The Ideological Framework of Berserk

March 30th, 2010

berserk-guts

Berserk is an anime adaption of the popular manga series of the same name created by Kentaro Miura. Berserk (anime) covers the first 13 volumes, also known as the Golden Age arc.

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Berserk is quite the slow burn, taking its time to establish the underlying themes through the mining of the two main protagonists, Guts and Griffith. Their actions are very important as they symbolise philosophies of human nature (diplomacy and war), forming the ideological centrepiece for the series. As the viewer comes to realise this dichotomy, similarly to the way Guts comes to draw comparisons between himself and Griffith, the initial slow burn soon wears off and Berserk starts to become engrossing.

Guts is a typical brute with a large sword and a short temper who stumbles upon a camp for the mercenary band, the Band of the Hawk, leading to a short feud where Guts is bested by the leader, Griffith. Rather than kill the obstinate young warrior, Griffith offers Guts a deal to join his mercenary band in exchange for his life. Guts unwillingly accepts the offer along with his loss of the battle.

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Guts is immediately promoted to the Band of the Hawk’s second in command and becomes curious of Griffith who has unwavering faith in Guts’ abilities. Griffith is an idol within the camp and very much evangelised for his brilliant tactical and combat skills which constantly lead the mercenary group to success. Griffith’s diplomatic treatment of Guts causes some minor jealously within the camp, particularly with the only female member, Casca, who feels a strong personal bond with Griffith. The ensuing conflict derived from the jealousy causes Guts to evaluate the himself against Griffith.

The two men are polar opposites. Griffith is slender with long, pure white hair, wields a thin rapier, speaks with a calm, soft voice and has seemingly no character flaws. He is the embodiment of diplomacy, charisma and camaraderie. Guts has never experienced the level of friendship shown within the group, he doesn’t understand how Griffith is so patient and accepting of others. The only thing Guts knows is the display of strength through combat, he’s the embodiment of war, internalising his emotions and talking only with his blade.

Guts warms to Griffith’s outlook and adopts many of his interpersonal philosophies which allows Guts to integrate within the group. Griffith is immediately close with Guts, often talking with Guts in private about his personal thoughts and endeavours. Such information was never made privy to the anyone else before Guts’ arrival, further fueling the aforementioned jealousy. These sequences of dialogue provide Guts (and the viewer) with food to chew on regarding the underlying thematic elements. The open expression of warmth given towards Guts turns him into another of Griffith’s admirers. However, this idol is also one with an undercurrent of suspicion and here enters the themes of the series’ second half, man’s pursuit of his dreams.

Griffith makes clear to Guts his dream of becoming a king, despite his role as a commoner. He sees this goal as a matter of inevitability and holds a solitary faith towards this pursuit. And the more Griffith divulges to Guts, the clearer the situation becomes.

As the Band of the Hawk continue to rise in reputation, eventually working for and then integrating with the army of Midland, Griffith’s desires become realised. Through the groups transition into royalty figure, Guts notes Griffiths’s burgeoning desire and slowly the two roles change as Griffith’s dogmatic pursuit begins to involve the murder of significant figures of royalty. Guts assists in these assassinations with faith, but slowly coming to question his master’s authority as it becomes increasingly felonious and risky and puts Guts in a position of liability. Griffith’s goals come to create a rift in the ideological framework as Guts, with their positions somewhat exchanged, is now tested by a wavering master.

— Interlude —

Up to this point, Berserk is effective at putting the viewer in a Japanese mindset (I am partly assuming the Japanese here, either way, I mean to say an environment where social actions have far greater consequence). In many regards, Berserk pulls you in, because it places you in the mindset of Guts and then uses Griffith to spark your interest. Like Guts, I found myself becoming curious of Griffiths’s behaviour and wondering whether his intents where disingenuous, whether he was a false idol, what exactly their representative attitudes mean and whether they could be considered absolute (in which they’re not).

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As Griffith is drawn closer to his goals, Berserk‘s grip tightens as you can see the balance tipping away from Griffith and the veneer about to come off. Up to this point, Griffith is faultless, everything he touches turns into gold which makes the climax very important. Guts acts as the tipping point to the shift in roles, being the first to see the strings from that has been presented to the viewer. Clearly a warrior of great might, Guts understands that he is playing to the desires of another man and not his own. He fights causality by deciding to leave the Band of the Hawks without explanation. Even though Griffith could be seen as manipulative, his manipulation is also to the benefit of his fellow soldiers, so I do not think that Guts sees him as a false idol. It seems that Guts wishes to simply walk his own path, rather than be further involved with Griffith’s personal bidding. Here we see the series folding its narrative over as Griffith, now the representation of war, challenges Guts to a duel before he leaves–the result again deciding Guts’ fate. As had occurred before, the diplomatic warrior wins; Guts cuts Griffith’s rapier in half in the process.

