Trigger/content warning: I’ll briefly be covering some problematic content below, and I want to leave a proper warning of some of these subjects: gore, child abuse, and emotional/physical/sexual violence and abuse.
Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers for Berserk.
“That thing was too big to be called a sword. Too big, too thick, too heavy, and too rough, it was more like a large hunk of iron.”Miura Kentaro
My mom got me into Berserk.
In 2003, I was in eighth grade and a somewhat sheltered anime nerd. After the home video boom of the late 80s into the 90s, anime was starting to become more common in stores. Many other fans might remember perusing the newfangled anime shelves of stores like Suncoast at a mall, and I was no different. I’d often drag my mom down every aisle as I took my time looking for the next new show to add to my growing collection. As I slowly pondered over which version of the sci-fi battle anime The Guyver I wanted to watch, my mom peered over my shoulder; an indication that I’d been browsing too long.
“You should try something new!” My mom sighed impatiently. She turned and began scanning over the wall of DVDs behind me. It took only a few moments for her to snatch something off the racks.
I was annoyed and a bit surprised. I explained to her that I had never watched The Guyver, ever — something that felt very important. Despite my protest, my mom thrust her chosen DVD into my hands. She told me she liked the art on the cover. I glanced down, and saw that I was now holding the first DVD of Berserk.
Funny enough, my mom didn’t really give a sh*t about anime. I’m pretty sure that her motives strictly revolved around how fast she could get my sibling and me out of the store and back home. She’s is a writer and quite the aficionado of young adult fiction; How could she possibly pick out a good anime, I thought? This was not what I wanted. I wanted my monster sci-fi spacesuit battle anime that was The Guyver, and was not about to watch something picked out by my mom of all people. However, she was incredibly stubborn, and more importantly, she was buying.
Begrudgingly, I accepted her choice under the condition she’d watch the whole DVD with me. I was confident she’d picked a dud, and relished the idea that after the first two episodes I could say, “I told you it would be dumb.”
But as the first episode’s credits rolled, my mom asked, “Do you want to keep watching?” And, of course, my answer was a resounding, “Yes!” The Berserk anime was awesome. I don’t remember if she ever said, “I told you you’d like it.” But, we watched all of the Berserk anime series together. This is, admittedly, kind of weird in retrospect given the hyperviolent and mature content of Berserk, but it became our thing.
Intro to Inspiration
I quickly became obsessed with Berserk. Soon, I discovered there was a manga; thankfully, the story continued after the 1997 anime’s brutal and cruel cliffhanger. I scoured internet forums and trawled through endless search engine results for scanlations. (“Scanlation (also scanslation) is the fan-made scanning, translation, and editing of comics from a language into another language” — thanks, Wikipedia. Eventually, the manga would be officially translated and published by Darkhorse.) And, most of all, I spent hours drawing fan art. In fact, I included a piece of Berserk fan art in my portfolio submission for college.
I’ve always wanted to draw comics, and Beserk was a major inspiration for me as a budding artist. For quite a long time, all my “original” characters would have to have massive swords and bad attitudes. Luckily, I had gentle and constructive critics at home.
I remember hastily drawing a picture of Guts holding his sword, circa Band of the Hawk era, and rushing off to show my grandfather. He studied the drawing a bit longer than usual and said, “His wrists are too thin. They’d break under the weight of this sword.” Even with such innocuous criticism, I was still defensive, but as I studied the manga I quickly realized my grandfather was correct. I had definitely drawn Guts’ wrists far too thin. This criticism stuck with me, and as a result, I began to pay more attention to anatomy. I’d eventually attend many life drawing classes.
In high school, I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is a comic book about how to read and, well, understand comics. McCloud covers the craft of making comics: the vocabulary, showing vs telling, time frames, and explores some concepts of creating art in general; be it movies, comics, music, or any other medium. By that time, McCloud had also released Making Comics, a follow-up that delves a little deeper into the craft of visual storytelling and reexamines some content from the first book.
