[SPOILERS. Also, some images in this post are NSFW]
I don’t feel qualified to validate the quality of Berserk, nor feel it particularly necessary for me to do so. I am also not interested to prove one way or the other whether the anime adaptation is superior to the ongoing manga. Rather this post serves as a survey of the many things I found interesting and remarkable about this popular, long-running, and critically acclaimed work.
(I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of either version, but I can confidently say that I am a fan of both).
What distinguishes my attitude perhaps on Berserk, particularly the manga, is how loveable I find it.
I read the first two volumes of the manga some years back. I wasn’t very impressed though I trusted the people who recommended it to me. The naked Puck annoyed me and seemed forced as a foil for Guts. I ended up putting it on hold for over a year.
Recently I watched the Berserk anime and easily found it as impressive as my friends told me it would be. I found it incredibly tight and well-done. Here’s a survey of the reviewers’ ratings as documented in Wikipedia:
They’re very impressed are they? I was too, though for some reason I stayed away from reading any of their actual reviews, though I think I’ve read at least half of those years and years ago. In any case, I found the harsh setting, the tragic feel of the characters, the sense of powerlessness against fate and the supernatural very interesting.
I was also impressed at how unflinching the portrayal was of demons, killing, rape, and combat were; as much as how tender it could be when depicting the particular moments of intimacy (Guts and Casca, Griffith and Charlotte) even when a lot of other things were going on:
- Guts’ sexual performance with Casca was informed by his own rape as a child (the past). He was very violent and rough to the virgin commander.
- Griffith’s sexual performance with Charlotte (or even the very attempt and lack of coolness and planning) was informed by the future without Guts. Yet, he was gentle to the virgin princess.
These scenes do much to layer the story and it’s rather awesome really. The rough portrayal belies a dignity to the tragic trajectory of Guts and Griffith. The rough portrayal doesn’t give me much time to reflect on the gravity of the events until it’s way too late for all of them. And as the eclipse happens and Griffith sells everyone out, the consequences unto the Band of the Hawk is so gruesome and in my face that I can’t really take stock.
There are some who thought Casca’s demon-rape during the eclipse was excessive. I don’t really blame them, but I thought it fitting and consistent with how the show conducted itself. It’s a tragic and brutal end that for all Guts’ unbelievable power, he is unable to prevent.
The anime ends on this tragic note. Guts’ is powerful enough to survive, but not overcome. The prologue of the show is set in the actual present, where Guts is just this hell-bent power of vengeance. This is enough. It’s a very tight, well-told story that looks great in its gruesome way.
The manga of course, doesn’t stop there. The story is much longer, and more complex. I imagine how the whole world comes to a deciding moment between Guts and Griffith, or perhaps a redemption of Griffith against a far greater evil. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
What I want to focus on, is the impression I got from the anime, and the surrounding talk I hear (or was given me) from friends and acquaintances regarding how epic the manga is (often in relation to the anime).
However, the promise that the anime seems to make isn’t quite met, or is it?
It’s not like the manga betrayed this promise. Rather, there was just more, a lot more and different things that showed up in the manga that I wouldn’t be able to predict from how the anime conducted itself, or perhaps, how the Golden Age arc of the manga conducted itself.
Team Guts, the Adventuring Party
While never really conforming to the traditional Dungeons & Dragons kind of adventuring party, Guts gathered a bunch of individuals that have complementary abilities and various levels of liability. Instead of seeming like a standard RPG party like the Companions of the Lance from the Dragonlance Chronicles, it’s evocative in ways of the Fellowship of the Ring.
It’s not quite a well-oiled machine, in how the hobbits in the Fellowship didn’t quite pull their own weight. They actually proved their worth outside the context of the Fellowship (Merry in Rohan, Pippin in Minas Tirith, Sam and Frodo in Mordor). Team Guts isn’t a tactically cohesive force, though it seems that they’re headed towards that direction. Part of the reason for this is how there is a lack of seasoned campaigners.
That said, Guts basically controls the initial swarm of demons and sets the table for the others to clean up. He then takes on the really big monsters.
There’s also something about it that’s very Japanese (I will discuss this later).
Holy Ethnic Wars
The emerging geopolitics in the manga positions the “Vatican” as a supreme power, very much like how it was in Medieval Europe. This expy for the Catholic Church behaves very dogmatically, very extreme, and is easily portrayed as hypocritical and ineffectual. Often, a village’s survival is critically impeded by the authority of the priest, which is higher than the mayor or any of the secular authorities.
Also, access to experiencing “genuine” spirituality is impeded by the Church dogma, which replaces spiritual experience with “mechanical” ritual. Hence, “Catholics” can no longer see elves and fairies, and have trouble truly calling forth “divine” intervention.
In Albion, the primary antagonist is a self-mutilating grand inquisitor, who liberally uses torture and execution against pagans and suspected belligerents. It is not surprising how he becomes infected by the apostle and becomes a monster that Guts needs to destroy directly.
