Reviews of Berserk (1989) and related work

Berserk (1989Sequential art with text)

Miura Kentarō (writer-artist).

This review refers to the first 30 collected volumes.

A mercenary band finds a newborn under a woman hung from a tree. It’s a boy. Named Guts, he is raised to take orders. Powered by the rage of what his father figure does to him, he wields a blade as tall as he is, even as an adult. Under the blue skies of youth he enters the service of Griffith, an up-and-coming mercenary leader who treats him well and earns his unquestioning loyalty. A long period of war is slowly drawing to a close.

The first three volumes of the comic show Guts at a much later stage, a cruel and solitary figure with one eye and one arm, hunting Griffith in a land of corruption and living nightmares. The reasons gradually unfold. Guts, having performed a particularly horrible service one night, overhears Griffith explaining how a real friend is someone who does not merely follow, but who has his own dream instead.

In “Magic in Fantasy and Fiction” (1929), G. K. Chesterton noted that good or “white” magic restores some previous state. That is basically true in The Lord of the Rings (1954), as well as in Narnia, where disorder afflicts the land. Those are fantasy versions of stories told in Nazism, socialism, neoliberalism, the Christ myth, and many other contexts. Villains like Sauron, Jadis, the Jews, the capitalists, John Maynard Keynes or Satan are said to work against the shared interests of all humanity. In the case of Berserk, the villains form the God Hand. What usually happens in these Chestertonian “restoration narratives” is that underdog heroes revolt against the villains, overcoming evil and restoring a previous order. That is the spine of so much fantasy because, in it, the model for what’s right is both proven and readily available. It’s the past. Evil is reduced to a temporary interruption.

The restoration narrative, with or without Chesterton’s magic, is usually narcissistic and romantic. In reality, would-be heroes like Hitler pick the part of history that most resembles their ideal, and misinterpret it as they see fit. In a literary fantasy like Berserk, the writer has much more freedom. You can place anything in the past to glorify it, like Narnia’s divine right. The interesting thing about Berserk is that it plays with this motif but rejects it. This is most obvious in the long flashback that starts in the last chapter of volume 3 and ends at the beginning of volume 14. If Miura had lived to finish his detours, the God Hand may eventually have been overthrown, but throughout those linear volumes that made the series so beloved, the real story arc points downward, and nothing is restored. Instead, you get something like Michel de Montaigne’s recounting of an old folktale in volume 1, chapter 22 of Essays (1580):

He seems to me to have had a right and true apprehension of the power of custom, who first invented the story of a country-woman who, having accustomed herself to play with and carry a young calf in her arms, and daily continuing to do so as it grew up, obtained this by custom, that, when grown to be a great ox, she was still able to bear it. For, in truth, custom is a violent and treacherous schoolmistress. She, by little and little, slily and unperceived, slips in the foot of her authority, but having by this gentle and humble beginning, with the benefit of time, fixed and established it, she then unmasks a furious and tyrannic countenance, against which we have no more the courage or the power so much as to lift up our eyes.

Guts, Miura’s hero, grows up holding bigger and bigger swords. He gains strength through the custom of progressive overload, like Montaigne’s country-woman or Milo of Croton. When Guts meets the villains, and they unmask their tyrannic countenances, strength is not enough. Guts doesn’t have what it takes. Miura teases the conservative optimism of normal fantasy narratives, then yanks it away—as promised by the prologue—and delivers something much more amazing. Even along the way, the past is not an idyll. Guts is one of few male action heroes who’ve been raped.

To make another comparison, if the pre-flashback chapters are the unrest in Thebes at the very beginning of Oedipus Rex (ca. 429 BCE), the flashback chapters magnify the scene of Oedipus killing a stranger on the dusty road, spinning 10 volumes of comics out of the equivalent events. It took courage and talent to shape the tragic crux in such an unusual way. The sheer linearity of the flashback is impressive in itself; a dark fantasy in the mode of Digenes Akritas, using causality to reinforce the notion of destiny in the “hand of god”.

After that, Miura—like Sophocles—admittedly lost track of the narrative, but on the other hand, he got better at drawing as the story went on. As things stand, the back story alone is rich enough for a masterpiece, and it is the best part of Berserk. I am undecided on the unfinished continuation.

