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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Berserk

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CX: Berserk

The European Middle Ages was a hard time to be alive. Poverty, desperation, and filth. A war that raged for 100 years. Rat-borne diseases which depopulated entire cities, killing millions with the black plague. Religious fervor which led to massacres of "heretics," people burned at the stake and tortured in horrible ways. Peasants had no rights, especially peasant women, who were sometimes raped by nobles at the nobles' whim, although bathing in the blood of peasants was a step too far even then. One of the best things about George R.R. Martin's fantasy series Game of Thrones is that pretty much every twisted, cruel, violent thing that happens in that series is actually drawn from real-life history. (Paul Verhoeven's 1986 movie Flesh and Blood delivers pretty good "grim and gory history" too.) The darkest, most morbid Middle Ages fantasies are the ones that are closest to reality. Even the beginning of Berserk.

Kentarou Miura's Berserk is one of the greatest, darkest and longest fantasy manga ever made. Some people hate it, for reasons which I'll explain in excruciating detail later in this article. Personally, I love it, although we've had a few arguments and breakups. The darkness and goriness of Berserk must have stood out of the pack even more when it first started, in 1989, a time when most fantasy manga was firmly in the Record of Lodoss War D&D high-fantasy mode. At first, in fact, it seems less like a fantasy manga than an ultraviolent manga like Fist of the North Star or Riki-Oh—a series about an angry tough guy who kills things really good. Except in the case of Berserk, the hero doesn't wander a post-apocalyptic, lawless, near-future world, he wanders a post-apocalyptic, lawless, ancient world: Midland, a place something like Medieval Europe, a place of plague-infected beggars and giant stone castles and crumbling towns. And beneath the surface of the world, beneath all the other misery, there are demons.

As far as most people in the world of Berserk know, ordinary life is bad enough, but secretly, the world is ruled by the "Apostles," people who have transcended humanity and become monsters. These demonic entities were once ordinary people whose powerful emotion and desire, together with the magical artifacts known as "Behelits," opened a gate to another dimension and filled them with dark power. They live disguised as humans, as powerful people, kings and emperors, indulging their perverse lusts and cruelty, but at will, they can transform into giant monsters, masses of tentacles and teeth and eyes. Beyond the Apostles are the "God Hand," five demons (or gods) who dwell in the dark dimension and look a bit like the Cenobites in Clive Barker's Hellraiser. They too were once human beings, but now they are the incarnations of evil.

In this world is one man who knows about the Apostles and tries to kill them. He's a haunted-looking man in his twenties who wanders the world with a giant sword strapped to his back, a sword about one foot wide and six feet long. "It was too big to be called a sword…it was more like a hunk of iron," people think when they see it. His body is covered with scars, and he is missing an eye. He is also missing a forearm, but strapped in its place is a metal arm with a built-in repeating crossbow and a hand cannon. People call him the "black swordsman," but his real name is Guts. (Plenty of American otaku call him Gattsu, because that's how it sounds phonetically in Japanese, although Miura has written Guts' name in English in the character bios for the last 15 or so volumes. Get with it, people! Also, it's Vegeta, not Bejita!)

Despite missing an arm (and presumably having a limited field of vision, since he only has one eye), Guts is an amazing fighter. With one hand, he's able to swing his giant sword which must weigh an incredible amount (although real historical swords didn't weigh quite as much as you'd think; one famously heavy historical two-handed sword weighed 14.5 pounds, but most of them only weighed about 5-7 pounds; it's the leverage and the exhaustion that's the killer). Armor is useless against his sword; he can chop through stone and steel. In fact, he can chop through two armored men on horses, along with their horses, in one blow. He can impale four crocodiles in one thrust. And he can use it as a shield, to deflect blows, since it's apparently the only unbreakable piece of metal in the story. Actually, it looks like the weakest part of it is the hilt, and if it broke anywhere, it'd snap right above where he holds it, but that never happens. (Things like these make me wish there was a Japanese version of Mythbusters, so they could test the realism of things that happen in manga. They'd never run out of material.)

But despite his insanely big sword and his Medieval cyberware, Guts is not a hero who has magical powers or ki or anything like that; he is just really fast and tough and strong and experienced. When he gets hurt, he bleeds and suffers. (There are limits, though: no matter how beaten & tortured Guts is, no matter how much blood he coughs up, he never loses his other eye, or gets all his teeth knocked out of his face, which would make him considerably less cool-looking.) One of the appeals of the manga is that he is not supernatural; he is human. He fights the Apostles with blood and sweat and heavy weapons and nothing else.

