Vinland Saga – 01 (First Impressions) – Hard Times in a Hard Land

Fresh off the heels of Attack on Titan’s third season, Wit Studio brings us something just as harsh and bleak and serious, but with its roots in real history; specifically, Vikings. We’re immediately thrust into a melee aboard a longship in the middle of a huge naval battle, as the stoic warrior Thors is rudely awakened from a pleasant daydream of greener pastures and his wife Helga by an attacking foe.

Thors easily defeats his opponent, then carves through dozens more in a very businesslike fasion before anyone lays a finger on him—or in this case, an arrow to his shoulder. Still, he pulls a warrior into the freezing sea with him to even the odds, kills him, and eventually comes ashore, none the worse for wear. The battle is an impressive display of mixed 2D and 3D animation, particularly the sudden storm of hail.

Fifteen years later, in the harsh colds of Iceland, Thors lives with his wife Helga, his daughter Ylva, and his young son Thorfinn, who longs to go on adventures like another village member, the gregarious Leif Erikson (who discovered North America, which he called Vinland, half a millennium before Columbus).

Donning a headpiece and smoking a pipe from the natives he met, Erikson evokes both awe and skepticism from the kids, but Thorfinn is mostly among the former. He doesn’t like Iceland, and would rather be anywhere. I can’t blame him; while an achingly gorgeous land, surviving there is a constant battle, and the spirit of a warrior like his dad Thors is paramount in such an exercise.

As Thors talks with Leif long into the night about the worsening winters in Greenland and Iceland, and how his family’s battles are only going to get tougher, Thorfinn dreams of captaining a grand longship on a westward journey.

Unfortunately they run into the legendary Jormungand, who proceeds to squeeze Thorfinn until he awakes. Turns out Jormungand was Ylva, sharing his warm bed (a “hot” commodity in such a cold land). Vinland Saga wastes no time showing that while life is hard, this family has endured by sticking together.

Ylva, it seems, would still prefer if they bought a slave, since her mother has grown weaker, something to which her dad seems morally opposed. But when she falls off the roof they’re clearing of snow (a scary moment), she lands on something strange, and after some digging, she finds a runaway slave.

Meanwhile, Thorfinn, probably not doing his fair share of chores considering he’s just hanging around Leif, wants to start adventuring at once, not waiting until he grows into a man. Leif warns him of the dangers of the sea, particularly so far north, and how he was once the only survivor out of a crew of seven whose ship was crushed by ice floes.

When Thorfinn asks why they all live in such a hard place, Leif doesn’t sugarcoat it: their forbears once lived in Norway, but when a king rose there and demanded the people choose fealty or exile, they left. Thorfinn is angered and doesn’t believe Leif, seeing this fleeing of his ancestors as cowardly.

The slave gains consciousness after Thors warms him by the fire gives him a kind of primitive CPR, and is awake long enough to tell him he doesn’t want to go back to Halfdan’s household. We soon learn why when Halfdan suddenly shows up at the village, causing a standoff. Still, the chain-obsessed Halfdan is looking for a slave, not a fight, so even when one of his own men tries to attack a villager, he flays the skin from his face himself. Talk about lawful evil…

Upon entering Thors’ house, he demands they return the slave to him. Thors offers to buy the slave instead, for more than Halfdan paid for him—over four times more, when the negotiations conclude. The whole time, Ylva can’t believe her dad is making such a deal, which isn’t a good one in any century.

Sure enough, the slave dies soon after the deal is struck, leaving Thors’ family short eight goats. But I know why Thors did it. The slave had already suffered enough, and Thors wasn’t going to be the one to return him to his earthly torments. Better to die peacefully, which is what he did. It was a bad deal, but it was the right thing to do.

That night, as the family watches the Northern Lights from a dramatic promontory (it really is a shockingly gorgeous land), presumably after burying the slave, Thorfinn asks his dad if Leif was telling the truth about their people running away. Thors quietly confirms that “that’s what they say.” To which Thorfinn asks, if one wanted to run away from here, where would they go?

The answer, it seems, will likely drive Thorfinn from this sleepy, cold, and often cruel village, no doubt after whoever is smirking in a longship attacks his village…at least that seems to be the likeliest sequence of events. Not being well-versed in Norse history (and never having read the manga), his journey will be new to me.

