The Trap of Comparing Vinland Saga With Berserk


Is obvious but I fall for it anyway. I’ll live.

I’ve this thing for historical fiction (e.g. The Masters of Rome; series of novels by Colleen McCullough) , or fiction that presents itself as some kind of historical record (e.g. The Red Book of Westmarch, a.k.a. The Lord of The Rings). Vinland Saga is a manga more like the former and Berserk is unlike either. Still it strongly invites comparison, perhaps due to the violent, hack and slash action; perhaps as well as positing a very, very strong prologue.

Both stories’ prologues are easily the best parts as of yet, as both are ongoing manga series. Thorfinn’s rise as a fighter in Askeladd’s band in some way evokes Guts’ career with Griffith’s Band of the Hawk. But this is where the similarity begins to come harder. Vinland Saga being set in a grounded, historical environment keeps its physical world quite secular. Berserk, on the other hand is outright fantasy and is set in a perilous dark world of demons and monsters.

Both in tone and in presentation, Vinland Saga is Mobile Suit Gundam to Berserk’s Mazinger Z. It is Legend of the Galactic Heroes to Berserk’s Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It’s a real-Viking to Berserk’s super-barbarian. Thorinn’s dual knives slashing with agility and stealth vs. Guts’ BFS swung with mighty power.  But even this line of comparison seems less apt.


You see, Guts will never stop being a Berserker. He became truly Berserk after the prologue. The manga has only one resolution to all its conflicts: Guts hacks the monster into chunks with his gigantic sword. Monsters keep getting bigger, the chunks stay the same size more or less.

Thorfinn, on the other had spent his killing spree during his revenge arc, constituting most of the prologue. What happens at the onset of the main story is pretty clear to me: Thorfinn’s transformation into a pacifist, placing him squarely into a tradition of manga and anime many people like me love to hate on our worst days, and tolerate during our best: the once-deadly saint/hero/martyr/the fucking Batman.

Vinland Saga may pretend to be about Nordic Vikings, but it’s really about something very Japanese – particularly its legends about Bushido. This manga has more in common with Vagabond, or Rurouni Kenshin than it does with Berserk. The swordsman becomes a saint, by preaching non-violence even as the art of swordsmanship is perfected despite the inactivity.

Feeling betrayed? Did this catch you by surprise? It shouldn’t.


The Troll was there to begin with.

The greatest, most powerful force that existed in this world told Thorfinn:


A True Warrior has no need for a sword.

Can we ask the same about Guts? No, I didn’t think so either. Most of his most awesome moments involved his BFS:

The prologue is what we jizzed over. The prologue might as well be called Askeladd’s legend because not only is a giant among manga characters made of utter perfection, he is what makes the prologue meaningful and weighty. His story is the exclamation point that marks the end of the prologue and sets the two protagonists’ stories in motion. Thors was there to lay the foundation of what Thorfinn must become, and this is what will save Canute, his “rival.”

I am not sure why this tradition exists, this perfection of the warrior that ironically stands at opposite ends with war and violence. Back when I practiced martial arts it was a point of reflection and meditation: there is no fight, therefore there is no loss. Loss begins with violence itself. True victory is not fighting. So on, and on… as a fan of action this rankled because I did not go to the dojo to learn not to fight. I don’t watch violent anime to see the best fighters not fight.

It almost always becomes comical lameness when the hero suddenly powers up and defeats a whole bunch of enemies by disarming them, in some way. Edward and Alphonse Elric did it in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood; Renton Thurston did it in Eureka SeveN, Banagher Links did it in Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Alto Saotome did it in Macross Frontier: The Wings of Farewell; and of course Kira☆ Yamato did it in Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny, ugh.

I think it’s a dirty trick in the respective narratives. It’s as if all the other violence is justified because they are perpetrated by evil villains, and unenlightened allies. It’s all good because the hero—the one to be emulated, is against violence, refuses to kill and uses his great powers to save and not harm. This is a rotten, dirty trick. This is why I value Broken Blade probably more than I should, because it gives the finger to this shit.

This is a dominant shounen literary tradition.


