Volume 29 of Berserk is Berserk as we may well have to like it. That must sound miles removed from the fanboy-ish praise I know I’ve lavished on this series in the first ten to twelve volumes of its run. But there’s no denying that the story has undergone major changes of direction, major shifts in tone, major alterations of focus. That might well be the karma, the fate of any long-running series; there were dozens of books in the hundred-plus Guin Saga series where protagonist Guin himself doesn’t even appear or only enters as a peripheral figure. That doesn’t make it any less problematic to grapple with whenever it comes up.
The first dozen or so books of Berserk were all setup. They gave us the three key characters and their conflicts: Guts, the demon-chased Black Swordsman; Griffith, the leader of the Band of the Hawk, who traded earthly life as a warrior (and the lives of his comrades) to be reincarnated as an embodiment of evil; and Casca, the woman mercenary caught between both of them. Now Guts has a new group of hangers-on — the witch Schierke, the would-be kid warrior Isidro, and the former holy knight and now potential witch-in-training Farnese; Griffith has returned to the earth and created a new Band of the Hawk, and seeks nothing short of world domination; and Casca is now a near-insensate husk of a woman, whom Guts and his crew have plans to take to a distant land in search of a cure for her madness.
You don’t need to read more than one book in this part of the arc to see how radically the story has changed. Just opening to any two pages will do, come to think of it. It’s not just the plotting or the direction of events, but the whole tone, the treatment of events, the particular details that Kentaro Miura zooms in on…it’s as if a different writer took over after Miura and just used his notes. And yet at the same time, with all that has changed — plenty of it not for the better — this is still unmistakably Miura’s work. His worldview, his sensibilities about things, and most importantly his understanding of his characters, are all still there. It’s just that the way he’s chosen to bring all this to his audience is radically unlike the way we got used to it in the story’s original arc. That’s the one most of us have read, the one that was made into the (smashingly brilliant) TV series adapted from the manga, and the one this volume and all the others this late in the series are being held up against.
If there’s one thing people complain about now, it’s the humor. Maybe Miura felt that the irredeemably bleak worldview of Berserk needed some leavening. The series is about nothing less than the end of the world and the concept of God as a malign thug; it doesn’t get bleaker than that. But the way Miura has been compensating for all that as of late has been grating on reader’s nerves. He uses a good deal of Guts’s new crew as comic relief — Puck the elf, for instance — in a way that seems aimed more at comic relief for the series as a whole, since those first brutal volumes, rather than anything happening on the page right now. Maybe he figured after all those thousands of pages of blood and death and suffering we needed a few more giggles — or maybe he needed them — but it’s the wrong kind of giggles, delivered the wrong way. (How about an Ashita no Joe visual gag? That’s in here, stupefyingly enough.)
What I do like, however, is all the material that is still firmly rooted in the themes Berserk started with and has developed since. The more we learn of Farnese, for instance, the more compelling she becomes; she’s taking on the gravity of a central character and not just a hanger-on slotted in to fill the space Casca left behind. When we first met her, she was a young woman firmly convinced of the correctness of her crusade. Then we saw this fevered righteousness was a response to her own damaged life — she either had to find something bigger than herself to believe in or go mad. And now she has, with glum resignation, come full circle: she returns to the father she spurned when she left her holy order, and allows herself to be married off so that her friends can obtain the ship they need. In this way, she tells herself, she will at least be of some use to her friends. She may have been a lousy witch-in-training, but she can at least be a passable politician. This part of the story, with its attendant court intrigue and a terrific supporting character in the person of Farnese’s mother (she knows her daughter very well indeed, from what we see of her), goes a long way towards putting things back on track.
Another thing that people have not admired, but which does make sense in a larger way, is the way Guts himself has changed. He is no longer quite the mad dog that we saw back at the start of this odyssey through multiple hells. Battle has tempered him in more ways than one. There are times when he smiles, when he regards others with something like affection, when he seems like he has drifted that much closer towards humanity. And then there is the last chapter of the volume, where he slides that heap of iron out of its scabbard and smiles that shark’s smile of his and devastates everything in front of him. That part’s thrown in, I guess, as a way to reassure the longtime fans that the Guts of old is not quite out to the abattoir yet.
There is no series of significant length, be it Berserk or Ah! My Goddess, that runs without at least a few dry spells. I know folks who are grimly accepting the possibility that Berserk’s best years may already be well behind it, that anything Miura has up his sleeves for the future and the conclusion of his life’s work simply won’t measure up to what’s already been delivered. I look at volume 29 and I see what they mean. But for all the unevenness and the questionable choices and the problems, I still see more than a few moments that are pure Berserk.