Whuh oh, hold up a second.
This isn’t just a lewdness warning,
this is a gore warning.
This series features heavy themes (such as sexual abuse),
nudity, generally offensive content, and extreme violence.
It is very and quite simply not safe for work.
If you are pure of heart, or don’t have the stomach for gore,
you may want to turn back.
The week continues, now with a review of the dark fantasy action manga Berserk (ベルセルク) by Miura Kentaro (三浦建太郎), probably the largest contributing factor to how long it’s been since the last article on this site (it’s long, I’m slow).
Alright, this has to be the most popular thing I’ve talked about and recommended, right? Not only is it popular in Japan, it’s incredibly popular in the West. This is a just plain well-known, well-liked, generally highly regarded series. Even people who don’t like anime or manga tend to like it. Hmmm…
Hm. “Mostly”. Past-me has my bases covered.
I would mainly like to use this site to recommend things people don’t know about, so writing about Berserk shouldn’t be something I’d be inclined to do, but as with WataMote or even more appropriately Grand Blue, why I’d like to talk about it basically has to do with what I consider to be common perception as well as my own (rather elitist) perception. I personally really did not care to read Berserk years ago before I decided to say screw it and start reading. Let’s get the basics out of the way for what I believe most people believe Berserk is (about):
- Has a lot of rape.
- Has a lot of violence.
- Something something Eclipse.
- Griffith (shouted at length and at volume).
- Dat art tho.
Maybe throw in something about hiatuses, a boat, and Idolmaster and that should cover your bases. If you’ve looked over the things I read and talk about and share, you may have noticed this is not the sort of thing I particularly care for. I’m just not big into dark fantasy; don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones either (in fact, I really loathed it in my attempts to read/watch). But, Berserk is not what I thought I’d signed up for. If you are like I was and thought Berserk was too popular to possibly be any good, or sounded too dark, or sounded like immature BS, please consider reading all the words I’m about to write about why that is not true, and that if anything the biggest strength of Berserk is that it is a beautifully written tragedy with heavy character-focus and a strong, consistent theme of “fate”.
Although this series is so well known that it’s actually hard to not know what happens in it, I won’t actually get into specifics regarding it beyond the premise, and will instead talk around its plot while skirting most details. I’ll be giving you a basic idea of the story, essentially: the protagonist Guts’s childhood and eventual meeting with the infamous Griffith, and the direction it generally heads in. Along the way as well I’ll hopefully be gushing over it the entire time. I am very happy with myself for having decided to read this, and honestly even more so for having read the whole thing twice. Yes it’s violent, and yes it’s dark. SURPRISINGLY, there isn’t all that much rape (let alone sex) in it, and even more surprisingly (in my opinion), it actually explores the awful reality of sexual assault PTSD terribly well. I think above all else, Berserk has excellent writing, although I can’t deny it: it’s an incredibly awesome action series to boot, marked by raw, desperate, over the top and by the skin of one’s teeth battles that seriously get your blood pumping. I mean, real crazy stuff happens in them too. Hot damn, it’s excellent.
Berserk is the story of Guts, who we follow from birth. Or rather, while that’s true, we don’t start from the moment he was born.
The start is misleading.
I don’t mean the beginning of this manga in general, which I have a lot of praise for: I mean how the first three pages are dedicated to Guts fucking a woman who turns out to be a demon, and he uses the opportunity of her thinking she’s got him to blow off her head with his prosthetic arm cannon.
The arm cannon part is pretty consistent, but absolutely not the “Guts having sex at all” part. Frankly, I’ve always seen this introduction to the series to be a huge misrepresentation, and it actually paused my attempts several times before I actually decided to read it. Not for nothing, but I am absolutely no prude. I just thought it was dumb and cliche and no sir, I did not care for it. In retrospect it really seems hugely out of character, even for this period in Guts’s life (which we will soon learn is really very dark and low). He never does anything like this again, and given his past I see why. Uh. Ignore it? I honestly feel like this opener was just an attempt to grab attention, especially given the time it released (1989).