Even Vagabond’s Miyamoto Musashi is headed this way, although luckily most of the narrative depicts his journey towards this state of being as a long path of cutting down many enemies. Most of the narrative covers his relentless desire to be “Invincible under the sun,” before being shocked into contemplation after surviving a battle against 70 samurai.

We are almost sure this Bushido thing is almost pure fantasy, because soldiers and warriors kill. In the Western chivalric tradition there is the honorable fight, but there is no overweening directive to spare lives… to merely disarm instead of incapacitate or kill. Even Musashi himself, up until the very end wanted more to become a cavalry commander, but could not find employment. This actually explains his swordsmanship style.

The character narratives in Vinland Saga center on this morality, the meaning of being a warrior, that is to not need a sword, that is to love, to love everything equally and treasure each life without prejudice. The will of the sword is to kill, and thus the warrior must rid himself of the sword. The will of the crown is to gather and hold onto power. The true ruler who loves must rid himself of the crown.

In chapter 78, we find out that the will of the crown gathers swords to seize the farm tended by the swordless warrior, the slave of the sword that is now free.

This is not Berserk.

The Second of Two Posts:

  1. The Legend of Askeladd, & Farmland Saga
  2. The Trap of Comparing Vinland Saga With Berserk [you are reading this]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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26 Responses to The Trap of Comparing Vinland Saga With Berserk

  1. Pingback: The Legend of Askeladd, & Farmland Saga | We Remember Love

  2. Matt Wells says:

    Comparing Berserk and Vinland Saga is a logical fallacy mostly borne from the most basic attempts to pitch VS to newer readers with the closest single manga there is out there. Which bit of Berserk does everyone remember? (My personal favourite arc is the double whammy of The Valley of Lost Children and The Iron Chain Knights, but I digress) The Golden Age, for two reasons; 1. The badass medieval battles and politics, and 2. The fascinating relationship between Guts and Griffith.

    Vinland Saga’s earlier chapters VERY BROADLY correlate to this pattern, and Berserk fans starving for new content while also yearning for the earlier realism latch onto VS. After superficially similar prologues, each series goes off into starkly different directions, so any comparisons are moot, like you say. Vinland Saga is to Berserk what LotGH is to TTGL, the entire debate summed up in a single sentence. Genius!

    Lovely work, I’m looking forward to your observations of Akumetsu. The only manga under those authors I don’t think you’ve read is their Shin Mazinger Z series, which has absolutley nothing to do with Imagawa’s version. It’s this bizarre dimension spanning alternate universe tale where horrific events push Kouji off the deep end and cause him to use Mazinger Z as a Demon of Destruction rather than the usual God of Peace. It’s said that Uncle Go hand picked them to do the series after he read Akumetsu, he said something along the lines of them being the youngest mangaka’s of the present who were closest to his own writing and artistic aesthetic eg. Huge tits, gratuitous violence and baiting the Japanese PTA for kicks.

    A western comic you might enjoy if you loved Vinland Saga and need more Vikings in your life: Northlanders by Brian Wood. It’s this 50 issue comic which alternates between long and short story arcs, with alternating artists and characters. One arc will be the Hero’s Journey of an exiled Prince, the next is a survival story about a widowed mother trying to survive the plague and a harsh winter. The art is gorgeous and the writing is brilliant, I recommend searching for copies on Amazon and e-bay if you can.

  3. Vendredi says:

    I do agree that Vinland Saga does to an extent fall within the tradition of works like Rurouni Kenshin, but I wouldn’t say it’s a uniquely Japanese trope. Rather, I think the tension between warriors as either a killer/defender is intrinsic to a lot of plots; and I think all good war stories touch on that theme.

    What feels “different” in Vinland Saga is that religion is tackled head on, as I mentioned in my other comment. Bushido (or well, the modern construction of it) is rooted very much in Zen Buddhist ideals, but the Catholic church often had an up-and-down relationship with the violence of medieval monarchs.

    • I’m with you that it’s a broad theme… I did mention Batman after all. But here we see more of the “sword saint” thing, complete with “the true warrior does not need a sword” discourse.

