“Man wields the sword so that he might die smiling.”
Those words cover most of one page in the fifth volume of Berserk, right as the heroes of the story — Guts, Griffith, Casca, and the rest of the Hawks — all prepare to do exactly that. Their mercenary band fights not merely to kill, but to perhaps even guarantee themselves a happy death, something they have a far better chance of seeking as a group than any of them do alone. Thus is explained the motives of any clan, any city-state, any nation that ever existed.
It’s heady stuff for a manga, but the consistently amazing thing about Berserk is how it can tackle these massive ideas and somehow come out on top, and not be defeated by them. On the surface, it’s a bruising adventure story of blood and ambition, and just under that it’s something else entirely — an epic about one of the biggest questions we ask ourselves: Are we really “the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul,” or are we just the puppets of unknown gods? (And if we did find out, could we stand up under the weight of the truth?)
Book five opens with Guts still trying to reconcile the meaning of his place in the Band of the Hawks. He now has a home of sorts where before he didn’t imagine he could belong anywhere at all in the world. He’s also now something of a hero after being a key figure carefully-orchestrated and brilliantly-executed sneak attack — one which worked if only because Griffith put Guts in a position to do the one thing he does best: kill. Rather than celebrate any kind of victory with the group, though, Guts sits alone and broods (in one of Kentaro Miura’s most signature images of the character, framed against the stars with his feet up) — at least until Pippin, the walking man-mountain of the Hawks, drags Guts back into the company of the other mercs, and pours a drink down his throat.
Soon enough Guts realizes things are indeed different for him. He’s so unused to any place where he’s not just welcome, but valued, that he’s not sure how to respond. Maybe he does belong here, though — in this most unusual band of mercenary soldiers led by this doubly unusual man of singular vision. And how exactly is he to respond to Griffith, that man of vision with the smile of a child and the killing instinct of a cobra — so playful and indolent one moment, and coldly plotting doom in the next? “There issomething about him that’s different from us,” says Judeau (another of the Hawks, to whom Guts opens up a bit more than usual), “and it’s conviction.”
Griffith’s conviction shapes all their destinies, and he also makes no secret of what that conviction is. He wants his own land, with himself as king. He will sacrifice everything there is, everything he knows, to reach this goal, himself included. In that sense, he and Guts are exactly the same: they will both do what it takes to get what they need — even if their needs are completely different. Griffith is prepared to forfeit the Hawks as they are now to reach that goal; there is no guarantee that any one of them may make it there with him. But he is also no hypocrite about this — he makes no secret of it, and because of that men are compelled to fight in his company. Why not fight for an honest man, since you know exactly where you stand with him, even if it’s with one foot always in the grave?
All of this is thrown into sharp relief when Griffith and Guts face off against Zodd, an enemy who transforms from a brute of a man into a demonic monster — the first such beast that Guts has greeted up close. It will be far from the last, since his clash with it will hint at the superhuman level of endurance he must exhibit later on in the series — and many other things that remain unexplored. The monster only flees when it sees the Behelit around Griffith’s neck, but leaves Guts with a dire warning: “If you can be said to be a true friend of this man, then take heed — when his ambition collapses, death will pay you a visit! A death you can never escape!”
And yet, after it all, Griffith is as calm as ever: “Do I need a reason every time I put myself in harm’s way for your sake?” In his mind, the reason and the act are one and the same — something he shares with his friend whether or not they both acknowledge it.
Click on the image for more examples of Berserk's art, courtesy of Dark Horse. (C) 1992 By Kentaro Miura. English translation (2) 2004 by Dark Horse Comics, Inc., and Digital Manga, Inc. All rights reserved.
Art: One constant point of praise for Berserk is Kentaro Miura’s artwork, and even though the first volumes are a little rougher and less polished than the later ones, although fast improving (his anatomy and perspective are sometimes a bit awkward), you can immediately see what the screaming is about. Miura’s loving attention to detail on most any page or panel is stupefying — and sometimes downright repulsive, as when he shows Guts spattering his namesake across the page. But he also pays great attention to other kinds of details that matter — the look on a face, the knotted muscles in one’s shoulders or neck — and his character designs are markedly more “Western” (and that much more striking) than what you’d see in most other fantasy manga. It’s the sort of design work that’s impossible to mistake for anyone else’s achievements.
Translation: Dark Horse has almost never done a bad job with any of their titles.Berserk has been presented unflopped and uncensored (each volume is also in shrinkwrap, this being an 18+ title), although only spoken texts have been relettered. Sound effects are not translated or retouched, and there’s no glossary of same in the back. I could say that’s a minus, since Berserk is one of those titles that a fan from another kind of comic oeuvre (i.e., Heavy Metal) might be able to get into, and the lack of FX translations might be a stumbling block for them. But I suspect the force of the story and artwork would win people over in time.
The Bottom Line: Even when the blood and guts aren’t flying, the dilemmas and conflicts both inside and outside the characters make Berserk is still one of the most compelling manga currently running. And to think, the best is yet to come.