Thoughts on... Casca, and some uncomfortable truths about Berserk
You guys know I’m a massive Berserk fan. In fact, it’s my favourite manga. It’s the one series I can return to again and again and never get bored, each time picking up on something new. It’s a complex story about the swordsman Guts and his fractured relationship with Griffith, the former leader of his mercenary band, all behind a backdrop of Medieval European society, royal drama, political crises, war, and dark fantasy, with elves and witches and creatures of the dark thrown in for good measure.
Everything changes for Guts when Griffith, in a state of despair, utilises the power of the behelit, a mysterious device that grants its user a supernatural body on the basis of human sacrifice (as long as the sacrifice holds some importance to the user) and ascends to divinity by literally sacrificing all his loyal and devoted mercenaries of the Band of the Falcon, thus becoming the fifth member of the Godhand and permanently altering the world as they know it. Guts, being one of Griffith’s most devoted fighters, watches in horror as demonic creatures proceed to eat and mutilate the men he has fought with over the years through so many battles, overcoming obstacles and sharing bonds. It’s a pivotal moment in the series and explains Guts’s current misanthropic nihilism, his trauma and his reluctance to make friends—this isn’t the first time he’s been betrayed: he suffered rape, neglect, and emotional abuse as a child, and had to learn again and again that the adults around him often meant a lot of harm.
And so, it’s absolutely beautiful seeing his relationship unfold with Casca in the chapters preceding the Eclipse sacrificial ceremony. She’s the only female fighter in the band (and anywhere), and is his once adversary-turned-rival-turned fighting partner. Together, they overcome their past trauma. Casca is a pretty solid character: she’s a rarity in a male-dominated world, where women are only brood mares and their main purpose, other than sex, is to look distressed and flutter around in the kitchen. Not only is she unlike the other women in that her interests differ from theirs, but she’s also dark skinned. Her design drew me to the story because it is rare to see black characters in manga, or black characters that are not stereotypes, especially women. She’s beautiful and strong and so human, everything that I like in women characters. But there are some aspects of her character arc—and that of several women in the story, in fact—that make me uncomfortable, and it’s for that reason why I’m always reluctant to recommend Berserk to others, unless I totally understand their preferences first.
When you hear “Medieval setting”, “Europe”, “Male-Dominated”, you wouldn’t exactly be surprised to then find out there’s a shed load of rape, sexual abuse and misogyny involved. In many ways, it comes with the territory, and even in the real world, right now, rape is a common tactic of war and conflict. You have more historical incidents like the Rape of Nanking, and then you have the astronomical rape stats from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rape numbers in South Africa, and the increasingly regularity of rape and rape culture in the West—#MeToo is new, but the abuse is as old as the world itself. Anywhere that bases its social tenets on patriarchy is a society in which women are at risk of rape and sexual assault—some contexts are just less accountable than others, and in a Medieval context, women aren’t even viewed as fully autonomous humans, so of course there would be no punishment, and the act itself just seen as a normal part of everyday life.
I totally understand context, and of course, to sanitise the truth of the setting is to tell a story poorly: in my own writing, especially my current WIP, I tackle rape and violence against women, because the setting requires it, but I’m always mindful of gratuitous depictions of rape, and of rape used as a mere plot device to get jump scares from readers and viewers—or even worse, to titillate. Unfortunately, all these poor rape examples are in Berserk, and many of the fans (I lurk on the subreddit) are reluctant to see these depictions as problematic. Instead, they accuse anyone who has a criticism of the portrayal of rape in Berserk as overly-sensitive, “looking at it from a Western-feminist viewpoint” (as if having respect for women is solely a Western invention?) and being generally dismissive, totally averse to hearing anything insinuating that there is an overabundance of rape at all.
Casca poses an interesting discussion topic on forums. Many view her as strong and skilled in name only, because a lot of her feats are off-panelled or shown in flashbacks. Guts, as the protagonist, gets the limelight and as such, we see most of his fights and his inexplicable strength. But it stands to reason that the second-in-command could only have such a title if she was strong, and when Griffith is imprisoned shortly before his breakdown and eventual betrayal, she assumes the position of commander, beating the men into shape. It is often said by the men around her that if not for Casca’s leadership, they all would have died. Even in the midst of the Godhand ceremony, when all the demons are belched onto the earth and proceed to devour everyone, Casca instantly takes the lead, commanding the soldiers to get to safety. Guts too notes her formidable resolve in this scene, acknowledging that he would have been unable to stay so focused under pressure. As an aside, we have seen little of Griffith’s strength, only a few power frames, and that one time he beat Guts. The same arguments thrown to Casca’s character could be levelled at Griffith pre-Godhand ceremony, but people rarely mention this.
Casca’s past is almost as pitiful as Guts’s. She joins the Band of the Falcon as a young girl. Coming from a poor and destitute family, her parents sell her to an aristocrat to work as a servant. On the way to his manor, the aristocrat attempts to rape her. She flees the carriage, and stumbles onto Griffith and his recently assembled mercenary band. Griffith encourages Casca to kill the noble, which she does, by impaling his chest. Seeing this stunning man, literally on a white horse, grant her liberation enchants her totally, and she asks if she can follow him. He tells her she can do what she wants, despite the protests from the other men, and she soon rises through the ranks of mercenary life, proving her worth and skill. She vows to be Griffith’s sword, to devote her life to helping him achieve his ambition, which is to take advantage of the war and ascend to the aristocracy. His ultimate goal is to have his own Kingdom, and he aims to use his ascendancy to marry Princess Charlotte, heir of Midland. Like the other members of the Falcon, Casca is a bit of a shell initially, her main purpose being to help Griffith, to fight for Griffith and to burden herself with his dreams whilst always forsaking her own. There are several members of the band who revere him, taken by his charisma, and unquestionably follow him.