Griffith, clearly wrought by his defeat and the worry of the absence of his right-hand man (for whom he can control), enters the princess’ chambers that night and proceeds to rape her. A servant spies a glance and then reports directly to the king who surrounds Griffith with guards, and without his sword, Griffith submits to the bottom floor of the castle’s prison. The Band of the Hawk are removed shortly thereafter.

These last 2 DVDs (in the 6 DVD set) represent a sudden change in the series. There’s a short lull period after the disbanding where Guts goes off and trains in the woods, before running into a reunited Band of the Hawk lead by Casca. Guts aids in defending the group from a rival mercenary band and is then convinced to stay after seeing Casca in a state of exhaustion and despair. Guts, as the new commander, then helps the crew invade Midland castle and rescue their former leader. Again, we see Guts assume the role Griffith had at the beginning of the series and the quest start anew.

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Guts, Casca and several other prominent members of the group reclaim Griffith from his cell who is severely malnourished and frail beyond repair. He’s a cabbage who hardly has the energy to speak, yet in regards to roles, Griffith is the arrogant, young version of Guts seen at the start of the series. Griffith notices the new-found, loving relationship formed between Guts and Casca in his time of absence and in jealously commandeers a cart which sends him careering into a lake. In the lake, Griffith is reunited with the Crimson Behelit, a red stone that he always wore around his neck. He uses the Crimson Behelit to summon several demon gods, whom he offers the Band of the Hawk as a sacrifice to immortalise him as a God, fulfilling his dream.

Although I don’t agree with the ending and in fact find it at odds with the rest of the series (however much it is authentic to the manga), it does show the root of Griffith’s desires and the extent at which he is willing to go in pursuit of his dream. This ending shows us that our desires can corrupt even the seemingly invincible of all men, as Griffith transforms himself from an angel-like figure into a demonic force, both literally and figuratively.

In my opinion, Berserk would have been a better series if it had cut the first and final few episodes, closing after Griffith was imprisoned and Guts had left the Band of the Hawk. (The first episode is of the events after the Golden Age story arc and does not fit in with the events of the rest of the series). As we can see from this article, in regards to the underlying ideologies at play, it would have been smarter for the series to have been cut earlier, concluding with the narrative coming of full circle. In any case, Berserk’s two main characters teach us much about human nature, diplomacy and war, causality and the way in which our endeavours can separate us from our friends and allies.

Images from Berserk Chronicles Image Gallery

Additional Readings

Berserk Chronicles

Berserk @ Wikia

Young Animal Overview of Manga volumes

Berserk Realm


Balibo Thoughts

January 31st, 2010

balibo

Balibo is the true story of 5 Australian journalists (the Balibo Five) and Roger East who were killed by Indonesian soldiers in the invasion of then Portuguese Timor in 1975. Both the Australian and Indonesian governments have worked to conceal the truth of the events which itself is, by recent Australian inquiry, inconclusive. The story is based on Jill Jolliffe’s Cover-Up and, as one of the other reporters on the island near the time of the invasion, assumes her interpretation of the events.

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I don’t like Anthony LaPaglia, supposedly he’s from Adelaide, but that still doesn’t change the fact. At the start of Balibo, his role as ABC reporter Roger East, validates my opinion. He comes across as an asshole; self-interested and ignorant to the plight of youthful FRETLIN politician José Ramos-Horta. Impressed by the sense of justice shown in East’s previous coverage of the Vietnam War and in South American, Horta comes to Darwin to convince Mr East to join his news agency in Dili, in the hope that he will spread awareness of the growing injustice of the Indonesian government towards the people of Timor. East refuses and while quarreling with Horta asks about the five young journalists supposedly situated on the island. Horta spitefully hands East photos and reveals that the men have been missing for 3 weeks, before leaving.

