Spoilers for Berserk (1997) and Casca’s arc in the Berserk manga.
Content Warning: Discussion of sexual violence, racism, misogynoir, ableism, self-harm, suicide.
Here’s a short story about three Black women. The first was born in Jamaica in 1935 and emigrated to Britain in the fifties as part of a population known today as the Windrush Generation. She endured racism, poverty, and sexism, but she never stopped to consider the toll these oppressions had on her health. One day, she decided she would not get out of bed. She spent her senior years totally bed-bound in a depressed stupor, and at sixty-six, she died, seemingly by choice.
Her eldest daughter is the second. She struggled through various states of depression as an adult, but the words “counselling” and “mental illness” were alien to her. One day, she finally admitted “I’m depressed,” and the suppressed horrors of her life oozed from her head and puddled around her feet.
I’m the last. At fourteen, I felt the first tremors of anxiety. By my sixteenth birthday, I was in a facility, brown skin marred by self-harm, a mind only half-active. I kept silent about my increasingly deteriorating mental health due to attitudes that were fed to me by my foremothers: just endure everything. Black women always have to be strong. Society thinks we have some superhuman ability to withstand trauma. We are depicted this way all over the media to devastating results. I want to talk about Casca, a character who stands as the antithesis to this extremely harmful stereotype.
The only woman in the formidable Band of the Hawk, Casca is already acquainted with strength and survival. As a child, she murdered her would-be rapist in order to join the mercenary band and rose to become its second-in-command. When Griffith is imprisoned, Casca becomes the band’s leader in his place, preventing them from meeting a premature demise. When the apocalyptic Eclipse ceremony begins, Casca immediately resumes her leadership to try and get the men to safety, garnering much respect from Guts and the surrounding soldiers. All this she does as a woman in a medieval world dominated by misogynistic men.
Casca falls victim to violence when the newly reincarnated Griffith rapes her in front of Guts in several discomfitingly detailed panels, and after her ordeal, her mind shatters. She becomes Elaine, a non-verbal woman with complex mental health needs, and requires round-the-clock care. The rest of the story chronicles Guts’ journey to Elfhelm to find a way to restore her to herself. Casca’s experience is a rarity in seinen manga, not least of all because of her color.
Japanese media has a Black people problem. As international fans of anime and manga, we have almost grown accustomed to problematic stereotypes, including the racialised minstrel features, animalistic aggression, and unfavorable character traits often seen with Black characters in this medium. Casca is not subjected to any of this, and as her ethnicity is left ambiguous, her skin colour is never a big enough concern that Miura feels the need to rely on overblown Black stereotypes to define her. Instead, she is written as a well-rounded and complex character alongside her male counterparts. Most importantly, Casca is allowed to be weak as a Black woman in a predominately white, male setting, which subverts the tiresome stereotype of the Strong Black Woman.
The Strong Black Woman is prevalent in today’s media. She is often portrayed as single, or domineering if partnered (almost always with a man). She is formidable, but never receives the same nuanced storytelling as her white counterpart, the latter of which is racially coded to be the delicate, womanly antidote to her companion’s wiles. There is no Black woman equivalent to King Kong’s Ann Darrow, Tarzan’s Jane Porter, or Snow White.
Unsurprisingly, the Strong Black Woman often feeds into the Angry Black Woman archetype, where Black women are regularly characterised as aggressive and loud, rarely weak or victimised. This stereotype has devastating societal effects. In Western society in particular, white women are “ideal victims” because they hold what Nils Christie calls “legitimate status”: they meet the requirements that make them more deserving of unquestionable sympathy.
In the West, white women are sacred. Because Black women aren’t, we face discrmination in which our rights to femininity are questioned. Black women are more likely to die of complications during childbirth because we are not believed when we say we are in serious pain. During our current Covid-19 crisis, Black Britons are dying at a disproportionate rate, and we have already seen cases of seriously ill Black women who were dismissed by paramedics for not looking sick enough, only to die of Covid-19 hours later. In terms of mental health, Black women in Britain are more likely to experience serious mental health crises than white women, but are less likely to seek professional help due to fears of being misunderstood by professionals, as well as the added pressure to remain strong during adversity.
During slavery in the Caribbean, the majority of sugar cane workers were women. Like Casca, enslaved women across the Americas were victims of rape, but unlike Casca, these women were not afforded the space to grieve, even while pregnant with their abuser’s children. Today, women who are descendents of slaves are no strangers to the get up and go mentality of their foremothers, and during the Windrush Era in Britain and Jim Crow in America, these women have endured racism, sexism and poverty, without having time to take care of their mental health. The effects of oppression on the Black woman is what led Audre Lorde to declare “self-care” an “act of political warfare”, a means of self-preservation in a world that was consistently against her. It has taken generations of Black women to challenge the need to be strong at all times, to make space for weakness, but not without a heavy emotional and mental price.
Casca’s experience challenges all of this. As Miura has admitted, Berserk is heavily imbued with shojo/josei narrative elements because unlike shounen and seinen, the former excels at “expressing every feeling powerfully.” It is no surprise that among fans, Berserk is lauded for its exploration of mental health, trauma, survival, and personal struggle. Casca, like her male counterpart Guts, undergoes several character-defining experiences that are carefully written. Her attitudes and personal traits are always the results of a past incident, or a deeply personal history.