Casca’s devotion turns to extreme jealousy when Guts joins. Griffith often appears obsessed with Guts, to the point of putting himself in danger many times during battle, and even when Guts leaves the band, Griffith descends into madness, making the fatal mistake of sleeping with Princess Charlotte, which leads to his imprisonment and starts the ball rolling for his mental breakdown and vow with the behelit. Because of her jealously, Casca is often annoying at times, regularly chastising Guts’s behaviour (which she sees as selfish), refusing to treat him with respect, and verbally abusing him when she gets the chance. It is clear she hates him, but the hate soon turns into an earnest desire that she only acknowledges when Guts departs from the band. The pair begin an intense relationship when Guts returns to the Falcon a year after his departure, his former mercenary band in tatters, Griffith imprisoned, and many more dead.
Therefore, it is the epitome of Griffith’s evil that, during his ascension to the Godhead, he not only devours his former bandmates, but rapes Casca whilst forcing Guts to watch. The rape scene here is so long, so brutal, takes up so many panels, involves so many close-ups and sensual shots. It is extremely uncomfortable. And manga is a very visual medium, it is literally a skin-crawling experience to read Casca’s rape scene, and whenever I re-read the manga I skip the whole five-plus pages it goes on for. Its extension appears to be for a bit of sexual gratification, and I cannot excuse Miura of drawing her abuse in this way. This rape scene accounts for Casca’s fourth assault up to this point: the first was shown in her childhood flashback, then she was sexually assaulted by an enemy army, and thirdly, we are treated to a pointless attack from Wylad, some random demon who had no real purpose in the story but to tear her clothes off. It makes for a demeaning experience.
After Griffith’s attack, Casca is broken. She becomes mute, her once shrewd mind descending into a childlike muddle. She is barely vocal, only ever uttering a few nonsensical murmurings, and Guts is left to sojourn with her across the world to find Elfhelm, the land of the elves in which he hopes to find her cure. It’s another shame that one of Miura’s most fascinating and interesting women characters is reduced to a mute plot device, a mascot-like burden which serves to drive the protagonist forward, all the while the reader and the protagonist lament her demise.
Upsettingly, Casca once again becomes a victim of sexual assault in this vulnerable state (in episode 189), by a passing group of men who just so happen to rape her on sight. Guts arrives at the scene too late, looking on in horror as Casca bleeds from her private area clutching a sword, her assailants all sliced and dead on the ground by her feet. And then, the worst moment in the manga happens: Guts becomes overwhelmed by the Beast of Darkness, that symbolic apparition of his inner demons and pain, succumbs to his own anger and hatred and negativity, and takes it out on Casca by sexually assaulting her, biting her breast. When he gets a hold of his senses, his relationship with Casca is severed, and Guts has no choice but to allow a random ragtag group of strugglers to accompany him on his trip to Elfhelm. Guts surrenders himself to this motley crew, relying on them to look after Casca, firstly to enable him to fight without worrying about her, and more importantly, to protect her from his darkness.
This is another scene I have to skip. Guts was doing so well, and I was so disappointed that he too became another potential rapist in the story—it’s almost as if, in the world of Berserk, if you’re a male, you’re a rapist, and no matter how many excuses the superfans make for Miura, if Berserk was written by a woman, there would be angered accusations of the story being “a feminazi’s view of men”, and the excessive occurrences of rape would suddenly be clear and obvious for all male readers to see.
I could go on: Farnese almost gets raped by a demented horse, a group of trolls rape some women in a village, Princess Charlotte almost gets raped by her dad, the Kushan Army hold all the women of Wyndham in sexual captivity to give birth to mutant creatures via spontaneous human combustion, and so on, and so on. If you’re a woman in Berserk, you will get raped, sexually assaulted, or worse. It’s harrowing as it is frustrating, and the Medieval context can only go so far before the rape becomes gratuitous and lazy.
There are many ways for a writer to express female conflict that does not involve sexual assault, and there are times when Miura explores it brilliantly: Casca’s insecurity about her unfeminine nature is a realistic and understandable female conflict; the Queen’s disenchantment with royal life and her disdainful existence in a loveless marriage is another realistic conflict; Farnese’s mental issues, her fetish with fire, her aristocratic angst and her increasing agnosticism are deep and complex conflicts. These examples are human, and I wish they were explored more, away from the sexual assault. These instances show Miura’s skill as a writer, his empathy for the human condition, and his glaring talent in times like these is why I continue to read the series. It’s a shame that the sexual assault has to happen before a deeper character arc can take place for these women, whereas for the men (besides Guts and Griffith), we get a taste of their turmoils and conflicts outside of sexual abuse.
Casca’s mind has been restored now. I am so looking forward to more badass moments from her. I can’t wait to see her resolve the issues of her past, to reclaim her sword, reconcile with Guts properly, and start living and leading and loving as a whole, fleshed out character again. She has been through so much, I hope that her days as Sexual Assault Prop are far behind her. Come on, Miura, be fair to Casca. She deserves better.