Berserk (2016): “The Black Witch”

The best episode thus far, but don’t count your country miles just yet

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Season 1, Episode 7
Grade: B+

“Shit’s getting real now.”

I’ve known about Berserk for years, that it was a violent, violent work of anime/manga, and that it had Casca. The intrigue of the former had always been crowded by the latter, and so I put it off for an extended period I now look back on with some melancholic nostalgia. In that time, by function of listening to anime podcasts, I came to know the gist of the Golden Age Arc, and let it settle in my mind for a while. Gradually, and at my own pace, I came to peace with the idea of Casca, who is probably one of the worst characters in genre history. Not so much for herself, of course, but for the treatment of her by the creators. Her use and utility in Guts’s rampage is the most horrific re-up of the Women in Refrigerators tradition I’ve seen.

Something I poo-poo, and yet the end of this story of mine is what eventually drew me to Berserk was description and visuals of Guts cutting off his arm during the Eclipse. Wow. Now that’s a hardcore dude. Someone I’d follow to the ends of the Earth, like Isidore. And so the conflict is set: do I like Guts more than I hate Berserk?

A guy on horseback whips a shackled woman. A snake slithers up another woman’s dress – vagina-first (Ninja Scroll flashbacks). In each, Guts appears and rescues the woman. And it’s very, very exciting.

So I step outside my body and give myself a little flick on the cheek. Bad. Bad anime-watcher. It’s just like that scene in The Revenant, or any vigilante movie. Stop using violence against women as the fuel to rev my engines – it works, and it makes violence against women a required brick in the path to badassness. Something required. That’s kind of what the entirety of Berserk is predicated on, but that’s no reason not to cut losses. Compounding this imagery and this narrative with more of that is the oldest formula, and like all oldest things, it gets old.

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Puck continues to impress, and his (her?) teaming up with Isidore not only justifies Isidore, but creates an even better comedy duo than Puck+Guts. First of all, Puck is introduced here standing atop Isidore’s head, whom he claims as his property, alongside Guts – another one of his estates. Puck the elf is a tiny little squish-bug who doesn’t have much to offer (until he does), and so in the meantime compensates his inability with super-deformed frustration and poking fun at others. “Isidore the Thief!” That exchange was golden.

When shit pops off, in Isidore’s anachronistic vernacular, Puck jumps off in a crazy super-deformed time tunnel thing, which had a distinct Kill la Kill vibe – Kill la Kill, of course, having a distinct everything vibe, so this moment in Berserk recalls a slice of the medium. Isidore too breaks wide, also super-deformed.

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Whoops — NSFW

It’s bizarre, but it’s narrative. It comes at the consequence of an emotional moment, and so this animation-only expression is being used with an authorial hand. In theory, I don’t mind it. In practice, I can’t help but think how the original anime(s) never broached that deadly arena. The 1997 series in particular felt downright Rankin/Bass, what with the traditional hand-painted backgrounds but European setting. It was that same European/western – straight-up, unblinking, and leaving the expression to other storytelling tools.

For Berserk, that approach makes sense. For Berserk (2016), it’s indicative of the show’s style. There’s this bizarre sense of appealing to more than your eyes and ears, to carving a new storytelling language out of television animation. Things flash on screen that aren’t necessarily meant for a traditional read. You gotta roll with the punches – and there’s nothing better than when a work of entertainment asks you to change your nature to enjoy it.

Like Adam Jensen, I didn’t ask for this, the bizarre experimentation run wild over the pastoral plains of precious Berserk. O, what a world where they just played it straight. Where they had panning Japanese-style establishing shots for mood-setting, or the hyper-detailed still frames that punctuate an action moment. But instead, we have Berserk (2016).

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Folks on the left are hand-drawn. Folks on the right are digital. Is anyone else seeing this?

It’s an anime that effects a bare minimum for adapting Kentaro Miura’s manga. It’s slapdash, a multimedia collage that in its most artistically bold moments, perfectly recreates an original panel. Nothing new is created – well, nothing that can properly be enjoyed – but when the imitation is within degrees of the source material, a scrape of that original artistry shines through.

If nothing else, Miura has vision. He brings a science-fictional mind to fantasy, inventing new rules and images to plague the traditional dark ages hellscape. The God Hand and its Eclipse ritual is an alien intervention upon the knights on horseback, and in this collage, something new actually comes forth. The problem with Berserk (2016) thus far, which we will doubtlessly encounter again, and soon, is that nothing of this invention or vision has been apparent yet.

So, my surprise and delight at the closing shot of the episode, a recreation of an iconic [splash?] from the manga, in the triumphant moment where Guts finally – no, fucking finally – arrives to brandish his particular righteousness. It’s a moment of pure synchronicity. Guts has been sprinting to the goal, even flying through the air and casting a silhouette like a proper dark hero. The enemy he squares off against is a true demon, a black goat standing on its hind legs, not some amorphous mass of blobular flesh and a toothy grin. Guts is cool, the demon is cool, and in addition, all of the setup has been building up to this moment.

