Berserk does the one thing I almost never see in epic fantasy: It takes the full implications of its setting seriously. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all of its scope and careful detail, feels too much like a fairy-tale for the darker elements of the story to have any gravity. Berserk is as blood-spattered, violent, and grim as a tale deserves to be when it is set in an era of feudal warfare. It knows that life in such a time is, to quote Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short; that men will do anything in their power to live a little longer than the opposition; that history is written by victors and studied by everyone else; and that our world is built thanks to the millions of dead who came before.
It’s also an incredibly exhilarating show, and for exactly all of those reasons. Granted, it’s hard to make any movie about war — whether it’s the Vietnam War or a wholly fantastic conflict — without making it entertaining, and thereby making war itself seem like fun. François Truffaut pointed this out time and again, which was probably a big part of the reason the anti-war Johnny Got his Gun was one of his favorite films. Berserk makes war seem exciting, but also never shies from the fact that (as Barrows Dunham put it) in war one’s lands are devastated, one’s friends get killed, ones family gets killed, and you get killed yourself. So what kind of man would possibly want to make a living out of it?
Orphaned lone swordsman Guts finds his place in the world in
the Band of the Hawks, led by the charismatic and ambitious Griffith.
Rings had Middle-earth; Berserk gives us “Midland,” patterned vaguely after the Europe of the Thirty Years’ War. The armies of the King of Midland are locked in a difficult, grueling and fruitless war that has gone on for over a century with their neighboring country Chuder. The one thing that may tip the war’s balance is Midland’s employ of a group of mercenaries known as the Band of the Hawks — the “heroes” of the story, for lack of anyone more appropriate to put into that category. They do the closest thing to the right things most of the time, but we never lose sight of the fact that they are, essentially, killers for hire.
Key members of the Hawks come into view immediately. Guts (or “Gatsu”, as his name is sometimes translated), a giant wall of a man who wields a sword almost twice as tall as he is, was an orphan adopted into another mercenary band. Gambino, the leader of that group, was the only father he had ever known: abusive, tempestuous, resenting the boy’s need for attention. Readers of Richard Rhodes’s Why They Kill will recognize the “process of violentization” at work here: the young Guts is educated into violence as a way of life, as the only way of life, and responds in kind. He slaughters his own adoptive father — even if only by accident — and wanders out into the world to sell his sword to whoever will have him. (The younger members of the Hawks are also barely more than children — that in itself a nod to the notion that it was post-industrial society that probably created the whole idea of adolescence.)
Guts's violence, borne of his own violent past, can be harnessed
and channeled in the group, something Griffith does expertly.
He wanders. He encounters another young man, Griffith, the leader of the then-fledgling Hawks, who with his flowing fair hair and effeminate features would hardly seem to be much of a challenge. Griffith is an even better swordsman than Guts, matching the larger man’s brawn and raw power with elegance and cunning. Even at that early time the Hawks have a reputation for being virtually invincible, thanks to Griffith’s remarkable sense of tactics. Once Guts becomes part of his crew, he uses him — sometimes subtly, sometimes not — to further hone the edge they have over their opponents. It is one of the story’s great ironies that for all of his keen insight into other people’s strategies, the one thing Griffith cannot see is the consequences of his own actions.
There is another member of the Hawks who becomes pivotal to the story: Casca, the only female soldier in the crew, whose heart becomes increasingly divided between her charismatic commander and this brooding new addition to the band. Her story parallels Guts in some ways. She was almost raped by a nobleman when she was a young girl, and Griffith saved her — not by killing the rapist, but by allowing her to do so, and then offering her the choice to come with him. Guts is distinctly uncomfortable around her — not simply because she’s female, but because he knows under the skin they are quite alike, and there is nothing more disorienting for a compulsive loner than to discover that he’s not that alone anymore.
Casca, the Hawks' sole female member, shares an origin remarkably like Guts's:
Griffith gave her the chance to take her life into her own hands through violence.
The relationship between the three of them dominates most of Berserk, and is told with great clarity and grace. There’s never a time when we don’t understand or empathize with everyone involved, and that is, I think, the key to the story’s success. We are not simply witnessing what happens; we are emotional participants in it, and there is something in each of the major characters for almost everyone watching to connect with. Griffith is by far my favorite, a genuinely philosophical figure who knows exactly what he wants from life and completely understands the implications of his desires. Born a commoner, his one great ambition is to create a kingdom for himself and his people — the Hawks, who are a people not because of blood or soil but common ideals.
