VINLAND SAGA Season 1 Interview: Anime Direction with Staff

The second season of TV anime VINLAND SAGA will start airing in January 2023! To celebrate the TV rebroadcast and worldwide streaming of Season One, we’ve gathered original author Yukimura Makoto, director Shuhei Yabuta, and storyboard/episode director Atsushi Kobayashi who did episode 14 to discuss the direction of the show. 

In addition, the storyboard for episode 14 “The Light of Dawn” is now available. Anime Trending received special permission to share the interview in English. 

SPOILER ALERT: Please note that this interview contains some spoilers about Season One. 

From the left: storyboard/episode director Atsushi Kobayashi, original author Yukimura
, director Shuhei Yabuta

Original Story Yukimura Makoto’s Thoughts on the Anime Direction

Yukimura, could you tell us how you felt when you saw the anime’s Episode 14, “The Light of Dawn?

Yukimura: I really felt this episode was going to be legendary. Atsushi Kobayashi had done an amazing job storyboarding Episode Five, so I remembered his name. When I saw his storyboards for Episode Fourteen, it became clear to me that Yabuta—the director—had pointedly entrusted Kobayashi with the most important episodes. So, it goes without saying, I was immensely excited for the episode’s on-air release.


Could you elaborate on that? What was so exciting for you?

Yukimura: Well, two things. First, I was blown away by the fact that Episode Fourteen uses the original story’s plot almost completely as I wrote it. Second, the most important part of this episode is Anne’s psychological transformation. The pains that Kobayashi, Yabuta, and scriptwriter (Hiroshi) Seko took to portray that transformation proved how carefully they devoured and digested my original work to the point where the anime exceeds the original in the best way.

Yabuta: I couldn’t agree more. Using Yukimura’s food metaphor, you could say Kobayashi follows the recipe as it is, and tries the dish he has made. Then he adjusts the ingredients until the dish becomes completely his own. The end product is a refined, crystalized film version filled with the utmost respect to the original work. As the director, my job is to check the storyboards for each episode, but Kobayashi’s storyboards have almost nothing that needs to be fixed. He truly expresses the type of atmosphere I’m aiming for in VINLAND SAGA with the utmost precision. I feel so fortunate that he agreed to work on some of the episodes for this series.

Kobayashi: Yabuta and Yukimura are praising me so much that it’s hard to add anything else. [Laughs.]

What were your first impressions of the original story, Kobayashi?

Kobayashi: From the very beginning, I was itching to draw the farmland arc that will appear in the TV anime’s Season Two. At the end of all the tragedy and violence, the original story portrays a world where the people are trying to figure out how to keep moving forward. Those scenes are so dazzling that I got goosebumps just reading them. You could say I’ve been putting my all into the storyboards for this anime thus far just for the chance to get to those farm life scenes.

As Yukimura mentioned, you previously worked on Episode Five “The Troll’s Son,” which contained original material that was only in the anime. Was there anything you were careful of while making this episode?

Kobayashi: When I initially read the original manga, I thought it was first and foremost an action/adventure story. But when I re-read it to make the anime storyboards, I got the impression that it was mainly a story about young soldiers. So, I watched the film Ivan’s Childhood (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, 1962) for reference and noticed all the adults in this film are unexpectedly kind. The adults in VINLAND SAGA, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. That’s what made me feel like I needed to rethink the original story’s premise all over again.

Yabuta: Oh, that’s right. I remember our discussions during production about the distance between adults in the series and how this would influence how they interact with Thorfinn.

Yukimura: This is exactly what I was talking about! See how carefully these two have devoured and digested my work? This is why the anime and manga have the same plot but become completely different works of art. I’ve been fascinated by this phenomenon ever since I saw the anime storyboards for the first time.


Episode Fourteen “The Light of Dawn”

The 14th episode of the anime, “The Light of Dawn,” is based on the Episodes 27 and28 of the original story (also included in Volume 4 of the comic). Yukimura, do you remember anything about the time you drew it?

Yukimura: It’s been more than fifteen years, but I remember it well. When I sent the premise (pre-draft stage) to the editor in charge, I even told him, “Maybe I’m a genius!” Ha ha! At first, he looked at me doubtfully, but after reading it, he said, “I’ve known you for a long time, but this is the first time I think the same as you,” he said. “The first time” was a bit annoying (laughs).

Yabuta: May I ask a question too? What made you decide to draw that episode of the series?

Yukimura: Until that scene, I had depicted the battles with swords and axes, but I felt that something was still missing in the representation of violence. The definition of “violence” for me is: “a completely unreasonable act that violates human rights without allowing any dialogue”. In the story, the Vikings were committing awful acts, destroying homes no matter what. When I thought that the representation of “violence” was essential to draw them, the story that Askeladd’s band was hiding somewhere came up, and I added this representation of “violence” there.

Yabuta: It’s true that when we say “war” we think of a representation of people fighting each other, so the act of unilaterally destroying a peaceful family has a different meaning.

Yukimura: Exactly. If a family that was happily enjoying a delicious dinner together, was brutally killed by giant men all of a sudden, everyone would curse the gods saying, “How can something like this happen!?” I thought I had to draw that somewhere in this series, and that was that scene.

