Berserk 1997 Last Episode: A Metaphore for mental collapse (2900 words)
As I was watching Berserk (the 1997 anime) and although I enjoyed it quite a lot, a few things confused me a bit:
First, Griffith was clearly a morbid, dangerous and negative person from the start in my eyes* and I didn’t know how I was supposed to look at his relationship with Guts, Casca and the Band of the Falcon. *(The first episode also hints at this)
Second, the fights are presented more like endless slaughters than actual fights. I know the story told is the one of a war and necessarily there will be violence, blood and deaths. Also, it is understandable that the Band of the Falcon should be a bit ruthless as they always find themselves outnumbered. They’re always the underdogs. The problem is that, at some point watching Guts, Judeau, Casca, Griffith and Pippin slash their way through hundreds of powerless enemies becomes embarrassing. Are we supposed to root for them simply because they’re the strongest ? Or the main characters ? Moreover, they always win. Witnessing the Band of the Falcon slaughtering hundreds of soldiers knowing that they will ultimately prevail makes the combats resemble predators swooping down on preys or kids torturing insects. They even become called “Grim Reapers of the Battlefield” after a few victories.
Another thing that “bothered” me is the fact that Griffith and his guys should be, essentially, mercenaries while the soldiers are soldiers, they protect their families and the order of the country they live in. The Band of the Falcon have no cause and take part to a fight that isn’t theirs and bring victory to a side without taking one minute to reflect upon who they are fighting for. There’s nothing ideological in what they are doing. Actually, Griffith will end up killing the Queen once he’s won the war for her.
Because of all this, it was a bit hard for me to root for the Band of the Falcon during the fights. Their victories are impressive hollow stunts. Griffith is bold, smart and efficient but at no point is it obvious that it is a good thing that he should win.
The fact that Guts should quickly grow tired of pursuing his leader’s dream is also an early indicator that there’s something morbid behind the logic of the Band of the Falcon.
This was my first point: I was intrigued by a lot of element and didn’t know what to think, but I was happy to see that the ending of the story, and other elements, are critical of the Band of the Falcon and of Griffith.
To be fair with Griffith, I believe that he's a broken man from the start, that he's been through worse than Guts or Casca or any of the members of the band of the Falcon. The godlike Griffith is a constructed image whereas the emaciated, incapacitated one is the one he truly is inside: an atrophied, crippled individuality, wearing the mask of a Falcon.
Truly, the band resembles a sect more than a group of mercenaries. Its members do not obey Griffith’s orders because they want to “serve and protect” someone or something or to do good, they’re just fascinated by the man and convinced that serving him is the best they can do for themselves. They’re entirely devoted and entirely selfish. It’s not an ideological relationship but an ego centered one. They feel gratified, honoured and proud to be part of the Band of the Falcon, and they believe in Griffith’s dream exactly as much as the man fascinates them. We’re in front of a Guru and his blind followers. Every victory is a proof to them that they are right to follow him, they never question the end of all this.
Griffith brings meaning to the lives of those who follow him, all the more so as he recruits them amongst orphans, pariahs and victims.
His story with Casca is quite revealing of how he can proceed. He helped her when she was assaulted by her employer, not by flatly intervening no, but by throwing a weapon at her feet so that she can kill her aggressor. At first, I didn’t know what to think of this, and thought that maybe he just wanted to make her feel like she saved herself so that she wouldn’t feel too indebted to him.
The problem is that when he drives his sword into the ground, Griffith doesn’t truly exclusively help Casca.
If her aggressor had grabbed the weapon first, he very probably would have killed her that which is worse than rape. Moreover it’s not even clear that Casca preferred killing a man over getting raped by him. She doesn’t utter anything like “die you worthless scum” after having stabbed him but “Did I stab him with the sword or did he accidentally impaled himself ? Either way, I had killed a man.” She doesn’t even try to put the blame on bad luck, she immediately takes it and perceives herself as a murderer. We're given to see her trembling hands soaked with blood.
Griffith could have totally prevented this. He is an amazing fighter and could have scared the malevolent man away without any effort. Choosing to put Casca through such a traumatic experience is his choice and it is comparably as cruel as what the other guy was about to do to her. Plus, the man who was about to rape her, was also going to give her a roof, a job, a life that she loses by killing him. Griffith saves her from a rape she had accepted and puts her in an even worse situation.