Beautiful.

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The question, then… does this payoff make it all worth it?

Well, of course not. If we reel it back a touch, we remember that nothing actually happened in this episode. The Holy Iron Chain Knights, Nina’s cult, Luca, Guts’s party, and demons have all converged on one point. Roll credits.

To sing the refrain once more, this is merely the suggestion of something. It may be that we’re so close to that something it’s hot to the touch, but in this regard, “The Black Witch” is really no different than any episode that’s come before. We’re still building. And building and building. The payoff is just around the corner, but given the particulars of this convergence, we know that payoff is gonna be good. (It has to be, but I’ve been taken by surprise before).

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The reason we’ve felt that building is because Berserk is not giving enough to care in the moment. I’m watching these things unfold, and they feel weightless and at their worst, dumbdark and misogynist. Surely, they’ll make for something cool later, but the mark of a great show is that its economic in this sense. To keep references close, the original Berserk has this ‘payoff’ it builds up to, but gives you the 100 Years War as setup.

The weightlessness of the series may also be attributed to something else solved by this final pseudo-payoff of this episode. I haven’t been charmed by Farnese, Mozgus, or Isidore, and I’ve been downright confounded by Luca and Nina. It’s all about Guts. Guts is my man. He was my first love. But he’s been pretty sidelined lately. And so, in introducing all of these charismatic vacuums, Berserk kind of loses its identity, as its reconstructing the stakes in the Eclipse’s aftermath.

Now that Guts has met up with the other characters, maybe we don’t have to cutaway to some loser, and in fact, that loser can begin crafting a dynamic with Guts, just the way Puck did.

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Swear to me.

This series of recaps has been skirting the edge of a potentially fascinating psychological profile. There’s all kinds of garbage in this show that puts pins in my eyes. Garbage that would sink any other show, and always have. The image of women being slung over backs and toted off – even when played as a joke, it’s not funny. It happens here, and I barely noticed.

What am I becoming? I’m a little ball of clay, placed gently in anime’s hands time and time again. Will I be molded into a fine, upstanding individual? Or is Berserk just step one down some mythical road where Only Perverts Dare?

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In my adult life, I’ve *never* been one for letter grades or numbered scores for qualitative works of art. These days, I’m barely one for measuring and rendering thy holy judgment upon works of art – it’s presumptuous, who-the-fuck-are-you work. Casting myself into this work, done by others I admire and making myself sheep among alpaca, I wrestled with which grade to grade for this grade B+ episode. I wanted to give it an A- just to express that this is the best episode yet – and actually entertaining – but there’s still enough here to sink an anime I had less or nothing invested in.

For now, Berserk (2016) skates by on the strength of its forebears. Effecting a decent simulacrum of the original anime, the much-maligned anime trilogy, or the manga isn’t just ‘enough,’ or some lowly aspiration. Last night, I went back and watched the first episode of Berserk (1997), which takes place just before the 2016 series (I say this only because of the absence of Puck, but that may have been creative license). So, if that 2016 series can match the emotional component of that rewatch, which is “I like this show enough to revisit it, but it’s only a solo revisit and it’s not Stand Alone Complex. I wish I had some friends.”

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Still, not such a low bar. This episode could prove a fluke, but maybe not. The overriding factor here has been the story. The worst episodes of this show have been the eventless ones, which feel to me positively anti-Berserk. The direction and the animation are issues worth addressing, but again, part of the imaginative work this show has trained and conditioned me for is to selectively ignore things I see and hear. Something near impossible to ignore, however, is the story.

When the story’s great, the show is good. That’s the metric. When the story’s bad, the show is awful. They’re starting at different blocks, with the manga closer to the finish line but still not quite there. I have to finish it, and this week had been spent with an idea rattling around in my brain: that even Berserk fans admit that the Golden Age Arc is the best part, and Miura had no idea how to continue on from that lake of blood.

If this new Berserk is essentially the fruits of that laboring in vain, this Conviction Arc, initially I was seriously entertaining dropping this whole Berserk fandom façade. Did it really have legs? Or were you just fooling yourself from the start? Well, Guts keeps bringing me back. He makes promises, but he breaks my heart, too.

That look he gives Casca at the end — I read it as a wry grin. That was the effect, the weird, experimental Berserk ’16 effect. I see something that isn’t there, and it becomes real.

What is it? Pure charisma. I’m back. Now, pay attention. What happens next is gonna explode your sexual organs.

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Now go sit in the corner and cry.

Previous Episode: “A Nighttime Feast: Burning at the Stake” | Next Episode: “Reunion in the Den of Evil

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