Miura’s failure to complete the work notwithstanding, the pessimism and imagination of the setting are comparable to The Night Land (1912), the grand sweep of the slowly escalating power fantasy resembles The Stars My Destination (1956), and the historical verisimilitude—15th-century pseudo-European—is well above what I expect from ultraviolent seinen manga. Berserk became the premiere example of dark fantasy from 1990s Japan.

A note on the main character’s name: “Guts” is written with katakana as ガッツ, implying it is non-Japanese. “Guts” is the official English-language rendering, and this is correct, down to the little ッ that indicates a pause between the two syllables. It works for both of the English-language meanings: Courage and gore.

Practically all the characters have European-sounding names, many of them drawn from reality, like “Gambino”. Guts in particular has a specific historical analogue in the one-handed Götz von Berlichingen, which adds a second layer of correspondence to his name. There is also a third layer.

In the system of radicals that underpin the kanji, there is 歹, named gatsu. According to Wikipedia, its pictorial meaning is bone scraped clear of flesh. When used as a component of other kanji, it generally signifies death or injury. Because these topics are somewhat taboo, you will sometimes see the name of the radical rendered in katakana to dissociate the sound of its name from its grim meaning. The little ッ is never used in the name of the radical, but it’s hard to imagine Miura would not have considered the word, given how strongly Guts himself is associated with death, from before he is even born.

References here: Altered Carbon (2018), Vinland Saga (2019), “Jibaro” (2022).

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Berserk (1997Moving picture, 10 hours)

This series covers the ground of the comic roughly through volumes 3–13, the latter being only recently released at the time. There is a strong emphasis on the flashback, with the “black swordsman” phase of Guts’s life limited to the first episode and using very little of the material from volumes 1–3.

A fine adaptation of the comic’s strongest material on cels, made even stronger by its near-isolation from the rest, emphasizing the unusual tragic structure and excluding almost all comic relief, including Puck. It’s a little cleaner than the original though. In one of the comic’s most infamous scenes, a male mercenary tries to rape a preteen Guts, who resists until he understands that Gambino himself has sold him for the night. None of that in this adaptation, just a demonic hand to mark its place.

The colour design is drab by Japanese standards but looks excellent to me. The shading is a bigger problem, with lots of plate armour looking thick, flat and dull, contributing to a general lack of visual depth. The score, by Hirasawa Susumu, is brilliant. He did not do the inferior opening or ending themes.

The adaptation ends on a cliffhanger that leaves a lot of space between the first episode and the end of the massive flashback. However, this adaptation is complete unto itself. It was not intended to go on but to please readers of the comic and draw in more of them. Many years would pass before Miura wrote enough of the comic to justify adaptations of that newer material.

A note on the original title, 剣風伝奇ベルセルク (kenpuu denki beruseruku): kenpuu is a neologism composed of ken for “sword” (or “blade”), and fuu for “style” or “method” but also “wind”; denki is written with a set of kanji that imply the meaning “romance”, in the sense of knightly romance (den means “strange” or “curious” in this case) rather than a love story. However, a materially more common way to spell denki gives it the meaning of “biography”. A clumsy literal translation would be “Berserk: A Romance of Swordsmanship”. Focusing on other visual and auditory layers, we might get “Berserk: Legend of a Life in the Swordwind”. Either way, the concept of a berserker doesn’t show up in this adaptation.

References here: Adventures of the Mini Goddesses (1998), Paranoia Agent (2004).

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Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I – The Egg of the King (2012Moving picture, 76 minutes)

Seen in 2013.

As in episodes 2-10 of the TV series, but omitting, for instance, the circumstances of Guts’ birth and childhood, and the scheming Foss.

Cel-shaded 3D CGI. As such, it’s relatively bright and clean.

The narrative is too compressed. Unlike the 1997 series, this is just a digest version of the comic, albeit in good cinematic style. The film, like the TV series, elides the rape of Guts. Here it’s a low-frame-rate fever dream that only readers of the comic are expected to understand.

References here: Berserk (2016).

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‣‣ Berserk: The Golden Age Arc II – The Battle for Doldrey (2012Moving picture, 80 minutes)

Seen in 2013.

Less rushed. There are still some ugly CG shots, but the general standard is more mature.

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‣‣ Berserk: The Golden Age Arc III – The Advent (2013Moving picture, 110 minutes)

Seen in 2017.

About the same ground as episodes 21-25 of the 1997 series, plus scenes from the comic, to advertise it and the next adaptation: Pseudo-Arabian skirmishers, whispers of the Vatican, an appearance by Puck, and plenty of scenes with the Skull Knight.

