Anime series that are exclusively aimed for adult audience have been disappearing from this medium faster than top anime lists on the Internet have been overtaken by overrated seasonal garbage. That's quite a tempo. Long gone are those days when maturity meant more than throwing in couple gore scenes and tagging the production with an R. Vinland Saga is not a blast from the past. It won't automatically please every soul that mourns for what anime once was. Nevertheless, Vinland Saga is already one of the most successful series from this ongoing decade when it comes to combining maturity with mainstream appeal.
[Story and characters]
The story of Vinland Saga may be very frustrating to some viewers because some of its characters are naive moral soldiers whose pseudo-noble ideals and philosophies do not go hand in hand with how the world works. "Chaotically good" men figuratively shoot themselves in the leg. Their very way of thinking is their cause of death. Personally, I find this to be very satisfying, because it is fair representation of survival of the fittest. You get what you deserve. In shonen series, those who yell their nakama bs out in the air and plead to "what is the right thing to do", are usually called main characters. In Vinland Saga, they are called soon-to-be-corpses.
The core idea is very much the usual Viking story. Exploration, culture, dawn of the new age, fights and violence. Manly men, strong female characters, philosophical wits and inventions that were relevant during this time. All of these sides are very well implemented inside its own story line which is build around the characters in a manner that yells high quality. Since our main character is a growing child who is influenced by different people, we get to see lots of contrast, and even such things as how the living environment affects the growth of a child is not left unnoted. I am personally huge fan of this concept and that's yet another thing which is dealt masterfully here. Minor flaws are present. Some unrealistic power-levels distant the series from realistic feel to new-long-jump-world-records-in-full-viking-gear ehhs. It's not a perfect story that does nothing questionable, but it's very strong and splendidly polished.
So far, the main points from story department fall under respectable quality, and the characterization has surpassed my critical expectations. Strong build up phase has created one solid foundation for rest of the story, leaving lots of room for improvement in future episodes. On top of that, it only seems to be going for better. It's linear, logical and coherent. Something which seems to be an impossible task for so many modern series is absolutely nailed here. Vinland Saga has chosen the golden path which can, realistically, realize its potential. Characters-wise, entirely new, anime-exclusive story events have been added to fill in missing links and add substance onto these personas and their reasoning. Basically the opposite of filler content that can be found in source material. Respectable decisions regarding this anime adaptation have been made, and I salute Wit Studios for showing that they do care about their anime.
The values are high no matter how it's looked. Not heavenly since sloppy CGI reminds of its existence once in a while and character movements come with copy-pasted frames to a point that it stands out, but to this medium standards', these values are nothing less than high peak. Episode 05 time stamp 3:19 (Amazon). I mean wow, has even Ghibli managed to create such stunning forest backdrops? These stills are wallpaper-tier, probably drawn by Japanese Bob Ross. Simply mind-blowing work. However, I will focus on commenting on its approach and presentation instead of praising the raw audiovisuals. Some people will really not like what i will say here, but I have decided to say it anyway because I don't think anyone else will and because this is my honest opinion. Do keep in mind that the following is not "why the art sucks 101", but rather "how the series could've been better".
When people talk about anime art, their judgement is almost without exception limited to the technicality and fundamentals of drawing and animation. But one important factor tends to be forgotten; its message. The content of Vinland Saga does not go in harmony with its audiovisual presentation. There, I said it. The manga offers layers of maturity that are invisible in this adaptation. The art style does not resonate with the world of Vinland Saga very well. You cannot tell this story with rainbows and unicorns and expect it to present itself flawlessly, but this is what was more or less done. If the series was exclusively about human co-existence with nature, I wouldn't complain, but this is also about human conflict, war, societal structures, and characters who are enraged and too angry to die. The content can be dark, gritty and very adult, but it surely don't look like it.
This is truly unfortunate because it shows us to what extent maturity is avoided in the modern industry. Even the world building is greatly lessened due to the series feeling more-or-less like an AOT clone instead of its very own thing. It's not a direct copy-paste by any means, but you really don't need to be a genius to see the similarities either. It's clear that Wit Studios chose this art approach solely to build mainstream appeal and enter the shekels game. Even the character design is way worse than it should've been. Just compare it to the tv series 'Vikings' or newest GoW game. How awesome are some of those celestial bodies compared to whatever you want to call an entirely yellow anime beard that looks the same as bishojo hairs from Kuroko no Basket. What I meant to say here is that the production feels unfitting, out of place and very teenager. It's simply not ideal. This happens when popularity is chosen over art.
To sum my point up: There is this saying that goes like this: "Art matters, visuals are secondary." Scarce is the amount of series that present this philosophy as strongly as Vinland Saga. The production does not ruin this show by any means. It can be overlooked and forgiven, but, nevertheless, it requires the viewer (or at least myself as a viewer) to adjust: accept a compromise - and blocks Vinland Saga from entering the tier of Godly anime, and I think this is a very important factor to acknowledge. Since pros and cons are a thing, some decisions that are improvement over source material have also been made, such as the lack of caricature-like comedic reliefs, which honestly no one needs to see in this anime and I am glad they have been left out.
We have light novel adaptations and guilty pleasures. Most modern anime is only watchable ironically. The chances for ground breaking anime series vary from slim to nonexistent based to production year. Must watch titles from current production years are counted with one-hand fingers. When looking back into anime history with historian-goggles, this is not priority nro. 1, but regardless, this is quality time and I cannot recommend it enough for seasonal watchers who seek relevance and modern high-points instead of past gems.
This could have been an OG Berserk-tier masterpiece if it was made by dedicated studio such as Geno Studios, which have made the most mature anime series seen in several years (at least in my opinion), Golden Kamyu. Wit Studios have simply never dealt with anime that is mature in the way Vinland Saga is, and perhaps that's why the outcome is far from what I personally thought was possible. Some better decision could have been done to please the core target audience of the manga. But none of the things I criticize Vinland Saga for are enough to make me think that it's not a good anime. In fact, it's already among the better things from 2019. If you do not enjoy this anime, please consider reading the manga instead, especially the parts that this anime will cover are phenomenal. In case you do enjoy it, that makes two of us.