A stable, solid episode of the show, in time for a terrible instance of Berserk
Season 1, Episode 3
“I’ll never forget that you brought me all the way here, horse.”
On occasion, Berserk asks too much of me. I’m looking for a show that depicts a badass hero and a Plucky sidekick, tearing through demons with blistering, well-documented rage. In the prior two episodes, we’re getting our bearings, beginning to build the supporting cast after the last one was obliterated all at once.
We’re now settling into the Berserk formula: the hunt for the God Hand through the Apostles, with resultant battles interspersed with further characterization for whichever Apostle of the moment – flashbacks to the demon’s former life, contributing to the series’ mythic feel. Theoretically, we’re breathing a sigh of relief. This shoddy-weird animation may not be what we’re asking for, but the story is finally returning to something familiar, it’s realizing its present.
However, this return to form is tainted by the past. Guts moves forward, sword drawn against a demon, but brings along with him a girl in bondage, who will spend the episode running around scared before being defiled and then forced to mock everything she is. For the show, it’s unbecoming. And yet, the whole time, my displeasure is doubled, knowing that this is likely faithful to the manga.
The problem of Berserk is beginning to manifest for me – it’s a rough ride with disparate peaks and valleys. Extreme violence and normalized sexism, and then sensitivity that’s just as shocking. When we dwell on the former, perhaps to fill out an episode of television, we then wait a week for that moment in the manga where the odd Apostle is humanized, or Guts displays a now rare instance of humanity.
If all goes as planned, this D grade will be made up for in the future. Looking back over the season (or series, whichever this session may end up being), I’m sure the B’s and D’s will make for a mathematically incorrect B average at the end, and that’s in keeping with my expectations. The Golden Age Arc is one long A+ before the big F- at the end there, which itself is forgiven by the promise of future justice (a hope that stamps the F on your forehead).
Again, an episode like this, and all instances of its repeat, will be forgiven, and I’ll never forgive myself for it. Such is the alien joy of Berserk: it pushes your buttons. All your buttons. It’s fine, and I’ll be fine in a minute. However, the television medium and the episodic drip accentuates the button-pushing. I can’t turn the page and have the second half of the volume help me forget what I just saw.
Specifically, this episode would be highly entertaining with one simple fix: the excision of Farnese. Her journey this week is an exercise in deepening humiliation and degradation. She starts out imperiled and overpowered, as we left her, saddled up in her resplendent, nipple-less nudity. She’ll be felt up and licked by demons. She’ll be told not to run around – dummy. And once she breaks free of her physical bondage, she’ll force herself on Guts, under the influence of ghosts. I threw the ‘defamation of female characters’ checklist out long ago, having become desensitized by years and years of exposure.
I needed it for this one, because Berserk is something I ostensibly like. There are stakes now.
Guts, Puck, and Farnese arrive at a burnt-through Count’s mansion, as Serpico helpfully exposits. This is another site of ruins of an earlier, golden-er age, a place where the walking ruins of Guts utterly belongs, and the shiny, blonde Farnese does not. Along that line, Puck has never had a place, and is always beating his wings in curiosity, flitting between dark corners to find the next point of interest. While Guts keeps his simple revenge plot moving, Puck fills that plot out with color, and not just by his demeanor.
The sky darkens, and our earliest indication that this director is able to carve economic, visual storytelling out of his jumpy style is the night’s incursion of ‘miracles.’ Puck tries to direct Guts’s attention to the coming spirits, and we cut to the bleeding mark: “I know.”
Soon it’s the zombie dogs from Resident Evil, demon hounds that leap at Guts to be splattered off-screen. The party investigates the mansion, which is adorned by trophies – deer, mostly, to which Puck prays for humankind. So too does Farnese, as her night worsens, and her faith is challenged in a profound way. For example, by the ultimate trophy of a young, human girl..
Farnese goes for a jog, still a relative newborn to the outside world, and immediately trusting of the lumpy, troll-looking man all alone in a zombie-dog mansion. Anything to escape that Guts, who’d been taking more and more delight in blasphemy. We might say that hurting a little girl’s feelings is one thing, but Guts is voicing a strong opinion out of what might be insecurity. Of course, this Count is even less than meets the eye, allowing Guts to intervene and establish his mission: kill all Apostles.
The Count transforms into a largely amorphous demon, given the low lighting of the mansion, and he’s given far too many monologues for the gurgly timbre of his voice. Guts puts his sword through the distasteful exposition, in which we piece together than this demon was some kind of royal servant who made a deal with the God Hand, and proceeded to eat everyone he worked for, including the one young lady who was nice to him. Wracked with guilt, he’s attempted to preserve the girl – as a trophy – and Guts spits in the face of this twisted logic by splattering her with the demon’s blood.