If the Catholic Church is portrayed via expy as a corrupt political entity, it’s still presented as the cornerstone of civilization. By civilization I mean the opposite of barbarity.
The most menacing opposing nation is Kushan, apparently based on the historical Kushan kingdom in South Central Asia. The Kushani of Berserk look Indian, and like the historical Kushani are Buddhist. I find it strange and rather weak how Berserk didn’t do more to alter or put a spin on the religions it draws from.
Is Berserk merely an alternate history of our world? If so, then how does Jesus and Siddhartha fit in? They don’t, so yes it’s a weakness I feel.
Back to the Kushani, who in opposition to the Midland people and the Vatican controlled states, are portrayed as barbarians, and is led by a very powerful demon – an apostle who refused the call of the White Hawk.
Berserk also falls into the Tolkienist ethnic trap of portraying enemies racially. The Kushans are decidedly Asian; they’ are the “other” in this case. There are no Kushanis aligned with the Vatican and vice-versa. There’s no reason to doubt, however, that a Kushani may practice witchcraft the way a Midland witch does, though the Kushani may have an ethnic and region-specific version of the Fairy Kingdom where Guts’ party is headed to.
Tolkien famously called Sauron-aligned humans “Easterlings” (Mongol types), and “Southrons” (Moors). The center in this case being a very European “Middle-Earth.” Berserk’s primary setting? Surprise surprise: it’s called “Midland” with a capital called Windham.
The center is relative and arbitrary, it’s peculiar (or not at all) how Berserk insists that it be Europe all over again.
What’s really going on here?
Berserk will most likely be a straight up good vs.. evil battle. The ultimate evil will probably be drawn from Western mythology, if not merely Guts vs.. Griffith, which is within the context of Western mythology and religious tradition. This whole Kushani business is a sideshow.
I don’t know if this should mean something for whomever who reads it, but this is going on in this text.
Guts, Reluctant Harem Lead
This is what I mentioned about Team Guts being “Japanese.” Guts, by the 30th volume has practically become a harem lead. Now, this is still Guts we’re talking about so he’s an alpha male through and through. Berserk isn’t going to be about “who will Guts choose.”
Rather, Farnese and Schierke are both attracted to Guts that way. Very innocent and pure feelings, and respectful of Guts’ feelings for Casca, but nonetheless they feel it. Therefore, they are shipping fodder.
No, the stuff above aren’t complaints, but these are:
Oh my god I liked Casca a lot. She was this tragic figure to begin with, a commander of the Band of The Hawk favored by Griffith but not that way. She aligns her whole life to Griffith’s dream and when Griffith sells everyone out, he Femto-rapes her in front of Guts, mainly because he wants to spite him.
Casca was chattel.
Now Casca is a burden. As a result of that demon-rape Casca has lost all her memory and her ability to speak. She doesn’t do anything anymore. Rather, her condition is the one that influences behavior:
- Guts strays from his path of revenge and makes his life about protecting her now useless and defenseless self.
- Farnese finds her initial post-religion purpose in the world in ministering to her and protecting her.
- The whole dynamic of combat, tactics, and vulnerability revolves around her whereabouts.
I miss the strong and able Casca. Sure she can become overpowered, but she wasn’t going to be a singular force in an army. She was a commander who held her own in a fight. But now she is sick and useless and at times used for comic relief. Sometimes she goes “uu,” sometimes she goes “gyabuu.”
Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape Rape
Why do monsters in Berserk have to be killed? It’s because they kill men, possess animals, eat children, and rape women. Guts kills a LOT of monsters, which implies a lot of rape happened. Yes, a whole lot did after 33 volumes.
I’m supposed to be horrified by the rape, so I get to feel good and righteous when Guts hacks the rapists into chunks. Yeah, that’s exactly how I’m supposed to feel… and nothing else! If I feel anything else than horror, repulsion leading to righteous elation and just satisfaction, then I’m just being a dirty perverted sicko.
Yes, I’m sure that’s how all this is supposed to work.
Griffith Was Already Femto, Why Does He Need to Be Reborn as Human?
Maybe arch demons aren’t powerful enough to assume human guises. Some apostles seem to be able to. But why did Griffith have to go through such an elaborate process involving Guts’ and Casca’s aborted fetus, How does that even work?
Other than having Griffith look like himself again (only with gayer lips… but it could just be the progression of the illustrator), I don’t see why there has to be this convoluted plot point to get him to do so. The mythology is still mysterious to me. The God-Hand seem so powerful, so why does Griffith have to build his own kingdom in such a conventional way?
Why does the Band of the Hawk need to rise up again the way it does?
The only reason I can think of is the Rule of Cool. I’ll accept it because it is indeed cool. However, it does bug me in terms of both plotting, and world-building and design.
It happens early on. Casca was nearly raped when she was around 11 years old. Griffith saved her, but not before the would be rapist showed her nipples to us lucky readers. Little boys are sex slaves. Guts himself was raped as a 9-year old boy. This is kind of skeevy, but works within the context of the darkness in this fantasy world.