Griffith will also do absolutely anything to fulfill these dreams, and there are several startling episodes in the middle of the story where we see just how unflinching his dedication is to himself. At one point the group needs supplies. He prostitutes himself to a rich nobleman to procure the needed money, and we see a glimpse of real vulnerability in him when he washes himself off in the river the next morning. Yes, this hurt him, but it will hurt him even more to know there was something he could have done to further his dream, and did not. At another point he enlists Guts as an assassin, and is startled by the other man’s willingness to go along with the plan — not simply that Guts is so willing to be used, but that for all of the things he could see clearly about Guts (many of which he implemented in battle), he didn’t see this.
Griffith's ambitions grow until he is willing to seduce, to lie,
and to even employ Guts as a tool of assassination.
Casca is every bit as complex. Late in the story, Griffith is betrayed and imprisoned, and tortured mercilessly until he is reduced to nothing more than a living corpse. Casca assumes command of the Hawks in Griffith’s absence, and proves herself to be magnificently capable of the task. There is never a doubt in her mind that their ultimate mission is to bring Griffith back — no, not even when what they find is in no way capable of ever leading the group again, not even when Guts makes it clear to her that he wants nothing more in the world than to just leave all this behind, take her with him, and create something all of his own.
The Hawks help Midland win their war, and then the real ambitions of the story come into view: how all of this is simply a means to an end. It is not enough for Griffith to simply win in one part of his life; he must conquer everything. He and the Hawks are granted the status of noblemen, and with that he begins to engineer plans to displace the powers that be and replace them on his own. The other Hawks — especially Casca — are of mixed feelings about the whole thing, particularly since they are most familiar and comfortable with fighting, not politics. Then Griffith overplays his hand by attempting to seduce a princess, and the group is plunged into sufferings they could never have imagined.
The show's strength grows from the way it sees and
depicts all three characters with great clarity and purpose.
Grisly and graphic as the show can be, it never veers into total gratuitousness. This is, after all, a story about violent people in violent times. And yet there are also a great many moments of tenderness and joy, as when the Hawks return to Midland as heroes and feel almost awkwardly pleased at being so celebrated. The story also earns every single one of its emotional moments: when Guts and Casca kiss, it’s for real; it’s not something they’ve been pushed into by the screenplay. Berserk takes such great time and care to develop everyone that it lends credence to the theory that it’s episodic TV, rather than two-hour films, that are better suited to adapting character-driven stories.
The show also wastes nothing: every facet of Berserk reflects its underlying theme — fate vs. personal choice, or whether or not it’s possible for human will, singly or collectively, to change the shape of things for the better. The ambition of such a notion is also echoed in each of the characters, all of whom are fighting against everything from circumstance to their own inner natures to do something better. If the deck is indeed stacked, the story argues, it is not stacked so thoroughly that men cannot try. That they try at all is in some ways more than enough, and we see how their choices cause them to change and grow, not simply to react statically to everything that happens.
The last four episodes of the series draw such ire from many viewers that for some they invalidate everything that came before. It involves a supernatural and downright eschatological turn of events, one which seems more suited to something like Legend of the Overfiend than what Berserk has been promising. That said, if you go back and rewatch the first episode immediately after the last one, and think about many of the things that we have witnessed along the way, it does make sense; it’s an extension of everything the show has been building up to into a whole new realm. The show’s creators even give us an extended set of fantasy sequences to make this clear. Griffith made a lifetime commitment to his dream — maybe not simply this lifetime, but any that might come after as well — and these are the consequences that even he could not see.
There was clearly meant to be more, however, and it shows. Berserk was adapted from a monumentally long-running manga series by Kentaro Miura — twenty-nine volumes and running in Japan, and now appearing in a legitimate English translation thanks to Dark Horse Comics. Miura has gone on record to say that he would need at least fifty volumes of manga to tell the story he has in mind, and that if a second season of Berserk were to be made, he would want to have as much material for it as possible before starting such a project. Even without a follow-up in the works, what we have of Berserk ranks alongside Akira and the Ghibli/Miyazaki films as anime at its very best, and deserves to be seen even by audiences outside of its natural fandom.