“I’m never going to tell you to stop thinking. But I will tell you when it is time to shut up and listen to orders. If everybody does what they think is right when the bullets are about to start flying, then we won’t operate as a cohesive unit. Sometimes you may not like the order you are given, sometimes it might not make sense to you, but you have to do as you’re told” –John Clark, Locked On
Because Shizuka’s Striker Unit sustained damage, she is ordered to remain outside while the remainder of the 501st make their way down into the Berlin subway system and search for an opening leading back to the surface. After navigating through the labyrinth, they encounter a vast underground city and deduce that Wolf’s core must be in a large building at the center. Meanwhile, Yoshika continues to heal the wounded: the Neuroi’s onslaught results in the Ratte’s destruction as well as serious damage to the flaktower. Yoshika pulls a soldier off the rooftops and brings him to safety before attempting to fire on the Neuroi, but the 501st’s efforts below pull all of the Neuroi downstairs, clearing the skies above. Shizuka encounters Mio in the skies, and after the B-17 unsuccessfully attempts to punch a hole in the dome, Shizuka decides to borrow the Shinden and manually detonate the bomb herself. This blows a hole in the dome, and against orders, Shizuka flies into the dome to engage the Neuroi in an attempt to save Yoshika. She is critically wounded, and in despair, Yoshika grieves for her. The intensity of her emotions returns her magic, and filled with a resolute determination, Yoshika resurrects Shizuka before engaging the Neuroi on her own. The sheer power Yoshika brings to the table prompts the Neuroi to surface, and the 501st follow in hot pursuit. Realising the Witches’ power, Wolf’s core returns to its bell form and reforms the massive city before attempting to escape, but Yoshika manages to stop the bell long enough for Minna, Gertrude and Erica to destroy it. With the core destroyed, Wolf collapses, and Berlin is liberated. The skies over Berlin clear out, and the Witches stick around to assist with the cleanup before taking off for their next mission. This brings Road to Berlin to a close, and with it, the time has come to look back on this third season of Strike Witches‘ place in the series.
While Yoshika remains the lead character in Road to Berlin, this third season’s biggest draw was Shizuka’s introduction into the 501st. Strike Witches (and Brave Witches) were both framed around a novice Witch joining an elite air group, and in the process, comes to learn a combination of both what the skies mean to one another, as well as how to work together as a cohesive unit against seemingly-insurmountable odds. Yoshika might’ve struggled all season to deal with her fluctuating magical power, but Shizuka’s own journey was perhaps the more important of the two: introduced during the movie to keep an eye on Yoshika as she travels to Europe, Shizuka has since replaced Mio. While possessing a modicum of skill from her own training, Shizuka constantly struggles to find a balance between following orders and her own heart. In this finale, it becomes evident that Yoshika’s influence has had a nontrivial impact on Shizuka: she only reluctantly follows Minna’s order to remain on the surface, and later, openly ignores an order, speeding into the opening to rescue Yoshika. Again, it is the decision to follow her heart, that directly results in her being wounded, setting off the process that restores Yoshika’s magic and allowing the 501st to stop Wolf. Through Road to Berlin, Shizuka learns that there is a gap between following orders and trusting her own judgement, and that things are not always so black and white. In reality, orders exist for a reason: officers and leaders have a clearer picture of what’s happening than the soldiers on the ground and will attempt to make decisions based on this information, in conjunction with their experience. The sorts of things seen in Strike Witches are, naturally, not how things should always be conducted in reality, but the resulting message is simple enough – for the soldiers on the ground, sometimes, the orders won’t make sense, especially in the heat of the moment. Of course, Road to Berlin chooses this approach because its message is about following one’s heart can have positive consequences, and that individuals should, where permissible, follow their own hearts.