This is a nasty, violent manga. In the very first scene, we see Guts having sex with a nameless woman. Suddenly, she turns into a hideous, H.R. Giger-esque monster, and prepares to eat him, but instead, he uses his gun-arm and blows her head off. (This is a scene which presumably got the attention of a lot of readers of Young Animal magazine in Japan, although here in the US, it probably also caused lots of people to put down their copies of Berserk and/or assume it's all boobs and guts. It gets better.) In the first few volumes, the only thing that's not completely dark and depressing is Guts' companion, Puck, a little floating, naked elf-boy. Apparently the only elf in Midland, Puck follows Guts along, heals him with his magic elf dust, and provides the cuteness and witty patter, like the animal sidekick in a Disney movie. ("Without me around, this manga would be too dark!") He's pretty goofy, but even with Puck along, the manga is still extremely intense and serious.

Who is Guts, and why does he fight demons? At first he's totally mysterious, but then, in volume three, there is a flashback to Guts' past, and we discover everything about him. This is the point that Berserk becomes incredible. The "Golden Age" storyline—the flashback—lasts ten volumes, longer than the "non-flashback" part of the story up to that point. From that point, Berserk stops being a monster-fighting manga and becomes a novel in manga form. (Spoilers from this point on.)

Guts was born from a corpse, from a hanged woman whose pregnant body was dangling from a tree. He was rescued and raised by a prostitute, part of a group of mercenaries, just some of the many fighters in Midland's endless 100 years war. When he was three, his prostitute foster mother died, and his education was continued by Gambino, a brutal mercenary who used Guts as a spear-carrier and trained him in the arts of the sword. By age nine, he was fighting alongside the adult men. That same year, Gambino sold Guts' body to another soldier for a few coins, letting his foster son be raped. Later, Guts killed the man on the battlefield, but having only the rapist's word for it, he couldn't bring himself to believe that Gambino had actually sold him. Even when Gambino finally tells him the truth with his own mouth, Guts doesn't want to believe it; he needs a family, and this vicious man is the only "father" he has.

After Gambino dies (at Guts' own hand), Guts continues his path of endless war, cynical and battle-hardened, fighting for money and living like each day will be his last. Then he meets the Band of the Hawk, a group of young mercenaries, like a breath of fresh air among the grizzled old men of the battlefield. Their second in command is Casca, a master swordswoman, one of the rare female soldiers. But their commander is the truly amazing one, a man who turns everyone's eye and makes the Band of the Hawk what it is: Griffith, a man of incredible beauty and charisma. When Griffith sees Guts, he knows he must have him for his group. He defeats Guts in combat, and asks him to join his Band.

Guts becomes a member of the Band of the Hawk, and for the first time, he makes friends. Griffith is an idealist, a little strange and distant, but also so compassionate, a former beggar boy whose dream is to rise to power and create a better world. Casca, like everyone else in the Band of the Hawk, follows Griffith out of admiration, although her feelings for him run a little deeper; she's jealous that Griffith likes Guts better than her. Guts becomes one of the most valued members of the Band, and soon their combat prowess attracts the attention of the royal court of Midland. This brings rewards, but also new dangers, such as the jealousy of the knights and nobles who despise being outshone by mere mercenaries. Soon both Guts' and Griffith's hands are bloodied by backstabbing and intrigue. Guts will do anything for Griffith—for their dream of a better world. Then one day, Guts notices the strange charm that Griffith wears around his neck, shaped like an egg with a twisted human face. Griffith explains that the charm is a "Behelit," and someone once told him that the one who wears it will rule the world.

Gradually, Guts starts to have doubts about what he's doing, and although he still respects Griffith, he leaves the Band of the Hawk to find his own path. Then, everything falls apart. Griffith is betrayed by the royals and imprisoned, and the Band of the Hawk are declared outlaws. With Casca as their new commander, they manage to flee and escape execution, but Griffith is locked in a tower. After a year on his own in the wilderness, Guts returns and finds out what happened in his absence, and joins Casca and the other survivors in an attempt to rescue Griffith. Along the way, Casca and Guts become closer, overcoming their emotional scars. But when they find Griffith, they discover that a year of continual torture has turned him into a crippled shadow of a man, who will never again speak, hold a sword or ride a horse.