Slowing down to the same pace as the 1997 series, with a higher budget and animators now accustomed to the hybrid 2D-3D style, this finale is visually rewarding. It recalls the scenes of the comic better than the TV version, often with the appropriate emotional force. The landscape of the Eclipse is like Miura’s obsessively detailed drawings come to life, and there are several long shots of faces subtly shifting through a range of emotions.

The Skull Knight, absent in the 1997 series, is a major presence here, and well executed; his angular visual design and glowing eyes look great in cel-shaded 3D. The uglier sides of the source material are also on display. The elaborate rape of Casca, though motivated by Griffith’s jealousy, stands in stark contrast to the elided rape of Guts. A sexist double standard. The film even shows Casca’s mental enfeeblement after being rescued, another distasteful plot convenience of the comic.

As in the TV series, the last scene is of the maimed protagonist arming himself to continue his life of struggle. This follows the end credits. The maturity of the visual style is better illustrated by the preceding shot: The camera retreats a great distance from the first dawn Guts sees following the Eclipse, and sinks into the bending CGI grass. A dolly or drone shot like this would have been impossible both in 2D animation and in live action, yet its execution here is perfectly tasteful.

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Berserk (2016Moving picture, 10 hours)

Seen in 2017.

Review refers to the broadcast version as seen on Crunchyroll, with censoring.

Having survived the Eclipse and blunted a new sword, Guts meets a tiny elf named Puck, and pursues the Apostles. Casca has not fared so well.

Almost entirely cel-shaded 3D CGI. It should perhaps be regarded as a sequel to the cel-shaded trilogy starting with The Egg of the King (2012), or else a sequel to the 1997 adaptation, but the picture is confused by the large media landscape of the franchise, with a 1999 video game taking place around the end of the giant flashback.

There’s material here roughly through volume 26 of the comic, with the advantage of many later volumes having been released before this series was scripted, hence the extensive foreshadowing about Elfhelm. As in the comic, urban clothing styles and architecture now suggest something like the 17th century, but firearms remain primitive. The darkest elements of the story, including Casca’s child, Guts’s thwarted impulse to rape her, and the trolls’ implausible treatment of human women, are all here. So are Puck’s extradiegetic jokes.

Hirasawa returns, but doesn’t do the same brilliant job. More seriously, the animation is genuinely poor for 2016, including an especially shaky start and a severe regression in episode 21. It could easily have been much better. The studio had never headed a project like this and the director—Itakagi Shin, experienced but mainly with cutesy 2D stuff—wasted months in preproduction trying for a look that had to be abandoned. The final result is noticeably choppy, with poor jaw and lip movements, inexpressive faces, dolly shots for pure distraction etc. that are more irritating to me than the corresponding shortcuts in similarly cheap 1980s shows, even if the overall quality is really about the same. The backgrounds, particularly in the many forest episodes, also fail to do justice to Miura’s original. This is clearly just an attempt to cash in on the hard-won popularity of that original. Nothing meaningful is added, but as a fan I still appreciated the voice work and the recap.

The director even imitates Miura’s compositions, with something cute happening in the background and/or foreground of too many shots. The constitution of Guts’ new party, also taken from the comic, is distasteful. I dislike Isidro, the arrogant boy straight out of shōnen whose role is actually enlarged here. He belongs in a more comic children’s fantasy like The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008). I have an even bigger problem with Casca’s imbecilic fugue state. Everybody who meets her comments on her beauty; it’s complete objectification. I would have preferred if her outcome had been like Guts’, perhaps entirely blinded by acidic Apostle blood or with one leg instead of one arm, but with her strength of character intact and Silke/Schierke for a tutor to compensate. The witch is OK as a character, but the four-element basis of her magic is an irritating cliché, actually less imaginative than Kukuri of Mahoujin Guru-Guru (1994) who similarly becomes the protagonist of her series. Given that Farnese eventually decides to become a magician, Silke could reasonably have been a middle-aged woman of equal power, but Miura wanted moe. This is also evident in Sonia the Seer, who reminds me of Marcia in “Poetry and the Gods” (1920): an innocent maiden awed by a vision of glory. The overall tonal shift is unsatisfying, though thankfully, the underlying darker tones never completely disappear, even in the goofy children’s adventure of the final episode.

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