Thoughts on... Falcon of the Millennium Empire Arc Part 2 (Spoilers)
In Part One of this review I detailed my general likes and dislikes of the arc, but this time I wanted to look more closely at the arc chronologically, and highlight my favourite chapter moments.
Falcon of the Millennium Empire is the fourth arc in Berserk, Kentaro Miura's masterpiece, and it features a transitional period for our protagonist, Guts, as he forms a new travelling party following the death of his mercenary family, the Band of the Falcon (or Hawk), led by his former best friend, ally and commander, Griffith. Always a loner and struggler, constantly searching for meaning to his unfortunate life, Guts trusts Griffith, until the commander sacrifices the Band to ascend to the Godhead as "Femto" a new demonic creature, and gain overworldly powers; rapes his lover, Casca, whilst forcing Guts to watch, and brands them both, subjecting them to a life in the "interstice" between the corporeal and spiritual realms, forever at the mercy of dark spirits who want to devour their souls. These experiences leave Guts cold, suffering from PTSD, and alters he and Casca's relationship drastically, as Casca's mental state deteriorates to a child in the wake of Griffith's attack.
In the previous arc, Conviction, we are introduced to the inquisition-era Catholic church interspersed with the aristocracy, both of which Guts is forced to battle in an effort to save Casca, who has been imprisoned for heresy (her mental illness is misconstrued as witchcraft). When Guts finally rescues her, we enter the Millennium Falcon Arc, and he acquires several new teammates: a young boy called Isidro, who follows Guts after witnessing his prodigious skill, Farnese, a spoilt and shallow aristocrat, and her deferential aide, Serpico (and half-brother, unbeknownst to her), Schierke the witch, and two charming elves Puck and Ivalera. Guts resolves his quest for revenge against Griffith to instead find a cure for Casca, which he is told will be found in Elfhelm, the magical land of the elves and Puck's home, ruled by the Flowerstorm King.
At the end of Conviction, Femto is reborn into the world as a reincarnated Griffith, more celestial and awe-inspiring than before. This new Griffith's ambitions have not changed, and he plans to use causality (chance, destiny, predestination) to get the country he always desired. This country is Falconia, the only safe-haven in a world now brimming with high-fantasy terrors.
Falcon of the Millennium Empire, whilst humanising Guts, simultaneously chronicles Griffith's establishment of his country, Falconia, and the dismantling of the physical and corporeal worlds due to Griffith's meddling. With this dismantaling, we bear witness to Griffith's new demonic nature, as made evident by a pair of cat-like eyes and a stoicism towards his old mercenary band. When Guts and Griffith meet again on the hill of swords at the start of the arc (chapter 178), the former is near-devastated when Griffith admits to feeling no remorse or guilt for his actions.
I think the strength of this arc lies in the development of these two characters. Prior to the Eclipse, Guts was the brooding, detached warrior of the Falcon, often criticised by Casca for not caring enough about others. Guts even admits that he's most comfortable swinging his sword, like instinct: it requires no thought or reason; his sword is a part of him. It requires Judeau, Pippin, Rickert, Corkus, Casca, and of course Griffith, to bring him out of his shell. Through this mercenary band, Guts was reminded of the importance of family and loyalty, and he realises (when it's too late), just how deeply attached he was to this motley crew of rejects and soldiers. It was Griffith's celestial humanity that brought out the best in people: his compassion on Casca spurred her on to fight against her would-be rapist; his ambition encouraged Judeau to refine his skills; his leadership gave meaning to Corkus's aimless life. Although Griffith is always surrounded by a halo of awe, there is something deeply human about his interactions with his friends, and the bonds he forms with them. The juxtaposition between this reincarnated Griffith, cold and nonhuman, and the more emotional, passionate Guts, is phenomenally written. Out of nowhere, strangers and strugglers see in Guts a part of themselves, and his willingness to keep fighting, regardless of his misfortune, is what draws them to him. That base innocence of discovering a kindred spirit, and journeying with them to better oneself, is a reflection of the relationships formed in the old Falcon, and Guts's realisation of this is summarised in this beautiful sequence in Chapter 221:
It's really quite stunning, and one of those subtle displays of character development that Miura presents so skilfully.
Love and redemption play a major part in this arc as well. During Conviction, Guts vowed to never leave Casca again, and to learn to appreciate those around him. In Millennium Falcon and its successor, Fantasia, Guts's and Casca's relationship is strained and bittersweet. Casca is no longer the woman he knew, and Guts is pained seeing her in a diminished state. This is not helped by a discomforting scene early into the arc, when Guts allows his ego to take over, and he sexually assaults Casca in a fit of rage (chapter 190). He pays for this moment of weakness for the rest of the story, spanning over two hundred chapters, as Casca avoids him, attempts to run away from him several times, and refuses to trust his presence. Their relationship is difficult and disheartening to follow---a far cry from the gentle love expressed during Golden Age.