There’s an uneasy air surrounding the situation in Timor and East grows curious, he senses something amiss and decides to rest his suspicions. He meets ABC reporter Michael Richardson who was formerly with the other journalists, but returned to Australia in fear of his safety. Distraught from his experience, he tells East that an Indonesian invasion of Timor is surely imminent and that East would be foolish to go after them.

Determined to seek resolution of the whereabouts of the journalists, East agrees to work in Horta’s newsagency, so long as he can first go to Balibo (where the journalists were last headed). It’s implied that East plans to use Horta to reach Balibo and find answers. Horta accepts the deal.

Balibo is actually a telling of two stories, woven into the one. The overarching story is of East’s—the unofficial 6th member of the Balibo Five—pursuit for the truth. The second story is of the original five and is told a month ahead of East’s story as a series of vignettes.  This creates a riveting dynamic where East is following the trail of a story whose event’s–interspersed with his own–are unfolding before the audience. We can see the tragedy which is about to occur, and it leaves a haunting tone throughout the feature. The Balibo 5 story is shot with a 16mm-to-35mm lens, adding a blue filter to the scene and allowing viewers to differentiate between the two storylines.

The two stories are part of a dual narrative presented through the recollection of an East Timorese woman who is being interviewed for documentation purposes. As we discover, as a young girl, the woman worked in her father’s hotel, the Gran Turismo, where the Balibo Five and East had stayed during their time in Timor. She also witnessed East’s shocking execution at the end of the movie. She’s being interviewed alongside many hundreds of East Timorese who lived through the invasion and liberation of their country. By beginning and concluding the movie in the present day and in such a context, frames the story of the journalists in the wider struggle of the East Timorese’s fight for independence. As the lady leaves the interview at the movie’s closing, and the next person in line steps in and were given a scope of the real people who lived through their own stories of the invasion.

The story of the Balibo Five is frightening as their execution, by the hand of the Indonesian army, looms over the story. One can see the group’s naïve dismissal of warning signs with insistence of bettering the rival stations; Richardson warning the others not to venture any further, the mortar fire which drops during a shoot, the further warning by the group’s driver and then their final pursuit for footage of the invading Indonesian forces undressing from civilian disguises, which ultimately led to their demise. Two of the movie’s key scenes: the initial drop of mortar fire on the journey to Balibo and the killing of the Balibo Five are downright shocking. The film was shot so that the actors themselves traced the journey of the original five. It’s clear that this journey gave the actors a sense of respect and understanding which contributed to these  scenes that they largely improvised. They portray a realistic fear of life about to reach its early end and it’s incredibly moving.

East suffers the same fate, but his story inspires a little more hope. As East travels to Balibo he slowly warms to the Timorese and looks beyond the death of the five journalists to the greater impact on the native people. His realisation all comes to the forefront when in a school torn apart by the Indonesian army, he argues with Horta that in the Australian press the importance of the five Australian journalists far outweighs that of the Timorese population, Horta labels this as selfish and irresponsible, their argument leads into a brief fight. In the end, I think, East, through his personal experience, begins to understand Horta’s message and therefore eventually takes up his cause. Balibo doesn’t assert much political opinion, however, this scene wisely provides context of the situation at large.

The movie ends with the invasion of the Dili by Indonesian forces who physically remove East from Horta’s newsagency and drag him out for execution on a neighbouring jetty. I found this scene to be incredibly arresting as East, attempting to escape the soldier’s grip, cries “I’m Australian”, trying to alert the soldiers of his separation from the conflict. He learns, however, that he is an innocent as the East Timorese.

Conclusion

I guess I appreciate Anthony LaPaglia now, Balibo is one of the most gripping movies I’ve seen in a long time. Balibo is unsettling and at times frighteningly realistic, but as is repeated many times throughout trailers and the extra features (which are plentiful), it’s a story that had to be told. A compelling tragedy which concludes on an uplifting note.

Blade Runner Thoughts

January 21st, 2010

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Quite often I find myself reading deeply into a game which I’ve never played, becoming enveloped in its lore before I’ve even had the chance to play it. One of those games is Snatcher. Snatcher‘s been on my mind for a few years and yet I know it’ll be a few years more until I get around to playing it. Snatcher is a rarity which leaves me with little choice but to emulate it, yet I don’t plan on getting into game emulation until I clear off more of the games which I’ve paid for, so I probably won’t get around to it this year, I suspect.

Another game which has caught my attention is Blade Runner, an early 3D detective game for the PC, set in the universe of the movie with the same name. Blade Runner is interesting because it circumvents the use of a graphics card to render it’s high production 3D visuals.

