“Not a single good thing has happened to me in my entire life” utters Thorfinn, when questioned why he doesn’t fear death. The moment comes in the episode “Snake” from Vinland Saga’s second season (airing now on Netflix and Crunchyroll), and reveals to us just how deep into despair the show’s main character has fallen. He doesn’t fear death because he has been reduced to a state of bare life, Giorgio Agamben’s theory where one can live a life of complete non-existence with no rights and no way to affect their own situation. Stripped of purpose and powerless to fight his current circumstances, Thorfinn shuffles through life as the walking dead. Not quite alive, and easily struck down with little fanfare, he feels worthless. If that sounds dire, that’s because it is. Despite that, and thanks to exceptional writing both from the original manga and its adaptation here in anime form, you continue to hold out hope that Thorfinn will find his way, which is why now is the time to get in on the compelling anime series Vinland Saga if you haven’t already.
Set (mostly) in 11th Century England, and loosely based on the exploits of actual vikings and historical figures of the time, Vinland Saga takes near-mythic tales that have been aggrandized over the ages, and retells them as deeply personal, character-driven stories. The brutality and dehumanization of the Viking Age is on full display, though never glorified, and a complex set of politics and shifting alliances lurk under the surface at all times to provide intrigue. All of this steadily percolates in the background as director Yabuta Shuhei focuses his attention on the characters at the center of the narrative. Scenes are given time to breathe, careful attention to detail adds depth and polish, and this drawn-out approach allows the viewer to bask in the emotional resonance. The series tackles heavier themes than most anime: examining religious beliefs and how we, as humans, see our place in the world; how power structures actively work to keep people down; and how trauma and violence destroys lives.
This season of Vinland Saga is where, in the opinion of many fans of Yukimura Makoto’s source manga, the series really hits its stride. This is quite a statement, considering the entire first season—Prologue—featured incredible characters and established that the world of Vinland Saga is unforgivably ruthless and cold. It was in the first season where Thorfinn’s downward spiral began. As the events of the narrative progress—around Thorfinn, never propelled by him—Thorfinn’s own character growth is stifled at every turn. He seeks revenge, he wants his worth as a fighter to be validated, but time after time he is shot down. It is a very non-traditional approach to character development in anime, which tends to feature characters who may take a beating, but become stronger as a result. In Vinland Saga, Thorfinn only seems to get weaker, more pathetic. It makes for a fascinating watch as characters around him grow, but Thorfinn struggles. It feels relatable.
Through the first five episodes of Season 2, the stage has been set for the “Farmland Saga” arc to dig into its larger thematic elements, with bigger emotional payoffs on the horizon. Following the events of Season 1, Thorfinn, feeling completely defeated, is sold into slavery and ends up working on a farm owned by a man named Ketil. Thorfinn is paired with the newly arrived slave, Einar, to raze a section of forest and grow wheat. Einar works as an excellent foil for the stoic Thorfinn. While Thorfinn has all but given up on life and any semblance of a future, Einar is still an idealist, and laments the cruelty of the world he lives in. Their odd couple pairing not only works as comedy in lighter moments, but Einar’s engaging demeanor is slowly, but surely, pulling the dour Thorfinn out of his personal morass. As the season is picking up steam, characters from the first are starting to make appearances (including a certain Danish prince who has had a real glow-up since his younger days).
One of the biggest concerns coming into this season of Vinland Saga was the change in production studios. Season 1 was handled by Wit Studio, a smaller company that has a reputation for going all-out for the series they work on. The studio worked on the first three seasons of the juggernaut franchise Attack on Titan, produced last year’s charmer Ranking of Kings, and have been co-producing the mega-hit Spy x Family with Cloverworks. Wit’s background work on Season 1 of Vinland Saga is something to behold; the closeups of characters are filled with personality and action scenes are always well animated. Mappa, the studio taking over production for Season 2, is a studio that has a legion of fanboys and girls online who insist the company is the best in the industry. Far from it. Besides the deplorable working conditions for its animators, Mappa has become so large and bloated with IPs it has swallowed up, the company regularly overextends its staff to the detriment of the anime it produces. Inconsistent art, phoned-in background work, and a general lack of polish can really kill the mood of a show. Thankfully, most of the staff who worked on Season 1 of Vinland Saga moved to Mappa to continue their work, and with Yabuta directing scripts written by returning writer Seko Hiroshi, the heart of Vinland Saga is still intact—though there has been a slip in animation quality overall.
One area that Mappa has nailed this season is both the opening and ending themes. The opener, a poppy trip hop banger by Anonymouz, is animated with so much style that it has drawn comparisons to a Bond film credits sequence. The closer, a traditional ballad performed by LMYK, is written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, legends in American R&B, who wrote a number of Janet Jackson’s biggest hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s among many other credits. Including big names like that in anime theme song production is pretty wild. It can be easy to hit “skip intro” on Netflix, but Vinland Saga is making it really hard to do that. These tracks slap.
The bottom line is that when the most beloved story arc from a consistently stellar manga is being animated, it should be must-see TV for just about any anime fan (or any fan of quality TV, really). Vinland Saga is a historical epic that absolutely delivers. If you have missed out so far, things are really getting interesting in Season 2, and now is the perfect time to get in on TV’s best Viking story.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Netflix and Crunchyroll.
Michael Lee is a writer who might take anime and video games a little too seriously. For more musings on animation, fandom, and game worlds, follow him on Twitter ,@kousatender.
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