by Anne Lauenroth,
How would you rate episode 17 of
Berserk (TV 2017) ?
The gods may mete out fate to men, but the choice to accept that fate still lies in their hands.
Despite the less enthused second half of this review, I still want to open with my favorite quote from more than 350 chapters of manga, now that we're finally at the spirit tree and ready for some answers.
Berserk has many strengths, from its intriguing characters and gripping plot to its well-built world and thematic depth. Pages and pages of info dump are rare, as we're usually kept on a strict need-to-know basis, with information about the world and characters never just being shared to move the plot along, but always used to reflect upon the characters involved. So when we spend almost the entirety of an unusually quiet episode watching Guts and gang stand around listening to Flora and Schierke's world explanation, it's interesting to see how things work out.
Flora's role in the story is clearly defined. She and her spirit tree are there for our party to upgrade their gear, recruit a new team member, save, and move on to the next chapter. Still, I remember getting closer to the edge of my seat with every additional detail revealed, as previously touched upon concepts of Berserk's world gained substance, and new layers changed my perspective on previous events and possible future directions for the story.
The shoreline is a powerful metaphor for the place where these layers overlap, and it becomes even more poignant when memories of the Hawks wading through blood in the Eclipse instantly surface in my mind. I wonder how long it took everyone to realize and accept their deaths, and if some of them might still be out there, unable to let go until they vanish across the sea eventually (which is probably where Griffith sent his dead soldiers after their goodbyes). The deeper Flora goes into the spirit world and its underlying concepts, the more interesting things get. Comparisons to Plato's cave allegory don't seem far-fetched, as the gang later even takes a potion to dull their senses and enhance their abilities to recognize beings from the spirit realm. As for the possibility to ever recognize pure form (and reach the bottom of the abyss in the realm of ideas), Flora accepts human knowledge as finite while marveling at the world's mysteries, as Plato's teacher would.
Of course, there's already a promise in Flora's words about the deepest levels from where no human has ever returned. Miura might have decided to continue his pace at one bit of world-building at a time (removing a not-so-secret chapter set during the Eclipse), but somewhere between crying his last tear as a human and being reborn as the "absolute" no longer bound by the laws of the physical world, Griffith found something. We don't know what it is, but something or someone down there is in desperate need of getting their (meta)physical ass kicked by Guts.
For now, Guts has to settle for the Interstice, which isn't lacking in ugly things to kill. But we know not all creatures dwelling there are bad – without Puck's healing abilities and kindness, Guts would be dead. Elves were able to interact with humans because people believed in them, and when a new doctrine replaced old beliefs, it wasn't just human reality that changed. If belief in one thing can eliminate other objects of belief from existence (as it did as far as Elves are concerned), then what does that mean for the current popular belief in the Hawk of Light? If Serpico and Isidoro can borrow the strength of their newly acquired magical allies simply by believing in them, what would happen if people stopped believing in saviors and prophecies? As always in Berserk, the question is one of choice. If man isn't in control of his own will, can he even choose to stop believing in answers where there might be none, and isn't this belief just as crucial for Griffith's "fortune" as forces like fate or God?
Guts doesn't seek answers, he seeks action. Just as there's no single doctrine to make sense of the world, hate and vengeance alone could only get him so far, but they did make him stronger than any other human. According to our philosopher mages, "the more elevated the life in the physical realm, the more permanence in the spiritual realm after death." It's true for the spirit tree, it's true for Griffith (who already held a saint-like status when he was still human), and in some way or another, it might become true for Guts, hopefully without having to found his own cult in the process.
While Flora provides straightforward info dumping (and a cameo by Skull Knight, which is always appreciated), Schierke is a different case. By having her jump in to help her teacher explain the world, Berserk both communicates information and establishes her character. She might be unusually earnest for her age, but she has no way of understanding the gravity of things she only knows as theoretical concepts at this point, like the brand. Compared to the ignorant but street-smart Isidoro, she's in this interesting space between wisdom beyond her years and youthful innocence, which makes her contribution work on more than one level so it's more engaging than Flora's. And sadly, this is at the core of what doesn't work this week.
When we have to cover X amount of monologue in Y lines per minute, no lovely intonation can save the episode from feeling rushed. Interjections that let the corresponding manga scenes flow more like a natural conversation have been cut, leading to no loss of plot but a significant loss of atmosphere. Important elaborations feel stiff and boring, and no random camera movements can help spice things up. These pans, zooms, and virtual crane shots are often unmotivated and distracting; even when the spinning does make sense (like the elves riding the air), it grows out of a weirdly static frame directly taken from the manga. Characters seem to freeze in poses that work in panels because real-world time is not part of the equation in sequential art. When these poses are simply dropped after a cut seconds later in the animation, continuity is broken and characters look like they don't know what to do with themselves, so they stand around feeling embarrassed. It was a breath of fresh air to see so much 2D in the weapons upgrade scene, where Guts briefly looked like his old Golden Age self and characters had actual facial expressions, which can't be said of poor Flora. It's sad when the unmoving end card artwork is the most memorable moment of animation.
Apart from the bickering between Schierke and Isidoro, episode 17 contained some blink-and-you'll-miss-it comedy gold: Serpico playing chess against one of Flora's golems and being distracted by the girls in different stages of undress, Puck enjoying a drink in his bathtub and raising a banner on top of Isidoro's head as they head into battle.
If it wasn't for the after credits troll raid scene, we would have made it though an entire episode without adding to the body count. The credits running over the goodbye scene killed the solemn mood, but even if the prospect of more CGI trolls has me worried, I can't say I'm not excited to see Serpico and Isidoro's new gear put to the test.
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