In the first part of my now three part blog on Berserk, which is the greatest thing ever, I detailed my growing disenchantment with the current state of anime and manga. Not only its current penchant for pernicious pervy fan service becoming the sad and depressing focus of the medium but also the current spate of pretentious and visually overwrought ‘slice of life’ genre that is the utter bane of my existence (with a few notable exceptions, to be fair). If you want to know why I feel these things, go read the first part of this blog here.
This chapter of the blog is going to partly deliver on the premise for this series of articles and (to some extent) outline what it is that makes Berserk so special to me. I’m going to try and keep this concise, although I imagine that my observations may morph into an apostle-like abomination ere its transformation is complete. If you understand that reference, good on you. You are a Berserk fan. If you don’t follow, then you need to become a Berserk fan before you’re consigned to the scrap heap of wasted human effort.
What makes it the best thing ever? There are a number of elements the series possesses that all work in conjunction with one another to create something that is wholly greater than the sum of its already considerable parts. German people and snobs describe this phenomenon as gestalt (greater than the sum of its parts). Each of these elements is, on its own, enough to build a compelling narrative around, but Miura adds these components together with so much nuance and context, so much life and passion, that it becomes a transcendent work of art; sublime, majestic, gut wrenching and terrifying in its resolve to entertain you by giving your brain and heart what they need. Berserk is the king of storytelling, its tragic and horrifying parts more threatening and upsetting and the feel good beats more rewarding and satisfying.
Berserk is, in the simplest of terms, a ‘dark fantasy’ story, with much of the series’ history with roots firmly planted in a feudal pseudo-European setting circa the middle ages. If you’ve ever watched The Tudors or Game of Thrones, you have the most cursory (however functional) idea of the setting pre-Eclipse (an event that changes everything you know about the story). There are armies, cavalry, archers, foot soldiers with pikes and crossbows, that sort of thing. When people aren't waging war, there are political intrigues, backstabbing, social divisions between the affluent and the peasantry and so forth. In fact, the series’ chief antagonist’s ambition to rule is the fulcrum on which the entirety of Berserk hinges.
As for why Berserk is ‘dark fantasy’ and not merely a fictional costume drama set in a feudal era, well that’s because of the pervasive and eventually all-encompassing introduction of the supernatural. I am skimming over the concept hard here,but there are three dimensions that overlap with one another; the realms of humans, monsters and faeries. These three dimensions rarely cross over. When the occasional convergence occurs and people see spirits or creatures, either benevolent or harmful, this is where legends and folk tales find their inspiration. But something big is happening with the monsters and their rulers, known collectively as the God Hand, are seeking to bring all three worlds together. Why? You think I’ll tell you? Go read it!
And, well, it eventually happens. With disastrous consequences, as one might imagine, for the squishy denizens of the human realm. See, people are nothing more than food to be eaten by the monsters, who feast not only on the succulent flesh of the comparatively weak human species but also on the sorrow and despair in their souls as they meet their grisly fates. Think of it like sucking the tasty marrow out of the bones after gnawing off all the delicious meat.
Yeah, this is nightmare fuel.
Keep in mind, I am just BARELY touching on the surface of Berserk’s essence with this nuts-and-bolts summary. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but I really want to try to limit my examination to manageable lengths so this is what you get for now.
1.) The Characters
Every character in Berserk is complex. Even bitter thugs like Corkus, who you’d think are nothing more than foils for the major players, have deeply rooted motivations which inform every action, reaction and comment that comes from them. Corkus, in fact, is a really great example of how Miura gets us to understand the cast on a more intuitive level, thereby helping to give them body and breadth. This is important, because by grounding your characters in believable motivations and responses, they become a living ensemble, capable of making their own decisions and suffering the consequences of their actions.
Keeping with Corkus as the case study, his relationship with Guts is antagonistic. Corkus looks down on Guts despite his strength and prowess as a nearly unparalleled warrior. Their first meeting was contentious, to say the least, and ever since then Corkus’ constant griping, while not a true obstacle to Guts' progression, serves to remind audiences that no matter how often one proves their worth or how meritorious their service may be, sometimes haters gonna hate.
But Corkus’ disdain isn’t merely bitterness or avarice to create tension. No one believes for a second that this inept oaf could ever do anything to hinder Guts. Rather, when he speaks, it’s from a position of entitlement and arrogance born of his own ambition. The closer he gets to realizing his dreams of becoming a ‘made man’ in the country of
(a landed noble), the more he acts like one.
