The older I get, the more I think there are few joys in life greater than the joy of knowing you’re not alone and few agonies greater than being abandoned — or abandoning others by choice.
Small wonder I responded to Volume 9 of Berserk so strongly, and not only because the previous eight volumes have established this series as being as violent on the emotions as it is in every other respect. Like Takehiko Inoue’s outstanding Vagabond (currently being reviewed by my colleague Eric Fredericksen), Berserk creator Kentaro Miura paints on such a broad emotional canvas that he seems to be hellbent on cramming whole lives into the pages. Life, love, sex, violence, death, transgression, redemption — it’s all here, on a scale and in a scope that puts so many other comics to shame.
The one life that Miura’s most determined to get into the pages is that of Guts, his (anti)hero — now alone again, having walked away from the only “family” he’s ever known, the mercenary Band of the Hawks. Their leader, Griffith, was determined to keep him amongst them, but Guts fought his way free, just like he fought his way into the group.
His determination to break free has led him into even greater danger. Alone in front of a campfire, he’s visited by the “Knight of Skeleton” (or maybe “Skeleton Knight,” depending on how it might be translated), a diabolical apparition who warns Guts of what his future holds, now that certain inevitable events have been set in motion: “You were born of a corpse … you are closer to death than anyone. Thus you excel at escaping it!” Notice he does not say that Guts excels at protecting others from it, of course.
Guts certainly can’t protect his former master, Griffith, now hellbent on ruling Midland by marrying Charlotte, the daughter of its king. Guts’s departure sends him into a rage: with something so valuable having slipped through his fingers, he’s become all the more obsessed with her. He already did away with Charlotte’s stepmother, but the girl herself remains unapproachable behind her father. Finally one night Griffith succumbs to his lusts, climbs into Charlotte’s bedroom through a window, and has his way with her — although despite her fear she is at least as much a willing accomplice to the whole thing. Her father’s response is to slide into near-madness (I love how the artwork makes him seem to age a whole decade or more in only a few pages), throw Griffith into the deepest dungeon he has, and subject him to ungodly torments without end.
And Guts can also no longer protect Casca, the one female member of the Hawks who forms the third side of the emotional triangle at the heart of this story. With Griffith suffering for his sins and Guts having set off for points unknown, it’s fallen to her to take command of the Hawks. What astonishes everyone is not just that she is able to do it at all, but that she does it strikingly well. Nothing will ever take the place of Griffith, however — or Guts — and the holes left by both of those men in the hearts of everyone around Casca, and especially Casca herself, are hard to fill.
Guts may be Byronic and Griffith Nietzschean, but Casca doesn’t fit easily into any one archetypal mold. Maybe that’s all for the best: as the one character who stands directly between the other two, a human(e) counterbalance to their extremes, she needs to stand free of such things. When Griffith makes an unexpected return to the Hawks — while, ironically enough, searching for the strongest possible opponent to test his skill against — she throws herself at him in a fury: “You’ve messed it all up … Griffith’s no good without you!” And since she was devoted to becoming Griffith’s sword (her words), by extension, she’s no good without Guts either. She cries, she rages, she even lets herself fall off the edge of the cliff they’re standing on — a nice redux of a similar moment in Volume 6 — only to discover that her rage is guilt, the guilt of having alienated the one other person in the world who might actually recognize her feelings.
What follows from this is the most devastating and moving sequence of the series so far, the best proof that the real power of this story is in the way it attacks the emotions as well as the senses. Shedding their defenses, Guts and Casca make love, and Miura assembles this scene with such tenderness it almost doesn’t seem like the same artist that produced the rest of the book. Then Guts’s violent side reasserts itself as he associates what he’s putting Casca through with what his own sexual tormentors put him through early in his life. It is excruciating to watch, but at the same time absolutely vital: something within both of them is being burned away once and for all. And once that pain is gone, each sees in the other something to be cherished and defended that is greater than any army that ever could be raised.
When people say a book is “violent,” they usually mean the physical variety. Berserk is violent in every respect: it rattles the eyeteeth of your heart as much as it shows bodies colliding and swords tearing through flesh. But it’s all for the right reasons. By the end of the book both Guts and Casca have been stripped wholly naked, not just physically but emotionally as well, and the last panels of the book bring to mind a formula David Lynch has claimed is central to all of his movies: “Love in the midst of Hell.” That could easily be the tagline for Berserk too.