Although his friends try to preserve the illusion that they can heal him, it is soon obvious that Griffith will be a lifelong cripple. As Griffith silently watches Casca and Guts fall in love and take over the leadership of the band he formed, his despair drives him to madness. In his darkest hour of hopelessness, his blood drips on the Behelit, and the God Hand offers him a deal: sacrifice his friends, and he will become one of them, like a god. The gate to the other dimension opens, sucking Griffith and his friends inside. Griffith becomes one of the God Hand, and his former friends are consumed by hordes of demonic monsters. The last survivors are Guts, who fights on although his eye and arm are ripped off, and Casca, who is raped by Griffith after he transforms into his new monstrous form.

At the last minute, Guts and Casca are rescued by a miracle, and they end up back in the human world, maimed, but alive. However, their experiences have changed them forever, marking them with a demonic brand that attracts demons and evil spirits. Furthermore, Casca has gone insane, transformed from a strong swordswoman into a helpless child-woman who can't even speak. Guts vows to find a way to heal her, but most of all, he is consumed with the desire for revenge. Suiting up with his new metal arm and his new sword, he sets out to find and kill the Apostles, to open the gate to Hell again, all so he can kill Griffith, his former best friend who betrayed them for his mad desire.

Still reading? Good. Just 23 volumes to go! But even though Berserk is now 36 volumes long, in some ways, "The Golden Age" storyline may be the best part. (It's also the only part of the story so far adapted into an anime. Twice, in fact, so I'm not the only person who thinks this.) "The Golden Age" has all the things that make Berserk great.

Of course, the whole series has Miura's incredible artwork—his insanely detailed drawings of hundreds of castles and soldiers and horses, his imaginative monsters and creatures, and the bloody battle scenes in which they're torn apart. Miura's art starts out pretty good and gets better and better; his visual storytelling is so good that even if the entire manga wasn't translated by Dark Horse, and you didn't read Japanese, you could follow a lot of the story just by flipping through the untranslated tankobons. But Berserk is more than just visual flash; it's a really great story.

The "Golden Age" is where all the main character relationships are introduced and fleshed out, and remarkably, it's almost entirely realistic; magic and monsters don't start showing up until the second half, as Miura teases us with them, with hundreds of pages of foreshadowing before he unleashes the ultra-horror that we knew was coming all along. Before the monsters even show up, it's a story of people fighting to survive and trust one another in a really harsh world. "You were born from a corpse, and you struggle every day with death!" one character tells Guts. Guts, Casca and Griffith all come from horrible backgrounds, and all of them struggle between becoming good people and human beings, or falling into madness and evil. The three main characters' friendship and love—and eventual betrayal—unites them in a bizarre, and frankly sexual, love triangle. When Griffith tells Guts "I want you," the first thing Guts says is "Are you queer?"

Oh yeah: the sex. There's a lot of sexual violence in this manga, including tentacle rape and swords chopping off monster-penises. To Miura's credit, at least it's not all directed at women. Both Guts and Griffith are raped or prostituted in the course of the story. Guts' rape serves a story purpose; Miura makes it clear that Guts' traumatic early sexual experiences have stunted him as a person, and when he becomes an adult, he's afraid to have sex because he thinks of it only as a form of abuse and predation. Like Casca and Griffith in their own ways, he must overcome the baggage of his past. Then again, Guts' and Griffith's rape scenes are only implied or briefly depicted, while Casca's rape scene is drawn out over 30 pages of excruciating detail. And the way that rape turns Casca from a reasonable, competent character into a brain-damaged doll who must be continually protected and rescued by Guts isn't going to win Miura any Bechdel Test points. But although this is a comic in which one villain attacks the heroes with a woman's torso impaled on a pike, I swear, try to believe me: it's not entirely gratuitous. Miura is depicting a dark, brutal, horrible world, a world of lost loves and dooms and deaths, and the sex, nasty as it sometimes is (there are also consensual scenes! Really!), is part of the canvas.

