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Anime Review & Ramble: Berserk: Golden Age Arc

Fannish frustation: that sums up my feelings about Berserk.  It is a story with creativity, daring, and psychological potential, but it does not follow through.  Kentaro Miura’s very dark and highly regarded manga has had two anime adaptations: a series (1997-98) and a collection of movies, Berserk: Golden Age Arc (2012), both of which cover the beginning of the manga.  I will focus on the recent movies, though from summaries I’ve read, the manga seems to continue the anime’s trajectory of potential unfulfilled.

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The Band of the Hawk posing for their publicity pic

Warning up front: Berserk is extremely dark, graphic, and violent.  It is intended for a mature audience with a high tolerance for all of the above.

Set in a world based on late medieval Europe, Berserk concerns a group of mercenaries, the Band of the Hawk, bent on fortune and glory in a war-torn age.  Their leader, Griffith, is a beautiful and charismatic young man with ambitions to win a kingdom.  His martial prowess is rivaled only by Guts, a youth of humble origins who has Herculean strength and exceptional skill with a big sword.  Griffith is sufficiently impressed with Guts not only to make him a member of the Band of the Hawk but to consider him a friend, an honor he only bestows on “equals.”  Guts, becoming the newbie in the group, somewhat displaces the third major character, Casca, their female fighter and Griffith’s distant second in command.  Little do they know that Griffith’s ambition is about to make everything go pear-shaped (almost literally).

Significant plot commentary beyond this requires big spoilers.  I’ll do some mostly spoiler-free commentary first with some spoilerific thoughts at the end.

Spoiler-Lite Casca
Casca is an example of that almost-but-not-quite-fantastic characteristic I find frustrating in Berserk.  This poor woman exists in one of the most misogynistic cultures I have ever seen represented.  Women’s roles seem divided into two types: noblewomen raised to be sycophantic idiots and the rest, who exist to be raped. There are some other bit parts–servants, for example, and more female characters in the manga–but in the anime, we mainly see “idiot” or “under-constant-threat-of-rape-and-murder” (or both).

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Casca on a good day

As a pubescent kid, Casca was rescued by Griffith from—what else?—rape.  She joins his group, gains some respect, and learns to fight, but she has a host of disadvantages: as the “girl,” she’s constantly targeted in battle for ridicule, shaming, and attempted rape. Since war is a man’s game, all the weaponry, training, etc. is geared toward men: Casca, as a petite woman, must fight with tools probably too heavy for her with no one to train her in how to use her body type to her advantage, so it’s not surprising that, while she has a lot of skill, she is repeatedly shown up by comrades and enemies alike.  She has no other women to interact with day to day, no one to commiserate with; no one to even tell her about possible cures for menstrual cramps, which seem to be a big problem for her. Moreover, she’s in love with Griffith, and he does not return her feelings, further eroding her self-esteem.

Given this unremitting barrage of isolation and denigration, she understandably becomes, by turns, angry, bitter, reckless, depressed, self-flagellating, and suicidal, all of which just makes her look more like a “mere woman” who can’t cut it.  Add to this that she has somehow achieved the rank of a field commander despite often being defeated in battle, freezing up during trouble, and being repeatedly rescued by her “subordinates,” and no wonder she is confused and feels like a freak and phony.

The wonderful thing about Casca is that she is psychologically realistic.  She’s an astute portrait of how damaging a life of constant debasement can be.  The terrible thing about Casca is that this realism is deployed mostly to debase her.  And with Casca as the only well-developed female character in the anime, this is tantamount to representing Woman as cracking under constant abuse.  It makes me long for some counter-narrative: some woman who’s found a better niche, some female space where midwives discuss herbal medicine, more than one or two very token Bechdel passes. The manga may provide this, but the anime’s engagement with femaleness rarely goes beyond abusing Casca.  (Its secondary female character Charlotte, is a love-struck moron.) For me as a female viewer, it’s tiring and depressing, not least because it is culturally and psychologically plausible.

