'I Never Asked for a Miracle...': Berserk and the Humanity in Horror
Violent Images used throughout *A little spoiler here and there, just remember guys - beware*
“If you’re alone… if it’s just your life, you can use it however you please/ Wear yourself out, get cut to ribbons, doesn’t matter. But when there’s two, the blade grows heavy. Fighting like death doesn’t concern you becomes a thing of the past. It’s no longer just you. I threw away my way of life, relied on the strength of others, and somehow pushed on.” – Guts
I don't know about you but I'm really tired of all that's going on in the world. I want to be optimistic, and I try everyday. But sometimes things get too much. I feel angry, more than I have in a long time. So little of life is in my control, and I want to lash out, to let everyone know that I'm not okay, to demand things go my way, to cry and scream like the obstinate child I feel like most days. Responsibilities I already avoid, intimidate me all the more as the challenge of their completion and achievability is heightened. I turn to escapism mostly. Sometimes, I want to immerse myself in misery and brutality, to see the worst side of things. Berserk can be one of those.
Berserk is a cult series, imbued with medieval history, violence and horror which has a long running manga, in publication since 1989, a number of adaptations to varying success, a few videogames - inspiring the Dark Souls series and Dragon's Dogma along with many more - and a recent deluxe reprint by Dark Horse Comics in beautiful hardback editions. It follows Guts, a mercenary, a monster on the battlefield and a loner who is recruited almost against his will by the lauded Band of the Hawk and finds a place for himself in the world, following years of bloodshed and trauma. Something close to a friendship, his first, with the mysterious and gallant leader Griffith countered by a rivalry with loyal but tempestuous right-hand woman, Casca, Guts proves that his skill can be used to accelerate the success of the crew and it's leader. However, as the equilibrium of his world begins to shift, with the land of Midland turned on it's head, supernatural entities begin to emerge, signalling the coming of something foreboding.
With all the beautiful artwork an minute details, Kentaro Miura took his skill and produced an epic series filled to the brim with existential misery and apocalyptic horror. Some of it is downright upsetting. Some of the arcs are grotesque and disturbing, Miura is unable to hold back when depicting the abyss of sordid nightmares that exist in this fantasy realm. Perhaps over-the-top, ultimately Miura is forcing us to take in the ugly world and to see it clearly. He questions perceptions, of the 'hero' and the 'villain' and forcing them all into the grey area, into moral ambiguity. Miura's explicitness only mirrors the seediness of our own world. He is only interpreting the horror he sees every day and turns it into a fantastical art.
Why am I talking about this today? Because there's something powerful in Berserk, in Guts story that reminds me of what is worth fighting for. You see, there's panels of depravity. Wearisome trauma and overwhelming massacre. And then there is... peace. Well-earned peace, brief but a treasure. Better yet, there is hope.
At face value, it is often incredibly violent, with depictions of rape and murder that were barely palatable in it's early print run, let alone now; hyper-realistic displays of grotesquery as blood and innards are flying from every open wound, every orifice. It's protagonist is a blood-thirsty swordsman, out for revenge with no faith in the world he struggles to survive in. Hunted by the demonic creatures that now inhabit his life, he wanders alone and cruel to all he meets, forcing them to confront the misery and depravity before them as he has had to.
One of the bleakest stories I have ever begun, with every turning of the page becoming more overwhelming and irredeemable. It's non-linear storytelling peels back layer by layer, the intricate details of Guts life from birth, how he comes to be the man we first meet, and even more intriguing, how he develops further than that. Guts deep-rooted hate and fury sits like bile at the bottom of your throat. We are in a world that doesn't seem like it's worth saving, humanity has been lost and left behind, that not even the innocence of a child can salvage it. The demons want Guts dead. Because they want his soul.
Yet so do people, worse still people he attempts to trust. He is triggered his own childhood trauma, abuse at the hands of an older man following his guardian selling him off for the night. When we see Guts inability to fight back, either restricted by his form, his strength or the monsters surrounding him, as a reader we question who else can take his place. It is also why The Eclipse is genuinely upsetting to it's reader. Guts alone in the demon realm, calling out for his friends and receiving no reply and upon finding someone is forced to witness one of the most unforgivable acts against the woman he loves by the man he once called his friend.
The betrayal, the story that unfolds after it and the things Guts does before waking up to his own monstrosity, is treacherous and hard. So why do I and so many others love it? What has enforced in enduring success?