On the surface, Casca is strong and formidable. Judeau jokes that she “abandoned her femininity” for a life on the battlefield, and she is violent towards Guts. On one hand, she is an admirable foil to the fragile, laced and corseted medieval femininity of her day, but on the other, she battles internal insecurities about her womanhood. Unaccustomed to wearing a dress, Casca is self-conscious to a fault during the band’s celebratory ball. She flinches away from Guts when he admires the battle scars on her naked body because she is “still a woman”. The taunts from Adon about her right to be on the battlefield hurt her deeply, and as she succumbs to period sickness, she is left feeling inadequate to the point of tears when Guts chides her, reminding him that she “did not choose to be born a woman.”
She is agitated around the delicate Princess Charlotte, her total opposite in both disposition and colour. With the princess, Casca’s insecurities are highlighted due to Griffith’s obvious desire for Charlotte, thus making her own feelings towards Griffith unrequited and useless. When she realises that she is in fact in love with Guts, she is conflicted, having already committed to being Griffith’s sword if she cannot be his woman, prepared to sacrifice and dehumanise herself for his sake. With Guts, she is allowed to relish the feeling of being sexually desired for the first time. This shows that despite her strength, she is sensitive, battling a complex relationship with romance, femininity, and sexist societal pressures.
During Griffith’s imprisonment, Casca shows true exhaustion for the first time. She is allowed to be tired, having carried the band on her shoulders without a break for a year. She tells Guts that she is tired and attempts suicide by falling backwards from the nearby cliff, but he saves her in the end. At last, she has someone to look out for her. At the close of the Golden Age Arc, she suffers a mental breakdown after Griffith rapes her. Miura gives her this space. Unlike Guts, she is not forced to persevere, sacrificing pieces of herself along the way. Instead, he provides a cast of new characters to care for her, and her mental health is always at the forefront of Guts’s mind, used as inspiration to continue his journey to Elfhelm.
In a total role reversal, the Black woman in the story is cared for by white people who are sensitive to her experience. Guts’s enduring self-sacrifice towards her is admirable as it is heartbreaking. The damsel-type aristocrat, Farnese, becomes Casca’s primary caregiver, and through Casca, she learns to be less spoilt, more responsible, and empathetic to others. Once on Elfhelm, Casca’s awakening is not rushed through for Guts’s sake, or for the plot to swiftly move on to the next adventure. Instead, she is reintroduced in the Corridor of Dreams sequence, as her female companions slowly pick through her memories and deconstruct the events surrounding the Eclipse.
Miura represents the severity of Casca’s mental breakdown as a hollow, broken doll, which her caring friends slowly reassemble until they find the final piece. Having women fulfill the primary work of her restoration provides the perfect demonstration of a safe space: a sisterly setting in which Casca can receive healing, and not have to think about the misogyny and abuse she suffered at the hands of the men in her old life. The imagery of the most recent chapter, in which Casca tearfully expresses her feelings to the surrounding women, is startling because it centers the woman of colour in the story. The entire journey has been about her, and for her. That is not something you see every day.
Of course, even though I adore Casca, and I am grateful for her journey, I’m not oblivious to the obvious issues with her story. As the only woman in the band, Miura heavily relies on sexual violence to highlight the challenges she faces in this medieval setting. The Eclipse is a distressing and far-too-gratuitous depiction of rape, complete with sexualised choreography.
During her time as Elaine, she suffers several more instances of sexual assault. Because of this, Berserk is a difficult manga to recommend without stressing the unnecessary regularity of its sexual violence. For such an inspiring character, it is disappointing that Miura could not divorce her from the same trials that most women in medieval fantasy stories endure for the sake of “darkness.”
There is also the issue of ableism with the depiction of “Elaine.” Whilst I understand that she is in a state of extreme trauma, Miura often relegates her to a background character for most of Guts’s journey, and she is totally silent. I would have loved to see some of her internal dialogue, experience the world through “Elaine’s” eyes, and see more instances of her coming to terms with what happened in the Eclipse.
For someone who has such a prominent role in the story, it is painful to see her without a voice and without emotion for so long. From Volume 13, Episode 86, until Episode 355 in Volume 40, Casca is without dialogue, internal monologue, or real strong purpose. It would have made her awakening more impactful if we had seen some snippets into her mind during the story, and if her opinion on things, even visually, was shown to the reader. This has led to some critics to label Casca as a mere plot device, a simple achievement for Guts to unlock.
I’m biased towards Berserk because it is my favorite manga, and one of my favorite stories regardless of medium. The story and the artwork were an instant grab for me, but Casca is what made me stay. We have become accustomed to unfavorable depictions of Black women in the media we consume, and without our permission, these ubiquitous images have then framed our attitudes towards Black women in real life.
I have written a fair bit about my issues with Casca’s character elsewhere, but I do believe her depiction is equally inspiring for how it allows her to be weak, strong, powerful and insecure all at the same time. I hope that now she is awakened, Miura will continue to build on the more sensitive aspects of her, providing character progression for this new phase in her life. Casca has gone through hell and back. She survived because she is strong and formidable, but most importantly, she was allowed to be broken first.