      Last year something historic happened: Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine/Ratzinger/Pope Benedict apologized for the violence done by the Catholic Church in the manner it propagated its faith (LOL, more like expanded its worldly power).

  4. Turambar says:

    Part of me thinks this tradition exists because of Japan’s experience with defeat, though that assumption can be easily disproved if someone points at a piece of literature predating WWII with the same themes. The reality of the era of samurai was much closer to Five Star Stories than any pacifist notion. The historical Musashi lived an almost Douglas Kaien life if records are to be believed where many challenged him and he KILLED them at the duels.

    But with their greatest muster of military strength completely crushed in war and a legal denial of any future build up, I get the sense that this tradition became popularized as a desperate attempt at feigning great strength after being completely stripped of it.

    • I don’t know when the pacifist samurai notion really gained popularity, but if I remember correctly samurai in general were culturally bankrupt during and after the Meiji restoration. It was during the war effort of the 20th century that the Imperial Government turned Bushido into a propaganda and recruitment meme. Given that it was a war effort, I highly doubt that the non-killing samurai was the ideal at this time.

      “I can kill you if was really being serious.”

      This is the other, less saintly (and perhaps more utterly annoying) trope that arose from this silly samurai shit.

  5. ces06 says:

    As much of a dirty trick it is, it’s one I just hate to love, lol. It was hard to sum it up in words, but what you pointed out is is exactly the shonen appeal I mentioned in your previous article, nice. The sort of idealism that appeals to the young and those who believe in it, I guess.

    I haven’t read Berserk yet, but it looks and sounds like more or less in the same vein as a Getter, and Getter sure isn’t Gundam.

    • “appeals to the young”

      Yes, in my “serious” hero fantasies as a grade-schooler I would never think of killing other people. Yet even then I enjoyed watching ultraviolent stuff (having spent my pre-school years watching 70s super robot shows).

  6. squaresphere says:

    I honestly fell into the trap initially as well, but that was due to art style only. As you said the story and the way it’s told are completely different between the two.

    Now back to the whole pacifist/no killing hero trope. It’s probably more to do with Buddhism than anything. The point of detachment and peace is them “breaking their cycle” and gaining “enlightenment” which would elevate them from their past chains. Now there is where things get very murky. The point of enlightenment it can be argued if it’s a fleeting moment of realization or an actual lasting change in the state of mind depending on your religious/philosophical view.

    For the majority of shonen, it’s a lasting change that elevates the hero to “another level” because they’re able to become masters of or let go the reasons/factors that drove them before. This is usually depicted by the “mass disarming” or the hero renouncing his killing weapon to be replaced with unarmed fighting. It could be argued, that this is them breaking the cycle of death/rebirth and spreading it to others. The role of the Savior, not only of body but of spirit as well.

    It fits into the whole, “why does X/War keep happening” that seem to a stable of manga and anime that has a history/backstory of repeated war. It’s stopped by a Savior that breaks the cycle. Vinland brought the concept of the “Savior King” that would save England, but that died with Askeladd. Ironically, the Savior King has become the next cycle’s tyrant. So that leaves the “True Warrior” to try an break the cycle.

    • Good stuff.

      I still think it’s the inauthenticity intrinsic to entertainment. We may accept the saintliness but what we enjoy most is the violence. We don’t read these things for their moral content. These things are apologetics to legitimize the violent spectacle… which is really why we consume these works.

  7. hearthesea says:

    I personally liked Thorfinn’s transformation, simply because it felt like an organic part of the material and a natural development rather than something forced onto the character — as you pointed out, the scenes involving his father pretty much set this sort of journey up from the very beginning of the manga.

    When you were talking about this as a ‘dirty trick’, were you referring to this theme as a whole or just specific scenes in which characters are able to ‘defeat a whole bunch of enemies by disarming them’? If it’s the latter, then I understand and agree — it does feel quite silly when I see stuff like that. As usual, however, I think this all comes down to the execution — the pacifist theme itself can be handled well in the right hands. The key, I think, is to avoid the sense of preaching and heavy-handed moralising that can all too easily creep into the story. I don’t think ‘Vinland Saga’ suffers from this problem, though — as I said before, it feels like the natural journey of the character and fits with his background, upbringing, and experiences. I’m definitely interested to see how he attempts to keep his vow in such a savage atmosphere.

