“Tell me — do I need a reason each time I put myself in harm’s way for your sake?”
The sixth volume of Berserk opens with those words, spoken by Griffith — words startling to Guts in the extreme since he’s never had anyone else put himself in harm’s way for him before. Being one of the Band of the Hawk has forced Guts to rethink his place in the world. He’s no longer just one alone, but one of — so maybe he’ll stay and wield his sword for Griffith’s sake, if only for a while. Maybe until something better comes along … without considering, of course, that may be nothing better in this world will come along for him, and that this is as good as it gets.
It’s this kind of insight that makes Berserk so much more than just a war story or a gory adventure, and volume six provides some of the finest character-driven moments in the series on everyone’s part so far. The book doesn’t forget to give us a generous helping of mayhem, either, but always in context: this is, after all, a story about violent men in violent times, and talking about men of war without actually seeing how they wage war kind of misses the point. In this volume we see yet another extension of that theme come into play: what people do when they are faced with the prospect of scrapping one way of life entirely for another. It could be the untested and innocent being forced to take up arms, or it could be noblemen faced with the prospect of having their power pass into the hands of commoners.
After their last spate of successes on the battlefield, the Band of the Hawk — and Guts and Griffith, most specifically — have come into great favor with the king of Midland. The king has enough wisdom to recognize that good things do not have to come exclusively from the nobility: “Men not taken in by status will form the cornerstone of this kingdom,” he declares, and he probably even believes it, too. Contrasted against this is the king’s younger brother, Julius, harboring a simmering resentment right from the start for Griffith and the rest of his gang. It isn’t just that Griffith is a commoner, a man with no land or bloodline to speak of, and it isn’t just that he commands an army of his own, but that he’s being rewarded in ways that will give him things that many noblemen never achieve.
Worst of all, that commoner has eyes for the king’s daughter, Charlotte — young, shy and winsome, exactly the sort of person Griffith can win over with his unending natural charisma almost without trying. We know, without being told, that Griffith’s interest in her may be purely strategic — but at the same time, there are moments when we seem to be seeing a wholly different kind of man around her. There’s a scene during a hunting party where he shares with her the simple joy of playing a blown leaf, and it’s all the more startling because for a moment there doesn't seem to be any ulterior motives at work on his part. The scene’s given even greater context by a shot of Casca watching them from a distance, and the look on her face says: What makes him happy, makes me happy too.
This is not the kind of world where such happiness can last, of course — and barely a few moments later, Griffith is almost killed by a poisoned crossbow bolt courtesy of one of Julius’s minions. The only thing that saves him is the Behelit dangling from his neck, which miraculously intercepted the blow (as per that story about the steel-jacketed Bible that saved a GI in WWII). And not long after that, Giffith invites Guts into his chambers and calmly tells him to go assassinate Julius in retaliation. It will be the first time Guts has ever done anything that deliberate and calculated off the battlefield, and it ends in the ghastly deaths of not only Julius but also his son, a helpless bystander. Guts looks into the boy’s dying eyes and can see nothing but himself as he was all those years ago, fleeing from his father-figure tormentor Gambino. To kill someone in the heat of warfare is one thing, but assassination is a world removed from warfare, and it’s the first hint to Guts that no matter what he’s seen in this world there is always something far worse.
Come to think of it, Volume 6’s big hallmark is how many scenes there are of that level of emotional magnitude, or even greater. After Guts’s botched assassination job, he stumbles back to Casca, hollow-eyed and smeared with blood, most of it not his — and the two of them witness Griffith serenading Charlotte with a monologue which feels like the first time he has ever come completely clean about his beliefs. To simply exist is not enough. One has to have a dream, something to be shared — and the only thing more impressive than that is to meet someone else who is just as driven. (And given the reaction shot of Guts at that moment, it’s not hard to tell who Griffith is thinking of.)
And at the end of the book, there’s just time enough for Casca to step into the spotlight. When she and Guts are separated from the others during the heat of battle, she falls ill, and between bouts of fever tells Guts her story of how she came into Griffith’s company. Those of you who have seen the TV series will remember this sequence, since it’s reprised there in almost exactly the same manner: Griffith came across Casca when she was about to be raped by a nobleman, and offered her a series of choices — to kill her aggressor or not to kill, to follow Griffith or not, to follow her head or her heart. Like everyone else in this story, she made her choices and has stuck with them ever since, and the consequences of those choices are still unfolding around her every moment.
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.
Even in the quieter and more character-driven moments, Berserk still captures all your attention.
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, you can immediately see what the screaming is about. By Volume 6, the art’s already improved quite a bit over the earlier books, and the slight change in the story’s venues gives him that much more diversity of scenery — there are more scenes in and around the castles of Midland’s royalty, for instance, with many lushly-depicted interiors. In general, 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 isn’t flowing and the weapons aren’t flying,Berserk still manages to be one of the most compelling manga around — and it does that by giving us three unforgettably-delineated characters who stay with you long after the book’s closed. This is a series to stay with and treasure even despite (and maybe because of) its extremes, both visceral and emotional.