Snatcher is heavily derived from Blade Runner‘s (movie) neo-noir universe, the similarities speak volumes of Hideo Kojima’s adoration for hollywood. Blade Runner began an aesthetic trend which has populated a number of my favourite anime movies as well. So with all facts considered, I decided that I’d be worthwhile for me to investigate the origins of Snatcher, the Blade Runner game and the numerous anime films which share a visual likeness.

Blade Runner (movie)

Blade Runner is an aesthetically-driven movie. The detective, noir plot plods along at a turtle’s pace and the events that unfold are genuinely less interesting and less important than the goings-on pertained in the visual environment of the hypothetical dystopian future.

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Rick Deckard, a detective played by Harrison Ford, is a something of a wanderer with a soggy attitude. I think he’s a jerk, but I guess it was normal in the 80’s for men to throw their girls around. Deckard is assigned to destroy four remaining replicants (robots in the guise of humans) on Earth. Considering the replicant’s  pursuit to extend their limited 4 year capacity, the roles of villains and heroes aren’t so clear cut. The film supposes that Deckard is the protagonist, but I would argue otherwise. I would argue that the replicants are just as innocent as Deckard. They both kill others to meet their own ends, and although the replicants are robots, they exhibit human-like initiative which normalise them into the wider population. The replicants refuse to perish because of their continual likeness to human beings (the 4-year life span is a failsafe to prevent the replicants from becoming indistinguishable from human beings) and there’s an admirable quality to be seen there. The question then is of what rights do we grants our manufactured counterparts?

Thematically, Blade Runner is very rich, however, little meaning is incorporated into the story as much as it pertains in the visual environment. The city (Los Angeles) has a strong oriental influence from Japan and is overall a very multicultural take on American, suggesting greater ethnic integration in the future, perhaps Japanese dominance (a concern of the time). The most striking visual feature is the retrofitted nature of the metropolis, which is not only a realistic mix of the past and the future, but visually distinct, metaphorically conveying a strong sense of comparative ideologies of the old and the new. General speaking, the hyrbid  approach allows artists to display two ideas embedded into the graphics as dominant and weak, a fusion, cooperative, co-existent and so forth. I think it’s a very powerful way to express comparison.

Taking into account that most of Blade Runner‘s themes are built into the environment, and therefore implicit, the most overt topic posed is one of what it means to be human. Emotion is the answer offered by Blade Runner and it presents this through the Tyrell corporation who attempt humanise their robots through memory implants used to elicit an emotional response. The Voight-Kampff test (a series of questions designed to evoke emotion + a retina scan) used by the humans is a measure for checking whether someone is a human or replicant . The legitimacy of the human condition is put under scrutiny when Deckard uses the technique on Rachael (Sean Young) and struggles to classify her. She’s one of Tyrell’s best models, the Nexus-6, and proves just how indiscernible the line between real and artificial life can be. She believes herself to be human, which conjours up René Descartes notion “I think therefore I am”.

Personally, I consider the unicorn sequence to be a stroke of genius. Early in the movie Deckard dreams of a unicorn galloping through a forest, at the end of the movie he finds an origami unicorn left by his apartment door, the calling card of Gaff, another police officer monitoring Deckard. This is clearly the most intentional question put forward: whether Deckard is a human or a replicant.

Conclusion

I’ve wasted few words discussing Blade Runner‘s story, because the movie is far more interesting as a visual and thematic piece than it is for an engaging narrative. I find it a little bizarre actually that Blade Runner is more enjoyable if you ignore the foreground elements (Deckard’s story) and concentrate on everything happening in the background (the visual landscape, themes and the questions presented by the film). By the way, get the directors cut (seems to be the standard edition now), as it ties together the unicorn sequence in the conclusion.

Influences

I mentioned earlier, Blade Runner likely inspired other forms of media, so I just want to quickly run through some examples. Snatcher is a complete Blade Runner rip-off, just take a read of the story the entire premise is identical. Akira, aesthetically borrows liberally from Blade Runner, particularly the futuristic architectural designs. Lastly, Wicked City uses the same bad-guys-in-the-guise-of-humans which the creatures of the dark world.

Additional Readings

JUNKER HQ (Interview with Jeremy Blaustein by Chris Barker)

Retroaction Issue 3 – Cover Feature