There is a breaking point in the story where Guts performs a service for
Griffith that irrevocably
changes the dynamic between them, and when the former finally decides to set off
on his own in order to discover himself, Corkus is waiting for the
opportunity to tell him off.
This isn’t just a last shot he’s taking at Guts but a legitimate frustration over what he believes is the swordsman’s lack of foresight. For as long as he’s been a mercenary, Corkus has been striving towards the goal of an easy life after spilling so much blood on the battlefield. Its almost admirable; despite his irritating demeanor; Corkus, like many of us, believes that hard work eventually pays off. He believes Guts is wasting his deserved reward in favor of going right back into the thick of mortal peril, a decision he can’t make sense of. Most normal people wouldn’t be able to, either. This makes him relatable to us; even if we don't like Corkus, he makes sense.
Where Corkus really works, however, isn’t in his believable motivations or attitude. Corkus’ reactions are a solid bed for the other characters to play off of, thus further defining each of them to the audience.
Griffith disregards Corkus’ surly nature, thus establishing him as a commander that ably assess the value of his resources. Casca
finds Corkus insubordinate, disrespectful of Griffith’s intentions and a general louse,
and her stern interaction with him shows how seriously she takes
her self appointed role as Griffith's right hand. No matter how many times Corkus
spews at the mouth, Rickert is always shocked at his forthright nature,
establishing the young man’s near impenetrable shell of optimism. Judeau takes Corkus in stride with a wry grin and a casual shrug, cementing his easy going nature as one of his defining
traits. And Guts is often contemplative
whenever Corkus lights into him, as though he’s legitimately considering whether or not the
angry mercenary is right about him.
It is, in fact, Corkus’ ambition that brings Guts into the fold early on in the Golden Age arc. Or rather,
recognizing that Corkus’ impetuous nature can be used to further his own ambitions and permits him to try to waylay Guts on the road. Of course, Griffith then sets Casca on ‘Corkus watch’ shortly
thereafter to make sure he doesn’t get himself killed. Corkus is thrilled at the chance to engage in some good old fashioned banditry,
Casca is irritated at Corkus for being such a boor while at the same time
honoring her self sworn duty, and Griffith
uses them both effectively to set up the endgame he desires. If Griffith
doesn’t show he values his people by intervening at just the right moment, Guts
doesn’t get exactly the impression Griffith
wants to convey.
This degree of character complexity and depth can be found in almost every single person in the pages of Berserk. Even seemingly archetypal individuals such as the proud Count Yurius and the cunning Minister Foss display a range of emotions and attitude that are products of their environment, their views and their goals. To look at players a little further along in the story line, the bandit Wylde, the fierce warrior Zodd or the fanatical Mozgus, all supernatural villains Guts faces at one point or another, have things they want to do and are striving towards achieving them in believable ways that are true to their own nature and the setting. By the time events have brought these wonderfully detailed characters together, Miura knows exactly how to handle them, never losing sight of what makes any of them tick. There is a meticulous attention to ensuring that every verbal exchange or action, even when violent in nature, is a natural result of these dynamic personalities coming together.
Berserk is on a tragically short list of fiction that manage to accomplish true character depth. It masterfully avoids descending into stereotyped reactions, mechanical plot advancement and lazy progression. Even the slightest hints of the harem genre in Berserk, such as Farnese and Shierke both recognizing they have some affection for Guts, are well handled. They’re grounded not in the writer’s projection of trite sexual appeal onto the protagonist, but in setting up characters to have fully fleshed out back stories, well constructed personalities and deep rooted motivations. Miura organically brings them all into play by simply letting the characters inhabit the same panels and allowing them to work it out either through internal monologues or direct exchanges.
2.) The setting
Berserk, as I’ve stated, is a dark fantasy story that takes place in world overrun by monsters. Its most recognized and best regarded arc, however, is the Golden Age, which is the ostensible origin story of the series, and takes place in a more traditionally established medieval setting before everything goes, almost literally, to hell. In the Golden Age arc, the characters are all mercenaries in the Band of the Hawk, led by
Griffith with cunning
strategy and ruthless efficiency.
They are hired by the king of
Midland as a unit to help them in their 100
years long struggle with the neighboring realm of Chuder. Because of the sociopolitical landscape, there are nobles, knights, soldiers, castles, peasants, maidens,
princesses, war, bloodshed, violence and death.