Casca describes Griffith’s attitude as “extending a true helping hand” as for example, he can now leave and be sure that next time, she’ll know how to defend herself. The problem is that he acts as if after such an intervention Casca was just going to let them leave. He hides the fact that he’s actually recruiting her.
Plus, the problem wasn't that Casca couldn't defend herself physically, she wasn't trying to avoid the rape, she simply had no choice but to accept to let her owner satisfy himself with her. It was a matter of social status and the sword didn't change anything to this.
What convinces me of the manipulation is that Griffith leaves her side without a word. Exactly like Oliver’s “Later” in Call me by your Name, Griffith is purposely impolite and indifferent in order to trigger a reaction. He doesn’t tell her “take care” “be careful” “try not to stay on your own” “don’t ever let any man scare you”, he could even have asked her if she wanted them to ensure her protection until the next village. Instead, he leaves her a prey to the very understandable fear of remaining alone after what happened to her and obtains exactly what he wants: she asks him if she can be part of the band. His answer, “I told you, do whatever you like”, is a perfect net. Telling someone “do what you want” when you’ve brought them exactly where you wanted them to be is the final victory.
What Griffith does is inflict Casca a trauma that is going to bring her to obey him entirely, it’s exactly the contrary from preventing her from feeling indebted.
He deprived her from the possibility to perceive herself as a victim that which she entirely was.
And because she was a powerless victim he could have saved her without asking much in return. Griffith’s behaviour (throwing a sword to a girl who’s most probably never used one) suggests that if she hadn’t been ready to kill her aggressor to avoid getting raped, then she wanted to be raped or deserved to be. He forces her into his own morbid logic: one cannot ask for peace or a happy life, if you want something, then you have to ruthlessly fight for it. And the more you ask the more ruthless you’ll have to be.
If Griffith had been a more common white knight he would have scared the aggressor off, the young girl would have been moved and would have offered herself out of gratitude or would have fallen in love with her saviour who would have refused because he didn’t want to take advantage of her misfortune and become some sort of extension of her aggressor.
What’s important in this idealistic scenario is the reality of the “you saved my sexual integrity therefore you can take me whenever you want” logic. If Casca had offered herself to Griffith and he had accepted, she would actually have recovered her independence from him. What happens here is that Griffith pretends not to be interested and not to be her saviour when Casca would obviously have been raped if he hadn’t intervened. And thus he captures her.
Casca is a captain and a good warrior, still, she’ll remain the woman of the band. She’s there to be admired and desired by Griffith’s soldiers while being absolutely inaccessible. She’s a tool to emasculate Griffith’s men… or a tool to call them back to life with her naked body like she’s asked to do for Guts.
At the end of the story, Griffith will rape her, thus eventually proving that his intervention wasn’t sympathy but a trick to put her under his control. Once she’s not useful anymore, he rapes her, claiming his due and at the same time proving that he never cared about sparing her the experience in the first place.
Guts suffers a similar treatment. Griffith recruits him through a duel when the young man is wounded and weak and simply states “now, you are mine.” Not “You’re now a member of the band of the Falcon.” Years later, Guts will have to duel again against Griffith to “be allowed” to leave the band.
And that’s the case for all of its members, they belong to Griffith, they've surrendered their lives to him. They follow him blindly, they admire him, they put their life at risk for him, they’re fascinated by him. They do not need a tangible goal, they just believe in his dream and that, once realised, this dream will be as beautiful and impressive and good for them as Griffith is. Again, dynamics found with a Guru in a sect.
Another important recurrent dynamics that I need to point at is this constant need to put one’s life on the line in order to accomplish something. I was talking above about the fact that The Band of the Falcon is always outnumbered during the fights and expected to lose. The way Griffith always transform this into a victory is by taking enormous risks that could cost them all their lives, risks that a regular army wouldn’t take. It’s a common trick in stories that a character who is perceived as smarter or more skilled than others is truly only less balanced psychologically or has motivations different from his adversaries. (I believe Griffith is addicted to risking others lives as well as his, just like one can be to playing poker and betting money. The higher the stakes the more exhilarating the bet).