Yabuta: I think combining that with Anne’s faith gives another interpretation. Where did the inspiration come from to think that Anne’s religious beliefs would be essential, instead of just representing the “violence” of Askeladd?

Yukimura: If we were going to represent the “violence” of Askeladd and others, we couldn’t leave out the Christian worldview. How would they feel about Askeladd and the others, those devout Christians who live peacefully in farming villages? I think there’s something about people who don’t know fear that makes them attractive. In that world, Christians work hard with fear every day to get to heaven someday, but when they see Askeladd destroy their common sense in such a way, Anne feels guilty for feeling a certain admiration for it. I thought it would also be an honest impression of “violence”, so that’s why I made it like that.

Yabuta: Does that mean a part of you felt that kind of attraction for Askeladd?

Yukimura: Yes. This is an undeniable fact, and I definitely thought I had to draw it again.

Episode Fourteen “The Light of Dawn”

Kobayashi: My impression is that there are two types of violence in this world: individual violence and collective violence. But I would like to know what Yukimura has to say about this. Do you personally treat these two types of violence as the same or different?

Yukimura: I don’t think I have ever thought of them as different things. Something I have thought about, though, is that there must be a lot of people who don’t want to kill on the battlefield, whether they are in a group or not. In fact, I hear the shooting hit rate is much lower on battlefields than during training. Some soldiers even shoot the ground to avoid killing as much as possible. Despite the battlefield being a place of collective violence, there are always some who do not have feelings of anger of violence. In a place of individual violence, on the other hand, the individual’s motives and actions tend to be on the same page.

Kobayashi: Askeladd’s band’s violence in Episode Fourteen is motivated by survival. It’s a type of collective violence without emotion—or even humanity. They are essentially getting rid of a group of people, so they don’t stand in the way in the future. Maybe the complaints about there not being enough violence in the story is because of a lack of this type of violence.

Yukimura: That’s exactly right. Most of the violence portrayed thus far is of soldiers fighting each other with passion, so the scene with the villagers in Episode Fourteen is probably the first “real” type of violence in the series. I didn’t initially think Askeladd would do that kind of thing when I first started writing this story. But when I reached this part, I began to feel that Askeladd should be more of a villain and included the violent scene. That’s why this episode is such a game changer in understanding the kind of person Askeladd is. 

Depicting Anne’s Psyche

Kobayashi: I don’t think your readers would really accept the cold-blooded violence on its own, though. That’s where Anne comes in. That scene at the end where she talks about her heart racing surprised even us. With Father Willibald also appearing in this episode, both he and Anne bring up the question of God’s existence. Willibald has been dealing with this question since the very beginning. On the other hand, Anne has been innocently toying with the idea until the end of the episode where she ultimately protests to the moon. I thought it would be interesting to portray this scene as a moment of premature existentialism.

Yukimura: All of a sudden, she questions if God truly exists.

Kobayashi: “How do I move forward in a world where God is far in the distance?” is an existentialist question posed first by S. Kierkegaard (Danish philosopher, 1813-1855), but the idea existed more than 800 years before him. So I wondered what this kind of self-dialogue would look like if it progressed within a Christian world. If we turned that into part of the story—a kind of dish, to go back to the earlier food metaphor—I had a feeling our audience would bite.

Yukimura: Wow, you have really put a lot of thought into this.

Kobayashi: That said, I didn’t mean to portray the possibility that God doesn’t exist at all. That’s a rather contemporary idea. What Anne is asking in that final scene in Episode Fourteen is what does God do and not do? And actually, Willibald is struggling with the same question.

Yabuta: In the first draft of the storyboard for Episode Fourteen, we ended with a cut of Anne’s hand. It was then Kobayashi who ultimately added the morning scene.

Kobayashi: To be precise, I had written the morning scene earlier before submitting the storyboard to Yabuta. But it was about two hundred seconds too long, so I cut it when first asking for the director’s check. It’s only once Yabuta looked it over that I asked for a second chance and cut down the last scene as much as possible to include the sunrise. 

Directing Season Two

Which stories will Kobayashi oversee in Season Two?

Yabuta: The depiction of characters’ psyches becomes an important element in Season Two. We needed Kobayashi’s expertise in interpreting the story and character emotions, so we asked him to draw even more storyboards than last season. That being the case, I would say he will be spending more time on storyboarding than on the production side this time. While that means more work for the episode directors, I believe the production side can learn a lot from Kobayashi’s storyboards. Production also has my support, as well.

Kobayashi: As you may already be able to tell, Yukimura and Yabuta praise me a lot, but luckily, I’m the type of person who is encouraged by praise, so they both provide me with a supportive environment. Yukimura is even kind enough to send me his feedback on all of my storyboards.

Yabuta: Until more information on Season Two is released, we’re just quietly working on the project. The constant pats on the back from Yukimura and the editorial staff has been really encouraging, especially given the temporary absence of reactions from our audiences.

