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.

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Mahoutsukai no Yome – 03

Turns out that while she was just plucked up by a dragon at last episode’s end, Chise is actually not in danger. She’s simply being brought to a dragon’s nest by its caretaker, Lindel. There, she learns more about dragons, meets both an ancient Uin and three playful hatchlings,  and ultimately experiences something few mages ever do: a dragon’s end-of-life return to the earth and transformation into a tree.

Lindel’s dragon unceremoniously spits Chise into a very cold deep lake, but she manages to get out on her own, and once Elias catches up with her (appearing out of her shadow, as badass mages do), he has a very nifty insta-dry spell that prevents hypothermia.

When she’s tasked with babysitting the lil’ dragons (who are extremely cute and childlike) curiosity draws her nearer to Nevin, the oldest extant dragon, who is old even for a dragon, and is very near death. While in contact with his brittle, flaking hide, he reads her memories; specifically her emotional downfall following the suicide of her parent.

Nevin uses this as an opportunity to enlighten Chise with dragons’ sense of death: they do not fear it, but live their lives to the fullest and pass on with gratitude and contentment, with no regrets. “It’s just nature”, Nevin says to Chise, who lost someone to unnatural means, long before their time. Chise is far from done processing that grief.

Instead, Nevin allows Chise to share in his “last dream”, a vision of freedom, flight in a gorgeous vista that stretches on forever. When the vision ends, Chise returns to the normal world, and a tree quickly sprouts from the now passed-on Nevin. It’s a gorgeous, moving sequence, epic in scope, in which Chise takes a big step towards understanding her role in the world (and that she has a role).

I imagine Lindel (and probably Elias as well) are glad Chise was able to experience this, as she may well be of the final generation of mages, just as the little hatchlings may be the last generation of dragons. They tell Chise not to grieve Nevin’s loss, at it’s all part of the circle of life and all, but still, a kind, wise stranger was there a minute ago is now gone forever.

Her solace is that, as Nevin recommended, when she has need of a wand, she take the wood from the branches of the tree he became. That way, in a way, he’ll always be with her. But it will never be the same as when he was alive.

Mahoutsukai no Yome – 02

This week, Chise gets a better idea of what her new life will be like, though she still dreams about the awful life she used to lead; a life she was willing to discard because she didn’t think it had any value. Now people treat her gently and with respect.

Silky, Elias’ “landlady” cooks and cleans and provide Chise with clothes. After watching her mother commit suicide after telling Chise she shouldn’t have been born, this kind of care seems welcome.

Chise accompanies Elias to London—an up-to-date London that includes The Shard—and while there he swaps his “bony” face for a human one—a handsome one, at that.

Elias takes Chise to the shop of another mage, Angelica, who has some issues with how Elias procured his new apprentice, and is taken aback when a simple rookie mage test—turn a crystal into one’s favorite flower—nearly gets out of hand, with Chise transporting herself to a memory of her and her mom in a field of poppies.

Elias tells Angelica that Chise is a Sleigh Beggy, an individual for whom the miracles that comprise the practice of magic come far more frequently than they would for someone less attuned to magic. After seeing the crystalline growths that populated Angelica’s arm, I felt nervous about Chise’s feet upon creating a partial landscape of her memory from that crystal.

Angelica doesn’t blame Chise, though; she didn’t know Chise is a Sleigh Beggy—something Elias didn’t tell her because that’s a dangerous nugget of information in their line of work. But like Elias, Angelica can tell that, like her own daughter, Chise will make a fine mage one day; it’s just a matter of proper training. Chise and Elias head from London back to the countryside.

After meeting with the local priest, who more or less gives Elias and Chise his blessing and an offer of assistance, Chise and Elias head to Iceland, a a land of dragons—and Chise almost immediately gets kidnapped by one said dragon.

Again, this show makes me recall Akagami no Shirayuki-hime, whose redheaded heroine was kidnapped more than once and had to be rescued (though during captivity she helped facilitate that rescue). We’ll see if Chise manages to use her newfound magical powers to attempt escape from her captors, if it once again falls mostly to Elias to rescue her. At this early stage in her apprenticeship, I won’t hold it against her for needing a hand…especially against a dragonrider!