Like moths to a brilliant, roaring flame, anime fans are drawn to heroes who share the same unshakeable quality as Attack on Titan’s Eren Jaeger: the will to commit unspeakable acts of violence for the sake of their own freedom. But oftentimes fans fail to appreciate that sometimes anime with nonviolent stories can be just as meaningful and exciting. This is why I’ve found it so vexing that fans who once celebrated the violence in Vinland Saga, a series that shares animation studios Mappa and Wit with AoT, dropped the series outright because its second season’s “farming arc” isn’t as flashy and violent as its first season. While many who dropped the show claim the anime “fell off” because Vinland Saga doesn’t have as much action as it did in its first season, the show’s aversion to violence is what makes it one of the best anime of the year.
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Season two of Vinland Saga sees the once-fearsome viking warrior Thorfinn tilling the lands of a rich man’s farm as a slave. During his enslavement, Thorfinn realizes a harrowing truth: the mile-long road of men he’s slaughtered in pursuit of avenging his father’s death led to his undoing.
Thorfinnn might’ve had that dog in him in season one, but when we reunite with the viking spitfire we see that he’s become a shell of the terrifying fighter he once was. His rebellious nature has died. His eyes are more sullen. His body is frail. The pyrrhic victory of witnessing his mentor and the man who slew his father, Askeladd, die at the hands of another man has vanquished his will to live. But what troubles Thorfinn more than anything else is he feels he doesn’t deserve to live a life where he can atone for his violent acts against others.
While working toward his freedom, Thorfinn is surrounded by fellow slaves who have suffered just as much as he has. But unlike them, Thorfinn’s baggage is made all the heavier because, even in his dreams, he’s haunted by the corpses of warriors and civilians alike desperately asking why he had to kill them. In the past, Thorfinn could justify his violence as a path to curry favor with Askeladd and earn yet another opportunity to take his life in a duel. Now Thorfinn’s not even sure he can explain why he thoughtlessly murdered so many people.
Thorfinn is far from being the only person on Ketil’s farm who’s suffered. His fellow slaves Einar (who’s also his best friend) and Arnheid have endured just as much if not more than Thorfinn, because violent men like him are the reason why they’re slaves in the first place. Both Einar and Arnheid have witnessed their loved ones murdered at the hands of bloodthirsty vikings.
Despite bloodshed functioning as a reason why Einar and Arnheid despise warfare, such atrocities for vikings like Thorfinn was never a bad thing at all. Alternatively, war for Norsemen serves as a testing ground where victors reap the spoils on the merit of how many people they slaughtered and sold, or vie for a warrior’s death that would grant them entry into Valhalla. This self-destructive mentality is something perpetuated by anime protagonists in shows that cover similar thematic territory as Vinland Saga.
The cycle of violence is rarely broken in popular anime
Thorfinn is hardly the first anime character to orchestrate inhumane violence against adversaries and innocent bystanders. You can see Thorfinn’s path of devastation mirrored in characters like Code Geass’ Lelouch vi Britannia or more recently, AoT’s Eren Jaeger. Like Thorfinn, Lelouch and Eren spend the majority of their youth pursuing revenge. Lelouch hopes to one day free his nation from the tyrannical reign of his father while Eren aims to wage war with the entire world for allowing his people to be subjugated and enslaved. Along the way, both protagonists sacrifice innocents and those closest to them in order to achieve their goals and meet their untimely demise once they exact their revenge.
Lelouch and Eren were too far gone by the time they both were confronted with the cruel acts they’d subjected others to in the pursuit of their own fiery dreams. Thorfinnn, however, realizes that, just because he’s done terrible things, that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of change. It’s a realization most anime characters never have the chance to meditate upon.
Vinland Saga breaks the cycle of violence
It’s at Ketil’s farm where Thorfinn constructs a new life plan: rid the world of war and slavery. Upon revealing his epiphany to Einar, Thorfinn admits that his lofty new goal is nice to dream about and impossible to make real. However, Thorfinn believes that trekking out to find Vinland, a prosperous land his father once heralded for having no need for weapons or slavery, with others who wish to live in such a paradise, will usher in positive change for the world. Thorfinn wants to atone and in order to do so, he believes he must give back more to the world than he’s taken away by making Vinland a reality.
When presented with the opportunity to take his ball and leave Ketil’s farm before an all-out war breaks out toward the end of the second season, Thorfinn instead chooses to stay on the farm a little longer to talk his former captive and new king of Denmark, Canute, out of attacking the men guarding Ketil’s farm. I won’t spoil whether or not Thorfinn’s attempt at talk-no-jutsu bears fruit, but I will say that his valiant effort to cease the cycle of violence that’s plagued his life and the lives of those around him is more hard-fought and glorious than any battle he’d waged in the first season of the show.
The most beautiful part about Thorfinn’s story is that he isn’t done growing. Not by a long shot. This is why I hope fans that dropped the show are willing to pick it back up, so they can get as excited as I was at the shores Thorfinn sails to next, should the anime be renewed for a possible third season. Shores Thorfinn would never have thought possible to reach in had it not been for the vital, hard-fought lessons he learned while toiling away on a farm for 24 grueling, beautiful episodes.