+ Well developed characters
+/ Gory violence depicted excellently
Some 'static' dialogue scenes
4 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
Berserk Manga Review
Written by: James Moynahan on 6/8/2009
Created in 1990 by Kentaro Miura, Berserk mixes gritty violence, horror, and fantasy in story of revenge set in a fictionalized version of Medieval/Renaissance Europe. It centers on the life and adventures of Guts, a mercenary loosely inspired by 16th Century German knight Gotz von Berlichingen and Griffith the leader of the Band of the Hawk, a mercenary crew inspired by the landsknechts, soldiers who replaced the knight as military tactics changed during the Renaissance. The story follows Guts as he matures from callow, undisciplined youth to brooding, Byronic anti-hero.
Too often contemporary fantasy in both the US and Japan emulates JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. While The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy classic, its imitators largely pale in comparison, offering watered down and cliché ridden versions of the quest by a band of noble and/or reluctant heroes to conquer evil by finding or destroying an object of immense power. Kentaro Miura's Berserk on the other hand draws from a tradition exemplified by the stories of Robert E. Howard, especially stories of Conan the Barbarian in which the hero's quest is driven by purely personal and often selfish motives. Unlike, the Tolkien imitators, Miura doesn't copy the predecessors who inspired him but gives Berserk its own energy and a unique voice while adding a new hero to the fantasy pantheon.
Berserk has many fantasy elements such as monsters, demons, castles, knights, princesses, and even a fairy or two. However, they aren't the focus of the story but more like an exotic background, window dressing, and plot device. For example, the demonic monsters that show up in the story exist primarily so that Guts may kill them. However, Miura does occasionally find clever uses for the fantasy elements in the story. A good example is the fairy character, Puck. After Guts "saves" Puck from the robbers, Puck returns throughout the story as the voice of the audience, giving the story a sense of awareness. He refers to Guts as the kind of character who he's only heard about in mythology and epic poetry. And often reacts with shock or disgust when Guts does something that subverts fantasy conventions such as when he kills one of the demons because it fits in with his plans and not because he is acting heroically. Although the use of Puck is clever, Miura's best writing is in the characterization of his two main characters.
The characters are the central element in Berserk and Miura wastes little time establishing Guts's violent, anti-heroic credentials. We first see Guts in a brief prologue. He is tall and muscular, covered in scars from a lifetime as a mercenary. His left arm from his elbow down is a mechanical prosthesis, hinting at a dark past. However, at the moment, it's not combat that has his attention but rather the naked comely lass lying beneath him. As their sexual intercourse intensifies, the woman transforms into a hideous demon. She gloats about having Guts in her clutches but Guts quickly turns the tables and tears her apart with his bare hands.
As the story proper gets underway, Guts enters a crowded tavern. A band of robbers are harassing a helpless elf. Guts hands the bartender a few coins and quietly tells him, "I'm going to mess this place up a little" before proceeding to eliminate the robbers with a combination of crossbow prowess and swordplay with his giant sword. After decimating their ranks, Guts tells the surviving mercenary to give his master a message, "Tell him the black swordsman has come" and then, in an excellent reversal of a well worn convention, walks out leaving the fairy to fend for itself.
Shortly after his confrontation with the robbers in the tavern, Guts finds himself surrounded by the city's guards. He is taken to the dungeon and savagely beaten and interrogated. The spineless, amoral mayor explains that the men work for an inhuman, flesh eating creature that lives in the castle overlooking the town. The mayor has struck a bargain with this creature. If the creature stops his men from attacking the town, the Mayor will provide him with victims to feed his bloodlust. Later, Puck, the fairy "rescued" by Guts helps Guts escape from the dungeon by bringing him the guard's keys. Guts and Puck talk and Guts explains that he has no interest in helping the town, fighting the monster is just a step on his path to revenge. Guts claims that he isn't responsible for other people, if they are helped or hindered by his actions, it's not his concern. Meanwhile, the monster, fueled by bloodlust and fury, leads his army on a rampage through the city, killing and maiming anyone who gets in the way. Much to their surprise, Guts appears in the midst of the town, fully armed, and clad in armor. He mercilessly slaughters the robbers and then engages their monstrous leader in mortal combat. Against overwhelming odds, Guts proves triumphant. Sheaving his sword, Guts quietly wanders out of town, leaving burning wreckage and heaps of corpses in his wake. With that kind of introduction it is clear that a new and interesting fantasy hero has arrived.
