The reset button
Season 1, Episode 5
“It was in the past. A very long time ago.”
We’re inching ever closer to the shiny object, to Guts squaring off against the new bad guy, rescuing Casca, and finally forming his party. But this inching is made difficult when still we stumble. You’d imagine that this Slowbro pace would leave the appropriate breathing room for the creative team to ensure quality, now that we aren’t zooming through events as if they have no meaning. But the reason this episode goes nowhere is because we’re starting out on a journey, the way we were in Episode 1, and that means introducing more characters.
In fact, Episode 5 is so hung up on introducing characters that we’re re-introducing characters, like Mozgus the inquisitor, and Isidore the lovable scamp. Silat gets a shoutout, another reminder that if Berserk (2016) is a sequel to anything, it’s the Golden Age Arc trilogy, where Silat makes his first anime appearance, and we see what happened to Casca.
Silat’s clan, the Kushan warriors, make an appearance here, a monolith of scary brown people in turbans with scimitar blades and mystical powers. They don’t even have pupils for most of their appearance, which is a bizarre trick of the light that accidentally dehumanizes human representations – whether making these Arabs into ‘Kushan monsters,’ or taking nipples away from Luca and making her a Barbie doll.
Guts comes in and swings his sword around, chopping up Arabs and making me shudder. Isidore is awestruck enough to let Puck slip the food from his vest, narrating as he goes. Less impressed is Silat, watching from a distance. He’s dealt with this warrior before, a long time ago, in a film with the budget and direction to depict such novel things as atmosphere. Truly was the Golden Age.
Isidore runs after Guts, and is right on his heels. Guts is later seen taking a nap, and Isidore finally catching up. You wonder how he fell behind, and so Isidore has to give some exposition about how he fell behind.
We check in with Farnese, who’s probably our anchor character for this general space of the Berserk world. The people of the holy land are starving, and resort to banditry. In an altogether far too drawn-out and predictable leg of this marathon jog, Mozgus takes a few of the sinners to the Tower of Conviction. A woman had remarked that her child is too exhausted to nurse, which strikes at Farnese’s heart, forcing her to suppress any show of emotion.
While initially shocked by the sight of what’s inside the Tower, she seems intrigued by the peasant woman being strapped to a rack and branded – mercifully, this is off-screen. Mozgus is a pretty bad guy, but it’s hard to separate him from the general culture of the Holy See, which demands that even children stone a heretic.
This scene might sound pretty harsh, but the animation ensures there’s some comic value – need not you worry. Nothing that happens in this show is for real, or serious. Or taken to with gravity. This is a problem, because we’re dipping into some dark territory here.
For example, prostitution. Casca has fallen in with a band of prostitutes, led by Luca – she’s got a heart of gold, dividing up the wealth she alone earned, and taking care of her fellow ladies. She’s had to be inventive when it comes to protecting Casca, bandaging her face to make it look like she has an STI. There’s some intermittent drama here, but I wonder if it’ll mean anything once Hurricane Guts rolls through like he did with Farnese’s encampment.
Does this creative team have the stuff to make moments between supporting characters count for something? Or is everything doomed to being build-up to the same Guts fighting demon or mad king?
Night falls, and brands begin to bleed. Guts, Puck, and Isidore are beset upon by Mozgus’s victims – an unspoken moral ambiguity even further than eviscerating those Arabs in the beginning. Guts smiles. “This is different.” The attraction to Guts is captured in this moment, as he’s completely resigned himself to this fate, and somewhere in his ultra-focused brain understands that this is his purpose, fighting the endless horde. Might as well enjoy it.
The demons of Berserk are fascinating, and in this anime, have thus far been consequences of kingdom politics. In the Golden Age, we were witness to human depravity, with sexually deviant kings blind to all the backstabbing and betrayals going in inside the castle walls. In this new age, all that blood seeped into the earth and gave rise to monsters.
However, is this a thematic area that’ll remain off-limits, or has it already been addressed with untold subtlety? Given that Isidore has to explain that he had to hitch a ride in order to catch up with Guts, in head-scratching exposition, I can’t imagine that these demons will continue rolling around without wide-eyed characters explaining just what they are, and why that’s so compelling.
This is the show where the zany camera flies in circles around the characters, accentuating their bizarre 3D shape. Where indistinct music comes in and out, almost like a video-game of the PS2 era. (No pithy comments about how those graphics are also somewhat reminiscent of the medium). No, no. The animation in Berserk (2016) truly is terrible, and only gets worse when characterization is introduced.
How to make Mozgus more punchable? Give him all sorts of crazy expressions while he’s talking about torturing sinners. And he’ll pop into frame over Farnese like some kind of cartoon sitcom character. His freakout in this episode reminded me of the visual look of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Not a show I’ve seen, but I understand it’s a comedy in some regard.
And then you have Isidore using his quick wit to get out of binds. To save himself from knights, he tries crying about Kushans, but the face doesn’t really change. It’s quite awkward.
Puck continues to be the best part of the show. Quite the reversal, for me, because I was only ever lukewarm on the sprite from the manga. He was kind of funny, but the manga was telling a much darker tale, and it was a little bit too jarring. Maybe I’m just not far enough into the manga, because I really like how he’s becoming actually resourceful, but in his own way – subduing Isidore with a clever trick.
He adds literal color to the affairs here, bouncing around in his super-deformed puffball state, always finding props to augment his vaudevillian act (in which he’s co-starring with Guts, but Guts doesn’t realize), for example the little prod that he uses to bash Isidore in the cheek, in moments of animation that you wonder if you actually just saw.
In an anime that perfectly houses comedic moments like that, how do scenes of torture and limb-chopping play? Not well, and as the inching continues, this juxtaposition will surely intensify.