While the sword duel is easily what transfixes our imaginations when it comes to combat, there is something to be said about sheer statistics. Guts of Berserk massacred 100 mercenaries under the command of Lord Adon in a dark forest. Miyamoto Musashi of Vagabond slaughtered 70 swordsmen of the Yoshioka-ryu dojo in a smoky wood.
These are unassisted feats. They killed all those opponents by themselves. Guts’ record is like Wilt Chamberlin’s 100 point game vs. the New York Knicks only better, while Musashi’s battle was like Kobe Bryant torching the Toronto Raptors for 81 points. All are sterling examples of incredible individual feats against a large number of foes.
While both efforts are undoubtedly unbelievable, the presentation by their respective works should endeavor to make them believable. The onus is on Vagabond in particular because the events are supposedly historical. Musashi really existed and he was supposed to have took on and killed 70 swordsman all by himself.
I think the manga is successful with this. The battle lasted several chapters and seemed to never end, with Musashi fighting through loss of blood, fatigue, and the menace of an entire school of swordsmanship. Japanese swordsmanship doesn’t translate well into formation combat, so there was never going to be an organized rush to overwhelm Musashi.
Instead there were small pockets of fighting wherein Musashi would be in 3 vs. 1, 2 vs. 1, or 1 vs. 1 matchups. This made it far more manageable for a legendary swordsman to take on a company-sized force. In effect it wasn’t quite a lynching that the Yoshioka intended but really just an overwhelming amount of sword duels.
True enough, Musashi barely made it out alive. Furthermore, he had serious injuries that would limit his movement (legs) for a very long time, compromising his swordsmanship significantly. As serious a work Berserk is, Vagabond is painstakingly devoted to realistically presenting such an implausible event. While it wasn’t the pinnacle of Musashi’s career, it was treated with utmost significance in the amount of chapters after it seemingly focused on Musashi’s recovery from that battle.
Guts made 100 kills in a single engagement. It was thrilling to watch. A big part of the thrill was the incredulity and the mounting dread among the opponents at how such a disaster is unfolding inexorably before them. Does it look like anything that would resemble an actual swordfight? No, but this isn’t as important a detail as it is perhaps in Vagabond.
At some point, the mercenaries fighting against Guts would’ve figured out that nothing seems to work. Rushing him only gets them killed. What they needed to do was get themselves in formation and attack Guts with a column led by spears and flank him with swordsmen. Even Guts has to recover balance after swinging his huge sword in such wide arcs. This will be enough opening to get inside and smother him, making it impossible to swing, he would then be vulnerable to thrusting attacks, even from daggers up close.
In fact, the band of mercs could simply keep shooting at him with their crossbows. He can’t dodge them all and the rest of the band could defend the archers. Guts can’t storm an organized column all by himself. But since the whole band was in a constant state of disarray, Guts just kept on swinging, killing at least one opponent every time.
At some point the rest of the mercs could’ve retreated or even deserted. Guts did take a lot of damage which would make it difficult for him to give chase. Also, Guts would not be likely to give chase anyway. And yet, everybody had a disastrous go at him. The most Berserk can give in the service of plausibility is how Adon would appeal to the idea that Guts must be tired, and/or Guts must be injured and unable to fight properly.
These problems of depiction are avoided when at around 50 kills, the action moves elsewhere (Casca’s escape). When Casca returns for Guts along with other fighters from the The Band of the Hawk, the “100” kills were already completed and Guts was resting by a tree with his many wounds. Berserk doesn’t make Guts’ incredible feat any less implausible, but make no mistake, it was amazing to watch.
I won’t argue how the anime stands in quality relative to the manga here. What’s important to me is that there is an anime, and it is done excellently. I can only wish that Vagabond is given the same opportunity and lavished with the same care and effort. Musashi will get a film treatment though, written by Oshii Mamoru which is very exciting news. Still, this isn’t Vagabond, so I think I have to wait a few more years at the very least.
If they make more Berserk anime though, I’m going to be all over it.