Visually, violence really is Miura's forte. While his art depicting quiet moments such as expository dialogue or emotion tends to be somewhat static, his depictions of action are truly visceral, on par with Frank Miller's best work in Sin City and 300. He has a similar sense of humor as well. For example, the tavern brawl that opens the first chapter features small, darkly comic touches such as one of the robbers standing around with a crossbow bolt sticking through his head as if he hasn't quite realized that he's dead. Miura doesn't shy away from depictions of blood either. The final confrontation in the tavern scene features Guts slicing a man in half with a giant sword. The man's torso spirals through the air trailing blood across nearly half the page. And since his story takes place in an actual historical setting, rather than an imaginary world, Miura also takes great pains to accurately depict details of period armor and weapons. Even Guts's giant sword and mechanical arm are based on historical examples. The sword is a variation on the Zweihanders and longswords carried by German and Swiss mercenaries of the 14th-16th Centuries and the mechanical arm has its basis in an actual arm worn by the historical German knight Gotz von Berlichingen.
Of course, the story isn't just an excuse for violence but an exploration of complex characters. In the characters of Guts and Griffith, Kentaro Miura gives his readers two very complex and interesting characters on par with the best written characters in fiction.
Although Berserk is set during historical times, rather than an imaginary period before the dawn of history, Guts has much in common with Robert E. Howard's classic hero Conan the Barbarian. Like Conan, Guts is a lone wanderer with little use for other people or the trappings of civilization. Like Conan, he will do whatever it takes to win the fights he finds himself in, pushing himself beyond the limits of normal human endurance. Also like Conan; he is driven by darker impulses than more socially acceptable fantasy heroes such as Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins. Guts is a mercenary during a time of upheaval and rapid change in Europe. The feudal system was disappearing, being replaced by the nation-state. The new nations waged nearly constant war with one another for supremacy over the European continent and power abroad in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Guts is also a cursed figure, haunted by both literal and figurative demons, driven by revenge and motivated by self-interest. If his actions save a life or protect a village, it's purely coincidental. As Guts tells the fairy Puck, he hates weakness. Or so he says. There are moments throughout the series in which he seems to be genuinely sorrowful for the havoc and pain he has caused. For instance, in one of the stories in the first volume, Guts is traveling with a priest and his granddaughter when the demons that haunt Guts cause the corpses of dead soldiers to rise up and attack. During the battle, the little girl is killed and the demons possess her body. The demon possessed girl kills the old priest and then attacks Guts. Guts naturally protects himself and cuts down the girl. After Guts defeats the demon possessed army, there is a moment of quiet solitude in which we briefly glimpse a hint of human emotion other than bloodlust, anger, or vengeance. Guts is alone in the woods surrounded by the skeletal remains of his defeated foes. He leans heavily on his giant sword, an expression of quiet desperation on his sweaty face. He is joined by Puck who tells him that the deaths of the girl and the priest were not his fault. Guts bursts out laughing and cynically replies,"Yeah that's right. You got it exactly." It's a subtly and ambiguously played moment that suggests that Guts's cold demeanor is an act that hides deeply felt emotion, it's psychological armor to protect a wounded psyche just as his physical armor protects his wounded body. It's also illustrates that Miura is a finer artist than is suggested by the depictions of gore and violence.
The story's primary (human) antagonist is Griffith, the leader of the mercenary crew known as the Band of the Hawk. Griffith is Guts's polar opposite. While Guts is a physical imposing, barely civilized loner driven by revenge, Griffith is a fine featured, cultured man of destiny. He sees his band of mercenaries as little more than one of many tools to achieve his goals of political power and imperial glory. Griffith and Guts were once friends and brothers in arms. However, Griffith came to view Guts a hindrance to his ambitions and in revenge attempted to sacrifice Guts to demonic forces in order to become one of the beings known collectively as the God Hand. The contentious relationship between Guts and Griffith has a symbolic quality to it that readers familiar with Shakespeare's Macbeth might find familiar. Guts; like the heroic Macduff represents a straightforward man of action, he may not be a likable person but his actions are driven by clearly understood motives such as revenge and survival. He acts openly and directly. Griffith, like the oily Malcolm, represents the rise of the modern politician. While he outwardly resembles the handsome knight in shining armor and is a fine swordsman, Griffith more often uses deceit, manipulation, and cunning to achieve his aims.
Running contrary to the common practice of imitating JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Kentaro Miura takes inspiration from but doesn't imitate works in the vein of those created by Robert E. Howard. The fantasy world envisioned in Berserk contains familiar elements such as fairies, demons, monsters, and castles but they are used primarily as an exotic backdrop to the exploration of complex and original characters such as Guts and Griffith.
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