Author’s note: while this article focuses on the 6th episode of Vinland Saga, the used images are not from that episode.
Historical anime have rarely appealed to me, but Vinland Saga’s mix of moral ambiguity and unglamorous depiction of conflict (aside from the first episode’s opening fight, perhaps) proved to be a strong hook, despite a somewhat slow start. With its sixth and latest episode, it has also cemented itself has my top anime of Summer 2019.
Since I haven’t talked about the show before, I ought to briefly explain the plot. While most of the currently-released episodes center on former Jomsviking leader Thors, the show is really about his son, Thorfinn. The latter has fantasies about war, until his father is slain by mercenary leader Askeladd. His fantasies shattered, he ends up tagging along with Askeladd and his band, hoping to one day avenge his father by slaying the mercenary in a duel. Meanwhile, the conflict between England and Denmark intensifies.
Despite having five episodes preceding it, Vinland Saga’s latest is titled “The Journey Begins”. It makes sense given that the first five were basically a prologue. It’s not just the start of the actual story however, but the proper beginning of Thorfinn’s journey into a world devoid of innocence.
Typically, watching a young anime protagonist improve as a fighter should be a satisfying experience. In Vinland Saga, such a transformation is instead heart-rending to witness. The trigger is a night-time ambush on Askeladd’s band of mercenaries. Thorfinn is of course caught up in it and has to defend himself. He also has another reason for unsheathing his dagger: if he proves himself in battle, he will be able to earn his duel with Askeladd.
A small part of me cheered Thorfinn on at first, but it soon becomes clear that there is nothing to cheer about. The battle is bloody and well-staged, but it’s not an enjoyable experience. There is no catharsis or sense of triumph when Thorfinn stabs an enemy, only the painfully clear message that this is simply no place for a kid. It’s upon taking a life that Thorfinn finally realizes the horror of killing, but the cost of such a lesson is his own innocence.
The rest of the episode depicts a slightly older Thorfinn serving as one of Askeladd’s mercenaries, his dagger-wielding skills improving over time. Again, this transformation from novice into competent fighter does not carry the satisfaction that a shounen anime may have, only dread at what Thorfinn is becoming. Yet, such a progression seems only natural, even logical, at first. He has nowhere else to go after all, and by serving the man who killed his father and honing his skills in the process, he may eventually get to kill him.
In the second half of the episode however, a wounded Thorfinn is taken in and tended to by an elderly English woman. At night, Thorfinn reciprocates her kindness by telling the woman and her daughter to escape, before running off to set the signal for Askeladd’s forces to land. Despite his warning, the woman follows him to the shore instead and witnesses him killing several English soldiers. She is speechless. Thorfinn, surprised by the sight of her, again tells her to run away, but she can only stare wordlessly and shed tears at the sight of him. Seeing her expression made my own tears threaten to well up.
The woman’s thoughts aren’t revealed, but I feel that she isn’t crying due to a sense of betrayal or horror at his actions. Instead, I believe that her tears are meant for Thorfinn. Earlier, it was revealed that her youngest son, John, died from a cold two years prior. When Thorfinn runs out of her house to light the signal, she calls out to him as “John”. For her, seeing Thorfinn on the beach, drenched in blood, was probably akin to watching a child die again. This time however, the death of the child was caused not by sickness, but by the irreplaceable loss of innocence.
In the final moments of the episode, Thorfinn can only stare wordlessly at the woman as Askeladd’s forces surge forth, slaughtering everyone in their way. She continues to look at him in shock. Her eyes are eventually obscured by shadow, but her posture emits an air of resignation.
Thorfinn remembers his family, from a time long past. Eventually, the woman disappears from sight. The woman, who had combed Thorfinn’s hair the way she used to comb her late son’s hair, had been a glimpse of an alternate, more peaceful life – a more natural path than the one he was currently on. Joining Askeladd may have seemed a logical choice, but in the end it doesn’t change the fact that a battlefield is not where a kid should be.
With the woman’s disappearance however, Thorfinn can no longer go back to being a kid. Perhaps realizing this, he pushes her out of his mind with a deep breath and assumes a steely look. What other choice does he have but to firmly set himself on the path of a killer? He joins Askeladd’s warriors. Finally, the woman’s comb is shown in a broken state before the episode cuts to black.
The lack of any spoken words between Thorfinn and the woman in their final encounter highlights one of Vinland Saga’s strengths. It doesn’t rely on monologues and lectures to effectively convey that war isn’t glamorous, it simply needs to show it. Perhaps that is why Thors advice to his son were so ineffective (although I’d also argue that Thors didn’t make his point strongly enough). Only by seeing conflict for himself could Thorfinn realize that war is far from wonderful. The tragedy is that by the time that happens, it’s already too late for him. Whether the woman died or not is uncertain, but when she disappeared, the young and innocent Thorfinn likely vanished with her.