Reading manga as opposed to watching anime has always been a vastly different and far more economical experience. You can go at your own pace, the panels flow differently, and there’s often a heavier impact on dialogue and monologue. The art is usually more detailed. There’s rarely any color, and so the stark black and white and grey often create their own kind of poetic beauty. Sometimes, you have to rely on your own imagination to really get the act through, but at other times, the story’s momentum is thrilling enough that you can get by, turning the pages greedily in a blur, waiting for the next cliffhanger to bleed on through.
Vinland Saga is a series by the stupendous Makoto Yukimura (the mangaka behind Planetes, which you should definitely give a read and watch if you haven’t already). When I first gave it a try about five years ago, I had little clue for what I was into. What started as a curious peek turned into a frenzied week as pages became a blur, days became hours, and suddenly, I had reached the latest chapter. It was like pure adrenaline, rushing through those beautifully detailed pages. Being a historical drama, many of the events felt naturally progressive and sequential, narrated like a documentary, but with a thread of epic theater woven through them to create a rich tapestry about the nature of man and war.
And so in this experience, Thors’ presence felt like a brief moment of time; a blip on the epic journey of Thorfinn towards revenge, and ultimately, redemption. Looking back now, his story is small: seventeen chapters are devoted to the beginning of Vinland Saga, out of a current hundred and ninety one. That’s almost 7%, in a breathtaking and detailed world of cruelty, violence, war, and death. So it took me by utter surprise that when the anime adaptation started, four episodes (an entire third of a one cour show!) were devoted to those seventeen chapters. I was expecting at most, two.
Unlike manga, where you determine the speed, anime is far more authoritative. It gives you the scene, different character designs, and adds a whole new dimension of interaction. The first five minutes of Vinland Saga‘s anime explicitly tells us this by deliberately setting the pace for this prologue. We are not introduced to Thorfinn, the eventual main character of this show. Instead, we are introduced to Thor, his father, watching the wind gently rustle a golden field of wheat. He closes his eyes, and we’re immediately transported to a battle filled with rust, blood, and dead soldiers.
From here till the fourth episode, Vinland Saga exclusively focuses on Thors’ life, while also including snippets of his son Thorfinn. It takes great pains to show the peaceful and mundane lifestyle he leads: we watch as Thor dedicates himself to saving a slave’s life, while Thorfinn gazes upon the Northern Lights and wonders what’s out there. We see him plow away snow with his daughter and greet his old Viking friend, while Thorfinn practices battle with a wooden play toy. We see Thorfinn milk cows and his sister thread cloth. WIT Studio interweaves scenic nature shots in between, immersing us in this idealistic small town, separated from war and turbulent seas.
The pace is almost sleep inducing, but only in a good way, to remind us the slow beat of peace. People here are frugal, but happy. Nature continues on, but we somehow find a way to struggle and appreciate its beauty. But more than anything, Thors’ values are consistently symmetrical with the ebb and flow of nature, emphasizing his simple but honest ideals. Whether it’s from the way he performs CPR on even the most dismal of slaves near a blazing fire, or molding kitchenware with his townsfolk on a frigid winter morning. Even while war looms on horizon and Thor must leave his town, he still upholds his values. When his fellow comrades ask about the glory of war, Thor doesn’t narrate a victorious battle, or a difficult duel to the death. Instead, as the sun slowly rises and dawn creeps in, calming the tides, he tells the story of his first daughter, and how becoming a father made him value – and fear – the power and sacred value of life.
The anime is so careful about setting this up, it’s as if to lure us into the false security of Thor’s life. It is precisely because of this however, that when Thor is ‘defeated’ by Askeladd, the pace almost buckles under the weight of his life being lost. Suddenly, peaceful winter no longer seems like a thing. The stability we were so accustomed to for nearly three episodes blows away like dust in the wind. And nothing signifies this heavy loss than through the naive eyes of Thorfinn, who has known nothing but tranquility. Thor’s death isn’t just the loss of innocence for Thorfinn. It’s almost like the last stand of hopeful good in the world, a torch that was kept alive in a small town, departed from all of brutality. From here on out, Thorfinn will be our protagonist, but Thor’s soul reverberates even afterwards, in the form of his last words to Thorfinn, and the ending song.
For most anime-only watchers, these four episodes may seem like a slow burn. Thorfinn’s life as a child seems trivial, and Thors is nothing but a trigger for the tragic path Thorfinn takes to avenge his father’s death. This isn’t false: even in terms of music and direction, after Thors dies, we no longer look back on those serene moments of nature, and drums beat heavily to the tune of Thorfinn’s cries of anger. But looking back on it from a hundred chapters forward, and I see that the consequence of this event ripples outward. Thor’s death isn’t just an impact on Thorfinn’s innocent soul. It is a tragic bell toll for the audience, a solemn vow of how we fail to value the things that make us human: our honor, our liberty, and our choice to commit to the ones we love. Thors life and death may have only lasted for four episodes, but his ideals and way of living will mold the shape of Vinland Saga as it continues onward, beating against the tide, and most certainly, mold Thorfinn’s growth from an anger-consumed warrior to a man who devotes his time to following in his father’s footsteps.