“Every job will demand some sacrifice. The key is to avoid unnecessary sacrifice.” –Sheryl Sandberg
En route to Kiel from Hamberg, Minna’s waves off Gertrude’s concerns after the latter asks if she’s having difficulties flying. When they land in Kiel, Erica, Minna and Gertrude meet with General Patton, who is eager to lead his armoured division out to confront the hive in Berlin, dubbed “Wolf”. Ursula is also present, and while she is demonstrating some experimental concepts, the group notices a rocket impacting a nearby area. Although General Patton is okay, the Witches realise that the Neuroi Hive’s now launching long-range ballistic missiles, and if any of those impact Kiel, it would undo all of their progress. Ursula has the perfect countermeasure: a specialised Striker Unit with a modified engine that allows for superior acceleration and top speed, capable of intercepting the Neuroi’s rockets. Minna decides to fly the unit, knowing that her unique detection magic will allow her to make use of the new Striker Unit. While she is successful, use of the unit leaves her exhausted. Gertrude confronts Minna about the latter’s dwindling magic, and while Minna appreciate her concern, she resolves to do whatever it takes to recover Berlin before her time as a Witch ends. When another rocket strikes a kilometre from Kiel, the 501st decide to clandestinely move closer to the hive in an attempt to intercept the next rocket, using the Karlsland Autobahn. En route, Minna promises to take the two to her favourite Berlin café once they recover the city after Erica complains about the dandelion coffee Ursula is sharing. When they arrive at the designated launch point, Ursula immediately begins fuelling the Striker Unit up, while Erica and Gertrude square off against the Su-47 type Neuroi dispatched to handle them. The Neuroi, being altered to their presence, launches earlier than expected, although Minna is able to take to the skies and destroy the rocket. When the Neuroi prepares a barrage in retaliation, Minna pushes herself to the limit, eliminating all of the rockets before succumbing to exhaustion. Gertrude manages to rescue her before Minna can fall into the Neuroi hive, and the three head rejoin Ursula, who, in her haste to greet them, trips on the fuel cable, showering all four of the Witches in the highly corrosive fuel, destroying their clothes.
It seems only a long time ago that Mio’s age was causing her magic to rapidly atrophy and deplete: back when this was an issue, Minna had even resorted to drawing her sidearm when confronting Mio in the hopes of getting her to stand down, but ultimately, Mio was able to fly alongside and lead the 501st for another full season before use of her custom katana fully drained her magic. Mio ahd since accepted that she’s no longer a Witch, but continues to help out where she could. For Minna, experiencing this weighs heavily on her mind; although she attempts to put on a brave face for her subordinates, it’s evident that Minna’s biggest wish is to see her promise through, avenging her country and lover by taking back Berlin before her magic is exhausted. While Minna intended to go things alone, this ninth episode of Road to Berlin shows that even as her powers dwindle, Minna still has a group of dedicated Witches in her corner, absolutely intent on keeping their word and liberating Berlin from the Neuroi hive: demonstrating the extent of their faith and trust in one another, Gertrude declares that Minna’s safety is the one time where she will disobey a direct order, and even Erica notes that Minna’s actions in trying to shoulder everything herself isn’t appropriate. With this, it becomes clear to Minna that in the 501st, the Witches are fighting for one another’s sakes, on top of everything else, and as such, victory is only meaningful if everyone is around to see the results of their effort. With this optimistic message, Road to Berlin establishes that no matter how challenging the final confrontation with “Wolf” will be, everyone will survive the battle and find a way to succeed – it would be contradictory to Strike Witches‘ messages, then, to see any deaths, as these would fundamentally go against what Strike Witches had set to indicate about friendship and teamwork during its run.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Right off the bat, I’ll start by stating that I ended up biasing the screenshot distribution so that the episode’s ending is featured more prominently, for reasons that will be apparent. As the Witches fly to Kiel, Minna is visibly tired, only smiling for Gertrude and Erica’s sake. Minna’s smile is dazzling, and she’s voiced by Rie Tanaka, whom I know best for her role as Gundam SEED‘s Lacus Clyne and Chii in Chobits. It was her song, Token of Water, that changed my world forever – not only did Tanaka’s singing introduce me to J-pop, but it also opened me up to vocal music as a whole. I had actually come across Token of Water by mistake, while looking for a pair of songs one of my friends had sent me (Seigi to Jiyuu, and Strike Shutsugeki).