When you get to the eighth page of the series, you receive this (after having seen his butt on the previous page). This is Puck, an “elf” (not a fairy, allegedly). I was surprised that Puck was here on my first read, and more surprised at his role. Miura loves comic relief, and pretty much refuses to not have it unless there’s a very miserable scene occurring. Puck is largely the designated character for that once he decides to follow Guts after being rescued by him. The impression I’d gathered was that Berserk had about nothing cute or funny about it at all, until later when Miura got addicted to Idolmaster and the series became cutesy, but… No, nope: it is as it is pretty much from the word go and to the latest chapters. It’s a dark series with very silly comedy sprinkled in so it’s not so unbearably dark.
Anyway, in case you didn’t already know the common things most everyone knows about Berserk, the first three volumes tell you almost everything deliberately.
Guts, “The Black Swordsman”, spends the first three volumes hunting and killing two specific humans-turned-monster known as “apostles”. They’re extremely strong and they are cannibals. Through hunting them, he hopes to find out a way to use this thing
a behelit, which he says can summon something called “The God Hand”, and grant the one who summoned them demonhood in exchange for a sacrifice. Guts is very angry about the God Hand, a group of what seem to be five particularly powerful apostles. For that matter, he is also very angry about apostles, and goes through incredibly great lengths to kill them (and they are said to be unkillable).
We learn that he is branded, which means that somebody chose to sacrifice him to the demonic God Hand, and his fate is to die and/or be swallowed by this lovely thing.
Not to mention random ghosts and demons will try to kill him or possess him throughout the night, forcing him to barely ever sleep. Other than that, we learn he used to be the best friend of someone named Griffith, and that Griffith is the one who marked him for sacrifice. We even see a glimpse of the infamous Eclipse! And we see that Griffith, now the God Hand “Femto”, is a lot different now than what he was like in Guts’s memories (he’s a callous asshole now).
Well, to put it simply: you learn a lot.
As I read this the first time, I really enjoyed the introduction to Berserk. It’s simple, and despite all the things we find out, it’s doled out effectively over three volumes, interspersed with mad and intense action.
Guts seems likable. He’s an asshole himself, but it’s obvious a lot of this is an act (though, yes, a lot of it isn’t). After all, although he wants to be an unfeeling, cruel person who has no concerns for anyone, we see he is severely emotionally tormented by a particular goopy-looking monster that seeks him out both in reality and in nightmares, and several moments show that he doesn’t want to be the gruff jerk he makes himself out to be (culminating in the end of the first arc, which cements the idea that Guts is more than a Bad Dude with a Big Sword). More importantly, I think all this information is really worth something: it’s worth clearly establishing the idea of “fate” (or as the series likes to call it, “causality”). This is both for the story and, brilliantly, for the reader. Plus, it’s done in a much more subtle, almost insidious way than the original anime adaptation which says “hey fate is important” at the start of every single episode.
You learn a lot in Berserk‘s first three volumes, but you don’t learn everything. Because of that, as the series transitions into the well-known and much-heralded “Golden Age” arc, you will be reading with the worrying facts always in the back of your mind that:
- Guts will meet Griffith, and they will become loyal comrades.
- Griffith will betray Guts and sign him off to death in order to become a god, infuriating Guts so much he marches through hell to try and kill him.
- Despite this, Guts will survive being made into a sacrifice, which should be impossible for anyone branded.
In other words, Guts’s fate is sealed, and you know it. The chapters from hereon aren’t presented as a flashback either: it’s more of a second start to the manga, but now you have terrible foreknowledge to go with it. No matter what, it can’t be changed that things will go horribly, horribly wrong.
The Golden Age.