There is medieval intrigue, factionalism and cronyism at play,
all set against the epic backdrop of a war that seemingly has no end, where men
fight and die at the end of a spear and are cut down by sword and axe.
As the story goes on, the fantasy elements are gradually introduced and become more prevalent, we start to see the desperation that drives some to unconscionable decisions and personal compromises for the sake of achieving ambition. The cruelty and inhospitable nature of a medieval politics continually affect the characters' lives, from the imperious expectations of lords used to having their way to the twisted depravity of torturers given full sanction to exact information and inflict pain without limitations or supervision. The suffering of the common man is brought to light in chapters following the Golden Age, caught in the perpetual purgatory of either hiding in fear from the dangers that lurk in the shadows or taking sanctuary behind walls built by monsters they know all too well.
One might ask why a medieval setting is so much better than others for this kind of story. Surely, you might posit, these developments and challenges can all find an allegory in a modern or futuristic environment. I’d respond by saying that every fictional setting plays to the strengths and shortcomings of a given cast and narrative, and I believe that this group of characters, with this set of goals, hopes and dreams, is best served in a feudal fantasy environment.
Griffith’s ambitions are
all the more compelling here not only because of the things he wants but
because of the obstacles that face him in this type of world.
The pageantry of the ceremony, the spoils reaped by the victor, the romance of one’s ambition to live in yon distant ivory spires atop majestic castles, the horror of facing powerful monsters in the deepest depths of ancient ruins long forsaken by man…Miura knows how to masterfully use the setting to provide believable and immersive limitations to overcome. Every epaulet, pauldron and rondel, every lobster mailed gauntlet, every barbed pike, every throwing knife bandolier, every crossbow, every feathered helm helps to espouse and enhance the circumstances the heroes find themselves in.
But then, there’s this important event called the Eclipse and the landscape of the series is forever changed. Guts’ world goes from being one of blueblood intrigues and wars for territory to a monster infested realm where danger looms at every turn and the mortality of men is exposed for the frailty that it is. There is still a society, but it’s very much in decline as order gradually gives way to outlawry and dystopian anarchy. Because of the circumstances of his survival following this seismic shift, he is hunted by monsters that can find him at night and torment him from dusk until dawn in the hopes that he will grow tired, make a mistake or simply submit as they ceaselessly attack and taunt. But Guts is a resilient survivor, and as much as they hunt him, he hunts them. Guts makes it his mission in life to kill every last monster he can find, a quest that he hopes will bring him right to the doorstep of the God Hand so that he can finish them off once and for all.
As Guts fights, he grows stronger and more resilient with the passing of time. His weapon, the massive Dragonslayer that is the absolute template for all ‘guys with big swords’ in anime and manga, gains a dark, supernatural strength with every monster he kills, the blood and spirit of his enemies infusing the mighty blade with a foreboding enchantment that becomes more powerful and hungrier with each demonic life taken. The story becomes a journey of blood, sacrifice and discovery across a grim fantasy world with trolls, ghosts, sea monsters and the like. He gains new allies along the way, new armor that is as much a detriment as it is a boon, and learns more and more about the ever changing world and the long term goals of his enemies. His quest is not only one in which he finds himself pitted against his sworn foes but also the darkness in his soul that simultaneously fuels him and threatens to overtake him. It's both his greatest strength and his kryptonite.
This setting is a grand, violent and epic vision of adventure, horror and intrigue that swirl into a chaotic blend of miasmic perfection that can only be achieved when Miura pours THIS cast with THIS set of motivations into the mix. They congeal perfectly with the setting, each of them grown from the injustices of their lives, the dreams born of escape and release and the toil of their efforts. Unintended consequences in this setting are drastic and heightened with the sense of ominous immediacy. This is a world where lives end with a word, swords flash at a whim and religion and intrigues aren’t just a means but ways of life that govern the decisions of men and women. Where heaven and hell are real and not debated philosophical or spiritual topics, where technology and science do not demystify the tale and a morbid sense of wonder pervades.
In part 3 of this ever growing dissertation, I’ll discuss the stakes involved. What is to be gained and lost by Guts’ journey apart from his own peace of mind? I will also cover the unparalleled presentation that Kentaro Miura has committed to paper and why you’ve never seen anything like Berserk before.
Thanks for reading and see you soon!