    The only problematic area I see in this series is basically what Jeleinen said on your other post — Yukimura’s pacifist angle seems to clash with the way in which graphic violence in the series surely contributes to its attraction and success. It creates an uneasy tension in the material and feels contradictory.

    • I’m being facetious by calling it a dirty trick but not too facetious. As I’ve mentioned to other readers who commented I think this is part of the inauthenticity of this kind of narrative from both sides of the creation.

      I don’t read or watch these things for the morals, or the moral journey/transformation. I consume them for the awesome stuff that is, and is delivered by the violent spectacle. Maybe I need to be read a homily to (not really), but I don’t pick out media to consume for its moral content. And killing/not killing is a wholly moral dynamic — no point going around this.

      As a visual medium… looking at the elements:

      I see a sword, I want to see it destroy someone in a violent way.
      I see a spear, I want to see it run someone through.
      I see an army, I want to see it destroy another army.

      Vinland Saga delivers this and has the cheek to preach about the truth about being a warrior. Nothing wrong with the ideal, but the elements involved are the real value proposition.

  8. exilehero says:

    I think you started to compare the two but ended up talking more about the shift of Vinland Saga to a peaceful kind of deal haha. But I don’t think those two share much apart from the violence and the occasional cute scene.

    I’ve heard that the Vinland Saga author dislikes violence. It would be only natural that he’d want Thorfinn to steer into that direction. Though in a world like that I can’t seem to think the peace will last long. I’m almost waiting for Canute to go fuck with Thorffin at the farm only for Thorffin to come back swinging. Only this time with a purpose. If something like this does happen then it would be much like Berserk and the eclipse. Where Gutts stops wandering aimlessly as a mercenary and gets a purpose, though later on he gets a more wholesome purpose. I think what the Vinland guy is trying to say is that violence without purpose is meaningless.

    And I do think that mass disarmament is kinda silly. It’s war, people die. And at least, both Vinland Saga and Berserk seem to stay clear of that.

    • Violence with purpose is still meaningless, but that’s not the point.

      The point is that violence is entertaining. I read manga like this for the violence. Who doesn’t? If I wanted to read about peace I’d read Yotsuba&! for the love of god.

      Making a statement about violence being bad by serving a glorious violent spectacle is meaningless. It’s not a bad thing being meaningless, not at all. The important thing is the violent spectacle. Without the possibility of it I would never ever read Vinland Saga.

  9. Brian says:

    Historie (ヒストリエ) is a historical manga by Hitoshi Iwaaki which you may like. Same guy who did Parasyte.

    Great blog. 🙂

  10. Al says:

    Thorfinn’s journey to maturity and struggle for peace only make sense in the turbulent and violent world that he lives in. It wouldn’t be a struggle if he lived in a utopia and he wouldn’t be maturing if he knew from the start what he knows now. Thorfinn may be a pacifist now but
    I think you would be greatly mistaken to think that means no more action and violence.
    Thorfinn’s idealism will be put to test in the harsh and unforgiving reality we live in.

    Another thing to consider is the rise of the Catholic Church and the Christianitization
    of Europe during this time period. Askeladd spoke of the Roman Empire and talked
    about it being more civilized but it has gone away.The Catholic Church ultimately
    takes it’s place and becomes a pretty huge influence on the world especially the west.
    Vikings like Thorkell who live to die will find that they will either have to adapt to the
    times or like Bjorn die as a relic of the past. There replacements will be
    Canute and Thorfinn who rather than fighting for glory fight for an ideal.
    Hardened viking warriors will be replaced with farmers like Einar pushed to their limits.

    I don’t know how much the author plans to write about or how he will approach it.
    But I’m quite confident that it will be anything but boring. The prologue was
    amazing but I fully expect the story after it will far surpass it.

