Vinland Saga (Season 1) Review: Ambitious But Extraordinarily Boring

Vinland Saga (Season 1) Review: Ambitious But Extraordinarily Boring

A fantasy anime that’s not about dragons, mecha or academies of dark arts? 

Vinland Saga is religiously steeped in Viking lore and heroically attempts to rebuild a complex mediaeval history and introduce it to a previously unfamiliar medium – anime. It’s a major task.

Unfortunately, grounding the anime in a “different” world is simply not enough. You still need compelling characters, people you would root for, or at least people you would hate enough to tolerate an average main character and watch his journey of 24 episodes until he takes down the villain. This, I believe, is the problem with the first season of Vinland Saga.

There is nobody in the anime you could understand as a person. 

People, here, are mere caricatures of themselves. I can see the allure of not spending appropriate time on developing good characters. After all, Vikings, as presented in the show, are ruthless and simple-minded mercenaries who are ready to charge into the battle at the first command.

But what this does is that it allows the creator to easily design a character that stands out, because the only contrast, the only backdrop you provide to the viewers are the war-hungry Vikings. For example, someone like Thorfinn’s father seems effortlessly admirable because he’s strong but not violent. That’s it. You don’t have to work on his character anymore. Leave it to Thorfinn to fantasise about his father for the rest of the season.

Then, some fans might argue that it’s the point of the show, that there’s no black and white in war and not everyone is admirable or despicable and most people would exist in the shades in between instead. 

All true and good, but that’s completely beside the point. I will explain. 

Plot

Thorfinn’s father, Thor, is slain by the cunning Askeladd. With a burning thirst for revenge, Thorfinn vows to kill Askeladd. As a twist of fate, he joins the band of Askeladd, sharpening his blade and growing stronger and more agile. He challenges Askeladd for a duel every once in a while and attempts to kill him.

Alliances develop and disintegrate in a globe riven by political warfare and power battles, showing the intricate fabric of loyalty and ambition. Thorfinn's fate is also intertwined with that of Prince Canute, a reluctant successor caught up in a royal tug-of-war.

The mythological promise of Vinland, a verdant, war-free land, emerges as a distant light of salvation.

Extremely Unimaginative and Weak Characters

The character of Thorfinn, whose need for revenge fuels the early narrative winds, sinks into the doldrums of repetition. 

What begins as a riveting transformation narrative quickly devolves into a circular dance of stagnation, denying Thorfinn the progress his character requires.

I understand that Thorfinn undergoes a major transformation in the second season, but that cannot save the dysfunctional performance of his character in the first season. He neither acts like a child, nor like a trauma victim – I mean it’s not up to me to suggest a kid’s appropriate psychological response to a murder. 

It could very well be argued that Thorfinn’s dedication to turning his heart cold as Iceland might be him trying to run away from grief.

But here’s the problem: anime is replete with revenge stories, especially the murder of a parent trope. Eren from Attack on Titan and Lelouch from Code Geass are the finest examples. Both characters have witnessed a murder as a child and both were also equally possessed by the idea of revenge and ran away from their grief. 

Neither were particularly likeable characters. But whatever they lacked in depth, they made up with their idiosyncrasies and a particular kind of charm that makes them aware of a world beyond themselves. They are likeable in their unlikeability.

Fans of Vinland Saga need to hear this…

There is a difference between a show that has an unlikeable character and a show that has an awful character. If I need to bear through 24 episodes watching an absolute, boring jackass on the pretext that he will undergo a transformation later in the season, it’s simply not a good show. 

The fact that it needs a pretext at all exposes the lack of strength in the show’s narrative. 

The other characters were equally awful – two-dimensional and restricted. Prince Canute’s transition was very much expected and did not impress me. Although the way he changed – by having a discourse on love – was quite unique.

Likewise, Bjorn’s death would have been more tragic and meaningful if he had any character moments at all, aside from eating mushrooms and going on a rampage. 

I believe the most well-grounded character is that of Askeladd, who has a very pleasant and consistently disconcerting presence on screen, and does most of the heavy-lifting for the season, a job that should’ve been also shared by Thorkell, if his brute force wasn’t spent in making me question which side exactly the anime wants to lean on – fantasy or history?

Well, either way, Askeladd is now dead, so…