- After arriving in Kiel and marvelling at the sheer amount of materiel amassed, Gertrude, Minna and Erica meet briefly with Patton before he heads off to kick off the initial offensives against the hive “Wolf”. Meanwhile, Ursula has also arrived with some new toys in tow. Erica’s younger sister greatly resembles her in appearance, but in manner, the two are opposites: Ursula is not a capable fighter, and instead, excels in mechanical engineering. Her own inventions are fanciful, lacking the sort of practicality of the gadgets from Q branch, but she’s highly capable of maintaining new gear, as well. Here, she introduces the helmet gun, which appears to be a knockoff of Albert Bacon Pratt’s Helmet Gun (Patent No. 1183492) and was drafted in 1916, allowing a user to fire a helmet gun by blowing into a tube. Besides the helmet gun and a custom listening implement, Ursula also brings out a prototype Panzerfäust 250, which appears to be an upgrade on the German anti-tank weapon, featuring a pistol grip and faster projectile velocity.
- Mid-conversation, the Witches are interrupted by an explosion, which came from a Neuroi rocket. The rocket barely misses Patton, leaving him rattled but no less motivated, and upon returning to base, Minna explains the situation. As it turns out, the Neuroi are using ballistic missiles similar to the V-2 rockets Nazi Germany had developed: by using a rocket engine to push the missile up to a predetermined altitude, and then allowing gravity to do the rest, resulting in a projectile that becomes difficult to intercept owing to their speed. As Minna correctly explains, the missiles the Neuroi are launching are best intercepted while it is launched, when it is still accelerating. It turns out Ursula has just the tool for the job: a Striker Unit modelled on the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet.
- The Striker Me 163 resembles its real-world counterpart in form and functionality, being a very speedy interceptor limited to point-defense roles on account of how quickly it burnt through fuel. The Komet could reach speeds of 1130 km/h, but proved very difficult to fly, and furthermore, its fuel was highly corrosive: in one particularly gruesome incident, a test pilot was dissolved by the fuel when a line ruptured. Road to Berlin chooses to represent this by having the fuel only dissolving fabrics in clothing – Francesca finds this out the hard way when she plays with the fuel pump.
- Ursula notes that any pilot must be able to shoot down a test rocket if they are to stand any chance against the Neuroi’s ballistic missiles, and Minna volunteers for the job, confident that her tracking magic and experience makes her uniquely suited for the role. After taking off and marvelling at the Komet’s power, she closes the distance on the rocket and successfully shoots it down. However, when disembarking, Minna is visibly tired. Altogether, the Komet was never counted as a success – while credited with sixteen kills, the aircraft was very fickle to fly and dangerous on account of its fuel’s methanol and hydrazine constituents: methanol is incredibly toxic because it is metabolised into formic acid, while hydrazine causes burns and acts as a neurotoxin, on top of having carcinogenic properties.
- Ursula notes that the Komet is unlike a Jet Striker in that its only difference from a standard Striker Unit is that it uses a different fuel, and therefore, should not expend a Witch’s magic reserves with the same ferocity as a Jet Striker might. Gertrude and Erica are understandably worried: Ursula’s inventions and the projects she works on, being a parody of the German Wunderwaffer, have a track record of being particularly unsafe, and this was a topic that both Strike Witches 2 and Operation Victory Arrow covered. That the Witches are being forced to increasingly rely on these prototypes hints at the desperation seen in the Human-Neuroi War.
- Whereas Minna confronted Mio at gunpoint in Strike Witches‘ first season, Gertrude takes a much more level-headed approach here in Road to Berlin, as she attempts to reason with Minna instead. The placement of camera shots and facial expressions clearly express the conundrum that Minna is facing, and she does not feel comfortable in sharing a meal with the others. While Minna is considerably more mature and experienced than the other Witches in the 501st, at the age of nineteen, she’s still quite young by neurological standards: the frontal lobe doesn’t reach full development until roughly the age of 25, so Minna’s desire to see things through to the end is a consequence of emotion overruling her logic. This is something that is often forgotten in anime, especially where adolescents are involved.
- This is why I’m much more forgiving of rash, impulsive decisions in anime with younger characters: at that age, I do remember making decisions on the basis of instinct and emotion often. A part of me wonders if anime uses this age range to allow for ideals and whatnot to be portrayed. Back in Road to Berlin, after another rocket strike indicates that Kiel is in immediate danger, Minna decides to bring a small contingent of Witches to help her out. To avoid detection, they set off under the cover of night, using the Karlsland Autobahn to move around swiftly. The Autobahn was originally conceived in the 1920s and construction was greatly accelerated in the 1930s, being intended to link parts of Germany together by high speed road. Today, the Autobahn is famous for having no mandated speed limit in some areas, and also inspired the American Interstate system, which President Eisenhower authorised in 1956.