But with Schierke,
It’s not just the nudity (never mind the rape), it’s the shipping.
Hard-to-follow Action in the Demon Massacres
One thing the anime does very, very well is to direct the action. There’s a fluidity to the combat experience that the manga often makes it difficult. You know a lot of demons are getting carved up, and it’s supposed to be very brutal. However, this isn’t as interesting to me as humans vs. humans fighting.
Demons are either fodder for Guts’ huge sword, or are nigh-unkillable, near-∞ hit points boss battles. They are pretty much killed the same way (getting hacked into chunks), or in the case of Kundalini the water serpent, has some kind of weak spot that Guts well, hacks into chunks.
I do think that these fights would work better if animated, though the snake beast battle in the opening episode of the anime isn’t particularly exceptional. It does the job.
Guts Turns into a Hollywood Smartass
By volume 30, Guts starts making lighthearted attempts at wit. He starts snarking about the nobles’ “Charity Ball” which would be fine I suppose coming from Serpico (but not really). The tone feels very much like a ‘80s-‘90s action hero in the mold of Bruce Willis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Worse, he goes to a demon tiger and says something like “Hey Dragoncat, want some catnip?” before hacking the demon into chunks. Guts has reached Kindergarten Cop/The Last Action Hero era Schwarzenegger.
The Awesome Stuff
I did not do this post to complain. It should be quite obvious that I like the damn work. So now here’ are the things about it I like a lot. Sorry, I won’t post galleries of Caska and Farnese naked. Liking those bits (save for the demon rape scenes) goes without saying for me.
First off, Guts’ heroic poses. Instead of triumphal poses, Berserk excels when Guts is given full spreads while swinging or about to swing his huge weapon. Here are some exceptional images in a video I prepared.
In the video are every 2-page spread from Prototype of Berserk to Volume 33 where involving Guts doing something awesome. A lot of its shows soldiers and demons getting hacked into chunks.
The Epic Battles
There are a lot of illustrated battles in Berserk, even from way back in Guts’ youth training under Gambino. However, it won’t be until the second coming of Griffith and the Band of the Hawk that we get to see truly immense and complicated engagements.
The battles in Midland during the Golden Age arc do have some scale and tactical nuance. However it never seemed that Griffith was truly challenged. The Tudors never put up a force that is both overwhelming or well-led.
The thing about combat in Berserk is there are several kinds:
- Human vs. Human
- Human vs. Demon
In most cases up to volume 33, there is a separation between the two kinds. Guts fights soldiers. Armies fight each other. Guts fights demons (and other monsters). Demons fight armies.
When Griffith attacks Windam to reclaim it, we get to see the promise of the anime fulfilled.
What we see is a combined arms battle between the Band of the Hawk, composed of Demonic Apostles and regular army units against the full-demonic army of the Kushan Emperor Ganishka who used an artificial Behelit to increase his demonic powers.
When Griffith finally attacks Ganishka what we get is The Return of the King’s Battle of Pelennor Field only instead of a troop of Oliphaunts and ranks of Orcs and Half-Trolls, and the Ringwraiths we get a massive army of goopy demon monsters set against a human and demonic army. The demonic apostles fully utilize their demonic forms which gives us a rather unique spectacle.
Last but not least, Griffith organizes things enough to see some tactical logic in play. It’s no Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but I’ll take it.
The Long Journey
The Lord of the Rings relies on using incredibly long expanses of continuity to create a feeling of depth and scale. When the Fellowship reaches the door to Moria, we are as if for the first time (not actually the first because of the songs Bilbo and Aragorn sing in Rivendell) introduced to a staggering amount of history. Even though we’ve been travelling with the Fellowship for a short while, we feel like we’re a part of an immense tale. It’s a good feeling.
Berserk has little to none of this. Instead it has real human time for one, since the manga has been running for 20 years; and we’ve actually been following Guts since he was 9 years old, over a decade now in the reckoning of the continuity. When you stop and think about things, the time skips are minimal, a couple of years here and there. More often than not we actually stay with Guts as he spends his days travelling and fighting.
Guts became a man before our eyes, and Berserk can hardly be called a coming-of-age tale. The way I see it we’re just approaching something like the halfway mark of this long journey. I don’t want it to take another decade of continuity – since I want Guts and Caska to find each other again while they’re still young. I want Caska to see the stump of Guts’ left arm and feel the love that was shown in giving that up. Yeah I’m sappy as hell.
And Finally, Fantasy
Berserk is as grim and dark as they come. But there are rare moments when it reaches something of the sublime. It has to do with magic. It has to do with flying. It happened when Farnese learned real magic from Schierke for the first time.
And it happened when Griffith rescued Charlotte from Ganshika.
This image will stay with me forever. It’s Peter Pan, it’s A Whole New World, it’s an incubus meets Anti-Christ taking a four-post bed from a tower using a demonic unicorn with bat-like wings under the light of the full moon. This is fantasy.
Berserk too, is a story of love.
How would you share Berserk to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?