“Fullness of knowledge always means some understanding of the depths of our ignorance; and that is always conducive to humility and reverence.” –Robert Andrews Millikan
Operation South Winds begins. The 501st are loaded onto a B-17 and flown out to Berlin as a part of a larger strike force, whose objective is to first neutralise the massive cloud surrounding Wolf using thermobaric explosives. Once the bombs are dropped, the 501st deploy into the battlefield and are surprised to see their foe’s appearance: a seemingly-simple Neuroi with its core exposed. However, when wall-like pieces begin dropping from the skies, the Witches are shocked to see the Neuroi land on Pariser Platz near the Brandenberg Gate. Wolf begins to manufacture smaller drones that assemble into bomber type aircraft, overwhelming the Allied B-17 bombers. Command orders a retreat, and the Witches are tasked with escorting the surviving bombers to safety. Yoshika is ordered to immediately return to base, and Shizuka manages to convince her to do so, before destroying a bomber-type Neuroi on her own. The operation is thus unsuccessful, but the media reports that things are “just getting started”. In order to keep her as their ace-in-the-hole against Wolf, Yoshika is grounded for operations. When a large bomber-type appears, the 501st sortie to engage it, but Shizuka is injured during combat, and the Neuroi itself prepares to ram the Kiel facilities. Against her orders, Yoshika deploys a massive shield that prevents the Neuroi from hitting the ground, depleting her magic in the process. Charlotte manages to rescue Shizuka, and Sanya destroys the Neuroi, but in the aftermath, Yoshika has fainted, and Shizuka is devastated, before succumbing to exhaustion herself. Breaking tradition from earlier Strike Witches episodes, Road to Berlin opens the throttle with a preliminary attack on the Neuroi hive over Berlin, and unsurprisingly, the Witches’ first attempts are unsuccessful – they allow themselves to let their guard down, and consequently, are met with failure as Wolf reveals that it has a few tricks of its own.
All of the themes come together from earlier episodes as the Witches take on this overwhelming foe in the episode’s first half, and even as they are caught off-guard by Wolf’s power, they manage to withdraw safely; by now, Yoshika’s seen Shizuka grow enough to trust her; however reluctantly she is, she accepts her orders and returns to base ahead of the others, and Shizuka proves herself after defeating a powerful bomber-type Neuroi on her own. The episode’s second half is more sobering: Yoshika’s magic is counted as a bit of a secret weapon, to be held in reserve for the next attempt at stopping Wolf, but when a Neuroi threatens the entire operation by attempting to crash into Kiel, Yoshika sacrifies her power to save the base and the others. This particular action forms the crux of this week’s discussion – it is inevitable that some viewers, with a different approach that my own to military-moé anime, will remark that Yoshika’s actions are selfish and will cost the 501st severely on their next run. I counter-argue that Yoshika’s actions at Kiel are not only appropriate, but necessary. Had Yoshika followed her orders not to deploy, the 501st would have lost Kiel entirely, along with its matériel and two of the theatre’s top brass. The damage done here would have set Operation South Winds back so severely, the 501st would have been unlikely to have the resources to mount a second attack before Minna and Gertrude’s ability to fight disappeared. Yoshika’s decision came at a great cost, but in the end, this decision was a necessary evil: by defying orders and using her magic to prevent the Neuroi from hitting the ground, Yoshika has single-handedly saved the other European forces and the 501st’s resources, allowing them to fight another day. Even if she cannot immediately participate in the next counterattack, history has shown that the 501st are resourceful and determined: Patton has also indicated they have access to secret weapons of their own to assist, creating a situation where the 501st will only need to hold out in the next episode long enough for Yoshika to rejoin them and contribute to the team effort which sees the 501st triumphant over the skies of Berlin.
Screenshots and Commentary
- The tenth episode opens with Minna and Gertrude briefing the 501st on their assignment: they are to accompany a B-17 group and will be air-dropped into battle after the B-17s clear the clouds surrounding Wolf by means of thermobaric explosives. Alternatively known as fuel-air explosives, these bombs work by dispersing droplets of a highly combustible substance in the air and then igniting it, creating a massive explosion. Mario Zippermayr is credited with having created the earliest fuel-air explosives and in 1944, the Nazis had such weapons at the ready in Calais, but Allied bombing disabled the weapons, and so, these explosives were never used.