- When Erica begins griping about the poor food (dry rye bread and dandelion coffee), Minna promises to treat her to some proper coffee once the mission is done, and then is reminded of a Berlin café that she was particularly fond of. Gertrude immediately asks Minna to can it for fear of bad luck – in fiction, making promises for actions post-mission is often seen as foreshadowing death. After their break is over, the Witches reach their target point under an overpass and immediately begin preparing for launch. However, a reconnaissance-type Neuroi has spotted them and radios ahead.
- As such, when Ursula begins fuelling up the Komet, the hive immediately begins preparing a rocket for launch. Further compounding things, the Hive also sends out a single Neuroi to deal with the Witches; the Su-47 type Neuroi makes another appearance here. Recalling the trouble these Neuroi gave Erica and Gertrude three episodes earlier, this was meant to immediately remind viewers that the Neuroi threat is not a trivial one. The Neuroi have also become more dangerous and cunning as Strike Witches wore on: by Road to Berlin, they know how to priorise targets and appear to have an inkling of what the Witches are up to.
- This Neuroi skips past Erika and Gertude, making to destroy the Komet, and when Ursula shields it, the Neuroi destroys the nearby trucks instead. Ursula is unharmed, sustaining only a few scratches, and the Neuroi returns its attention to Erica and Gertrude. Thanks to her quick thinking, Ursula has prevented the Komet from being destroyed. With Komet finally fuelled up. Minna immediately takes to the skies. Highway takeoffs are common in fiction, and my favourite example stems from Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War, and in reality, European highways like the Autobahn were designed to double as emergency runways in some areas, where the median disappears and the highway straightens out: such sections were designed to allow for air power to be launched if airfields were ever destroyed. However, the idea that the American Interstate was designed with a similar goal in mind is untrue. The US Air Force has their own procedures for handling situations should viable airfields be damaged, and the Interstate Laws never mention runways explicitly, so I’m going to have to call this one busted.
- The Komet’s performance and Minna’s skill means that she has no trouble lining up a shot – she destroys the rocket on short order, and breathes a sigh of relief before preparing to head back to the others. However, the Neuroi’s next response is nothing short of human: in a clear display of anger, the hive prepares dozens of rockets and points them all at Kiel. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Neuroi act so human-like before, as though a human commander had seen the Witches’ actions and ordered a massive retaliatory strike in return.
- Meanwhile, with support from Gertrude, Erica destroys the Neuroi in the skies and indirectly secures her revenge against the Su-47 type. The initial Neuroi only appears tougher because it was their first time fighting it, but now that Erica and Gertrude know what they’re up against, they are mentally prepared to deal with it in a composed, calculated manner. This reminds me of a moment in The Division, where I had been unprepared to deal with Glass, a named elite at the end of the Rooftop Comm Relay mission. The first time I played that mission, I was annihilated and felt as though I couldn’t do anything to Glass – I’d even wondered if this was as far as my solo journey would get. However, I would return later with a different loadout and the anticipation of a tough fight: that fight turned out in my favour, and as I hit the endgame, this mission became trivially easy to finish on hard difficulty.
- As the Neuroi hive activates dozens of ballistic missiles, Minna can only look on in horror. Gertrude and Erica implore Minna to stand down, since she’s at the end of the Komet’s operational time. However, the prospect of seeing Kiel flattened creates a newfound resolve in Minna; she discards her radio and prepares to engage all of the rocket batteries on her own, fully prepared to die here. As Minna engages the rockets, an inset song begins playing, and it really gives the sense that Minna is on a suicide mission, making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the other Witches have a shot at liberating Berlin. I believe it’s sung by Rie Tanaka, as it sounds very similar to her performance of Lili Marleen during the first season.
- As the fuel on her Komet drops, Minna pushes herself to the brink: as a veteran Witch, Minna’s experience means that viewers are never in doubt of her ability to get things done. As she circles the hive’s surface and blasts the rocket emplacements, we’re treated to a view of her posterior. Road to Berlin has been very restrained on this front, and pantsu in this third season is nowhere near as overt as it was in earlier seasons. With this in mind, as far as pantsu goes, my top picks are Minna, Lynette, Gertrude and Charlotte, if and when I’m asked.