“Dreams breathe life into men and can cage them in suffering. Men live and die by their dreams. But long after they have been abandoned they still smolder deep in men’s hearts. Some see nothing more than life and death. They are dead, for they have no dreams.” – Griffith
Well, the short answer; humanity. Guts, overpowered, cruel and vicious as he is, is a story about the human condition. Despite the extreme circumstances, the psychopathic desire for revenge that literally transforms him into a literal monster (aka. he goes Berserk), in every chapter we find glimmers of hope or flashes of our own souls in the characters, in those that grow close to him, a moment with a child, or those he may attempt to invest his time to. Because Guts story is about hurt, love, acceptance and dreams.
In this panel, early in the story during the Black Swordsman arc, it establishes the first time we see Guts as a human. Suddenly we discover that the world is not only against him, but that the people he protects however begrudgingly, revile him. Why does he keep fighting? In the early chapters, He simply does not want to die. But not wanting to die is not the same as wanting to live. So Guts journey is finding that thing worth fighting for. Does he find it in himself, or in acts of sacrifice or in another? What is living to him?
In the Bonfire of Dreams scene, we discover Guts quest for purpose. His refusal to run, but his desire to fight signals a need for something more. This quiet moment with Casca is one of many peaceful moments that cement the emotional capacity of the story. He says to Casca, “People bring the small flames of their wishes together… since they don’t want to extinguish the small flame… they’ll bring that small flame to a bigger fire. A big flame named Griffith. But you know… I didn’t bring a flame with me. I think I just stopped by to warm myself by the bonfire.” and with this he must set out a path for himself where he had never before. It is this scene where her respect grows for him, where we discover the investment he has with the team he once fought so hard against.
And eventually we are able to witness one of the most gentle and organic love stories captured in fantasy. Two troubled people joining, finding peace and familiarity in one another's arms, supporting them through the stagnated trauma that resides deeply in both of them. Guts and Casca are goals, they are the truest love, a strong woman and strong man fighting for one another, never holding the other back. Something worth fighting for in all it's imperfection.
This is exactly why Miura's saga is a masterwork in the fantasy realm. Beyond this story of betrayal and horror, we have a character who is emotionally and physically damaged by the world and some how keeps going. It a series filled to the brim with amazing moments, beautiful imagery and intricately detailed work that still stands high above most other long running manga - and yet he hasn't lost sight of his character - he grows like no other protagonist I've ever seen. And it's honest to me.
He's violently abused and neglected, distrustful and guarded. In time he opens up with The Band of the Hawks, makes choices that he will later regret and lose faith in himself and others following The Eclipse. Leaving him so broken, he must fuel the rage in him before enlightening himself to the true goal; that there is someone worth fighting for. This journey takes a long time, it's gruelling and hard, filled with bad decisions, foolishness and naivety. It's up and down, it's messy, it's what being human is all about. And if a guy wielding a big ole sword (The Dragon Slayer is the only sword that is not used to overcompensate) can remind me of that, I'm not really bothered.
I actually got into Berserk via the 90's anime. My opinion at first was low. The violence lacked in the early episodes, the character of Guts an obnoxious grouch whose desire for blood-shed lacked any concrete depth, instead painting him as an arse. It didn't look like any of the anime I had watched before; it was rougher, unusually bright (in my unseasoned eyes) for a dark-fantasy, missing horror elements I had seen discussed online and as I predicted a little too masculine. Griffith was some strange ethereal weirdo and Casca was the tsundere I wasn't expecting to find. The opening song was throwing me off and the end song was some moody I kept going because of my investment into it. When did that all change? Probably episode nine: The Assassination.
When it was over, I was like some rabid beast in search for flesh whilst ignoring my responsibilities as a student and a semi-functioning adult. With no money and at a loss for words following The Eclipse, I needed to know what happened next. The abyss had swallowed me and the series up and I could see no way of finding answers. Until the discovery of fan-translated Manga online of which I can't whole-heartedly recommend - it's a mixed bag, it truly is. But it was through this I sought out the Manga and experienced one of the greatest stories
Check out Berserk. It's excessive in everyway, it's graphic. I cannot say it is for everyone, it's tough going. But by enduring it all, one can find faith in Love and people. We can see the irredeemable prove that some things can be overcome, that even if they won't forgive themselves, their actions earn them some form of redemption. That through fighting and pain, there is something worth it all in the end.