I should note that my reading is based partly on explicit textual evidence (ex. Casca is repeatedly threatened with rape) and partly on my connecting the dots (ex. her menstrual discomfort may be worse for having no female healer to talk to). I’m not sure how much of this reading matches the author’s intent.  Because the Berserk anime lacks a counter-narrative of female empowerment, it is very hard to parse how much the narrative is critiquing misogyny and how much it is simply misogynistic.

In any case, the character of Casca stumbles along under these burdens for most of the anime, retaining her psychological realism and an admirable tenacity: despite the many strikes against her, she persists in being a relatively successful warrior, a courageous and good person, and loyal friend to her comrades at arms.

And then, all hell breaks loose and—spoilers for Casca—Casca ends up badly tortured physically and mentally.  She responds by going insane and being reduced to the mental acuity of a toddler.  (The change is apparently permanent, or at least appears to have persisted for a long time in the manga).  This is bad writing.  Here’s a list of some problems with it:

  • It fits into the cliché of making Woman nothing but an object to spur on Man’s (Guts’) angst and revenge. It tortures Woman to objectify her.
  • In so doing, it robs the story of what could have been its most dynamic movement: the involvement of Casca in her own anger and revenge, and in the changing relationships among the characters.  This could have been a Kill Bill level subversion of women’s disempowerment, as well as fantastic character development for all three principal characters.  Alas, it’s not.
  • It’s out of character for Casca.  Early Casca has realistic psychological problems, such as low self-esteem.  Yet she also has fighting spirit.  Even her contemplation of suicide is brief.  After suffering extreme torture, she could well be furious, irrational, terrified, murderous, etc., but reduced to permanent babbling idiocy – no. There’s no precedent in her personality.  The only explanation is magic, which is possible in this world but a copout as a narrative technique.  No, this is character assassination of the story’s major female character for the purpose of giving the hero more angst.  In a story in which Woman is already dehumanized in-universe, it dehumanizes her in the one sphere she had left to fight this dehumanization: her own inner personhood.

All in all, the narrative does interesting work with Casca but then drops it, and her. Moreover, gender discourse is not the only area in which Berserk pulls back from exploring its own intriguing propositions.

The Great Unfulfilled Theme of Berserk (with Big Spoilers)
Berserk makes an amazing thematic move: it has Griffith become the devil, not literally but pretty close.  (Literally, he becomes one of the five demonic beings who rule over the advancing Dark Age.)  Admittedly, Griffith was always overly ambitious and borderline psychopathic; i.e., he lacks empathy.  He’s not really a sadist; he doesn’t get particular pleasure from causing pain except in some discrete cases of vanquishing old enemies, etc. But he has a lower than normal ability to care about other people. This substantial lack of basic human relationality with everyone but Guts, combined with megalomania and personal crisis, allows him to make a deal to torture and kill his friends in exchange for near absolute, evil power.  And he does it.  This is, more or less, the end of the anime.

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Guts and Griffith: Be careful who your friends are.

This situation leaves Guts with a sticky philosophical problem: he befriended the devil.  In the Christian tradition (which, incidentally, this story does not belong to), it is said that the devil’s evil is seductive.  I have rarely seen this sold in a story.  Conceptions of Satan as seductive seem to fall into two camps: 1) post-Miltonic, in which the Satan figure, while attractive, is not really “evil” but the anti-hero, a subversion and critique of an inadequate “good”; 2) stupidity preying on stupidity.  With apologies to Tolkien, this is the technique that tells us Sauron used to be very attractive and swayed many people, which leaves me scratching my head and wondering how?

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Griffith: Face of Evil

Only twice have I seen a devil-like figure presented as both actually evil and convincingly attractive.  One is the little girl devil in The Last Temptation of Christ.  The other is Griffith.  Granted, he is not yet a devil when his band of loyal followers flocks to him; he is just an ambitious, emotionally stunted, charismatic man. But the signs that his project is questionable are there: it’s based on killing lots of people, for one thing.  Of course, that’s true of many in a warrior society, but his killing has no good purpose. He just wants power.  Yes, he does save Casca from being raped, maybe even out of the goodness of his heart, but his main project is to rise in the political ranks.  He doesn’t hide this.  And while he is consistently nice and reasonably even-handed to his followers, one doesn’t have to know him long to see that he’s almost never emotionally accessible, just to Guts on occasion.  These are all bad signs.  Yet they are also things that a group of young people from a violent, war-torn country could be forgiven for missing in the face of Griffith’s incredible charisma and meteoric rise to power.