While a mostly quiet and understated beginning, Vinland Saga built a strong foundation for the coming twenty-three episodes (the following two of which I will review soon) by showing us Thorfinn’s roots, and why his wanderlust is so strong. I can assure you if Leif Erickson regailed us with tales of his travels every night, I’d probably want to head out too.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 10 – Heinous Crimes Lead to a Shocking Reunion

When Tiese and Ronie are late for their cleaning duties (why do they clean every day? How messy are Eugeo and Kirito?) Kirito leaps out the window to go find them. Then Eugeo receives Frenica at the door, telling him the other two have already gone to Raios and Humbert on her behalf.

Eugeo rushes to their pad, where they already have Tiese and Ronie tied up on the bed and are preparing to rape them as punishment for insulting and defaming them under their judicial authority as high-ranking nobles, which supersedes any academy laws. So, as I predicted, the villains of the moment have escalated to rape and must thus be dispatched as brutally and righteously as possible by the good guys.

But their escalating awfulness makes me wonder: if high-ranking nobles can get away with such heinous crimes, why isn’t this practice more clearly widespread? Why hasn’t such a glaring loophole, which places the most authority in the least moral individuals, not led to chaos and the destruction of the utopia?

Are the fluctlights of Raios and Humbert unique in their horribleness, so that combined with their high stations in the “game” they and they alone will abuse their power to such an extent?

Never mind; for now Tiese and Ronie are in an intolerable situation, and Eugeo has to help them…but initially, he can’t: a lawful command from Raios all but paralyzes him. He has to remember what Kirito said about some laws having to be broken sometimes, because to not break them would allow worse crimes to be committed.

So Eugeo struggles until a System Alert appears in his right eye, an eye that eventually explodes when he finally lunges at Raios and Humbert, snipping some of the former’s golden locks but relieving Humbert of his left arm. Fittingly, when he begs Raios for some of his life in order to heal, Raios demurs.

What Raios takes great pleasure in, however, is having witnessed such a heinous crime be committed in his presence. He prepares to behead Eugeo for that crime, as is his right as a noble, but Kirito jumps in at the last second, with his new sword. The two duel on the spot, with Raios becoming more and more demonic as he assures himself he’ll win…and then both his hands and forearms are sliced clean off by Kirito’s coup-de-grace.

The tables thus turn: Raios begs Humbert to help him at the cost of his own life, and Humbert cites the Taboo Index as the reason he can’t help, sorry. As he bleeds profusely from the floor, he whips himself into a frenzy, and his body starts to distort like a malfunctioning hologram, before all of the life is drained out of him. Good riddance Mr. Rapist.

As Kirito and Eugeo comfort their thoroughly traumatized pages, the Mr. Clean head pops out of the ceiling and says all the same stuff he said when Alice had crossed the boundary. They’re thrown in Jail, but the next day released by Ms. Azurica, though she’s just handing them over to their Axiom Church escorts. But not before praising them for what they did.

They broke rules that had to be broken, something she couldn’t do—which again calls to mind how widespread sexual abuse is between the higher and lower classes. But because they did something she couldn’t, it also means they’ll be able to go places she can’t. In this case, they’re brought before an Integrity Knight in the Central Cathedral. And that knight turns out to be Alice.

Does she recognize her old friends? Has she been totally reconditioned and drained and sentiment? Were they brought there to be killed…or to take the place in the chuch they earned through their valiant actions, despite them being against the Taboo Index?

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 09 – Stay Cool

When it comes to baddies, SAO isn’t exactly subtle. Lord Raios and his toadie Sir Humbert are both extremely hoity-toity noblemen, and it would seem they draw their power from their conceitedness and by comparing themselves to others. They seem acutely aware that Kirito and Eugeo are Good Guys and thus it’s basically in their nature to want to fuck with them at every turn.

After experiencing the power of Humbert’s conceit in a duel that Raios cuts short in a draw, the two noblemen warn Eugeo that “battle is more than swinging a sword,” suggesting they’ll seek other ways to mess with him. Humbert seems to find a way in Frenica, the dorm-mate of Eugeo’s page Tiese. Specifically, he’s sexually abusing her by, likely among other things, ordering her to massage him in nothing but her underwear.

Until now the duo seemed almost pathetically petty in their bullying (Stomping some flowers? Seriously?). But with his casual cruelty toward Frenica—while staying within academy regs—Humbert, and by extention Raios, have crossed the line into Despicable SAO Baddie territory. Rooting for Eugeo in putting a stop to the abuse is almost too easy.