Conversely, Guts learns to trust others during this arc, having spent much of his time in solitary battle. From childhood, Guts has been betrayed constantly. It's refreshing to see him persevere in Millennium Falcon by forming new bonds with his travelling party. Initially borne from his love for Casca and the desire to protect her from the elements and himself, he begins to find meaning in the people he is travelling with, as displayed in the Rescue Farnese chapters, the quiet moment on the beach with Schierke when he encourages her to express her emotions, and his sparring matches with Isidro. Guts cares about these people.
The fight sequences are like nothing we've seen in Berserk before. Black Swordsman gave us glimpses of the fantastical, but by Golden Age, the manga is a political medieval battle story, with some magic realism added into the mix. Now, Zodd is not just a legend on the battlefield, but one of numerous "apostles", the Godhead is a real entity that is affecting the corporeal world, there are kelpies and trolls, witches and demigods to contend with. Two of my favourite moments involve Zodd, the first is his battle with Guts on the hill of swords which I mentioned in Part One, the second is his battle as Guts's ally when they both have to fight Ganishka's apparition in chapters 274-278. There's not much to say here other than that the choreography, the art, the interactions between the two foes and the dialogue are nothing short of badass. I mean...
This is why, as an aspiring writer, I will never understand literary critics of graphic novels. There is so much to learn from them. Just as an exercise, imagine trying to describe this scene to someone who has never seen it before. Surely, it would develop your scene-setting skills? Additionally, graphic novels teach us how to write expressive, punchy dialogue. I just love this fight, and I love Guts and Zodd's interactions.
I was initially adverse to the high fantasy direction the story had taken, but after a third read-through of Millennium Falcon, I've learnt to appreciate the arc as the breaking of a new era, and the means to develop the tension between Griffith's mounting power, and add layers to Guts's quest for revenge, freedom and redemption. Other than that. it's pretty epic.
And everyone gets a chance to shine...
One of the criticisms I have for Golden Age is the lack of exposition between the main trio (Guts, Griffith, Casca), and the rest of the Falcon. Judeau, Pippin, Corkus, Gatson, (and Rickert) are virtually the only named members, and whilst their fleeting screen time is impactful enough that their deaths haunt the reader well after the pages are closed, their character arcs lack attention. Ironically, their truly defining moments only happen when they die: Judeau protecting Casca till the end, and dying without confessing his feelings, Corkus lamenting being a side character, Pippin getting silently and brutally torn asunder and eaten.
By contrast, most of the new travelling party has had a back story or a landmark moment that affects not only them, but the rest of the team. Take Schierke's devastating final moments with Flora, Isidro's insecurity with being the weakest member of the team, Farnese's redemption (spoilt aristocrat no more), and Serpico's painful distrust of Guts being realised in the fight in the Vandemion basement (chapter 236). We also see little parts of Guts's past and personality being fed through to the team with the help of Skull Knight, who never fails to bring epicness to any scene he's in. The supporting characters provide both comic relief and poignant moments: Roderick and Magnifico's back-and-forths are whimsical and silly, the former's noble attitude is a great buffer to Magnifico's unscrupulousness. However, I could do without Azan and the near-permanent "chestnut" form of Puck.
Falcon of the Millennium Empire is a great precursor to Fantasia. By the end of the arc, we are fully immersed into the new world of Berserk, and the threat of Griffith's mounting empire provides an ominous and powerful backdrop to Guts's journey. I would advise those who've binge-read the series over a weekend to re-read Conviction and this arc. Whilst the transition from the depths of dark horror-fantasy to the magic of high fantasy can feel jarring initially, once read a little slower over time, everything starts to make more sense, and the world becomes multi-layered, with a pressing darkness ever present.
Millennium Falcon is a major transition arc, taking the reader through the changing world, but it is also dense with character development. There is a sequence from Conviction (chapter 175) that acts as a precursor to Guts's decision to put his anger and vengeance on hold for something more important, and I think it summarises the arc perfectly. It shows that the sound of Casca's voice is enough to subdue and placate that ego, portrayed like a wild dog, that nestles deep within him. The power of this self-restraint is then recreated in Millennium Falcon several times, but there is a particular moment when the party is journeying on a beach during one of their lighter, more upbeat moments, and during the furore and commotion, Guts's eye is trained on the object and reason of his journey, Casca.
Ultimately, Millennium Falcon re-humanises Guts. He's not the same Black Swordsman as before: he's changed, and he is growing. I understand why this arc is the favourite for a large proportion of Berserk fans, because it's an arc that draws Guts out of the darkness and sets him on a path of redemption and ascendant empathy. It's my favourite arc in terms of character development for Guts in particular, the art work goes beyond the brilliance of previous arcs, and the supporting characters all have a purpose of their own, which is a stark contrast to the Band of the Falcon, who only lived and fought for Griffith's dream. There are valid criticisms to be levelled at this arc: Casca being reduced to a shadow of her warrior self is torturous, Puck's comedy isn't always funny, and it does risk developing a "monster of the week" narrative, with a slew of fantasy creatures assailing them one after the other. I'm still not sold on the Berserker armour, and I hope its involvement in the story does not override Guts's natural fighting prowess, but for more critique of the arc, check out Part One.
If you've previously disliked Falcon of the Millennium Empire, or if it's been a long time since you've read it, or even if you binge-read the arc the first time, give it another go. You'll probably fall in love with it.