That’s what makes the scenario so eerie.  If he’s not always evil, Griffith is certainly never good, but his band love him anyway—Guts loves him—because he is, in fact, attractive.  And falling for him is the sort of mistake that makes you question yourself for a very long time.  It brings you face to face with your own limitations of moral judgment and your own capacity for siding with evil without even knowing it.

This is the most fascinating thing about Berserk.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be much explored.  The anime, as I’ve noted, stops here.  The manga, from summaries I’ve read, seems more concerned with adventure and revenge than unpacking the moral/philosophical implications of this frightening scenario.  Then again, the manga is highly praised, so I may just be unaware of its depth. To date, however, my experience of Berserk is of a story brought to a crisis point, then left to dangle.

Brief Overview:
Plot:
Very good up to the point where it stops, at least in the anime.  It’s a tragic arc stuck in rising action.

Characters:
The principals are almost excellent, but each lacks something.  Griffith is fascinating but needs more backstory to explain his extreme ambition.  Guts generally pulls his weight, but for the official protagonist, he is the most ordinary and least interesting of the three (to me).  Casca is often very well characterized—until she’s not. Of the secondary characters, I find the strongest to be Judeau, a moral, low-key member of the Band of the Hawk. He’s not a major presence, but for his level of development, he may the character most consistently well written.

Art & Presentation:
Wow! And Wow again!  These movies are some of the best-looking anime I’ve ever seen: state of the art, with very good use of CGI. For connoisseurs of anime as visual art, this could be reason enough to see them (if you have a strong stomach). In addition to more advanced, higher-end art, the movies score over the original anime in cleaning up the battle scenes so that they are much more plausible and gripping.

Likewise, points for some of the most realistic consensual sex I’ve seen in anime.  (There’s a lot of rape too: I’m less convinced it’s realistic.)  Extra points for showing pubic hair: this may sound like a weird thing to single out, but it’s vanishingly rare in anime, which seems to default to body hair being evil.  In this respect, these movies show genuine respect for the human body, not the airbrushed body of TV fantasy.  Berserk is an odd place to find this respect, but there it is.

The music is fantastic too.  The voice acting is good and not very stereotyped.

Warnings:
Rape, murder, torture, dismemberment, heartbreak, war, betrayal, psychopathy, sadism, rape, verbal degradation, demons, destruction, maiming, and more rape, and probably other things I’ve forgotten to mention.  Regardless of its good points, this anime should not be attempted by anyone who does not have a high tolerance for graphic violence.

All in All:
For those ready to wade into the violence, I highly recommend Berserk with big reservations.  When it is good, it is fantastic.  When it’s creative, it’s one of the most philosophically creative anime I’ve seen.  But its problems are as great as its triumphs.  Watch it for the triumphs, but expect its genius to be temperamental and often off-duty.

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7 Comments

  1. Well written but, I feel you don’t do Casca justice. She is held to the highest esteem in the Band of the Hawk. She’s the strongest minus Gutts and Griffith. She pushes beyond her limits(as is the theme for berserk). She finally breaks down only after witnessing The Eclipse and the lose of every person save Guts she has been leading and of course being raped by her former love interest turned demon.

    Sure, women are like you said rape victims or naive royalty. But, that unfortunately was how it existed in that time period.

    You also say Griffith really isn’t empathetic. Outward no he isn’t but inward he cares more than anything about them except for his dream. The flash back to the Gennon incident showing he’d really be gay for the money the needed rather than sacrifice life for it. Also, as you know sacrifices made to Godhand must be the most treasured objec that one has.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Bruce, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I completely agree that Griffith has feelings for his friends; otherwise, killing them would not be a sacrifice, as you note. I just think that, apart from Guts, his feelings are rather mild compared, say, to theirs for him.

