Saturday, 8 July 2017

Berserk:No Godhands, No Masters

EDIT:Sorry I should of made this clear from the beginning, if your completely new to Berserk the franchise depicts quite graphic scenes of violence, torture, mutilation and all kinds of abuse including sexual assault and abuse of children, and I talk a bit about this below, so read with caution.

I've recently been playing Berserk: The Band of the Hawk in my off time, and it reminded me of that 90's anime series so I decided to watch it again. If your not familiar Berserk has a reputation for being really  hardcore in its depictions of violence, including sexual violence, and its unrelentingly bleak atmosphere. A lot of people describe the show as Metal, whether that's an insult or a compliment depends on who said it, but I think it fits.

Even the soundtrack has a Metal aesthetic

 If your interested, there's a very thorough recap of the series by youtuber Bennett the Sage.  Its a very interesting and strange series, it looks like a medieaval fantasy show and in some ways is, there are knights, kings and castles and undercurrents of magic and monsters but that's about as far as the similarities go.

There are no heroes here, no gallantry and pure and noble souls resisting the forces of evil. Guts the protagonist isn't a knight, he's a mercenary, and he doesn't really fight because he needs the money, he does so because personal traumas. He keeps throwing himself into random battles and in the beginning keeps letting his guard down deliberately. He does have a slither of conscience, which compared to every other character makes him the default hero but even that doesn't prevent him from doing unambiguously evil things.

On my re-watch I noticed something which on reflection is rather obvious, the show has a very uncompromising criticism of hierarchy. In general the theme can be summarised as `power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely`.  But it does also go into a specific critique of Feudalism and why a social system based on that is a terrible idea. The world that Berserk is set in isn't just for show its a genuinely functioning Feudal society, there's a Nobility who have special privileges, the peasantry are bound to their lords, there's class tensions between commoners and nobles.

And its not a very good life for those at the bottom of the hill. There's a war that's been going on for over a hundred years between the Kingdom of Midland and the Empire of Tudor. Its a war purely for the benefit of the Nobles, the Tudor Empire wants to expand, and once Midland expels the invaders their King wants to start taking their lands and estates. For the peasants this war presents no benefits no matter who wins, and while its going on their subject to extreme violence and economic pressure. Bandits and the armies of the two Kingdoms routinely sack the villages, and if and when the war ends they'll just have no masters whom they send their tributes, taxes and tithes. To drive the point home, in one episode a snake monster man has become the new lord of a territory and aside from his eating of humans there's not that much difference. His rule is based on the Feudal social contract, serve me and I'll protect you i.e. I won't directly attack you with my army. His army are brutal bullies but that's true of the many of the enforcers of the Lords who aren't weird snake monsters.

Indeed the Nobles are so unaccountable they are shown frequently to indulge in every vice at the expense of their subjects. Including child rape. Several Nobles are known rapists of children and while they do come to bad ends its because of outside military forces who aren't part of their social system. One gets killed because he decided to take part in a battle, the other gets killed by their victim because a band of mercenaries happened to be passing and their leader intervened. And of course eating human flesh and the sexual assault of children are just the most extreme examples of the powerlessness of subjects in this society. A man has sexual relations with the princess of Midland so the King, whose been shown to be a bit of a liberal reformer as far as Kings go, orders the offender to be killed slowly over a period of several years via extreme torture.

Fights to the death are the only way to settle disputes in Midland

It turns out even the "ideal" King has a dungeon and a torturer on the payroll. We actually see what happens to the poor sod after a few years of this treatment, he can barely move and is almost catatonic from the pain. 

But class relations are more than the naked display of brute force, there's is also the question of social mobility. And despite the infamous reputation for blood and brutality its the issue of social mobility thats the main driver of the plot. Guts the fellow with the massive sword and the constant grimace is the protagonist but its not really his story until the end. The storyline in the anime is driven by the ambitions of Griffith the leader of the mercenary unit the Band of the Hawk, which Guts ends up joining.

Griffith is ambitious, he's a commoner but he dreams of his own Kingdom, the hows and whys aren't really important to him he knows what he wants and he'll risk everything to get it. It seems he's come to the conclusion the best way to get a Kingdom is to get Midlands, and the series shows how he plans to get it. At first it appears to be a combination of Warlodism, he manoeuvres the Band of the Hawk into being the most impressive and important unit in Midlands forces, usually by taking on suicide missions and driving his troops to their limit, while doing his best to seduce the Kings daughter.

But since a commoner rising in court is a threat, he's soon targeted by a conspiracy of Nobles, so his plans are quickly modified to include murder of opponents and any collateral. Griffith despite the adoration of his mercenaries-it basically grows into a personality cult- is not a good person, to get anywhere close to his dreams he's already taken on the worst features of the Nobility, kill threats and potential threats, use those beneath you as tools for your own personal ambitions. Berserk makes this explicit thourgh the use of flashbacks and anecdotes from those whom knew Griffith the longest. He was always driven but he wasn't that callous, he intervened when he came across a Noble attempting to rape a young Casca, and from what he says and does its made clear he's personally disgusted with what he sees. And after Casca kills the Noble in self defence he takes her with him. At one point he let a child who dreamed of becoming a Knight join his band, and when the boy inevitably died he took the death very hard. And early on in the Hawks existence Griffith prostituted himself to a Lord for a large sum of money he could use to expand the Hawks into a more impressive fighting unit. He went through with it but found the experience very traumatic.

But by the time we meet Griffith that spark is largely gone, at one point in the storyline Griffith has a rival murdered, but during the assassination the Lords son an eight year old boy is also killed, and when Griffith learns of this he has no reaction whatsoever. The death of innocent children no longer matters to him, all he cares about is that the rival is out of the way.

The last few episodes of the series spell this out very bluntly in an arc I like to call the breaking of Griffith. Just after the half way point of the show I started getting annoyed by Griffith, I felt like I was just watching one brutal despotic monster, fight other brutal despotic monsters for the right to be a brutal despotic monster to people who are just trying to live their lives in peace. It turns out that was actually the point, and in the last few episodes Griffith has to confront whose he really become without illusions or hollow self justifications.

A group of demons(The God Hand) have taken a shine to young Griffith and they decide to give him a dose of the truth. They point out to him that the pursuit of his dreams have meant building a bridge over the corpses of thousands. Hawks members, allies and enemies all have to die if Griffith wants to get that Kingdom he's longed for, for so long. Put so bluntly he is of course repelled-well at first he reacts with self loathing- and tries to make excuses to the fields of the dead. But of course sorry doesn't bring back the dead, in the end he decides he still wants his kingdom despite everything and makes a deal with the demons for power. And to seal the deal he lets monsters eat the Band of the Hawks.

 So the arc of Griffith is that he in order to pursue power he became a figurative monster and then went from a figurative monster into a literal monster, he even has bat wings to prove it. And again we saw that this isn't unique, the only difference between a Feudal lord and a snakeman lord is that an Earl is probably not going to literally eat his serfs at a banquet.

Oh and in the world of Berserk there are Gods but they're all pretty much evil who dedicate themselves to living off human suffering. So basically to sum up the world of Berserk won't know peace and joy until a mass movement arises opposing all Gods and Masters.

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