Begun before A song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), several times longer than The Lord of the Rings and its expanded universe and more detailed than almost any other media series out there Berserk is one of the most impressive pieces of fantasy ever put to page or screen. It has demons, ghosts and warriors of enormous strength and size. It contains more blood and guts than Game of Thrones can shake a stick at. Begun in 1988 by manga artist and writer Kentaro Miura it is, unbelievably, still going today.
Young mercenary warrior Guts is born into a world of constant war and fire. After a lost duel, he is forced into working with mercenary army the Band of the Hawk lead by the white-haired and ultra-feminine Griffith. Guts finds a family of sorts and comes to know love and acceptance rather than blood and violence. Of course, it can’t last. After winning the war for the kingdom of Midland Guts leaves the Hawks. Unable to reconcile this loss Griffith sleeps with the King of Midland’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, and is caught and tortured for a year because of it. The Hawks are driven into exile and mercilessly hunted. Guts returns and helps rescue Griffith, now a mute and lame shadow of his former self. Despairing Griffith activates a powerful pendant sacrificing the Hawks in exchange for Godhood. Only Guts and his lover, Casca, survive but Guts loses an eye and an arm and Casca is driven insane. All this is where Berserk only begins!
Berserk is driven by the theme of the supernatural. It is a series filled with mysterious prophets, wise seers, and evil demons. Prophecy and destiny drive the story forward. Griffith’s reign of terror as Femto, the falcon-like fifth member of the God Hand archdemon cabal, is propelled by his desire to rule his own kingdom. Destiny and the act of defying it meanwhile push Guts on his seemingly endless quest for revenge for the murder of nearly all his friends. Guts survives innumerable scenarios no normal man could possibly get through alive.
Guts is a man on a mission. Step One: Kill all four original members of the God Hand. Step Two: Kill Griffith. Step Three: Party! Outfitted in all black armour and carrying his former friends’ weapons as mementos; throwing knives and a repeating crossbow, Guts is out for blood. But how can he do it with only one arm? Easy he has the blacksmith Godo outfit him with a new arm that comes equipped with the above crossbow and a cannon behind the hand. As for his sword, well I’ll let the quote from the manga describe that for you…
“That thing was too big to be called a sword. Too big, too thick, too heavy and too rough. It was more like a large hunk of Iron.”
So, we have a half-blind man wielding a sword the size of a table accompanied by a rag-tag group of atheist knights, a naked fairy, a wizard girl and his traumatised girlfriend all on their way to kill some Gods. Simple enough. It’s fair to say that at this point in its already ludicrously long story Berserk could have easily descended into kitsch but it didn’t. On his own Guts is a miserable bastard but when he’s with his crew he becomes far more introspective and capable of love and affection. Guts despite his brutish design and violent nature is a man of amazing warmth, he just doesn’t know it.
The dichotomy central to Berserk is the relationship that exists between Guts and Griffith. Guts is known as the Black Swordsman a brutal figure capable of extreme violence and feared by man and monster alike. Griffith is seen as a peacemaker laid low and raised up by circumstance and skill. As the manga goes on it becomes clear that the opposite is true. Guts is hacking and slashing his way to peace at any cost while Griffith is scheming the world into chaos.
Physically there are huge differences as well. Guts is dressed in black armour, covered in scars, and looks like a common thug. Griffith is skinny, effeminate and dressed all in white. He looks like a noble and eventually becomes on whereas Guts remains an outlaw for most of the manga. Guts’ troupe of companions are pictures of innocence, purity, and goodness whereas Griffith’s are disguised demons in loincloths, decorative armour and outfitted with vicious weapons. Berserk’s dichotomies are endless but they make the manga and its various adaptations exceptional in terms of how the characters are received.
Berserk has been adapted into an anime three times now. Once in 1997 depicting the opening Golden Age Arc part of the manga. A Golden Age Arc film series resurrected the animated adaptations between 2012 and 2015. A second CGI series came along in 2016 and continued this year with a second season. Numerous video games have been made along with a just announced (and very ambitious) novelisation. The success of the series, which has often been on hiatus due to the level of detail Miura has put into the art and story, seems to be dictated by some kind of causal force much like the fate of the characters.
Causality is the ruling force of Berserk. The five fingered God Hand consist of Void, an archdemon with an exposed brain; Slan, a bat-winged evil goddess driven by lust; Ubik, a deceiver with a face of Ebenezer Scrooge; Conrad, a wood louse creature obsessed with doom and disease and finally Femto, Griffith’s demonic final form. It is this group that have influenced the world of Berserk. They twist and manipulate events according to their will and very few can resist them. This is why Guts is so interesting to them and to readers. He has constantly fought tooth and nail against destiny and so far, he seems to be winning.
The influence of Berserk reaches far and wide from anime to film right up to video games. Guts is the original guy with the big sword. Nearly every Japanese role-playing game since the 1990s has had one of those characters. From the Final Fantasy series right up to the more modern Dark Souls and Bloodborne games. The likes of popular and famous anime Attack on Titan and Re: Zero would not exist without Berserk’s characters or themes. It is one of the most influential artworks of the contemporary era.
Berserk will be three decades old next year and it is nowhere near finished. A common joke among fans is that long after they’re all dead and gone the manga will continue and to be honest it’s not that hard to believe. Berserk is about the battle between good and evil which, appropriately enough, will also never end. Berserk is elevated above most other works thanks to the massive amount of detail, complex characters and themes that are always relevant. Andrew Carroll.