Vinland Saga is a historical epic unlike anything I’ve seen in anime. Taking place a thousand years ago in Danish-occupied England, the story follows the young Thorfinn’s quest to avenge his father, by challenging his killer Askeladd to a duel to the death. The anime has a wonderful cast of characters, gripping action and drama, and an astonishing attention to detail and historical accuracy. It tackles heavy themes of war, politics, religion, and the nature of revenge and justice, with breathtaking art, music, and animation from Attack on Titan’s Studio Wit. It is my favorite anime to come out this year, and not enough people have been talking about it.
The long-running seinen series has gotten rave reviews, but it still pales in popularity to the shonen and isekai series that have dominated the landscape these past few seasons. That may be because of a lack of mainstream appeal, or because it’s only streaming on the notoriously buggy Amazon Prime video service. (I had to restart my TV like 5 times before I could even watch the damn thing!) But another issue may be the pacing. Vinland is the textbook definition of a slow burn. Hell, the manga devotes over fifty chapters to just the prologue! While this slow, methodical pacing could be a turnoff for viewers, I’d argue that Vinland Saga’s pacing is actually one of its greatest strengths. A slow paced narrative, in the right hands, can make a story much more deep, thoughtful and compelling than a fast paced one, provided you are willing to put in the time to let the story work its magic.
For those who don’t know, pacing is the speed at which at story is told and information is conveyed to the viewer. This can refer to the pacing of an individual scene or action, or to the story as a whole. Writers can use a variety of techniques to control the pacing of their narrative: short scenes, action, and dialogue speed up the pacing, while exposition, narration and introspection slow it down. But pacing is also influenced by genre and audience expectations: generally, action and comedy moves at a faster pace than drama or mystery. Pacing is notoriously difficult to get right in fiction, as too fast of a pace can confuse your audience as to what is actually happening, while too slow of a pace can cause them to lose interest.
And while slow pacing can often derail a series, Vinland Saga‘s slow burn helps the story becomes more complex, multi-faceted, and engaging. One of the hurdles of writing historical fiction is that you not only need to tell a compelling story, but have to make a time, place, and society completely different from our own seem understandable and relatable to modern audiences. We need to feel completely immersed in the world of the Vikings – to understand their culture, politics, religion, and way of life, and how that shaped their actions and created a civilization that changed the world.
To do this, Vinland takes its time setting up at the beginning, letting its viewers take in the Viking world piece by piece, while also becoming familiar with the main cast and their motivations. By showing us Thorfinn’s life as a child with his father Thors, we become attached to these characters early on and get more invested in Thorfinn’s struggle to avenge his father’s death. We also see how Thors’ pacifist values clash with the warmongering Viking society, and how Thorfinn’s biggest tragedy is that he rejects this pacifism to go on a self-destructive revenge quest. Without these early episodes fleshing out the world and characters, the audience could be overwhelmed jumping straight into the complex plot of revenge and betrayal, and not feel the same level of investment in the story and characters as they would otherwise.
Pacing can also be used to establish motivation, backstory, and a character’s development over time, and a slower-paced story can use these characteristics for the largest impact. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Prince Canute, who transforms over the course of the series from a shy, timid nobleman to a badass military commander ready to take his father’s place as king. (This next part will contain spoilers for up to Episode 19, so watch the series and then come back if you haven’t already!)
When we first meet Canute in the series, his impact on the story is much more passive than active. He seems to be suffering from intense social anxiety, to the extent that he only speaks to his retainer, Ragnar. The other Vikings mock him for his effeminate appearance, and mostly see him as a pawn to manipulate his father, the King of Denmark. It isn’t until we learn more about Canute, his backstory, and his growth as a person that we discover who this mysterious prince truly is.
Canute was the second-born child of the king, and his father regarded him as nothing more than an obstacle to the older brother’s claim to the throne. He was sent out to the battlefield hopelessly outmatched and expected to die so that the king didn’t have to dirty his hands with a political assassination. This left the young prince as a broken human being with no sense of self-worth. The one person he could turn to for support was Ragnar, but then he is killed by Askeladd in an attempt to break the prince out of his shell. In his grief, Canute slowly gains self-confidence, and realizes his true goal is to get revenge on his father and take his place as king. This all culminates in Episode 19, where he rallies two rival Viking factions together and turn them against the king, kicking off a coup-d’etat that turns the narrative on its head and is absolutely thrilling to watch.
What makes this development land is that it is set up for almost ten episodes, all of which demonstrate Canute’s emotional growth and maturity. If he was merely introduced as a shy kid and became a commander one episode later, the twist would have no impact. We wouldn’t be given enough time to understand his character and so the change would feel like it came out of nowhere. But because he has plenty of time to grow and interact with the other characters, we get a much deeper insight into the prince’s personality and hidden strength. The biggest thrill is that this is still just the beginning – there is so much more of Canute, Thorfinn, Askeladd and the rest that we still have yet to see, and this story can reach all new heights with successive seasons.
I sometimes worry that our community is growing too impatient as anime fans, and missing out on slower-paced series that could have more of an impact with time. Hell, I’ve heard newer fans tune out classics like Cowboy Bebop or Evangelion because they find them to be too slow and boring. But maybe in our fast-paced media culture, driven by social media and the rush of instant gratification, we need some slower-paced epics like Vinland to remind us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the wonders of life in reality and in fiction. Maybe Vinland Saga doesn’t quite fit the mold of what makes a successful anime series in 2019, but for me, it is absolutely my favorite anime to come out this year.
This post was a bit different than some of my anime-related entries I’ve written, as I really wanted to dive into this one specific aspect of storytelling that I feel often gets overlooked or misunderstood. So if you made it to the end, I’d love to hear your feedback. What do you think about pacing in anime (or fiction in general)? Do you prefer slow-paced stories or fast-paced ones? What anime, in your opinion, does a great job controlling its pacing? Let me know in the comments 🙂