- When the first of the Road to Berlin trailers appeared in July 2018, they portrayed the final strike at Wolf under sunny skies. The Witches were loaded into a B-17 with modified internal bays, designed to launch Witches rather than ordinance. This trailer offered very little about the new Strike Witches project, except for the fact that the series was going to be bolder and larger in scale than previous instalments in Strike Witches. It is striking that the footage of the Witches being air-dropped into combat over Berlin, then, was shown just a shade of being two-and-a-half years ago. Back in July 2018, I remember spending most of that month writing Harukana Receive posts.
- Road to Berlin thus fell to the back of my mind, and for the next 629 days, no more information about Road to Berlin was known. In March this year, a new trailer showcasing more moments from the series, was released. I’ve been watching Strike Witches since 2011, after stumbling across the series while browsing Tango-Victor-Tango: back then, I still regarded the site as somewhat noteworthy and so, credit them with my interest in Strike Witches. While some anime fans in my data structures II class felt the series to be beneath them, I decided to watch it anyways, having had some quarrel with the folks who spent all of their free time on campus gaming or watching anime, rather than studying or working on assignments, and the rest is history.
- The cloud cover generated by the hive shrouds Berlin in a grim light, perfectly matching the tone that Road to Berlin‘s earliest key visuals had set. This is a grim-looking mission, and it is with determination in their hearts that the 501st fly towards their target. For this mission, Minna’s broken the team into two groups: the strike team (Yoshika, Minna, Gertrude, Erica, Charlotte and Lynette) will punch a hole to the target and attack the core, while the cover team (Shizuka, Perrine, Francesca, Eila and Sanya) stay out of attack range to prevent any smaller Neuroi from hassling the strike team.
- Unlike the Hive from Brave Witches, Wolf is an exceedingly simple-looking Neuroi, lacking any tentacles and being of an unimpressive size. Its core is exposed, as well, and the Witches begin to wonder if things are too easy. Per Les Stroud, there are telltale signs of a trap at work in nature: anything that’s bumbling or slow-moving likely has one heck of a defensive mechanism, and here in Road to Berlin, this ends up being true. As the strike team moves towards the core, massive wall-like Neuroi descend from the clouds, and Wolf itself drops to the ground, conceals its core and begins mass producing drones. The skies are now filled with Neuroi, and any hopes of swiftly ending the battle are dashed.
- The fact that the 501st had been expecting a quick battle suggests that Hives might have been defeated more easily previously, but if not, it can be chalked up to overconfidence. The wall-like Neuroi might be a callback to the sections of the Berlin Wall, which was erected in 1961 to stop East Germans from easily entering the West (and therefore, leaving the Soviet Bloc). The Neuroi encircle the Witches and begin hammering them, while new drones fill the skies and begin assembling themselves into bomber-like craft that resemble the Japanese Nakajima G10N, a planned ultra-long range heavy bomber designed to strike at the heart of North America that was never built.
- Shizuka ends up convincing Yoshika she’ll be fine, and Yoshika reluctantly boards an aircraft headed back for base, but not before smiling and expressing her faith in Shizuka. Trust plays a core part of this episode, much as it had for Eila and Sanya’s episode, whose teamwork just needed a bit of a nudge for the battle ahead. However, Shizuka gets separated from the others in the process, and so, her own combat skills are finally put to the test. Shizuka may not have had many moments to shine from a combat standpoint, and all of her accomplishments have been in the realm of support thus far.
- The use of CG means that Road to Berlin is able to render swarms of things on screen in real time, and at this point in the season, the visuals have become very consistent, with scenes switching seamlessly between hand-drawn and CG witches as the moment calls for it. Brave Witches suffered from production issues during its televised run, with some characters resembling the models from RWBY, but the BD release fixes this. I imagine that for Road to Berlin‘s BD release, minor improvements to visual quality will be made, along with the usual suite of updates.