The Count is soon killed, and you wonder what the purpose of his little flashback story was. It’s a far cry from the previous chronological Apostle, Rosine of the Lost Children chapter. We’re meant to at least understand Rosine, and there’s a division of sympathies with Jill taking on something of a point of view. Something like this current Apostle is of a comparable stripe to the Snake Master from the very first episode of the original Berserk anime, and the hints that characterized that villain were enough.
Serpico eventually makes his rendezvous with Farnese, and his relationship with Guts feels long established – they’re cool with each other. Farnese shrieks hysterically at Serpico to kill Guts, and then walks off after she’s refused. Guts and Serpico decide to fight anyway, but on their own terms. It’s a real bro’s before ho’s moment, and Farnese’s humiliation is complete. Puck wonders about her, and meanwhile I wish I could remove her from my mind.
Being a super-fan of the literal Strong Female Character has been a delicate game. My metric is the Major from Ghost in the Shell and Balsa from Moribito, women who exhibit a supremacy of physical power in their respective universes. Because they constitute a high standard, I’ve had to basically not expect the SFC in each piece of media I see.
In fact, one of the things being an SFC fan requires is an admission that sometimes these works would be more personally tolerable without women characters entirely. Before Gears of War 3 was released, the idea of a game like that, where multiplayer avatars stomped each other’s faces off, was adding women to the ultraviolence made my stomach turn. Fortunately, the writer for the game was a woman who, by other accounts (I haven’t played the game), handled proceedings with aplomb.
However, when a pair of male writers took over for the next installment, Gears of War: Judgment, the lone woman on the squad is captured by the enemy at the end, and presumably tortured to a state of catatonia (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?).
Berserk has Guts, and I’m fine that he holds the belt for top dog of physical badassness. I like him. But that means that the presence of women in that universe always makes me uncomfortable. Casca is the best of the bunch, which doesn’t say too-too much. I had hope for Farnese, and I was blown away by what I saw. It’s rare that a woman character is genuinely strong, and I understand that. What I can’t handle is when a woman character is so much less than that. Sometimes it takes a certain kind of writer to do it, but a woman has never been at the head of a Berserk project.
I don’t care who you are or what your politics tolerate – nobody wants to see a slimy tongue run along a helpless woman’s breasts, because then we have to think about the poor in-betweeners who drew that by hand. Whose project for a week was that lecherous tongue.
For me, discovering Berserk was a revelation on a par with the Vengeance trilogy. I used to show Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy to people just to observe their reactions, tensing up with sadistic anticipation of the next big hit. I’d finally found a way to make rewatching movies just as entertaining as seeing them for the first time: sharing is caring.
If I were still in high school, I’d have spread that Berserk trilogy around but how – talk about a big hit. It would be perfect, and my bizarre love for shocking people with ultraviolent foreign films would be completely satiated by the Eclipse. In fact, I’m so excited by the prospect of watching the Berserk movies with other people that I imagine their reactions – “holy shit,” and then “what happens next?”
Now that we can answer that question with more than “read the manga,” my hopes and dreams are dashed. I would never show this to anyone – not family, not friend. I’m back to where I was last year with True Detective Season 2, a show I was quietly pulling for because I felt a little sorry for Nic Pizzollatto (he’s a jackass for sure, but Jesus, guys). I observed all the hate online and just couldn’t jump on that bandwagon. This is happening with Berserk (2016), and I don’t want to agree with the masses, I don’t want to hate it. But goddamn is it pushing back on me hard.
What follows this episode’s credits is a sequence that picks up on Guts’s Griffith flashbacks from the previous episode, but it’s something of a mind-bender. Berserk (2016) is moving inexplicably fast, skipping over Rosine and Jill in favor of an Apostle who visually resembles the Count from the Black Swordsman Arc, but doesn’t share the exact level of gross. Now, we’ve covered a little bit of Griffith’s side of the story, in mostly hand-drawn animation.
It initially appears as a next episode preview, and flows with that pace. With striking cognitive dissonance, we’ve truly picked up where the Golden Age Arc ended. The King of Midland is dying, Charlotte continues to weep for Griffith, and one of the sympathetic generals dreams of a hawk. Something’s coming, and the prospect of a thickening plot is enticing.
The show is beginning to even out. Whether or not I’m just acclimatizing to the style, or if the director is calming down, I can’t tell. But next week should provide a better suggestion of the series’ future, as we reintroduce the old elements: Casca, Ricket, and the kingdom politics.
Which means war elephants?