But the fact that regs aren’t being explicitly broken (the page is merely following orders of her mentor, as is the order of things) and the extreme deference Eugeo must show to his social betters make things tricky for Eugeo. Last week he was holding Kirito back, but now it’s he who must be held back by Kirito. The baddies are counting on him making an unforced error and getting into trouble, or worse.

Of course, that’s not going to stop Eugeo from doing everything he can. He asks Raios and Humbert to knock if off the nicest way he can, though I doubt they’ll heed him, which means stronger measures will be needed that still fall within the strict rules of the academy and the world at large.

Then there’s the relationship between Eugeo and his page Tiese, which escalades very rapidly due to the Frenica incident. Tiese is of a lower-level aristocrat family, and once she becomes the head of the family a husband will be chosen from an equal or higher level. Tiese is terribly afraid of ending up with a man like Humbert.

So after making her formal report, she appeals to Eugeo, whom she knows to be kind, gentle, and honorable, to fight and win the Four Empires Tournament, which will allow him to become an aristocrat and thus an acceptable match for her*. It’s a big ask, but Eugeo will need to do a bit of social climbing anyway to have any shot at reuniting with Alice, so he agrees.

But in the meantime, Raios and Humbert won’t leave Eugeo or Frenica alone easily. I’m worried about what kind of trap they might have planned for him. It might be safer or easier for Eugeo to keep his head down and take everything they throw at him in stride. But that’s not who Eugeo is, any more than it’s who Kirito is. If there’s a wrong being done that they can stop, even the laws can’t get in the way of justice and honor.

*Since Tiese doesn’t explicitly ask for Eugeo to marry her, it could be she’s asking, and he’s agreeing, to simply be there for her when she marries someone else, which would also require him to rise to a higher station. Though marrying her makes the most sense to me. LN readers, set me straight!

Attack on Titan – 29

Titan, you can only zoom in on the pained-looking eyes at some one so many times before I start thinking to my self well, she’s definitely hiding something, and in this show, ‘hiding something’ usually means ‘they’re a Titan’.

And so it’s the case with Ymir, who laughs about Conny’s report on his village a bit too much; specifically the part where the fallen Titan on his house reminded him of his mom.

But before her Ymir’s big telegraphed reveal, she, Krista, and the other gear-less rookies play a tense waiting game once the Titans show up.

The elite scouts show off their stuff, but considering the Beast Titan is arranging this siege, watching them exert so much steel, gas, and energy to what will likely be the first of many waves was a bit disheartening.

Not that the scouts have any choice but to fight, mind you—A., it’s their duty; B., they’re totally surrounded.

Inevitably, the Titans get in the castle, and the few moments before Reiner opens a cellar door to reveal a particularly creepy one are absolutely dripping with tension and dread. It’s so quiet down there, but as most Titans don’t speak, silence doesn’t mean safety.

The rookies make use of what they have—a pitchfork, an old cannon, scrap wood—to kill this Titan, but a second one shows up, one that gives Reiner a vicious arm wound before he picks him up and places him in a window so Ymir can kick him out.

Krista rips up her skirt to make Reiner bandages and a sling, and he contradicts Ymir’s claim he’s not interested in girls when he thinks “gotta marry her” (Krista, not Ymir).

But more distressingly, they’re just about out of effective makeshift weapons, and the barricade for the door into the castle seems laughably flimsy against the onslaught of Titans outside.

Those Titans just keep coming, and when the Beast tosses some horses and rocks at the castle towers, two of the four scouts are killed instantly. It turns out they were the very, very lucky ones. Titan goes Full Sadist in depicting the visceral demise of the final two elite scouts, both of them, by the end, reduced to crying and screaming like young children before being disembowled and devoured.

All the one poor guy hopes for before the end is to have a drink from the bottle of booze he found, but to add insult to fatal injury, Krista used it all up disinfecting Reiner’s wound. Titan doesn’t just drive the knife in and twist it, it pulls the knife back out, then drives it back in, twists again, then drops an anvil on you for good measure. Brutal.

In the face of all that casual brutality, the arrival of dozens more Titans, and the fact the tower they’re standing on will certainly crumble and fall within minutes it’s kind of amazing that none of the rookies want to give up yet, although Krista specifically wants weapons so she can die in battle like the four scouts. Ymir doesn’t like that attitude, so she decides: she’ll be the weapon.