These two books gave me a new lens into comics, graphic novels, and manga. I began rereading Berserk, armed with a slightly better understanding of the medium. I studied how Miura Kentaro, author/artist of Berserk, built his panels, timed his frames. He took the time to show, not tell, and masterfully led the reader across the page. An early example of this can be found within the first few pages of Berserk.
Note: Per the original Japanese print these pages are read from right to left.
This page comes shortly after a raunchy encounter between Guts and a woman who reveals herself to be a demon Apostle of The God Hand. While gloating that she has Guts trapped, he shoves his metal arm into her mouth and exclaims that it is she who is, in fact, trapped. While we don’t see it happen, this page makes it very clear that Guts has defeated the Apostle.
The framing starts in the first panel with an environment shot that slowly pans down to Guts tossing his cloak over his left shoulder and silently peering back at the carnage he has wrought; he then trudges off into the night to find the next apostle. This isn’t a perfect example, but the design of this page is phenomenal.
First — and while the technique isn’t unique to Miura — the use of sound effects in the first panel to draw the reader’s attention seems obvious, but has a huge impact.
The negative space present in the panel below, which shows Guts’ walking away from the mutilated Apostle, can be distracting; however, Miura uses an interesting trick to keep the eye moving. In the next panel, what most readers will be drawn to is Guts tossing his cloak over his shoulder. This is because the trees from the first panel catch the eye and move the view downward. And, because the sound effects sweep across the page and overlap with the tree on the right side of the panel, the eye is pushed to Guts’ cloak in the panel below. Interestingly this tree appears again, slightly angled once more, in the panel where Guts is walking into the distance. It’s a small callback to the first panel that helps draw attention to the cloak.
Devil in the Details
As the reader follows the cloak down to Guts’ face, we see that he is looking downwards. His right forearm leads the eye away from the cloak toward his elbow. Additionally, we see his right shoulder and upper arm are angled so as to also direct the eye to said elbow. We are thus subtly directed to the panel below, featuring the close-up of Guts pausing to look back at the dead Apostle.
The close-up seems unnecessary at first, but it gets a lot of mileage for conveying some of Guts’ personality. It’s a pause, a small moment of silence and reflection as Guts glances behind at the smoldering remains of the apostle. The reader is left with many unanswered questions, while the direction in which Guts faces and the folds of the hood of the cloak nudge the eye to the last panel.
In the final panel the sky hangs wordless and somber over the forest as Guts treks off into the night. The trees overlapping the sky and mountains once again direct the eye to Guts, center panel. The small sway of the cloak, and trailing smoke pouring from the glow of the apostle’s corpse, usher the reader to the end of the page. The final panel has some diagonal cuts, utilizing what’s called a full bleed. This simply means the art extends to the very edge of the page. This suggests another passage of time or transition to a new scene, kind of like a fade to black.
Meaning in Motion
What we get out of comic pages is the result of conscious and thoughtful visual design and storytelling decisions. These decisions are used to inform the reader of obvious things like story, setting, and characters, but also instruct the audience on how to actually read the work. Such techniques allow the reader to become immersed in the story and visuals, sans confusion as to what panel to read next, or having to be reminded how to read each page using instructions, panel numbers, or arrows. Unobtrusively blending pictures and words into a seamless narrative is kind of the whole goal of comics, graphic novels, and manga; these types of decisions are fairly standard practice.
Such decisions don’t always pan out, and even Berserk has some strange page flow issues. However, like most creators, Miura’s artistic and visual storytelling skill evolves immensely through the course of his series. Below is a page from later in the series, near the end of chapter 215, and it is absolutely stunning.
The twisted branches and gnarled roots are used to not only guide the eye, but act as subtle panel borders. Meanwhile, the thick overgrowth of the forest looms heavily above the characters, creating an oppressively confined atmosphere for the reader. The break between panels is almost non-existent until we reach the final four on the left; from there, the panel breakages suddenly seem massive. This increase in the whitespace between these last four panels makes them pop, slowing the reader down as they process these moment-to-moment transitions. They dramatically increase the tension as the group halts to take notice of the creature before them.