Our hero’s story truly begins as he is born from the corpse of his mother, who has been hanged along with several others at some grim tree. A mercenary band stumbles across him and presumes him dead, but then a touched woman named Shisu who is with the band picks him up. He coughs, cries, and look at that: he’s alive. The mercenaries want to leave him there, believing the tree to be cursed and thus he must be a cursed child, but Shisu won’t let him go. The boy, named Guts, is thus taken in. This whole idea might have made me think “jeeeez, how edgy” and want to roll my eyes but…
I won’t go into every specific detail, I will merely say that we see how Guts ends up eventually wielding fuck off gigantic swords in that, since he was able to pick a weapon up, he has been using swords his own size. Once he was able enough, his adoptive father Gambino put him on the battlefield to earn his keep, and since then he’s been swinging a sword through countless wars and fights, working as a mercenary. Unsurprisingly though, despite Guts being a real sweetheart and innocent child, things go terribly for him, he loses whatever “family” he had, and winds up alone — and not without earning a lot of really horrible, screwed up trauma to take with him into adulthood. He gets abused, and it’s all played straight. None of it feels contrived or done for the sake of feeling dark. It’s awful, believable, and it really makes you care for Guts as a person. Once again, long before even being branded, he has been known as a “cursed child”, and has managed to survive anything from plague, to war, to direct attempts on his life. But, realistically, it seriously takes quite a lot to break his spirit and turn him into something even vaguely resembling the character we see in the first three volumes. It frankly hurts to read.
Seeing the foundation of Guts’s character is great, and there’s something special about seeing him from the moment he entered this world. Throughout this series, we thoroughly know Guts. He’s our viewpoint into Berserk, and he’s the one we’re almost always following — and personally, I think it feels intimate and unique (insofar as, at least for me, I haven’t seen many stories that are told from the protagonist’s birth).
Eventually we see that Guts has spent a while as a lone mercenary, and that along with never getting friendly with anyone, he now has an extreme aversion to being touched. This is where he meets Griffith, and the story properly begins.
For a while from this point, you could say that Berserk is a Middle Ages style war story about Guts, a mercenary recruited by an incredibly charismatic leader who is his age and, shockingly, his equal in combat. Griffith is the commander of the up-and-coming Band of the Hawk (or, pretty sure it’s supposed to be “Falcon”, but… eh…), a group of skillful but young mercenaries. After his men find and try to kill Guts to get his bonus earnings from the latest battle, Griffith becomes especially fascinated with the young swordsman and decides that he “wants” Guts, and will recruit him no matter what.
Griffith gets what he wants by besting Guts in combat, and after a harrowing first sortie we see that Guts might be able to fit in well with the Band of the Hawk, in spite of everything that’s happened to him (and that some of them tried to kill him, and he killed them in defense). The manga proceeds, and seriously, you’re probably going to like Griffith. If not for his awesome moments in battle or his crazy political gambits, at the very least you’re probably going to like him because you can tell just how much he really likes Guts.
The Golden Age primarily establishes the fierce loyalty these two have for one another, as Guts learns to trust others again and Griffith learns to, well, basically truly love another person.
Unlike Guts, we are rarely privy to what Griffith is thinking, and instead have to figure him out from his actions (more than his words especially). From his words, and definitely his actions, we know that Griffith is extremely driven (even before he starts outright talking about DREAMS and AMBITION): he wants to have his own kingdom, despite his peasant birth. That said, he has a behelit — a special one — and we know both what that means and what he’ll do with it. Altogether his almost childish glee (there’s a particularly… let’s call it “wonderful” scene involving buckets for instance), his enthusiastic wickedness (when eventually he must enter the dark world of schemes and politics on his path to a kingdom), his skill with the sword, his well-spoken ways, his success as a strategist, and his total willingness to go above and beyond even for the littlest of guys among his group of mercs make it extremely clear why THIS man has gathered such an incredible following.
