Berserk (2016): “Reunion in the Den of Evil”

Reconciling my own evil, when I thought this was just about cartoons…

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Season 1, Episode 8
Grade: B+

“Depending on how it goes, we might avoid bloodshed.”

This is what we’ve been waiting for. Some payoff. Now, let’s fight. For the glory of… Oh, excuse me. *Clears throat.* I SEE THERE’S SOME WOMEN ON THE BATTLEFIELD. PLEASE, ESCORT THE WOMEN FROM THE BATTLEFIELD, SO THAT THEY MAY BE MENACED BY SOMETHING ELSE. THANK YOU.

Women are useless. And if I didn’t have Berserk (2016) to tell me that, where else I learn this crucial, true-to-life lesson? Incredibly, “Reunion in the Den of Evil” makes all the same stumbles we’ve come to expect from this iteration of Berserk, but compacted into one episode and nixing sexual assault for the moment. So, it’s a nice survey, a greatest hits: women are in need of rescue, women lose their cool and make a scene, women are captured, women imprisoned, women shackled, women led to obscene torture.

If I’m not mistaken, Nina pissed herself. Thanks for that one. I didn’t realize I’d sat down for my favorite pastime, rewatching Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance

The funny thing is, the “women suck” aspect of the show didn’t leer its ass as it me until the second half, when Good Berserk becomes Bad Berserk, or more precisely, when Best Berserk (2016) becomes Regular Berserk (2016).

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So, this episode is half-and-half. The first half is the best yet, and the second half is like preparing me for next week’s disappointment. I mean, along the Trajectory we’ve outlined in prior recaps. Frankly, I was fully expecting this one to be shite, because the last one was good. But for now, we’re holding the line. The good and bad even each other out, as my surprised smile slowly melted into a frown by the end. But it’s okay. As always, we’re still building.

We start off somewhat disoriented, resetting a few paces from where we left off. Guts is no longer faced off against the goat-man, and tells Isidore to get those women and children to safety. The Holy Iron Chain Knights engage with the possessed heretics, after a snip-snap back-and-forth over whether to capture or kill the Black Swordsman. Either’s not happening, sis, but it’s more about Farnese’s state of mind. She’s almost compelling – but stupid Azan has her escorted off the field.

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Miura-sensei, if Farnese was a trained warrior on the level of Azan, I would not think it a touch strange. Not at all. Women warriors are only rare in popular culture. Remember that, friend. I’ve bolded it for you.

Guts eventually does battle with the possessed goat, and it’s very good. Maybe a tad too jumpy and leapy, not with both feet firmly planted like in the original anime. But Guts cranks that auto-crossbow arm (so that’s how it works!), and uses a new ordnance to scrape half the goat’s face off. I already thought the image of the demon pulling an arrow out of his stomach was raw enough, but that was pretty rough too. And then the goat’s splayed out, positioned perfectly to be sliced in half – WHAM!

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Guts refers to the goat as a half-Apostle, and later, senses something worse than an Apostle in the Tower. It may be Mozgus, or just the general inhumanity. I guess we’ll have to see, but I like that the show’s making use of its developed shorthand, of its incessant building and building.

Off-screen, the heretics are vanquished, and Farnese is upset that the two cave-scouts let Guts pass by. Clearly, someone hasn’t seen that part of The Advent, when Guts is running up the spiral staircase and cleaving people’s heads off or in half. To the show’s credit, when Farnese raised that slapping sword high, Azan didn’t grab it and tell her to “Please, stop, Lady Farnese! You don’t know what you’re doing!”

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Isidore, Puck, Casca, and Nina come to the end of their cliff and the start of their rope – Isidore’s gonna have to lower each like moving boxes down at the dock (“I need this. I love these! I should buy another”), which may be a problem given Casca. So, Puck calls Isidore, “Monkey Pants.” Where does he come up with this stuff?

Serpico is waiting for the Black Swordsman on a meanwhile cliff, and uses the terrain to his advantage, Battle of Thermopylae-style. How 300 can stand against many, or one foppish Legend of Zelda-looking guy can stand against our main man, Guts. Like in the video-game (Guts’ Rage or Dark Souls), Guts can’t very well swing his sword, or it’ll bound off the wall. This Serpico is too fast, and as they fight, they’re sizing each other up.

Serpico demands Guts’s blood for the latter’s treatment of Farnese, and Guts can’t be wasting time babysitting like this, because his girl’s in trouble. Serpico and Guts exchange a bevy of clever tricks, somewhat more interesting than the shonen “I win” button of the new power up against the goat, in that case, bombs. Of the explosive variety.

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One of the tricks Serpico uses is psychological, taunting Guts that his men are lying in wait for the runaway women. Of course, this is a bluff, but then, of course, it’s proven true. Joachim – Nina’s ex-by-cliff, if you’ve forgotten – senses something in the darkness. When he says, “I thought I saw something,” which recurs later in the episode, I actually thought, “it could be something interesting.” Because suddenly, the affairs are lively again. Or perhaps for the first time. Even if what’s always in the darkness is just the eyes of Sauron.

But no, for Joachim, it’s just the heretics, although he does give one hell of a shriek when he sees Nina again. That’s really what’s best afforded by this heinous animation style, this heinimation, is comic pratfalls of precisely this order. The faces on these models are rarely expressive (a criticism I’ve seen levied against Thunderbolt Fantasy, but that one uses actual wooden puppets), but they’re sometimes superdeformed or otherwise out of proportion. They seem to get it.