Of course, these are my personal views, and it’s not a groundbreaking observation to say that Miura Kentaro was a master of sequential art. I’ve just been captivated by his creativity, design, and vision. Each time I revisit Berserk, I come away with a new appreciation for the skill and craft of its author.
So what is Berserk?
Until I began watching Berserk, the animated violence I had been exposed to was Treehouse of Horror or Dragon Ball Z levels of cartoonish violence. The Berserk anime was still ultra-violent, but somewhat dialed back the excessive gore and sexual violence of the manga for television release. However, nothing in the animated adaptation quite prepares the viewer for the cruelty and brutality of The Eclipse. Berserk was my first Devilman, my first Red Wedding, my first “everyone dies at the end” anime.
Berserk follows the tragically complicated life and struggle of a young mercenary named Guts. Miura stated in an interview (translated here) that for a period of time Berserk was a story about anger. Born from the corpse of his mother, abused physically, emotionally, and sexually, and forced to watch everyone he ever cared about brutally slaughtered before his own eyes; Guts has a lot to be angry about.
The first three chapters of the Berserk manga are part of The Black Swordsman arc, wherein we first meet Guts. Here, he calls himself the Black Swordsman. Guts is well into a wrath-fueled and blood-drenched crusade against the monstrous demons called Apostles, their masters the God Hand, and their demonic king Griffith. Unapologetically gruesome, often toeing the line of obscene and deeply tragic, Berserk checks a lot of boxes in the edgy grimdark and power fantasy genres. The main character was literally born from a corpse. That’s pretty f*cking dark.
Treatise in Rage?
The Black Swordsman arc is definitely the angriest arc of Berserk. Indeed, this part of the story can often be off-putting for new readers. At the start of the arc Guts is obnoxiously rude, insensitive, and at times insufferably edgy. Fortunately, Μiura uses the wandering winged elf Puck to relieve some of the moments of hyper-violence and heavy themes through slapstick comedy and puns, or by simply representing the voice of the audience when Guts takes things too far.
Yet despite the doom and gloom of the early chapters of Berserk, we slowly start to see there’s more to Guts. (This is due in a lot of ways to the character foil that is Puck.) Personally, I’ve always found myself lingering on the exchange between Guts and a young noble girl named Theresia in the final pages of the third chapter of The Black Swordsman arc.
In the climax of the arc, we see Guts face off against the Count, a horrifying slug demon and Apostle of The God Hand. We learn that the Count discovered his wife committing adultery in a pagan sex ritual; in a fit of rage and grief, he sacrificed her to the God Hand in order to rid himself of human emotion. The Count then begins to rule his fiefdom with an iron fist, torturing and executing supposed heretics. Having shed his humanity to become an Apostle, these gruesome acts are really for his own sick enjoyment.
Theresia, the daughter of The Count, is used as a shield to allow Guts to strike a decisive final blow on the Count in their conclusive battle. In the final pages, Theresia swears revenge upon Guts; he smugly answers that he’ll be ready. Puck and the reader, however, catch a brief glimpse of the first cracks in the mask Guts wears before the chapter ends.
The Golden Age
As an adult, I struggle to recommend Berserk because of the content and themes, but I also think the series takes time to explore these subjects. Throughout the story, we see the trauma these characters have experienced, but we also see how they deal with that trauma. Guts’ actions during The Black Swordsman arc are barely justifiable and unnecessarily cruel, but as the arc ends the story jumps to an almost 12 volume flashback: The Golden Age arc.
The Golden Age arc is the most adapted and well-known arc of Berserk. We see every reason for Guts’ rage and descent into the murder machine we first encounter in The Black Swordsman arc. We discover that Guts was heavily abused by his unloving and unwilling foster caretaker, Gambino. The leader of a mercenary band, Gambino forces Guts into the life of mercenaries, living battle to battle; he even gives Guts his iconic nose scar in a sparring match.