She takes Conny’s dagger and leaps off the tower, confusing everyone (except Reiner, who found it odd Ymir could read the language on the canned herring label), then transforming into a wild-looking Titan. The cavalry didn’t come from without for this group of rookies, but from within. But will she be enough?

It’s another strong outing from Attack on Titan to close out its first quarter, and it’s a close call between this and the Sasha episode for best episode so far. This week the claustrophobic pressure was kept up by remaining at the castle and only at the castle for the entire duration; no cuts to see what was going on elsewhere.

That extra focus, and the increased horror elements made this a must-watch, even if there were times when it was hard to watch.

GATE – 20

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I often groan at GATE episodes that mostly or wholly omit the core gang of Itami & Co., but that’s a bit unfair, knowing that GATE is about more than just one man or one group’s adventures, but about an entire sprawling world of multiple races, political affiliations, and ideologies.

This week may have felt more like a Sherry & Casel spin-off than the GATE I typically like, but it was nonetheless a strong and surprisingly moving episode that gave the current political troubles and Japan’s involvement (or lack of same) a smaller, human scale.

Under Tyuule’s manipulation, Prince Zolzal has passed extraordinary laws and raised a paramilitary force called “Oprichnina” to oppress all pro-peace actors in the Empire. Among those is Senator Casel, who hoped to find safety with Sherry’s family, but are soon set upon by Orpichnina “Cleaners” led by the sniveling Gimlet.

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Sherry leads Casel out of the house, and her parents proceed to burn it down, presumably dying in the process but covering the escape of both their family’s and country’s futures. Of course, Tyuule is on the scene and aware of Sherry and Casel’s movements, and uses her porcine assistant to get the two to “dance for her.” Not sure why Tyuule is micromanaging things to this extent, but I do know her evil smirking is getting old.

Sherry, despite being only twelve years old, doesn’t show her fear as she finds herself out in the world with people after her and an adult senator to protect. She haggles with a villager for food and secures a room at the inn, but the only way they’ll both be safe is if they can reach and gain asylum at the Jade Palace, a territory that is technically Japanese soil by treaty.

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They get to the boundary of the de facto embassy easily enough, but are met by Princess Pina’s knights, who relay the Japanese diplomats are unwilling to harbor political dissidents at this time, thanks to a hard line from the ministry back home that doesn’t want to look weak or further embolden Zolzal by harboring doves. Even Sugawara, whom Sherry is in love with and truly believes she’ll marry someday, won’t let his personal feelings interfere with his diplomatic duties.

The Japanese refusal to accept Casel means as soon as Gimlet arrives with his Cleaners, they arrest the senator and prepare to take Sherry into custody too. It’s hard to watch her come so far, with so much childish faith in her shining Japanese hero, only to be turned away right before the finish line, and into the jaws of those who have already destroyed her family and likely have nothing good planned for her.

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At the same time, while I despised Sugawara as much as he probably despised himself when he refused to act, I also appreciated his duty to his country. People can’t just disobey orders all the time. I thought this would all come to a heartbreaking end, with Gimlet’s grubby mitts all over an increasingly pathetic Sherry screaming for Sugawara’s help.

Turns out, Sugawara couldn’t abandon Sherry to a horrible fate. He orders her brought over to the Japanese side. This obviously led to the desirable outcome of Sherry being safe (in exchange for Sugawara promising to marry her after all when she comes of age), but GATE doesn’t pretend such an action wouldn’t have messy consequences.

There are knots and kinks in this particular fairy tale: Just as Sherry’s parents gave up their lives to get her out, Sugawara may have sacrificed his career and complicated Japan’s position to a potentially disastrous extent to save her. He did something he didn’t have the authority to do. Zolzal and Tyuule wanted nothing more than to stir the shit with Japan, and Sugawara’s heroism did just that.

The Vice Minister, who previously respected his decision as a diplomat while loathing him as a man, is forced to reverse both positions: condemn his actions as a diplomat, but laud him for being a decent man who couldn’t let the screams of a child go unheard.

