Volume 29 of Berserk is Berserk as we may well have tolike it. That must sound miles removed from the fanboy-ish praise Iknow I’ve lavished on this series in the first ten to twelve volumes ofits run. But there’s no denying that the story has undergone majorchanges 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 serieswhere protagonist Guin himself doesn’t even appear or only enters as aperipheral figure. That doesn’t make it any less problematic to grapplewith whenever it comes up.
The first dozen or so books of Berserkwere all setup. They gave us the three key characters and theirconflicts: Guts, the demon-chased Black Swordsman; Griffith, the leaderof the Band of the Hawk, who traded earthly life as a warrior (and thelives of his comrades) to be reincarnated as an embodiment of evil; andCasca, the woman mercenary caught between both of them. Now Guts has anew group of hangers-on—the witch Schierke, the would-be kid warriorIsidro, and the former holy knight and now potential witch-in-trainingFarnese; Griffith has returned to the earth and created a new Band ofthe Hawk, and seeks nothing short of world domination; and Casca is nowa near-insensate husk of a woman, whom Guts and his crew have plans totake 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 tosee how radically the story has changed. Just opening to any two pageswill do, come to think of it. It’s not just the plotting or thedirection of events, but the whole tone, the treatment of events, theparticular details that Kentaro Miura zooms in on…it’s as if adifferent writer took over after Miura and just used his notes. And yetat the same time, with all that has changed—plenty of it not for thebetter—this is still unmistakably Miura’s work. His worldview, hissensibilities about things, and most importantly his understanding ofhis characters, are all still there. It’s just that the way he’s chosento bring all this to his audience is radically unlike the way we gotused to it in the story’s original arc. That’s the one most of us haveread, the one that was made into the (smashingly brilliant) TV seriesadapted from the manga, and the one this volume and all the others thislate 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 worldand the concept of God as a malign thug; it doesn’t get bleaker thanthat. But the way Miura has been compensating for all that as of latehas been grating on reader’s nerves. He uses a good deal of Guts’s newcrew as comic relief—Puck the elf, for instance—in a way that seemsaimed more at comic relief for the series as a whole, since those firstbrutal volumes, rather than anything happening on the page right now.Maybe he figured after all those thousands of pages of blood and deathand 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 Berserkstarted with and has developed since. The more we learn of Farnese, forinstance, the more compelling she becomes; she’s taking on the gravityof a central character and not just a hanger-on slotted in to fill thespace Casca left behind. When we first met her, she was a young womanfirmly convinced of the correctness of her crusade. Then we saw thisfevered righteousness was a response to her own damaged life—she eitherhad to find something bigger than herself to believe in or go mad. Andnow she has, with glum resignation, come full circle: she returns tothe father she spurned when she left her holy order, and allows herselfto be married off so that her friends can obtain the ship they need. Inthis way, she tells herself, she will at least be of some useto her friends. She may have been a lousy witch-in-training, but shecan at least be a passable politician. This part of the story, with itsattendant court intrigue and a terrific supporting character in theperson of Farnese’s mother (she knows her daughter very well indeed,from what we see of her), goes a long way towards putting things backon track.
Another thing that people have not admired, but whichdoes 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 thisodyssey through multiple hells. Battle has tempered him in more waysthan one. There are times when he smiles, when he regards others withsomething like affection, when he seems like he has drifted that muchcloser towards humanity. And then there is the last chapter of thevolume, where he slides that heap of iron out of its scabbard andsmiles that shark’s smile of his and devastates everything in front ofhim. That part’s thrown in, I guess, as a way to reassure the longtimefans 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’sbest years may already be well behind it, that anything Miura has uphis sleeves for the future and the conclusion of his life’s work simplywon’t measure up to what’s already been delivered. I look at volume 29and I see what they mean. But for all the unevenness and thequestionable choices and the problems, I still see more than a fewmoments that are pure Berserk.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind