Berserk, PART II: Always Our Leader

A Case for Casca…

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The Fantasy of Diversity

A fascinating dimension of Berserk is race. Midland is deliberately analogous to the medieval fantasy realms of western media, though its violence and tone see it skew closer to Essos and Westeros than Middle-earth. However, beyond the magic, swordplay, and demons, there’s a significant divergence, as Berserk exhibits a measure of racial diversity, and those two western counterparts have been historically criticized for their opposite approach.

This article on Game of Thrones gives an overview by way of focusing on the criticism, making for a predictable read which adheres to the narrative of spontaneous outrage, first line being: “Even the fantasy world of “Game of Thrones” isn’t immune to scrutiny when it comes to racial diversity.” When did people of color get TVs, and what will they turn their attention to next?!

Berserk49George R.R. Martin is quoted there, offering a gentle reply in the face of potentially defamatory criticism, that “Westeros around 300 AC is nowhere near as diverse as 21st century America.” There is then, an integrity with Westeros as analogue to the British Isles of the 15th century. Understandable, as it may have been the next century that saw such comparable diversity in English society. Clever, clever man.

The Lord of the Rings, with the us vs. them moral binary Ice and Fire is partly designed to push against, seems to cast its other in shades of color. Asiatic and African mercenaries work under the banner of an evil that must be vanquished, for its threat to the homeland. The accentuation of this theme in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy is covered in an eye-opening piece by David Ibata.

The Haradrim are more recognizable. They are garbed in turbans and flowing crimson robes. They ride giant elephants. They resemble nothing other than North African or Middle Eastern tribesmen. A recently released “Towers” companion book, “The Lord of the Rings: Creatures,” calls the Haradrim “exotic outlanders” whose costumes “were inspired by the twelfth-century Saracen warriors of the Middle East.” The Saracens were Islamic soldiers who battled Christian invaders during the Crusades.

Berserk is not levied with the same fervor of criticism by and large, and benefits from a greater abstraction than A Song of Ice and Fire and The Lord of the Rings, its primary source material and subsequent adaptations being rooted in illustration. As such, these are interpretative depictions of people: nothing as explicitly defined as descriptive prose, or cemented by the photographing of actors. This interpretation of human faces and features on the part of Miura allows further interpretation on the part of the reader.

Berserk56Despite also being a facsimile of medieval Europe, the writer Miura’s disregard for exclusivity is reified by the illustrator Miura’s expression in a highly abstract medium. Guts could be seen as Japanese, with a nickname for a moniker (does it have to do with the nature of his birth?)He’s got dark hair, and a face comparable to Japanese heroes of other manga, while inconsistent with other dark-haired male characters, like Corkus.

In answer to the frequent (and frequently verbalized) query of “why do anime characters look Caucasian?” critic Matt Thomas lays it all out, applying the actual definitions of markedness and unmarkedness to the phenomena of seeing ourselves in abstract art. It’s a fascinating read, and relevant to our discussion here.

The Japanese are not Other within their own borders, and therefore drawn (or painted or sculpted) representations of, by and for Japanese do not, as a rule, include stereotyped racial markers. A circle with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth is, by default, Japanese. … When non-Japanese characters appear in a manga in which most characters are Japanese, that character will be differentiated from the others with stereotyped racial markers of some kind. For example, a character of African descent may be shown with pronounced lips, frizzy hair, and shaded skin. A European character may be shown with a pronounced nose and jutting jaw.

She notes that in European or Chinese-set manga, the characters are drawn as Japanese characters typically would be, for example Attack on Titan. If there’s a Japanese character, they’ll be racially signified, but not given exaggerated features, which theoretically conflicts with reader identification. This is true of Mikasa, and I’d argue, of Guts.

Because it’s not spoken to in the text of Berserk, his ethnicity most likely changes in the minds of readers on a geographic basis. That’s on terms of interpretation, but for intent, it’s possible the ‘medieval’ is only a garnish for Miura, and the ‘fantasy’ is what chiefly motivates the world-building. As there are demons from a higher dimension, so too… there’s representation.

Berserk32You’ve heard that one before, the somewhat hackneyed conceit which discounts the nuance of world-building. The argument being, racial diversity should be possible if anything’s possible – “why is a black guy more improbable than a talking dragon?” The fantasy genre isn’t the abandonment of rules, and in fact is defined by them; they’re simply less rigid than its ‘cousin’ science-fiction*. A fantasy world has to work, has to have laws of physics and familiar faces.

Unfortunately, that latter element is abused to heights of utter pervasiveness, and of course, what’s familiar to a white writer stays familiar to all, when predominately it’s white writers being published. Although racial diversity is not always the reality for any given realm (an idea that raises the question of a narrative’s political purpose: should it reflect and critique, or normalize something aspirational), driving so hard at monochrome will always be suspicious.