- With the fuel in her Striker unit spent, Minna does indeed plummet into the heart of the hive, which is no place for Witches. Even though it is apparent that death and losing Witches in the line of enemy fire is completely against Strike Witches‘ core principles (over the space of three TV series and a movie, no Witches were shown as KIA) Road to Berlin does appear to toe that line. Inevitably, Gertrude manages to save Minna at the last second, before delivering a heartfelt lecture on how the whole point of fighting is for one another’s sakes, and how they’d promised to win together.
- With the immediate threat to Kiel sorted out, Minna, Gertrude and Erica can finally leave the area. It typifies Road to Berlin, and indeed, Strike Witches‘ optimism and faith in humanity is one of the series’ strongest points. Even when certain death is imminent, the Witches find a way, and this makes Strike Witches an uplifting anime to watch. Series that take the grim-dark route for no reason do not necessarily reinforce their themes by killing off named characters; Warlords of Sigrdrifa has begun trending in this direction of late, and at present, it’s Azuzu and Miyako’s actions alone continue to remind viewers that things aren’t over yet, and that hope remains despite the devastating losses allied forces suffered after entering the Fuji Pillar.
- In a moment that seems almost certainly shoehorned into Road to Berlin, after Ursula trips on a fuel line and sprays fuel in all directions, her clothing disintegrates right alongside Erica’s, Gertrude’s and Minna’s. Ursula had not exhibited such a clumsy side to her previously, so this was a bit of a surprise. However, she did mention that the fuel was composed of magic and ether: we will have to suppose that the ether here does not refer to the organic compound diethyl ether, a volatile organic compound composed of two ethyl groups bound to an oxygen atom. In reality, ether is occasionally used as a starting fluid and is a component in other fuels, as well. I would suppose that the unique magic properties is responsible for the exotic fuel’s ability to dissolve clothing without causing harm to the Witches themselves.
- Typically, acids and bases are usually powerful agents for dissolving clothing: hydrogen ions reacting with polymers in clothing cause the molecular bonds to weaken and dissociate, although strong acids and bases also can cause chemical burns. So, for the purposes of Road to Berlin, I will accept that whatever this fuel’s composition is, it was intended to create unique effects for the sake of humour and has no analogue in reality. Minna, Gertrude and Erica end up embarrassed beyond all measure after they are doused in the fuel, and they realise no one’s brought a change of clothes. Coupled with the fact that their trucks were destroyed, there is no modest way to return to base either, and even if they did, the other Witches would likely have some questions to ask after seeing everyone sans clothing.
- The icing on the cake in this Road to Berlin was Ursula’s reaction to seeing everyone without their clothes: I certainly wasn’t expecting this side of her at all. With the ninth episode done, we are now entering the final quarter of Road to Berlin, and looking back, this third season was aptly named, speaking of the metaphoric path the 501st take before squaring off against another hive. This was a bit of a fun episode that firmly cements the idea that Strike Witches has become a very optimistic and positive series, which works in its favour: even though Minna’s magic is fading, I expect that she will continue to play an integral role in combat with the 501st throughout the final battle and end her career on a very strong note.
Road to Berlin will very likely follow in the footsteps of its predecessors – next week’s episode deals predominantly with Yoshika and Miyafuji, whom, after getting the limelight in the first few episodes, were given background roles while the other Witches’ stories were explored. For better or worse, the Fuso Witches are at the heart of the Strike Witches series, and so, the time has come to give Yoshika and Shizuka the spotlight again as Operation Southwind kicks into high gear. Strike Witches has typically left the tenth episodes as a bit of a wildcard: season one had Yoshika struggle to understand the Neuroi’s intent when they deployed Witch-sized Neuroi with an enigmatic intent, and season two was a fun episode that introduced Hanna-Justina Marseille to help with an operation that sets the stage for the liberation of Venezia. In Brave Witches, Hikari had to prove her worth as a member of the 502nd against Takami, her older sister. Without much precedence, Road to Berlin‘s tenth episode simply looks to be an exciting one, and from what the preview shows, Road to Berlin might actually break tradition and see the Witches deploy a full episode early ahead of preparations to take back Berlin: all previous instalments of Strike Witches (and Brave Witches) spent their final two episodes wholly dedicated towards the fight against their series’ respective hives, with the eleventh episode always pushing Witches to the brink before spirit arising from teamwork, commitment and a bit of luck allow the Witches to find a way to victory. There is no reason to suspect that Road to Berlin will deviate from the route its predecessors have established, and as such, the journey that awaits viewers as we enter Road to Berlin‘s final quarter will certainly be a familiar, but enjoyable one.