The other element resulting from Road to Berlin‘s finale that will likely invite discussion is whether or not Yoshika was justified in getting her magic back just in time to carry out a pivotal play that results in Wolf’s destruction: the answer to this is a simple, and resounding yes. The constraints and extent of magic in Strike Witches have never really been vigorously defined within the series, and what’s possible or not depends precisely on what the story requires. While Strike Witches as a whole does make use of real-world hardware and feature historical figures, this cannot (and should not) be taken as a sign that Strike Witches was ever intended to be realistic. Stories are written to convey a specific idea, not adhere religiously to reality: that there are real-world elements in Strike Witches simply serves as a world-building exercise and make it clear what humanity has to work with. In the context of Road to Berlin, Yoshika’s magic disappearing and returning simply is a metaphor for her own feelings about the 501st, specifically, that she cares greatly for those around her, enough to create miracles on the strength of these feelings alone. This concept is certainly not new to anime: the psychoframe in Mobile Suit Gundam was written with a similar premise in mind. As such, there isn’t a particular need to begrudge Yoshika for being able to pull off such feats anymore than there is a need to try and find counterarguments against the execution in Road to Berlin. From a narrative and story perspective, Road to Berlin delivers the classic Strike Witches experience – featuring the 501st, Road to Berlin very much takes off after its predecessors in terms of structuring and themes. Messages of friendship, teamwork and trust are at the forefront of Road to Berlin, and while the series has never dealt with anything more complex, Strike Witches always excelled at putting things together for a visual spectacle. Unlike its predecessors, however, Road to Berlin is more open about its messages, having the characters precisely spell out their intentions, and a consequence of this communication, viewers are given a chance to enjoy classic 501st interactions with a modernised spin on things.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Road to Berlin‘s finale begins in a grim enough manner: the Neuroi have focused fire on the flak tower, causing it to yield. These massive fortifications were historically so notoriously durable that even the largest Soviet gun, the 203 mm howitzer, failed to do any appreciable damage to their surface walls. Conversely, the Neuroi’s sustained beams are able to collapse one of the walls. One of the soldiers hits the roof armed with an MP-40, feeling that even it is a pointless gesture, he’d rather go down fighting, and I believe it marks the first time I’ve ever seen an ordinary soldier defeating a Neuroi: his shots puncture one of the drone’s cores, destroying it.
- Shizuka’s Striker Unit suffered from damage and is no longer able to make the tunnel flight: she’s ordered to stay behind while the remainder of the 501st head underground, entering the Berlin U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn, literally “underground rail”). The U-Bahn began construction in 1910, and in the 1930s, was given an expansion dubbed the Großprofil, which added north-south stations. Seeing their derelict state in Road to Berlin brought to mind the Geisterbahnhöfe of the Cold War: when Berlin was split into East and West, U-Bahn lines belonging to West Berlin were prohibited from stopping at stations underneath East Berlin, and these stations were subsequently sealed off, creating a surreal environment. Since the Cold War ended, most of these Ghost Stations were re-opened and put back into service.
- Shizuka notices a lone B-17 headed into Berlin and is brought on board. Mio and Ursula are also present, and Ursula suggests using the B-17’s fuel-air explosives payload to probe the Neuroi’s shell, which has insofar resisted all damage. However, the bombs’ calibration are off, and so, they initially deal no damage to the shell, exploding too early to have an appreciable impact. Back underground, the 501st continue to navigate after a caved-in section of the tunnels forces them to divert. With Gertrude’s brute strength allowing them to open up new passages, and Minna using her magic to navigate, the 501st find themselves in a titanic underground cavern.
- It turns out that Wolf had been constructing a vast city-like structure for itself: the city immediately brought to mind Albert Speer’s plans for Berlin: dubbed Germania, this was a part of Adolf Hitler’s plans to completely rebuild the German capital in his vision for a thousand-year Reich. At the heart of Germania would be the Volkshalle, a massive domed building Hitler intended to be the heart of his Third Reich, a place where citizens would pay deference to him. Such a city was only ever planned: when World War Two started, Hitler ordered all resources to be redirected towards the war effort, and while demolitions had begun in some areas, the project was stopped.
- Gertrude remarks that Germania was the design of a Karlsland Emperor in-universe, suggesting that Karlsland might have once had ambitions to at least create a massive city rivalling those of ancient Greek or Roman cities. The parallels between Wolf’s interior city and Germania are immediately apparent: this callout was to suggest that Wolf’s grip on Karlsland is an analogue to Hitler’s grip on Germany during the time of the Third Reich, and in Strike Witches, the Neuroi’s presence is what prompted humanity to set aside their differences. Witches have mentioned it is possible, were it not for the Neuroi, humanity would’ve been entangled in its own bitter conflicts.
- Because the Volkshalle was the centrepiece of Germania, it is therefore unsurprising that Wolf’s core must be concealed within the Neuroi’s impressions of Volkshalle. Minna immediately orders the Witches to concentrate all of their firepower on this large structure. As they begin dealing damage to the outer layers, Wolf realises what’s happening and sends all of the drones to the dome’s subterranean sections. The damage being dealt is also enough to thin the dome enough for communications signals to get through: Minna is able to get in touch with Mio and explain the situation using Sanya’s communication magic to amplify the signal.
- It was hilarious that even during a fight against a hive, Eila still has time to worry about Minna getting too close to Sanya. Of course, Minna is doing this purely for practicality’s sake, but Eila has no way of knowing. This was a rather fun moment that lightened things up, and indeed, Road to Berlin‘s hive fight never had the same outrageous moments as seen in the first two seasons, being much more in line with the hive fight seen in Brave Witches.