  11. artha5 says:

    I think you’ve hit an important spot there, about the whole “saintliness” thing, and i too think that is most used as and apologetic for the violence showed, not in all mangas though, like Vinland for example since from the beginning it kinda went that way while most mangas that adopt that kind of moral perspective often force at least on some level the peace theme onto their characters and main plot, and Vagabond i think although Musashi is trying to “pacify” himself he’s doing it more for improving himself as a warrior (i mean controlling himself, be above the wild beast kinda warrior and be more like the godlike one) rather than to be non-violent, since even the Yagyu although seeming peaceful-like too i think they’ve never inclined or professed a non-kill philosophy just a non-violent one (i think the duels could suggest that, since in the manga it’s shown that duels can be lethal but it’s a supposition, and the whole teaching the Tokugawa for war).

    The whole power-up-disarming-enemies i think it could be much more attractive if used to measure a character’s power and strength a la Thors (despite what he believes a “true warrior” should be) instead than to excuse the violence in the manga. Although it can appear silly to some, i personally enjoy a lot of time the “ownage” those kind of characters can do, like putting up a bar for the rest of the warriors (like Hiko Seijuro did in Kenshin or Takamura does on Ippo). I think this whole philosophy could come even before the samurai-bushido times. I say this basing on this movie i’ve seen a while ago, the chinese movie “Hero” where (SPOILER ALERT) the general in the end tells the final goal of a warrior, that is to be able to discard the “material” sword as he has been able to assimilate the sword in himself, his own being, thus becoming himself a sword (or weapon, whatever you prefer). I think that kind of philosophy could come from even that time.

    One thing i don’t completely agree with you is the thing that one reads this kind of manga for the violence (at least not only for that). Berserk’s story (my favorite manga of all) changed me in ways i didn’t expect, specially the relation Guts-Griffith is something that really motivated me to keep reading this incredible manga, so i think sometimes one could really read this kind of mangas for the moral/human/philosophical things they touch, explore, and discuss about. Still, i kind of see where you’re going when you say one doesn’t read this for the morals, it kinda feels that the morals used for the saint stuff are just lame/forced instead of being morals that actually can affect you, that are more real world-like, more human so to speak, something i think one could find in books like A Song of Ice and Fire or even in the Walking Dead comics (or the I Am a Hero zombie manga that a friend of mine has recommended me very much), like a tool just for justify some stuff and not because the authors really wanna discussed that theme in their mangas (and mostly it’s because of the former reason).

    Great article btw, as you can see, I’ve putted a lot of thought into it!

  12. Gyb says:

    Vinland Saga is very Christian, in my opinion. Farmland Saga arc has proven that VS is not heading into the same direction as either [Conan, Berserk, Guin Saga], or [Vagabond, Samurai X].

    Sin, redemption, faith. Makoto Yukimura is a genius. He’s a philosopher.

  13. Pingback: Vinland Saga, Vindicated | Continuing World

  14. gilgamesh310 says:

    I agree with most of what’s said here but. I don’t like the idea if Berserk being likened to TTGL. That show is very shallow and has nowhere near the level of depth that. Berserk has. LoGH is probably the deepest of all and saying that VS is its equivalent and TTGL Berserk’s equivalent is just nor very fair at all. Berserk and VS are equally deep.

    I do mostly agree on the pacifist thing. I prefer how it’s done compared to that in the likes of a Rurouni Kenshin and Trigun but it’s still a very unrealistic and silly concept.

  15. imbricator says:

    Great post. The problem with comparing Vinland Saga to Berserk is that lots of these comparisons are really superficial – oh, here’s some physical similarities. That’s why it’s awkward when LoGH is compared to Code Geass which is compared to Aldnoah.Zero – these comparisons are totally based on very superficial and basic plot elements or visuals, without actual thematic similarity. Berserk is also frequently compared with Claymore, but in my opinion, Claymore is thematically more similar to Kuroko no Basuke or any other generic sports manga than Berserk. The comparison between Berserk and Claymore is based off of visual cues, and that’s just not enough to evaluate two great series in their own rights by.

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