Vinland Saga – 22 – How to Kill Someone You Hate

Before the latest Thorfinn-Askeladd duel, Thorkell asks Prince Canute who he wants to win, as it who he’d bet money on. Canute doesn’t care who wins. His only task is to stop the duel before someone dies. Ever the King-in-waiting, Canute, looking further out than anyone. The prince then puts the question to Thorkell, who says he’s got Askeladd in this one. When asked why, particularly when Thorfinn beat him, Thorkell goes in real close, and again Canute shows how much he’s matured by not flinching.

Why Askeladd? “Just a feeling. It’s his aura.” Thorkell isn’t kidding. Askleadd just mercy-killed his only friend not a minute ago, and Bjorn’s body is still warm when the duel with Thorfinn takes place. Only it’s not much of a duel. As much of an age advantage Finn might have, he’s missing a fully-functioning arm, and he’s so angry and obsessed with finally cutting his father’s murderer’s throat, he’s rendered an absolute joke of a fighter.

Askeladd, as “in the zone” as a warrior can be, tosses his sword away, so confident he can put Thorfinn down with his bare hands. And he does. Thorkell is disappointed. But Askeladd is fed up with Thorfinn, and moves to deliver a killing blow, seemingly stopped only by a direct order from Canute.

From there, Askeladd declares Thorfinn an exhausting, unrepentant idiot, because he fights like an idiot, both by going into the duel injured, letting his temper get the best of him, and letting his win over Thorkell inflate his opinion of himself. So Askeladd has a seat on the remnant of what could be a Roman wall, and gives his life story, in hopes of teaching the boy “how to kill someone you hate”.

Thorfinn and Askeladd are alike in many ways, but while they both had frail mothers, their childhoods were vastly different. Thorfinn lived in a comfortable, cozy, loving, free family; Askeladd’s mother was a slave his father Olaf raped, and Olaf didn’t bother even naming his bastard children. At age eleven, Askeladd (so named because of his propensity for being covered in ash and soot) had to keep his mother alive as well as himself.

Despite their dire situation, he and his mother were descendants of Artorius, and she never stopped believing that one day he would return from paradise and free his people from bondage and despair. But one day, when his mother snapped and recklessly approached Olaf in the streets, and Olaf raised his sword to kill her, Askeladd knew: Artorius would never return.

That meant someone else—not a hero or a god, just a person—had to save his mother, and himself. For Askeladd, that person was him. Despite having never been trained in swordsmanship, he picked up a blade and used it, putting up a decent fight against Olaf and finally gaining his attention. Far from angry this child attacked him, Olaf sees potential in young Ash, and brings him into his hall.

For two years, Askeladd was trained by his father and half-brothers in both bow and blade, and became someone trusted, accepted and adored by all. Then, one night, the 13-year-old Askeladd made his move, plunging a sword into his father’s throat and killing the only witness, a woman sharing his bed. The sword belonged to the black sheep of the legitimate brothers, and so the murder was pinned on him, not Askeladd.

Olaf’s guard was down, and Askeladd had already determined a path to inheriting his property. Then and only then he struck, with all the certainty his poor mother had that Artorius would come. His people waited 50o years for their hero to arrive, and in the meantime suffered and stagnated. Askeladd only waited two years, until the time he knew he could kill the one he hated.

It’s a masterful story, masterfully told by Askeladd’s seiyu Uchida Naoya, who deserves all the awards.

It’s a stark contrast to Thorfinn, who has been trying to kill Askeladd since the moments after his father died, believing that somehow losing his temper, shouting loudly, and waving his sword around could lead to victory. In this way, Vinland Saga subverts the shounen formula of prevailing by doing all three of those things! His belief that victory will eventually come has been just as futile as Askeladd’s mother’s dream of Artorius’ return.

While it took Askeladd only two years to kill Olaf, it’s been ten years for Thorfinn, and he’s no closer to killing Askeladd. If anything, he’s less likely to do so now that he’s endured so many injuries in battle. He cannot contest Askeladd’s assertion that he’s an idiot, because Askeladd had an objectively worse past and achieved his revenge in less than a fifth of the time it’s taking Finn.

Askeladd’s final barbs before carrying Bjorn away to be buried, about Thorfinn being no better than a dog chasing after food and being “useful” since it’s so easy to “pay” him with these occasional duels he’ll never win, rankles Thorfinn anew, but he can barely stand, and Canute has to prop him up and insist he let his wounds heal before trying again.

Canute also asks Askeladd why he doesn’t just seek the throne himself, Askeladd laughs. Canute is far more suited to being king than either Askeladd or Sweyn. Askeladd considers himself “just a Viking.” If Vikings are anything, they’re decisive, and act to further their interestrs? Had he followed his mother’s path of simply waiting for a hero who will never come, he’d have died long ago.

To be alive today to teach whippersnappers valuable lessons, he became what he hated. Kingship is out of the question.

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.

Onimonogatari – 02

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Shinobu tells Koyomi the tale of her first visit to Japan more than 400 years ago. She literally “jumped” from Antarctica – where she had been residing previously – into a lake in Japan, which destroyed the lake but brought rain to an arid region, whose inhabitants revered her as a god. It was then that she met the “original apparition killer”, who wielded the demon-killing “Kokoro-watari” and the shorter “Yume-watari”, which restored them.

Trouble arose when as a result of her presence, which drew apparitions and negative energy to the region, which humans eventually deserted. Shortly thereafter, the “darkness” arrived, consuming three quarters of Shinobu’s body and nearly all of the apparition killer. She escaped to Antarctica with his hand and wrist, and drank its blood to restore him as her minion. Furious she had made him a vampire, he disavowed her and committed suicide by burning up in the sunlight. She swore never to make another minion.

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In the last episode we remarked that Oshino Shinobu is unlike any other entity inhabiting the Monogatari Series, due to her sheer longevity, scale of experience, and moral complexity. Thus, we knew that when we delved deeper into her past, it would be something to behold; and so it was. A bold, indulgent, tantalizingly unique approach is utilized in visualizing Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade’s epic tale. It unfolds as one continuous right-to-left scroll of stunningly gorgeous illustrations, interrupted only by the occasional cut to Shinobu and Koyomi in the present, and accompanied by a stirring, austere ambient score.

The feats she performs therein – from jumping from Antarctica and becoming a god in Japan to creating her minion out of a desire not to be alone only to be rejected – transcend anything anyone else has done in the series. Not bad for a character who didn’t say a single word in all of Bakemonogatari. Just as Shinobu is an unprecedented entity in the series, this episode was unprecedented in its audacity and elegance. Essentially, this episode was one of the most engrossing, transcendent infodumps we’ve ever seen. We found it to be a work of profound creativity, skill, and workmanship, and an instant classic – hence earning our highest rating. Call us crazy if you must.

Rating: 10 (Masterpiece)

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