Griffith uses Casca and Guts as symbols. His men admire and identify with him to a certain extent. Their perception of themselves is linked to their perception of Griffith. Just like with a football team and its supporters. If Casca is Griffith’s woman, then Casca is kind of the woman of every member of the band. Not that they’d try anything, all these dynamics work on the level of their egos. Guts incarnates this “putting one’s life on the line in order to prevail” psychology. He is a living argument supporting Griffith’s approach. The members of the band of the Falcon are thus led by the perfect man and the perfect woman in their eyes, both blindly obeying Griffith. That’s a working psychological trap.
I’m not saying it is equally efficient with all the men but that the characters who are developed, are developed in a way that shows how Griffith tricks them. Corkus is not impressed by Guts, but he limitlessly admires Griffith’s strong leadership and buys into the dream. Pippin is most probably just happy to have friends and see his main quality, his strength, be of importance. Judeau is not as stupid or naïve as the others, but he is attracted to Casca and feels that he is “all mouth" and feels the need to follow a leader as he is good at everything but excels in nothing (as he says).
And so, all these guys follow Griffith and act according to his will and to reach his goal. That’s very important because it’s a perfect trick to bring people to perform horrible things. They’re all convinced that Griffith is wonderful and that his dream is worth anything he asks, plus he takes responsibility for everything they do, and they win, and they’re respected and feared, and they play a bigger and bigger role in the history of the country. This dynamic can easily be truly intoxicating for the minds of poor forgotten losers who had no hope of achieving anything in their lifetime, that kind of intoxication can give soldiers the strength to slash through hundreds of opponents, this without any hesitation; this strong conviction that you’re the ones accomplishing something.
Also, allowing someone to have that kind of influence over yourself means that you allow someone's psychology to pervade your perception of reality entirely. It might sound vague or exaggerated but I really weight my words here. It is very easy to let someone take control of yourself and shape your perception of reality (Parents, friends, lovers).
At the end of the journey, when Guts and Casca free a completely destroyed Griffith from his torture cell, the happy ending should have been that Griffith admits that he is no longer capable of fighting and that the dream that he’s pursued for so long is now out of reach for him but not for the band if Casca and Guts accept to assume the role of leaders. Everything has been put into place narratively for this to happen. The men welcome Guts back and he realizes that they are his family, he undergoes a psychological evolution in one of the last episodes in which he understands that he wants something from life more than killing and fighting. He wants Casca and a Family. They made love, too, Casca managed to turn towards another man.
Everything is ready and the sole thing that needs happening is Griffith acknowledging all this. The problem is that he was a fraud since the beginning, everything was about his alienated ego. He is a man addicted to the power he has over others. Over one life, over two lives, over soldiers, over a sublime woman, over a perfect fighter, over a kingdom etc… Griffith toys and manipulates because he doesn’t dare be.
And so, instead of handing over his men to Guts and Casca, he flees them all (after reminding Casca that she’s his). Fleeing is rejecting.
When Guts finds him in his cell, Griffith starts by trying to choke his friend. I wonder whether it wouldn’t be because Griffith knows exactly how all this is going to end and wishes his friends would have given up looking for him.
That’s where I can finally talk about a metaphore.
The eclipse is the vanishing of Griffith in the minds of the members of the band of the Falcon. He was the divine father and suddenly, he’s not there anymore (Just like the sun disappears in The Force Awakens when Han Solo dies). Guts will qualify the nightmarish place as "godforsaken."
He rejects his men and so the dream wasn’t worth it, nothing will be attained, everything was done for nothing and every heinous act that was performed in order to reach it becomes unforgivable.
We’re exactly in a situation where an entire group of people could experience a mental collapse and collective hallucinations. I’m not saying the demons are literally hallucinations in the story, but that on a metaphorical level they represent how the members of the band of the Falcon completely collapse as individuals.
Their “Selves”, their pride, their internal coherence, were built upon Griffith’s quest for his dream and suddenly nothing is there to maintain their structure anymore.
Just like in a film of zombie or a slasher, getting eaten by demons is a metaphore for becoming them.