- In episode ten, however, Shizuka has evidently improved: flying alongside the 501st, Shizuka’s picked up a few tricks for combat, and together with her own training, she manages to not only hold out, but defeat the G10N-like Neuroi engaging her. The basis for supposing that this Neuroi is a G10N is simple enough: the Convair B-36 was originally the first aircraft that came to mind, being a successor of sorts to the B-29 Super Fortress, but its six engines had a pusher configuration (rather than the tractor configuration seen on the Neuroi). Moreover, the B-36’s wings have a more distinct delta shape to them compared to those of the G10N.
- After the battle, Shizuka’s magic is depleted; Charlotte manages to catch her just in time. The operation is an abject failure: besides sustaining losses to the B-17s on the mission, no appreciable damage was done against the Hive. The only consolation is that the Witches themselves escaped unharmed, and considering the severity of what the 501st was up against, it speaks volumes to their experience, to be able to safely retreat from an opponent of this magnitude.
- While the newspaper marks the retreat as a “successful start to operations”, this was likely done as a morale booster for the civilians. Gertrude and the others know precisely what the failed attempt had cost them, although for Shizuka, this marks the first time she’d gotten a kill in Europe. She even makes the news, being hailed as a hero of sorts. This achievement was done to indicate that at this point in time, while perhaps not an ace of the same calibre as Erica and Gertrude, or with unique talents like Eila and Charlotte, Shizuka’s biggest asset is going to be teamwork; she’s now skilled enough to keep up with the others, and the right gun in the right place at the right time can make all the difference.
- Mio herself returns to the frontlines to help out with the operation, meeting with Generals Bradley and Patton. In preparation for the next attempt, Patton’s brought in an upgraded Striker Unit for Yoshika and smiles at the thought of being able to utilise a fancy new weapon, as well. However, because Yoshika’s magic is having trouble recharging, she is ordered to reserve it for the coming operation, and is effectively grounded. This brings back memories of Strike Witches‘ first season, where Minna confines Yoshika to her quarters after the latter made contact with a human-shaped Neuroi.
- While fan speculation has suggested that the Neuroi might have had larger scale plans with the Witch-types, given their absence, I imagine that that particular Neuroi had been trying to warn Yoshika of a plot to use the Neuroi cores in the Warlock Program, which might’ve obliterated man and Neuroi alike. It is unlikely that anything more will come out of the Witch-type Neuroi, since this would require a bit of a paradigm shift to the franchise. Back in Road to Berlin, when an alarm goes off, signifying the arrival of a large Neuroi, Yoshika itches to take off and help the others, but Minna manages to convince her to stand down. Instead, Yoshika listens in to the combat with Mio, feeling that Shizuka can now make a difference.
- When a group of T34 Calliope tanks fire their 114 mm rockets at the Neuroi, the Neuroi responds with a single blast from its lasers, destroying the entire column in a massive fireball. The Calliope was named for its resemblance to circus organs, and make an appearance in Battlefield V as a reinforcement for the Americans. I’ve found the Calliope to be an immensely fun vehicle: a single volley of rockets will turn even heavy tanks into Swiss Cheese, and the Calliope is equipped with the Sherman’s 75 mm cannon and 30 calibre co-axial machine gun, making it extremely versatile. In reality, the Calliope’s high centre of gravity made it difficult to transport, so it did not see too much usage in combat, but the rocket’s firing sounds were said to be terrifying to enemies.
- In the air, the Witches find that they are dealing next to no damage to the Neuroi, a larger version of the one that Shizuka had defeated earlier. However, it is accompanied by a swarm of drones, and moreover, the core is nowhere in sight. As combat drags on, a group of drones close in on Shizuka and self-destruct, injuring her. Shizuka crash lands on the Neuroi’s wing, unconcious, and attempts to get close enough to make a rescue fails as the Neuroi form a sort of physical barrier with their numbers.