- Sustained fire from the Witches eventually causes the central Volkshalle to collapse, and the resulting damage thins the dome again. Despite being a hive, Wolf never did feel quite as intimidating as the previous hives did. This was largely a consequence of being familiar with Strike Witches and how the series unfolds: since I know precisely how things would end, there was never any question of what the outcomes would be. Thus, regardless of what the hive could pull off, the conclusion would always be the same, and so, I never once felt that the Witches were in any imminent mortal peril.
- With only a single bomb left, Shizuka is given permission to sortie in the Shinden and manually detonate the bomb by firing on it once it gets within range. The Shinden was specifically designed for Yoshika’s use, having a much higher magic consumption rate and corresponding output because it had been specially designed for Yoshika. Despite struggling with its operation, Shizuka manages to keep up, following the bomb closely and setting it off at the required altitude. The resulting blast opens a hole in the Neuroi’s dome, and with no time to lose, Shizuka enters the hole against Mio’s orders.
- When Yoshika notices a Witch flying towards the dome, she picks up the soldier’s discarded MP-40 and begins firing. Chambered for the 9 mm Parabellum round, the MP-40 submachine gun was a popular weapon amongst German soldiers, who found it a reliable weapon for the most part. Erica is seen using an MP-40 during Strike Witches: The Movie, switching over to it once her MG-42 ran dry. The MP-40’s only real shortcoming was the fact that its magazine design made it prone to jamming: it was only loosely connected to the weapon, and misalignments would result if care wasn’t taken.
- Yoshika holds the MP-40 correctly, gripping the front at the magazine housing. Soldiers who used the magazine as a foregrip would inadvertently pull the magazine lip back from the feed, causing the weapon to fail, and soldiers were told to either hold the magazine housing or the handle underneath the barrel. In general, clutching the magazine while using a firearm is a bad idea: even if gripping the magazine doesn’t cause malfunctions, the magazine is housing what is essentially explosives. Magazines can explode if abused, and it does not take an active imagination to figure out what happens to one’s hand in this scenario.
- When Yoshika runs dry on the MP-40, it seems she’s doomed to be deep-fried. However, intent on protecting Yoshika, Shizuka had managed to enter the dome before the Neuroi fully sealed the hole. She makes it just in time to shield Yoshika from certain death. Relieved that Yoshika is okay, Shizuka immediately takes off and begins to thin out the Neuroi drones in the skies above. It was rewarding to see Shizuka being able to fulfill her end of the promise to protect Yoshika, and by this point in Road to Berlin, it is clear that Yoshika’s blasé attitude surrounding orders have rubbed off on Shizuka.
- While Shizuka is no longer the freshmen she once was, the ferocity and danger posed by the hives cannot be understated: despite managing to destroy almost all of the remaining drones in the sky on her own, Shizuka fails to dodge a beam from the remaining drone. Moments before her bullets destroy it, she takes a fatal hit from the beam and tumbles to the ground, grievously injured. In any other series, it’d be curtains for Shizuka: every detail about this instance would suggest that Shizuka is close to death.
- Shizuka’s fortune lies in the fact that she’s in Strike Witches: I’ve never seen a Witch die on-screen before, and even in the worst of situations, Witches always seem to manage to escape by the seat of their pantsu. With Shizuka sustaining such an injury, Yoshika desperately tries to activate her healing magic; Shizuka is losing blood fast and is beyond the help of conventional medicine. However, nothing happens: Shizuka continues to bleed out, and her eyes begin closing.
- With the thoughts of losing a dear friend on her mind, Yoshika succumbs to raw emotion, letting out a terrifying scream. The weight of her emotions reactivates her magic, flooding the area in a warm light. Shizuka’s wounds close, and she stablises. I imagine that this will be the subject of no small discussion for at least a few weeks to come, but for me, I will not be giving this too much thought. The reasoning behind this is that Strike Witches has never specified what constraints govern how magic in this universe works. Much as how J.R.R. Tolkien never explicitly defined what the Maiar and Valar‘s powers were, the precise nature of magic in Strike Witches is still very much a black box.
- All that is known, for instance, is that Gandalf was never meant to confront Sauron in a one-on-one, and so, the scope of both his and Sauron’s magic simply didn’t need to be explored, because the theme of Lord of the Rings wasn’t about who had better magic. Similarly, in Road to Berlin, the presence of magic is only to drive the idea that there are different ways of helping people, and that camaraderie is an immeasurably powerful force. Understanding why a work was presented the way it was is key to enjoying its themes, and I’ve long found that plot holes can be dealt with more elegantly (by means of reasoning and an open mind) than incomplete or unsatisfactory themes (which are much harder to explain away).