And yet, the most expressive scene comes after the commercial break, when Guts meets up with Isidore, and hears that he lost Casca to the Holy Iron Chain Knights. Guts is rage, and grabs the kid by the shirt. That rage quickly becomes despair – Sad Guts. This wordless exchange is surprisingly powerful, though brief. So brief, in fact, that you might miss Isidore’s eyes:

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Sure, it might be hand-drawn, but… Well, there is no ‘but.’ I’d want to say that it’s okay if you go 3DCG for the goat-fights and big establishing shots, and then hand-drawn when punched in or at an emotional break, but that just slaps more dash on our multimedia collage. This is supposed to be an anime, not papier-mâché! I’ll forever stand by Berserk III: The Advent, its style of superimposing hand-drawn faces over CG bodies being perfect. Brilliant. Workable. Expensive, probably. But isn’t Berserk worth it?

This episode offers some good bits of characterization, to further the payoffs. We know that Isidore is the honorable thief in a den of men, but now we’re beginning to see what that could mean. Serpico is dedicated and passionate, though he doesn’t show it. Farnese still sucks.

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This brings us to the second half, where the pacing is all wrong. I was expecting the credits once Guts and the gang are headed off to the Tower. And then it continues for another ten minutes! It seemed, almost, as if the battle between Guts and Serpico was the climax, and then Casca and Nina’s capture by the Holy Iron Chain Knights was our little stinger. With such barbs.

But no, the television series at war with itself proceeds just bafflingly, though nothing quite matches that post-credits tease of Griffith’s return back in Episode 3. By the way, it’s now Episode 8. What the hell? If he’s on his way back, he’s sure taking his sweet time. He can fly!

So, we’re still watching this episode, and it dips. We check in with Puck, who’s somehow gotten himself separated from the rest. What an idiot. He can also fly! Has nobody played Sonic the Hedgehog 2? If Tails gets left behind, he just flies to you. Puck – stop being dumb. But that’s not why I’m fussy. No, it’s the extended sequence with Nina. It always comes back to Nina, the MVP of Berserk (2016).

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As has possibly been mentioned before, when the show clicks, it works in spite of itself. Not only do I not notice the hideous animation when the animation is suggesting something cool (appealing to the Manchurian lobe), but even tried-hard-and-true anime conventions slip right by. Guts and Serpico having a narration contest is ridiculous, but at least they’re babbling to themselves about something interesting. I’ve come to greatly appreciate when action scenes are deployed, not simply displayed, and in that mountainside confrontation, we get characterization by way of measuring tactical minds.

That’s an example of when “tell, don’t show” gets the pass. When it doesn’t is Nina’s (likely) final moments, in a Tower cell with ‘Elaine.’ She laments that Elaine has only wrought trouble upon her, but that addressing these burdens humanely as Luca would is what separates her from the ungodly people around her. This babbling has foundation, and it borders on affecting.

But then the Torture Crew come in and wag a finger at her, saying she most certainly should feel guilty and all this shit, like what, were they outside the entire time, holding a glass to the door? “This’ll her push her buttons!” You can’t do stuff like this, man. It severely undercuts any of that earlier bordering, and it doesn’t help that we follow through with the indication she’ll be branded, or put on the rack, or something that regardless doesn’t bode well for the next episode.

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“Yeah, this isn’t a job for a lady, Luca!”
“That goes for you, too.”

Guts, Luca, and Isidore are headed to the Tower of Conviction. At least two of them are shown to be the most competent in the show’s universe, but Isidore’s got the motivation. And so, Luca is something of an antidote to the show’s pervasive and inventive sexism. I can’t wait to see how Berserk debases her.

So to recap [this recap], when Berserk is good, you can throw all the boobs and bondage at me you got in store. I won’t notice. But, when those boobs and bondage are the only thing you have, I’m freed and can see the Desert of the Real. This is something that doesn’t bode well for me. But it’s not Berserk’s fault. It’s my upbringing, weaned off every Hollywood blockbuster, every anime, every video-game ever made – being conditioned to enjoy media comes with certain psychological blockers, and if I don’t want to peep that something’s bad, I can tune it out.

May God forgive man and machine for their sins.

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On a final note, I did chuckle when Casca grabbed Puck out of the air, but I think it’s just because Puck’s voice actress is hilarious. But still, I think using Casca for comic effect is… a little anti-modern. Well, that’s how it was in the comics. Can’t change history. I know, I know. We’re shackled to the source material when it comes to race and gender and literally nothing else. But I might make an exception here, lest we poke fun at the mentally challenged.

I mean, wouldn’t it be more haunting if Casca never even opened her mouth, but just stared that thousand-yard stare and slowly roved from place to place, never quite blending in to her surroundings? I’m thinking of that shot in Ghost in the Shell (1995), of the Major in the doll body, looking at herself in the mirror: just very eerie. And with Casca wearing that same white sheet, she’d be a ghost. And by this point in Berserk (2016) we have two comic reliefs already, judging by how many characters are licensed to go superdeformed: Puck and Isidore (though Nina gets her jab in). That’s enough, that’s plenty.

Berserk (2016) is possibly the only show I’d ask to be even more grimdark, because this half-and-half shit… Well, it’s what that character said in that other half-comedy, half-drama: No More Half-Measures.

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In fact, mentioning The Legend of Zelda earlier in reference to Serpico reminds me of the character Rickert, and another good episode in this lineup, “Epiphany.” Seeing how that cherubic Young Link grew older and skinny, standing amidst the swords in the snow – that was a pretty powerful and much better expression of loss following the Eclipse. And also that we’re truly moved on from him, imbuing our further, even silly adventures with Isidore and Puck with a shade of tragedy.

There’s a lot to like about Berserk, but it’s one of those thinking man’s anime, like Ghost in the Shell or Serial Experiments Lain. Only, the thinking part comes in solving how you’re going to enjoy the damn thing. It’s like a puzzle. And if it’s a puzzle, undoubtedly it’s the Lament Configuration.

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Previous: “The Black Witch” | Next: “Blood Flow of the Dead”

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