*Cross-fandom between fantasy and science-fiction has always eluded me. As an avowed hater of fantasy, I see no appreciable middle ground between lamey-Amy orcs and unicorns with badass cyborgs and aliens.

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Reading the Rainbow

In Griffith’s case, Anglo is a deliberately deployed ethnicity, and his Aryan features coincide with our folkloric understanding of purity and refinement. Griffith’s skin color is derived by character, not a dutiful yet arbitrary adherence to history, and this is taken further by his flowing long hair and beautiful androgyny, decidedly making him a man out of time. He bucks trends where fearsome warriors are concerned, though this is again for character, not for Berserk’s absent post-modernism. (Although I’m sure the case could be made).

However, even more striking than Guts or Griffith in this regard is Casca. Although her skin tone shifts based on the version, she is darker-skinned than her fellow cast-mates, and for all intents and purposes is black. Walk a block and you’ll notice that black characters in anime and manga are rare. Even rarer are positive depictions at the very least short of those exaggerated features, which take on offensive connotations to eyes in the west. The rarest of course are positive depictions that remain positive throughout, who I have not seen this side of Rally Vincent, and possibly Tanda, although I read the Yogoese as more Pacific-Islander than African.

Berserk5Some fan theories have it that Casca is not actually black, but rather Kushan, or Indo-European. I suppose this would also be true of Boscogn? I see Casca as a black woman, and her boldness of existence speaks to an artificial boldness on the part of Miura. In today’s mediascape, the shadow of political correctness lies heavy over fragile hearts, and as such, a character like Casca would be impossible were she not already highly unlikely, a credit to those hearts. Even if we lived in a world where heroic and complex black women characters existed in appreciable quantities (a subjective judgment), the line would be drawn before the character who, while exhibiting heroism and complexity, is additionally so brutally victimized.

Unless there’s pressure from the monolithic top, or some cosmic stupidity our science can’t right now account for, an inclusive-minded creator won’t reserve a role like that for the most underrepresented minority character. Non-caricatured black women, especially on American screens, are the most criminally unseen group. Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, while powerful, are however quantitatively challenged.

But in that theoretical world where the minority characters are given roles that best play by the rules of political correctness, or our blasted understanding of political correctness, Casca would be a safer race, either European or Japanese. This is by no means an agreement with the creative direction of her fate in Vol. 13 and beyond, but these barriers standing between us and black women warriors, even the politically correct barriers, are minimized in the face of Golden Age era Casca.

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Bonfire of Dreams

Not to say that the following, common argument is a blanket solution, but what makes her great is that her race matters not a lick. She simply exists as an unquestionably accepted part of that world, and of that story. Reading and watching Casca, the frankness of her existence is jolting: “Jesus, why the fuck isn’t this more common?” And what drives the point home like a dragonslayer strike, is how her grisly arc doesn’t invalidate all that’s come before — though it does its damnedest to try.

Unfortunately, this principle can’t be applied broadly, in that, it can’t be used as a license to saddle each minority character with the grisliest role. Something we’re apparently at risk for already. Compare and contrast with the television show The 100 and its dalliance with “Dead Lesbian Syndrome,” which Maureen Ryan easily matched to a similar situation on Supernatural.

Various patterns had finally gotten to me, I realized the summer after Season 10 [of Supernatural] ended. Charlie’s death [ed: Felicia Day’s character, by the way] wasn’t just dumb, sloppily handled and pointless, it fit part of a pattern within the show of women dying in questionable ways so that men can feel (transitory) pain.

It’s impossible not to also then match Casca’s fate with this lineage of characters, a line that certainly does not stop at two. In fact, there are more than two tropes it wholly encompasses, including notallmen trigger ‘women in refrigerators.’ It’s especially hard to see characters like this reduced so, as Casca and this 100 character Lexa are unusual. They’re women characters with physical and psychological strength, but also the complementary range of personality that offsets our anxiety about another apostrophe’d term, ‘the strong female character.’

Berserk16Yes, it seems that women characters are a collection of handpicked menu items, constructed and analyzed, where men don’t come a la carte. This may very well be the root of the problem. The realm of the supporting character is a dangerous place for the minority representation to live, because he or she is subject to an infinity of abuses the main character is not, by function of the principle that the main character always survives. His friends and family don’t wear the same plot armor.

The solution then is easy, though you wouldn’t tell by looking at Hollywood, or anywhere else around the world. If the main character of Berserk looked like Casca, Miura would be forever hailed as a hero. The act would be transcendently brave – I give him a lot of credit for making Casca look like Casca – but that worries me most of all.