Gambino resents Guts for the death of Shisu, Gambino’s lover and Guts’ adoptive mother. His resentment is so great that he even sells the young boy to another mercenary for the night. Later, in a fit of drunken rage, Gambino slips into Guts’ tent to finally kill the boy, taunting Guts by confirming that he was the one that sold him to the other mercenary. As Gambino charges for a killing blow, Guts instinctively grabs his sword and murders the only man he considers to be his father.
Origins of Cruelty
There’s so much more in between, but the final chapters of The Golden Age arc are heinously gruesome. Guts witnesses the massacre of every person he cares about as they are sacrificed to the Apostles and the God Hand during The Eclipse. The Black Swordsman arc is finally put into perspective, and we see Berserk undergo an evolution in theme.
At the end of The Golden Age arc, we’re fully informed of all the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and assault Guts suffers as a child and later as an adult. We come to see how the trauma has shaped not only Guts’ character, but his overall arc throughout Berserk. We finally understand why he doesn’t like to be touched, why he doesn’t trust anything supernatural, and exactly why he’s so damn angry.
The story picks up shortly after the apocalyptic Eclipse, with Guts hunting down another Apostle. Only this time, we understand his motivations. We begin to see Guts in a completely new light, and he’s almost a little gentler. Almost.
Dark Depths, New Hopes
What is so compelling about Berserk is that we see the trauma of most of the main characters explored pretty thoroughly. We see how these characters process trauma, and how it manifests in their lives, be it physically or psychologically. Casca’s trauma of being sold by her parents to be a sex slave to a nobleman, or her mental state after the Eclipse, having watched all her comrades die and being assaulted in front of her lover by the man she most idolized. Or Griffiths sordid sexual encounters with rich nobleman Gennon, undertaken to fund his army. The unknowingly incestuous and unrequited love between Farnese and Serpico. Berserk explores these themes to such an extent that it goes beyond shock value or even simple backstory, truly carving these characters into actual people who, while flawed, continue to persist in a world full of pain and suffering.
After the Golden Age arc, we see a large tonal shift with the Conviction arc. Guts convinces himself that his only path forward is to push away his emotions, but it quickly becomes evident that the dismal rage propelling him forward on his quest for revenge is consuming his entire being.
Upon his return to Godo’s home, Guts is soon confronted with his inability to move beyond his hatred for his former friend Griffith several times. A significant turning point in Guts character arc occurs at the field of swords. He sees how Rickert, former youngest member of The Band of the Hawk, has forged hundreds of swords in an effort to mourn the fallen members of The Band of the Hawk. Guts reflects that while he has remained the same, mired in hatred for years, Rickert has mourned and “found a new way to live.”
Over time Guts slowly comes to realize that unless he can start accepting help, relying on others, he won’t be able to protect Casca for long. He gains new companions, placing faith in strangers. His sense of hope begins to grow. However, Guts learns firsthand that not all broken things can be made whole again.
A Path Towards Redemption?
For a story that started off being about anger, Berserk really takes the time to show how these characters process their trauma. I think this can be pretty cathartic for a lot of people. Sometimes it can be close to impossible to cope, or accept, that what you have experienced is not okay. In other circumstances, grief and rage can consume you until you no longer feel a connection to yourself or what you hold dear. The struggle to heal is relentlessly difficult and always a larger, longer journey than we expect. Accepting help is hard, but learning to share and trust again can be rewarding. A realization — that something which was once whole may never be so again — looms heavily over the path to healing and actualization.
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear, Berserk is and has been a very influential work in my life, both artistically and inspirationally. Perhaps I’m making a bit of a stretch or reading between the lines too much with my aforementioned thoughts. Even Miura has stated that a lot of Berserk wasn’t planned until it was actually being created. Yet, there are moments of elegant beauty, unannounced compassion, endearing camaraderie, solemn catharsis, and excellent comedic timing that pierce through the thick veil of darkness that surrounds Guts and his companions. I think Berserk is a series that says, “it’s not too late to turn things around, but it will be very hard, and it will never be the same.”
On May 6th, 2021 Kentaro Miura passed away.