After the end of the 10-volume "Golden Age" flashback, the Berserk story snaps back to the present, and Guts returns to his wandering adventures, seeking out Apostles to kill. Volumes 14-15 comprise the "Missing Children" story arc, in which Guts encounters a child Apostle and abusive parents and kills a ton of things; the storyline asks the age-old question, "Who is worse: humans or monsters?", a bit like Go Nagai's Devilman (obviously a huge influence on Berserk). In volumes 16-20, a plague ravages Midland, and Guts encounters the Inquisition, an army of holy warriors who are trying to keep the peace while also torturing heretics in their massive, ominous tower. There are new monsters, and a flood of flesh-eating black slime, and people and animals getting possessed by cannibal demons. This story arc also introduces some new characters, notably Farnese, a cruel Lawful Neutral-type female knight-commander who gets a sick pleasure out of flagellating herself and condemning criminals to death, and who discovers new feelings when Guts knocks her out and slings her half-naked over his shoulder. The bondage element continues when Guts takes Casca with him on his journey, dragging her along on a rope because she's lost her mind and memory, and resisting his own dark urges to sleep with her while she's insane. But at least this is character development, whereas most of volumes 14-20, frankly, is a filler arc. Oh, and there are more rapes and rape attempts.

It's after volume 21 that things really get different, and the world of Berserk changes, literally. Suddenly, trolls and ogres and magic-users start to appear where only knights and peasants were before, and the formerly semi-realistic world is invaded by monsters and magic, surprising the reader as much as the characters. "I was getting kind of tired of all the demons," says one other characters. "Now, it's sort of turning into a fairy tale…" As Kentaro Miura goes into full-on world-building mode for the first time, we discover that Berserk is set in a sort of three-angled world, with the Church on the one hand, repressing people's belief in magic, and the forces of Black Magic (the Apostles, the God Hand, general monsters) and White Magic (witches, elves, etc.) on the other poles of the triangle. We meet lots more new characters, such as Schierke, the little moe witch who has awesome powers and delivers a lot of exposition, and Isidro, an annoying little shonen manga-type kid who tags along after Guts, hoping to become the greatest swordsman in the world. Schierke explains elemental magic, and the characters even get magic weapons, including Guts' Berserk armor, which gives the manga its name and makes him look like Batman with a sword. The villains get a power-up too, as Midland is attacked by the Kushan Empire, with their armies of crocodile-men and elephant-men and sorcerers and gigantic demons, all leading up to the thing we really care about: the return of Griffith, and the revelation of his master plan.

Basically, Berserk transforms from sword and sorcery to high fantasy. Starting as the story of a lone swordsman traveling the world fighting demons with blood and sweat, it turns into a story of a fantasy RPG party of heroes with a magic-user, a thief, a fighter, some elves, etc. There are some problems with this change, notably in the clashing moods. With the addition of several young, cute characters and more humor, it seems like Miura is aiming the series at a younger age group... but there's still lots of rape and gore. I lost track of all of it, honestly. I can theoretically accept that cute, moe, little witches might exist in the same universe where trolls rape women in a conga line and then explosively deliver mutant troll babies, but it's pretty gratuitous and exploitative and makes me want to eat my words about how it's all there because it serves a purpose in the story. The introduction of magic loses some of the gritty pseudo-realism that made the beginning of the series so unique, and as the power level rises, some of the fight scenes go into over-the-top, exaggerated, shonen level-up territory. In some ways, I prefer the early parts.

I can't blame Kentarou Miura for making big changes in Berserk; he's been drawing it for more than TWO DECADES. He's changed from a 23-year-old to a 46-year-old while drawing it, so you'd expect that the manga would change too. If it hadn't, it'd be a disappointingly predictable comic. The pace of production of the manga has slowed down in recent years, and things have gotten crazier and crazier, but still, no end is in sight. The apocalyptic "war of giant monsters and demons" in volumes 33-34 is the most over-the-top part of the story so far, and I don't want to give away any more spoilers.

The best thing about Berserk right now is that I actually have no idea what's going to happen. There is just too much stuff going on, too much weirdness, too much happening. Despite my criticisms, I'm still impressed by Miura's great art and his ability to create such a long storyline with so much scope and (relative to other manga, at least) so little filler. No other seinen fantasy manga has such well-developed characters with such deep backstories, even for the minor characters. No one else has such great storytelling, and can draw so many different types of monsters and creatures and weapons and armor and make it all look good. Can he tie it all together at the end in a way which actually makes sense and feels right for the characters? Can he handle a 36+ volume story as well as he handled the 10-volume "Golden Age" story arc? I don't know. But like Game of Thrones, I hope I'll live to see the ending and find out.

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