Berserk (2016): “The Holy Iron Chain Knights”

Week 2 fails to offer a steadier indication of the series’ quality — neither good nor bad

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Season 1, Episode 2
Grade: B

“Not that even kings can live as they please.”

Berserk’s story begins to develop this week, with an awkward introduction out of the way and a sense of momentum building between characters who promise to recur. Lady Commander Farnese is here to stay, and her interactions with Guts make for the most compelling material of the episode. In fact, “The Holy Iron Chain Knights” glances at a character study for Farnese, imagining religious fundamentalism in a world of demons and the God Hand.

We’re given a new audience to the detached look at Guts, where Puck becomes more acclimated to the man but Farnese is shaken to the core. Here’s someone who leaves horrific murder scenes in his wake, and has a challenging take on God – not a fan.

The introduction of the Iron Knights adds a wrinkle to the formula, where Guts’s explosive sword-swing through four of them – itself a payoff – comes after Azan and Serpico’s discussion that most of these guys have never fought in a real battle. It’s the imagery we’re used to, with halved torsos spinning in the air, as if propelled by the spray of blood, but now applied to human beings completely out of their league.

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They’re also coming in after the incursion of demons, and our bar for evil has risen far above the Tudor knights of the Golden Age. Pitting Guts against the Holy See missionaries isn’t a matter of hero vs. villain, but unstoppable force and immovable object. This is the inevitable road that religious fundamentalism leads one down, where dogma cleaves nuance from human engagement, just as Guts marches forward in the name of his revenge.

These two motivations are played against each other, with the result being pointless violence and the deaths of nameless people. Are we meant to feel bad? Because as much as this episode is set up for nihilism, its direction is aimless. In this confrontation, Guts is reminded of slaying one-hundred men in the forest to save Casca, which was pivotal for the character, setting up his later revelation that he wants something more from life.

That scene, from the Golden Age, is specifically pointless violence, and is played as such in either anime beforehand. Here, there’s more guitar, earnest move-shouting, and a sweet backflip from Guts.

In that moment, a thought zapped through my head: this is anime. The first series looked almost Rankin-Bass, and the film trilogy was a purer visual distillation of the much more stylized manga. And the manga of course is dense with detail and acclaimed for its clarity of action paneling. This new Berserk is heavy on speedy style, something we five years ago might’ve derided as “MTV-style editing,” and saturated colors – there is no mood, and in its place, there is anime mood.

Conversely, there’s something evocative about Guts’s flashback to Griffith transitioning into the image of the swordsman in the stocks, being led through the desert by the Knights, as the music swells. It’s desolation, the kind of feeling we expect to have following the Eclipse. Berserk’s very title is this same kind of evocative, the way Guts’ Rage too calls to mind a wild revenge, something very emotional. Here, things are otherwise largely unengaging, all the more so in a moment like this.

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Farnese begins to interrogate Guts, and her frenzied deconstruction provides the most compelling moment. It’s her fury, and slashing at Guts with the whip is that emotion I’m expecting to see. Yet, it comes from a somewhat empty place. Fundamentalism is a tough gig with regards to identification. We are not made to sympathize with Farnese. We see her praying and flaying in a moment of privacy, which gives her a shade of complexity, but we’re still missing a solid foundation on which to shade.

What we don’t know is that the Holy Iron Chain Knights are led by women as tradition – there’s nothing special about Farnese in terms of military command, she’s in by Affirmative Action. We come to that conclusion anyway, as she’s in a position of demanding respect, not taking it. She is at once ‘predictably’ incompetent, and impossible to fully connect with.

This is Kentaro Miura’s character, and she’s a delicate one to properly depict. The character study stops here short, undermining the setup of the episode. There’s only further setup, which is an improvement over the prior episode, but we continue to skate over a surface.

This is novel for Berserk, that it doesn’t perfectly fit its chosen medium. In the recap for the prior episode, allusions were made to Game of Thrones, which stumbles drunk down the stairs every week in hour-long episodes, 10 episodes per season. That’s slightly more than a 22-episode anime series, but with more room to breathe in the moment-to-moment.

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The creators of this Berserk anime have a lot of ground to cover, and they’ve been skipping volumes of the manga to do so. If this is a deliberate choice, it may speak to a rounded narrative arc, that we’re racing toward something instead of dwelling.

Of course, the dwelling space is the domain of character. For now, Berserk is simple enough to match this pace, but I know that later we have something more convoluted-sounding, the “Falcon of the Millennium Empire Arc,” and there’s all sorts of fascinating alliances and machinations.

The Golden Age Arc proved itself a potent enough story to transcend media, as well as the individual work of directors. It’s a mythic story, transpiring on big events and the occasional, sweeping character moment that de facto also plays as a big event (the Bonfire of Dreams, Guts and Casca by the waterfall). We’re now on the Conviction Arc, which could be a more pat narrative with our dark hero moving ever-forward – like a road movie.

However, as mentioned last week, Berserk is Berserk. This refrain will probably keep me going forever, just because there’s something about this franchise I’m magnetized to. Which says a lot – I can’t watch Game of Thrones for its utter banality toward violence against women, and this is the most heinous crime Berserk is also guilty of (though not to that comical extent).

Seeing women in bondage is my least favorite thing conceivable, and so the naked Farnese at Guts’s mercy is the real moment of this episode testing my commitment. It’s not uncomfortable enough that I’ll stop, and as a show, it’s not bad enough that I’ll stop.

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I’ve seen some of the reaction to this Berserk anime online, and all indications point to a series that will be used as a benchmark for a future reboot, like the first American Godzilla, or Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd. Berserk (2016) won’t be looked upon favorably, and I completely understand that. It’s the decades-late continuation of a beloved story, directed without the expected style and speeding past the temporal touchstones where other shows would have established purpose.

Previous Episode: “The Branded Swordsman” | Next Episode: “The Night of Miracles

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