- With her powers online, Yoshika transforms into a one-Witch army, soloing more or less the entire swarm of drones Wolf has thrown at her. Throwing up massive shields, and multiple shields at once, there are points where Yoshika doesn’t even fire her weapon, using her magic to wreak havoc on an hitherto unseen scale. Realising the damage Yoshika stands to deal, Wolf sends all of its remaining drones upstairs, and Minna realises that following them will allow them to find a way out. Eila and Sanya finish off the Volkshalle before joining the others.
- As Yoshika greets the 501st, who are relieved to find her okay, they look down to see Patton and Shizuka in fine spirits. I do wonder what the real George S. Patton would’ve thought of his likeness being used in a magical girl anime three-quarters of a century after his time. Historically, Patton was a very fiery character known for his vulgar tongue but generally effective mode of command. It is only through anime that such a sight is possible, and the pair signal to the 501st that they’re alright.
- However, the fight to liberate Berlin is not over yet; Wolf clearly understands it is on the back foot, and it extracts all remaining drones from underground to form a massive floating city built in Germania’s image. In any other series, this floating city would be a foe of terrifying power, but again, with the 501st, there hardly seems to be an enemy that the Witches together can’t defeat. While Wolf is unique in its ability to assemble different structures, ranging from small drones to an entire city.
- Bradley manages to reach Minna and informs her that with Wolf now in the open, Berlin’s as good as theirs once they destroy it. The Witches thus commence their final assault on Wolf: set to the ending theme, there was never any doubt as to what the outcome would be; in works of fiction, the use of certain songs typically indicates that a battle’s outcome is foregone. This isn’t always true, but with only a few minutes left in Road to Berlin‘s finale, it became evident that the Witches were not going to encounter any more surprises in their fight against Wolf.
- While Wolf remains quite dangerous, the victory has never felt closer for the 501st, who tear into the Neuroi with everything they’ve got. Wolf’s physical appearance differs dramatically from that of Gregori, which was itself different from previous hives seen in Strike Witches: it would appear that Neuroi hives all differ in appearance, so no two hive battles would ever be the same. It is not lost on me that leadership elements in Strike Witches have changed considerably since the first season: Generals Patton and Bradley were helpful allies keen on helping the Witches out here in Road to Berlin, but I remember a time when military brass imagined it to be a good idea to place their faith in untested technologies that proved even more variable than the Neuroi during the first and second seasons.
- When Wolf begins sustaining serious damage, its bell-shaped core attempts to escape yet again. It begins rising into the atmosphere at a prodigious speed, and even Charlotte says she’s unable to accelerate quickly enough to catch up. However, with her unnatural power, Yoshika manages to reach the bell-shaped core and projects a powerful shield to slow it down. Minna, Gertrude and Erica press forwards with their MG-42s, shredding the outer casing and exposing the core.
- With the core now exposed, Minna fires the remaining bullets that crack the core open: credit for this kill thus goes to Minna, although to be sure, it was most definitely a team effort that allowed for this victory to result. With its core destroyed, Wolf is neutralised, and the grim clouds covering Berlin dissipate. The light of a warm afternoon bathes the land in a gentle light, and the Witches slowly take in the fact that they’ve now completed their mission in full.
- As the darkness gives way to light, Berlin can be seen below. I imagine that for Road to Berlin, the city below was probably drawn as a static background, and then the Witches’ movements were overlaid on top to create a sense of scale. While more challenging than animating a battle over the ocean, the end result is much more impressive from a visual standpoint, all the more so when sunlight begins shining over the liberated Berlin.
- With Road to Berlin‘s outcome, I imagine that a handful of viewers will complain that Yoshika’s power takes the fun out of Strike Witches, that her magic coming back is purely deus ex machina, that the 501st would be more enjoyable to watch without her, et cetera. However, I contend that Yoshika seems most similar to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man in that both characters were written to accommodate a particular idea. As Ip Man, Yen only ever draws fights at worst, and does not lose even when the odds were stacked against him; Ip Man pulls victories and second winds from nowhere as the story demands, and while certainly not plausible, much less realistic, it does emphasise the film’s themes.
- Strike Witches does something similar with Yoshika: she’s precisely as powerful as the series needs her to be, and in having her magic (only somewhat) unexpectedly return in Road to Berlin, the series intended to really drive home the point that things like fellowship prevail over adversity, without fail. I’ve never really found arguments against Yoshika to be too convincing: the overt displays of power in the series have always been a visual metaphor for willpower, and accepting that this is core to Strike Witches is essential to finding enjoyment in this series.