Kobayashi: I know what you mean. When you cook something, it can be torture to wait to hear how the food is. In that sense, there is no one who can give more precise feedback than the original story author. Season One can be classified more or less as entertainment, so we had some idea of how our audiences would react. Season Two, on the other hand, is a bit heavier, so Yukimura’s feedback was a big support for my mental health. In drawing the farm life scenes, Yabuta’s policy was to start with a solid portrayal of Einar’s character, which was quite a challenge for me.

Yabuta: Season Two marks a big turning point in the story, and Kobayashi worked on all the storyboards for episodes in which a resolution or conclusion is reached. It was also an important goal for me in directing Season Two to show how Thorfinn processes the effects of external stimuli within himself. Einar, for example, has a huge influence on Thorfinn in the sense that their meeting and the bond they’ve grown to share gives birth to other feelings within Thorfinn. It is then these feelings that influence Thorfinn’s dreams, but it would not be convincing if there is no depiction of character development along the way. As in the original story, there are many scenes in the anime where characters are confronted with imaginary beings in their dreams and psychological landscapes, and it was necessary to categorize each of these scenes and depict them in a way that felt realistic for each character. In order to do that without overextending the sense of realism, we sometimes had to alter the tone and the way these scenes were directed.

Kobayashi: In the first few episodes, Thorfinn is like an empty shell and doesn’t talk much, but he is still meeting and interacting with people at this point. Depicting what was going on in his head at the time was difficult for us to depict.

Yukimura: I know what you mean. That constant listless and spaced-out face of his is hard to work with.

Yabuta: I think the hardest part was when the range of Thorfinn’s subtle expressions increased ever so slightly. I had to really think deeply about how intentional that was. I was also careful about how to depict and direct the level of Einar’s anger towards violent people.

Yukimura: That was really the peak of the season’s first half. 

All About Einar

Kobayashi: In the first half of Season Two, it was extremely important for us to focus on how Einar comes to terms with the violence he has been subjected to. That part alone could be an entire anime on its own, so it was a colossal task. One of the highlights of Season One was the depiction of Thorfinn’s “blank decade,” but I can already tell that Yabuta’s depiction of Einar will be the highpoint of Season Two.

Yabuta: All I wanted was for the anime’s version of Einar to be on par with his persona in the original manga. I mulled over what I needed to do to make this a reality and that became the first episode. After that, I considered how to direct the important scenes between Thorfinn and Einar. If you want to talk about a challenge, that was it!

Kobayashi: That’s exactly why we had to put so much energy in giving Einar life in the anime. I think that part of him just turns out to be a regular nice guy in the original story, if not almost omitted completely.

Yukimura: Yeah, I drew Einar as a man with an open-book personality, since he’s what Yabuta calls a “superhero.” In the anime, however, I noticed you really dug deep into who he truly is with the breadth of his experiences and thoughts as a regular person.

Kobayashi: I think the audience will find his portrayal in the anime shocking because it puts into image what was simply spoken as simple dialogue in the original story. Once that has been done once, we must go through with that method all the way to the conclusion.

Yabuta:  It’s in this way that Thorfinn realizes that Einar is clearly having more painful experiences than he is himself. Einar serves the purpose of constantly moving Thorfinn forward, so they complement each other perfectly. Einar is essentially Thorfinn’s source of support and guidance. I wanted to emphasize this attractive side of Einar, just as the original story did.

Kobayashi: As I read and re-read the original story in the process of putting it into visual form, it became more and more extreme and difficult to interpret. I kept wondering about the meaning behind a specific scene, a specific frame, or even a specific character expression. Precisely because we are creating a medium that consists of a flow of images, it leaves a strong impression, which must be settled with more powerful images.

Yabuta: Exactly. As long as we’re dealing with a flow of images, the production side’s subjectivity can step in and set another interpretation on the table. A lone reader can enjoy the original story without having to worry about things like this, but, as a director, I sometimes find myself unable to create the same effects in the anime that were possible in Yukimura’s manga. At times like this, I have to stop and think about how I need the characters to move.

Kobayashi: Not to sound like a broken record with the food metaphor, but we have to carefully consider how to chew the things we eat and present them to others.Yabuta: Exactly.

Yukimura: I’m an amateur when it comes to anime production, but I do realize that it isn’t possible for a director and his staff to create something new simply by transferring manga as-is to a completely different medium. That’s why I completely entrusted my original work to Yabuta’s crew from the very beginning and let them call the shots. After I saw the storyboards and script, I knew I had made the right decision.

Kobayashi: Your work has really moved us, so we have been doing everything we can to figure out how to put images to time and make the whole thing taste good. As a storyboard artist, my efforts are first directed toward you and Yabuta. After that, I have the fans who love this story as much as I do in mind, as well as all of those who have yet to read the original work. Please be assured that what we’re making here is by no means my own original VINLAND SAGA.

Yabuta: In Season Two, there will be even more depictions of Thorfinn’s inner psyche. The events that take place around him and his connections to people will become more important than ever. In fact, the inner workings of all the characters will be depicted even more intensely than their physical battles. There are a few more weeks until the season begins to air and stream, but I hope you are all looking forward to it. 


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