into “annoying kid” territory, while Thors will instantly make audiences think of Ed Stark, as both men escaped violent lives where they thrived in favor of peace and quiet in the far north, right before their old life comes knocking at the door.
Though the second and third episodes slow down on the action compared to the opening scene of the first episode, there is a sense of danger and dread that permeates the world of Vinland Saga. The show introduces us to a world where anything and everything can get you killed, and tension can come from something as simple as a character making eye contact with the wrong person, making even the non-battle scenes thrilling to watch.
The one big problem with Vinland Saga so far is that the third episode ends on a huge cliffhanger that won’t get resolved for another two weeks. Even worse is that it comes right after the show introduced a promising villain in the form of Thors’ enigmatic and former friend, Floki, and the mercenary Askeladd (named after Norwegian fairytale hero). Both men come across as formidable and smart adversaries, so it will be interesting to see if the show maintains that conflict in future episodes.
This may have just been the prologue to what promises to be an epic story spanning decades, but Vinland Saga is off to a entertaining start that shows the horrors of being a Viking at the turn of the 11th century, while also serving as a coming-of-age tale set against the background of a bloody and thrilling war.
Rafael Motamayor is a freelance TV/film critic and reporter living in Norway. You can find more of his work here, or follow him on Twitter @RafaelMotamayor.