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Attack on Titan – 25 (Fin)

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A Priest of the Wall is preaching in a packed temple, when all of a sudden, Annie the Titan bursts through the walls, killing dozens. When Eren punched her, he wasn’t thinking about the people inside, but rather how much damage he could do to Annie with his punch. Annie, who always looked so smug and bored, keeping her dark secret to herself while mixing with the rest of humanity when it suited her.

No more. Eren’s fighting spirit is fueled just as much by hate and resentment than a desire to save mankind. And in order to beat Annie, who has shed her allegiance to humanity altogether, he must be a monster, unconcered with the collateral damage to the district.

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Even though those behind Wall Sina contribute next to nothing to the survival of mankind, and live within a false shell of security forged from the deaths of those from the outer walls, they’re still largely innocent men, women, and children, like a little girl walking through the streets, bloodied, dazed, and almost certainly orphaned. While this is on the whole a duel between giants in what is to them a toy city, the episode makes sure to capture the human toll of their brutal melee.

After getting beaten to a pulp by the technically superior Annie, Eren gets his second wind by remembering the promise he made five years ago after the Titans first invaded: he’d exterminate every last one of them without fail. That must naturally include Annie, so he powers up into a kind of overdrive mode and overpowers her. Panicked she may actually lose, Annie tries to flee over the wall.

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Throughout the fight, we hear Eren’s inner monologue, but unfortunately, not Annie’s. However, we do see flashes of a past even in which her father is embracing her in apparent forgiveness, telling her he’ll be on her side even if the entire world becomes her enemy. The details on what exactly happened in Annie’s past to cause this encounter and lead to her gaining the ability to transform are nonexistent, but at least we now know that Annie’s actions weren’t totally random, but driven by this seminal past event in her life.

However much death and destruction she’s caused, she feels justified, if not totally immune to the judgment of the masses. Maybe she has no “leader” to report to or to deliver Eren to; perhaps Annie is doing all of this for Annie, and no one else.

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Her getaway is thwarted by a clutch Mikasa, who is able to slice even Annie’s crystallized digits off, sending her falling to the ground, where a berserk Eren proceeds to de-limb and decapitate her. Hange is concerned he’ll kill Annie in his rage, and with it the captive the Scout Regiment needs to survive the ramifications of this operation.

But he doesn’t. When he sees Annie within the Titan nape, unconscious, helpless, crying, and connected by tissue the same way he is, Eren freezes. All the resolve he’d built up melts away simply due to the sight of the Annie he knows. That hesitation allows Annie to (voluntarily or not) become encased in hard crystal that no blade can cut.

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Eren emerges from the Titan, exhausted but unharmed. Mikasa stays by his bedside as he makes a full recovery. Erwin manages to convince the Mayor and other bigwigs that they were able to accomplish something, by uncovering a potential epidemic of Titans hiding among mankind; Annie and Eren are surely not alone.

For now, Eren still has the key to his basement, Annie remains encased in crystal under Hange’s care, and Erwin vows to go on the offensive against the Titans. We have plenty of seeds for a second season, which is apparently arriving some time this year. With all the questions left unanswered mysteries left unsolved, and, of course, that creepy Titan peering out from inside the wall, I don’t see how I can miss it.

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Shiki 20.5

Last summer’s Shiki was a series that always made you question whose side you should pick. At first, when vampires were picking off innocent characters we’d barely gotten to know, one by one, they seemed like the bad guys. But once we got to know some of those so-called baddies, and learned that for the most part they maintained their personalities, we started to sympathize with them and question the ruthlessness of the remaining humans. After all, both sides wanted the same thing: to survive.

This extra episode, taking place before the final climactic two episodes that answers the question ‘who will win the village’ (answer: no one), definitely paints the humans as the bad guys. The vampires here, including a beside-herself Nao, are at their wits’ end, running from hunters and running out of places to hide. Cornered in a sewer that gets progressively narrower as they climb deeper in – like a nightmarish H.R. Giger drawing – they couldn’t get more desperate.

Yet, to the humans, led by an overzealous young man who seems to enjoy killing them a bit too much considering they retain a lot of their human qualities, basically bullies the less assertive members of his hunting party to wipe out these remaining vamps. When they run out of stakes, they tie them all up (including Nao) and wait for the sun. It’s a truly horrible scene – graphic and hard to watch, and another sign that the humans here may have pulses, but otherwise have lost their humanity. They had a choice in their actions, the vamps don’t (beyond suicide). You can’t help but lament Nao for her hideous plight. Rating: 3.5