We can measure the distance between then and now with this, the remoteness of possibility in seeing a black woman performing the same role as Guts. It can scarcely be imagined, as there’s no precedent. We’ve never seen a black woman bite a sword (we have seen a Colombian woman do that), or affix an artificial arm where she cut hers off, or kill a hundred men in one night. In a matter apart from the laws of physics in fantasy realms, is a woman Guts really so much more absurd than Guts himself?

Berserk38Fantasy and science-fiction is about imagination, to various degrees. Even if ‘about’ is too much of a generalization, imagination is frequently at play, making genre the perfect stage to experiment with radical ideas, to familiarize and normalize what once seemed so far away. I don’t know what the road to get there looks like, or how many more Cascas we’ll have to endure… but I know it began with Casca.

Out ultimate takeaway is a phrase that’s played alternatively corporate branding, or co-opted by a slow-motion Hollywood meltdown: “Just do it.” If the aim is reaching the mountaintop, bit by bit, we can’t slow our climb by worrying about getting it wrong. You can’t be more wrong than what happens during the Eclipse. Casca contains multitudes – she’s problematic, but the possibility that her value outweighs her issues in the minds of viewers is worth the trouble of inclusion.

Which is what, after all?

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On Inclusion

When the heat turns up under the discussion about race in media, we move farther and farther away from the most basic question – why is inclusion so hard? All kinds can be cited de facto, when problematic chess pieces have been set. You know, tokens and refrigerator-women and any manner of minority written by the majority, or other minorities. Of course it’s bad, of course race-bending is a failed experiment. Of course women comic-book movies don’t sell. Elektra and Catwoman!

There’s an anxiety on the part of creators, and I’ve seen it in action, in a laboratory-like setting. In a college writing class, the professor had us create a single fictional character, and the distribution of the fictional genders matched almost exactly the distribution of actual genders. When prodded, a few students admitted they weren’t confident in writing the other gender. I was, but didn’t, and wasn’t.

Berserk1Is this really why representation is so unrepresentative? Because we can’t imagine what it’s like, despite the bulk of creative work being imagination? Surely there’s a difference between informed, sensitive writing and pure speculation – I want to believe! This is origin of the heated discussion, then. People from all over hope to see characters who look like them, and their desires go unfulfilled, while other people’s desires are slavishly met.

The concern coming from the other side can grow, cancerous, out of this hope. There are holes to poke there, namely the validity of identification based on visual appearance. Where do these people draw the line? Skin color? Eye shape? If it’s eye shape, how come all anime characters are white? You can’t ask these people questions like that.

My classmates’ anxiety assumes this hostile audience, and a price for failure paid in blood. This is partly true. The consequences aren’t trivial, not always needing the compensation by chest-thumping liberals and would-be boycotters. No, the consequences are effected in the opposite side, and they’re psychological, as well as individual. Difficult to report, and impossible for marketing strategists to consider – nothing is felt when Guts isn’t a black woman, and so, we must source our outrage to the ultimate abstract: the absence of a thing.

Berserk29I’ve said it elsewhere, but it’s likely more appropriate here: the reason inclusion is important is not because we automatically identify with characters who look like us, but because we automatically can’t when the character specifically doesn’t look like us. Of course, the Caucasian male has become a tabula rasa for some people, but this has dark implications, leading seemingly inexorably to articles like this, where it’s “That Oxymoron, the Asian Comic Superhero.”

It’s looks, and it’s more than looks, as visual appearance is sometimes only a shorthand convenient for when the discussion centers on performers. It’s also about the narratives of people. You can’t race-bend Luke Cage white, because his is a black man’s story. Both the visual and the narrative are factors, because both are means to identify. Can I, as a Korean-American male, identify with Casca? Sure, to some extent. I know… what it’s like to be the smaller of a duo, for example. Can a black woman identify more so? It’s possible. Casca is black, and she’s burdened by the requirement of proving herself, where others are taken at their word.

If the black woman’s identification with Casca is stronger than mine, what is my poor old self to do? Well, I can look elsewhere, if we live in the ideal world where Hollywood is a rainbow, and there’s always a character you can identify with, no matter who you are. But more so, and better, identification isn’t the only route to appreciate or enjoy a character, hence the questions of validity.

But it’s important nevertheless because there’s a disparity of privilege. One group has consistently been able to identify and enjoy, where other groups can only enjoy, and as the battle intensifies online, their enjoy part of it is threatened. That’s what equality’s all about. It’s not something cosmic, it’s just recognizing disparities, understanding their consequences, and evening the field.

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Previous – PART I: Black Magic
Next – PART III: Demonology

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