You can tell that along with a passion for his grandiose dream he is passionate about his men (and single woman, Casca, who I haven’t gotten into yet). That said, when I say “Griffith learns to truly love another person”, I mean that until he met Guts it seems he never really focused on somebody other than himself so strongly. He needs his little and eventually large mercenary band, and he appreciates every person in it, but he adores Guts, and really Guts adores him right back after long enough. Guts, the once-lone wolf, really does anything at Griffith’s beck and call, and furthermore you can tell they’re real bros. I honestly think the reason so many people love the Golden Age portion of Berserk is that you see why through all the years, and yet still know this is all going to break very, very badly somehow. You’ve got to ask “what the fuck happened?”, and you’ll learn, and it’ll make a disgusting amount of sense when you do, but just getting there is such a special kind of awful . That is horribly painful given how much you see Guts grow from a deeply hurt, antisocial person into a man who also would do anything for the Band of the Hawk, and especially his own men when he is eventually promoted to a commander of his own unit. Guts isn’t just some hardcore manly man: we’ve seen him cry and dude, it sucks.
I won’t spend much time on Casca, actually. I found it much more interesting as a first time reader only knowing she was a badass lady merc with a great design, and finding out everything she was really about on my own. It’s probably needless to say, but she’s a fantastic character along with Guts and Griffith. The rest of the Band of the Hawk is likable, sure, but none get the amount of attention and detail that Griffith, Guts, and Casca receive. I think the best thing about Casca is that she’s really complicated. She’s kind of like Griffith in that regard, in that her motivations can get all twisted up, and sometimes she’s not sure what she wants anymore. She’s a firecracker at any rate, and definitely a damn cool woman. Guts is pretty straightforward. What complicates him is his life’s story.
That said he has his own emotional complexity, and generally speaking Miura absolutely nails emotion throughout this series. He’s also often extremely subtle about it, and about pretty much anything. The series is soaking in subtext, meriting close reading, analysis, and discussion that regularly happens to this day with people questioning motivations, justifications, and moods characters have had since the series’ beginning. Even without specific examination, you’re going to largely understand how characters are feeling, and totally realize, though it’s gut-wrenching to do so, why things fall apart. There’s so much to this story, it is… I don’t know what else to say: just phenomenal. When “The Eclipse” happens, due to Miura’s masterful storytelling and character portrayal, it is highly likely that the ordeal will wreck you. And when Guts comes out of it, even if you too were swept up by that man’s charms along the way, even if you do understand why he did it, you are also very likely to roar and curse Griffith.
The worst thing about the Eclipse is that it is truly a tragedy in every sense of the word. You are likely to feel just as torn as Guts about Griffith after the fact.
When the Eclipse ends, the manga enters its next phase. Guts obtains his iconic Dragonslayer, becomes the Black Swordsman, and is now weighed with even more trauma, once more becoming alone and refusing the help or friendship of others. More importantly, something SUUUPER clever happens here. You see, now the Eclipse has happened. Now we don’t know where the story will go. In other words, Guts and the reader are no longer bound by fate, both actually and symbolically. Guts received a brand saying he would die at the hand of apostles or worse, but he didn’t. Guts himself is the representation of NOT following fate, while Griffith (who always owned a behelit that would one day cause everything) is firmly tied to fate and believes strongly in causality. Guts is too simple for an idea like “destiny”, and because of that he brute forces his way out of it through will and perseverance, almost like he always has. I don’t know if Miura deliberately set up the story to follow a fated outcome, have that outcome be subverted, and then in a meta move lead into a boundless story, but if he did then whew and MOTHERFUCKING BRAVO, MAN. I mean Jesus, who would even think of that!? I couldn’t think of that! It’s mindblowing. What a novel idea!
Now then for more praise, following the Eclipse is my favorite arc of the series: Lost Children, a story much like the first three volumes in that it focuses on Guts hunting down an apostle with Puck following along. It’s not very related to the rest of the story, but it really cements Guts as a character, for instance in how wrathful he can be. It portrays a full and terrible, bittersweet story from start to end, feels great, reads great, and has in my opinion the best fight of the series. Whole thing makes me tear up just thinking about it.
Lost Children has never been, and never will be, animated.