- From a visual perspective, Road to Berlin has outdone itself with the combat sequences in this episode: the last time such a level of activity was seen on screen would’ve been Strike Witches: The Movie. Since 2012, computer hardware and software have both improved beyond recognition, and the sorts of things that only movies had the budgets to do eight years earlier are now doable for TV series, as well. The end result is being able to create eye-popping visuals for twenty minute episodes.
- Mio can only look on as the Neuroi prepares to ram the base. Here, shields from Minna, Gertrude and Erica are visible: with no options left to the Witches, the three attempt to push the Neuroi’s trajectory such that it misses the base in a move reminiscent of what happened in Char’s Counterattack. While there’s no psycommu technology to create psycho-fields in Strike Witches, this universe does have Yoshika, who defies orders and dumps her entire magical capacity into a massive shield that does what Erica, Gertrude and Minna’s shields combined could not. The Neuroi is pushed off course, and Charlotte takes advantage of the opening to save Shizuka. After Perrine uses her Tonnerre to crack the Neuroi’s hull, Eila and Sanya spot the core, allowing Sanya to finish the Neuroi off.
- The effort proves too much for Yoshika to handle, and a doctor later suggests that Yoshika’s magic has been completely spent. In shock and anguish, Shizuka faints from exhaustion as well as the skies begin pouring. I concede that things look pretty grim for the 501st and Operation South Wind at this point in time, but I reiterate again that, having been around for Strike Witches, I am confident that this series will remain true to its themes of adversity pushing people to rise to the occasion.
- The episode preview is certainly spirited as Minna announces their intent to succeed at all costs. I do find it curious that the next episode is going to be named after the series itself: traditionally, this move is reserved for finales, and if previous seasons of Strike Witches and Brave Witches are anything to go by, the penultimate episode will see the 501st face one final set-back before teamwork and the usual narrative magic returns, allowing the Witches to win the day.
- Thus, while I may leave with an image of Shizuka lying in the rain, I am confident that Road to Berlin will have the Witches earn their happy ending yet again. Understanding the theme to a work means that outcomes are going to be inevitably predictable, but I’ve never been one to assess a work based on how predictable its progression was; for me, the journey matters much more than the destination, and so, as long as the path taken to the conclusion is a satisfying one, I will have no trouble enjoying a work.
This tenth episode of Road to Berlin marks a considerable departure from the other Road to Berlin episodes, being much more serious in nature and lining up with the sort of atmosphere that the earlier promotional materials suggested that this season would take. However, the series’ themes have always been very open, and outcomes have always been in such a way as to align with these themes. Consequently, although Strike Witches has always tended to be predictable, the series’ strengths lie in its execution. With this in mind, along with Yoshika’s actions this episode, I will openly (and uncharacteristically) state that any arguments against Yoshika’s choice in this episode are invalid. I’ve been around the block long enough to know understand and accept how Strike Witches presents its themes. However, for as long as I’ve been watching Strike Witches, I’ve seen some who feel compelled to critique and challenge Yoshika every step of the way. This grows wearisome and comes across as highly immature. A few names from AnimeSuki immediately come to mind, and while I have no idea what results in this behaviour, whether it be because these individuals feel the need to show they’re cleverer than the writers or are better-versed in good storytelling than other viewers, one thing is apparent: complaining about Yoshika’s decisions as though one knows better is not going to change the themes in Strike Witches, nor will it alter the outcome in Road to Berlin. Simply, claiming Yoshika did the wrong thing this episode would be an untenable position: it is pointless to argue against Yoshika’s choices, since the alternative is seeing Kiel wiped out, sending the 501st back to square one. While I normally am very open to alternate opinions and perspectives, for Road to Berlin, the combination of the series’ reputation and past performances, coupled with the fact that those who usually argue against Yoshika have been very vocal, but otherwise unconvincing means that here, I will make an exception; such opinions aren’t worth paying attention to. Road to Berlin‘s tenth episode makes this explicitly clear: from what has been shown up until now, Kiel was a critical asset, and Yoshika acting in any other way would invalidate everything that Road to Berlin has been working towards all season.