These demons have numerous legs, mouths, eyes and arms, they’re just starving bodies, tools to eat flesh, to crush and feed on others.
Also, there’s a strong religious aspect to the story (even if I didn’t talk about it). Griffith challenges the religious order of society. He is perceived as a god, the problem is that as soon as his aura fades, what they thought was sacred is now perceived as evil by his followers. He was a godlike figure and what he did was sacred, once he’s proved not to be a god, they all become evil and demonic figures.
That’s how the members of the band of the Falcon suddenly perceive themselves. Because there never was a real dream** and a goal to all this, then they only were crazy murderers manipulated by a maniac all this time. All the people they had to kill become this ocean of crying souls.
**There is a real dream, but it revolves around Griffith’s perception of himself. The dream is immaterial and would never benefit any of the members of the band.
Judeau could have survived the nightmare in two different ways. His two weaknesses are an incapacity to perceive himself as eligible on a sexual level and a fear of taking his own decisions. So, he could have escaped the band of the Falcon if Casca had acknowledged him as a man before Griffith or if she had accepted to be a leader worth the sacrifice of all the soldiers. Sadly she fails at both things as they’re running away from the demons.
Judeau first gets his arm torn = his lack of agency made him a monster = Casca fails at replacing Griffith as a leader because she fails to accept that her soldiers should die in combat to protect her and thus "accepts" their death as a sacrifice for Griffith.
Then Judeau is impaled by a demon = he is killed by his lack of manliness = Casca, who symbolizes womanhood for all the men of the Falcon, fails at acknowledging him as a man.
HOWEVER, Casca's behaviour, if it doesn't save him from his tragic fate, proves Judeau wrong and it’s going to be a chore to explain.
Judeau is disappointed that Casca doesn’t want to be a replacement leader and thinks that she is scared or inferior (I suppose), but the truth is that Griffith isn’t a good leader as he alienates the people who follow him, whereas Casca is a balanced person (on that level). It’s the same thing as her incapacity to acknowledge Judeau as a man. Griffith made a “whore” out of Casca. He treats her as if she should have sex with all the guys of the band but didn’t because she was only attracted to him because he is so godlike. By helping Judeau, Casca proves him that she’s ready to oppose Griffith’s will when she wants to. It is made very clear that their sacrifice is Griffith’s desire. By helping Judeau run away, Casca acknowledges Judeau’s worth in her eyes, his life is worth opposing Griffith. She doesn’t want to be the new leader and become an extension of Griffith, but she’s ready to oppose his will when it comes to saving her friends’ lives.
At this point Judeau mentally states that he missed an opportunity. He realizes that things weren’t the way he thought they were, that he under-estimated Casca and flatly, that he loved her.
Instead of stating his love though, and possibly saving them both from the nightmare they’re in, he utters a deprecating “you sure do cry a lot don’t you.” Because he appreciates her tears but feels that saying “thank you for your tears/love” would trigger an answer that would humiliate him (that she would cry for any member of the band of the Falcon and not that there's something specific to him in them).
Judeau is not eaten and therefore does not become a demon and does not indirectly rape Casca.
And finally, Guts cannot be killed by the demons because he vanquished Griffith on every level. He didn’t believe in the dream. He’s not fascinated by Griffith. He is stronger than him in a fight. Casca made love to him. The men of the band love him as well.
Griffith is powerless against Guts and thus uses his wild card: Casca cannot say "no" to sexual advances from him..
How is Guts’ different from Judeau’s fate ? Casca is attracted to Guts but cannot say no to Griffith, whereas she’d probably have sex with Griffith rather than with Judeau. And so Judeau dies while Guts is symbolically emasculated: he has to cut his own arm.
Also, Casca isn’t eaten by the demons but raped by them: If Griffith was a fraud, then the respect that they showed for Casca as Griffith’s lady meant nothing either and the men cannot restrain themselves anymore from acting upon their huge desire for her. They cannot kill her either though because Casca’s truth is the one of having been a sex fantasy for a group of men and a demon for years, not a mindless monstrous killing machine, like they were.
And so, the gruesome final episode of Berserk can be seen as a very interesting metaphore for what’s happening to everybody on a psychological level.