The series is officially dark fantasy from this point forth, as Guts now regularly faces off against ghosts, demons, and monsters. Not only apostles, either (the designs of which are entirely off the wall by the way): fantasy beings from various aspects of folklore as well. The worldbuilding becomes hugely elaborate at this point. Prior to the Eclipse the world feels small, and this is definitely deliberate. It’s a story that takes place in one kingdom at war, and there are no monsters beyond a few hints at a greater, more mysterious world that none of the Band of the Hawk know, or care to know. It’s pretty fun getting the hints as well with your knowledge of where the series goes. You see something or the characters mention something monstrous and you’re like AWWW SHIT, I KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS. Now it’s all monsters, and just one guy taking them on. At least a little while.
The world gets elaborated on a ton and I really enjoy it, because it feels like Miura did hell of research into ideas of old mysticism and fantasy, and I just plain find it fascinating and immersive. Aside from more worldbuilding, we also get more characters. This is where a lot of criticism toward Berserk these days comes from, but I (mostly) welcome the new cast that joins Guts and, unsurprisingly, begins to heal his wounded heart once more. I could do without this one thief-ish kid (though he has his moments), but every other character introduced so far has been a winner to me, and unlike during the Golden Age, absolutely every one of them gets elaboration, and it all ranges from pretty decent to wow, that sure is something. My favorite of the new characters is easily Shierke, a witch girl who lived a sheltered life until Guts and crew blustered their way into it. She’s adorable, powerful, smart, and though precocious she’s often immature. Her magic ranges from simple and useful to oh my god, awe-inspiring. Love Shierke!
Anyway I love Berserk in general. It’s a favorite, highly recommended. Something I hadn’t noticed but a friend pointed out: this series is long, so why aren’t you talking about that Terrence? I thought, oh, I guess it is long. I even commented on it being long at the start, but honestly I didn’t ever mind the daunting amount of content. Unlike with most long-runners, nothing in Berserk feels like it’s there just as filler or like it’s just an aside or something; everything in the manga has been pretty crucial to the overall plot and to the characters’ motivations and emotional states (even a few of the dumber things later on, and readers of the series probably know what I mean by “dumber things”). I never groaned about or even particularly noticed the amount to read because I kept getting more and more good stuff that was all worth reading. The series is simply very, very… compelling. It’s no wonder complaints about the somewhat regular hiatuses it experiences are so loud and so apparent, because people want to see where the story will go, and due to the aforementioned lack-of-fate, who knows? Well… by now we can guess.
You want criticism? Miura switched to digital drawing in the last few years and he isn’t completely good at it yet (as of the latest chapter (it’s July, 2018) it’s gotten pretty good again). Also, overall the comedy is hit and miss, and there’s definitely an over-reliance on weird references to reality outside of the comic, goddamn it Puck. That’s it. This series is superb, no wonder everyone says you should go read it already if you haven’t. Great action that gets even more wild and creative once fantasy is upped to eleven (have I mentioned how I like that Guts is really, really fast despite swinging such a large weapon? Cause I do), intriguing story that begs you to keep reading it, and the characters. Aaahhh man the characters, The cast is really what makes this manga.
Now is a GREAT time to pick up the series, as big things are happening and Miura has been taking… LESS breaks. Definitely consider buying it, but uh… it’s almost 40 volumes now and well, I don’t blame you if you hesitate, especially hesitating over owning 40 volumes of a manga physically.
Personally I own the volumes containing Lost Children physically, and over time I’m slowly buying the digital volumes because all at once purchasing Berserk would be a horrible idea for me. Purchasing options below! Official English volumes are almost entirely caught up (presently just one volume behind).
Thank you for reading my redundant review; hopefully my perspective was worth something to you, and if you had been put off by your ideas of Berserk, you’ll now reconsider. Next and last review of the week is for Tonari no Seki-kun. Remember that one? I do! If you don’t, I’m gonna MAKE you remember!
See ya then!
Rest in peace, Miura-sensei. I loved it.