      My problem with the social disempowerment of women as presented in Berserk is not that the series is set in a misogynistic society; that’s a perfectly legitimate choice and can be a very interesting and useful one. My problem is that the anime engages with this misogyny in ways that do not offer much narrative of female power in response to it and, therefore, a limited and somewhat ambiguous critique of it. Examples of such power that could exist in that society would include allowing a woman to voice an articulate critique (beyond Casca’s brief “I didn’t ask to be born a woman” statement), Bechdel passes (just showing women talking among themselves in ways that aren’t totally oriented around men, which women do in every society), showing where female power is situated (ex. mothers and children, midwives, etc.: there is always female power). A little more of that would have gone a long way.

      Briefly, re. Casca, I do think she is shown to be strong in many ways. I certainly have no objection to her breaking down after the Eclipse: serious psychological damage is inevitable. But there’s a difference between a breakdown and being robbed of mind and humanity for what appears to be the rest of even the manga series to date(?). I’m not even sure that kind of infantilzation occurs in reality, short of physical brain injury. It feels like a 19th-century madness trope, and I still contend it’s out of character for Casca, not least because she is strong.

      • Arwen, a major female power who seems to get passed up a lot is the Queen of Midland, who leads the shadow governement of nobles. Her role definitely defines what happens to our protagonists.

        Also, major characters are Schierke, Farnese and, Flora are major female leads in the manga. Each of them play pivotal roles in Gutts maintaining what humanity he has left in his descent into madness.

        I think Cascas situation is meant to be more symbolic than realistic. As it is Gutts only escape from a life time of war(as was Cascas). Her being in this state of regression displays Gutts hope for a happy and normal existence shattered. Also, her being this way allows for him to give into his darkness, The Beast. I don’t think he would be swallowed so much if she wasn’t in a constant state of “shell shock”. That’s just my take on this anyways. – Bruce

        • Arwen Spicer

          It sounds like the manga has much more extensive and interesting representation of women, and that’s great. Maybe the new movies will spark renewed interest in the series, and we’ll see some of that adapted to. (I believe at least one other female character made it into the opening credit sequence.)

          Also, her being this way allows for him to give into his darkness, The Beast. I don’t think he would be swallowed so much if she wasn’t in a constant state of “shell shock”.

          I agree: she is used as a driver for his plotline.

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts and deeper knowledge of the full series.

          • Yeah, the manga is better. Same thing as reading a book compared to a movie.

            Honestly I thought the new movies were extremely watered down compared to the anime from 98.

  2. Great review, I really enjoyed your critique and wanted to talk a little more about the sexual violence aspect. Now as someone who likes strong depictions of women in fantasy, I was too a little put off by what happened to Casca, but sexual violence is something that the male characters go through also. One of the things that the movie unfortunately skipped over is that Guts himself is a victim of rape which happened to him in an especially tragic fashion in which his ‘father-figure’, Gambino actually sold him off for a night to another mercenary. This happened to guts when he was a boy, I believe around 12-14 at the time. Griffith also, though not explicitly raped, goes through unconsensual sex with a lord who demands he sleep with him in exchange for funds for the budding Band of the Hawk, there’s a pretty drawn out scene in the Manga where he talks to Casca about this as well as how he laments some of the suffering that he is inflicting on his followers and enemies all for the pursuit of his dream.

    I think Griffith can also be seen as a character who is lying to himself, who does care about Guts, Casca and the Hawks but ignores or forces back those feelings in pursuit of an adolescent power-fantasy. The fact that Gut’s abandoning gave him such a mental crisis I believe is evidence for this. It also more heavily suggested in the Manga that he’s psychologically manipulated by the Godhand into going through with the Eclipse ritual.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Yay, I was able to log in and approve your comment. Thanks for the info on the manga. It makes me interested in checking out the manga.

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