- Road to Berlin‘s soundtrack released earlier today, and having had a chance to listen to it in full, I found that the slice-of-life pieces to be my favourite pieces of incidental music. “Magical Girl Alps”, “Feelings of the Still Summer”, “Chasing Dreams”, “Time to Rest” and “Sadness of the Still Summer” capture a sense of wistfulness in Road to Berlin that the vast blue skies always seem to convey. While the training and combat pieces are enjoyable, I’ve always found that the best music in Strike Witches and Brave Witches were in the more relaxing-sounding songs, as these usually corresponded with slice-of-life moments.
- For Erica, Gertrude and Minna, the victory over Wolf is still sinking in. As shards of the defeated hive fall from the skies, there is no immediate celebration, just relief that they were able to take back Berlin together. In the series’ aftermath, the Witches head down to Berlin and begin helping out with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. Even though there is a lot of work that remains, the Witches are all smiles. I’ve got no screenshots from these moments, since they overlap with the end credits. I imagine that in the future, a home release could see a creditless sequence.
- With this Road to Berlin finale post in the books, I will note now that writing this series on the same day as the episodes aired was a tricky one, and it was only thanks to unique circumstances that I was able to keep up with things in a timely fashion. Under normal conditions, I certainly would not have been able to write for Road to Berlin and GochiUsa: BLOOM in a punctual manner. Having said this, this blog is only run by one individual, and this season had demonstrated that, while I am able to keep up with two series in an episodic manner, it is a very exhausting process. I do hope that readers enjoyed following my thoughts on Road to Berlin this season: consistently putting out posts means that I had to always find novel and interesting things to say, lest posts become dull very quickly.
- Once the end credits finish rolling, the 501st head for their next assignment, leaving the future of Strike Witches free for a continuation. With Road to Berlin now in the books, I have no qualms giving this series an A- (3.7 of 4.0, or 8.5 of 10): Road to Berlin represents the third season of Strike Witches that I’ve been waiting for since it was announced that a new season featuring the 501st would be in the works after Vividred Operation concluded. With the right combination of classic Strike Witches elements and a new maturity stemming from successes seen in works like Brave Witches and Operation Victory Arrow, Road to Berlin takes the viewers on a familiar journey that nonetheless differentiates itself from its predecessors. Throughout the course of Road to Berlin, I became increasingly fond of Shizuka, as well: it was excellent to see her become a full-fledged member of the 501st after her adventure began in Strike Witches: The Movie.
With the epilogue in Road to Berlin, the path is cleared for future adventures – Road to Berlin leaves open the idea that the 501st could return in the future, but having now seen three seasons of the venerable 501st in combat and off duty, it would be a nice change of pace to see other Witch squadrons: Yoshika, Lynette, Perrine, Charlotte, Francesca, Minna, Gertrude, Erica, Sanya and Eila are all interesting characters in their own right, but since the Strike Witches universe has demonstrated the depth and breadth of its world, especially through something like Brave Witches, I find that it would be worthwhile to explore other squadrons, as well. It is evident that the Strike Witches franchise isn’t going anywhere anytime soon: even with the 501st’ tremendous victory in Berlin, sections of Karlsland remain under occupation from Neuroi forces, and as Yoshika puts it, there’s no rest for the weary. After overseeing repair efforts in Berlin and enjoying the triumph that puts the Karlsland capital back in Allied hands, it’s onwards to the next mission. Because Strike Witches is set in an alternate history, the story could be continued almost indefinitely: if the Human-Neuroi War is protracted, parallels between the Korean War, Vietnam and the Gulf War might be explored as humanity advances Jet Strikers to a point where they become as effective as modern jet aircraft. Even if the Human-Neuroi war were to end, there are plenty of other squadrons to write about, and the World War One parallel similarly offers much material that can be presented. It becomes apparent that, 501st or not, the Strike Witches universe is vast, just waiting to be explored. However, in the meantime, with the eight year wait finally over, I can say that Road to Berlin delivers Strike Witches‘ third season in style, striking a fine balance between being faithful to elements seen in the originals, while at the same time, making use of lessons from the earlier seasons to build a more compelling and engaging universe. In this department, Road to Berlin has certainly succeeded: I have no qualms recommending this series to anyone who enjoy Strike Witches, although newcomers may find Road to Berlin to be a bit tricky to accept on account of the lack of pants, even if the series has dialed things back considerably from the earliest days of Strike Witches.