If you were branded for death by evil spirits and you had to fend off nightmarish demons every night to survive, you wouldn’t last long. But Guts has, and continues to do so in Berserk.
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Writer: Kentaro Miura
Artist: Kentaro Miura
Purchase At: Amazon
Berserk takes place in a grim medieval fantasy world. TV Tropes describes it as a “Crapsack World” and for good reason. In this world things can and most likely will always go wrong. Morality is skewed at best. Violence is rampant in all its forms, including sexual abuse. Nearly every major character in Berserk endures torture and rape at some point in their histories and while there’s the trauma you’d expect, the act itself is commonplace.
This is a world of magic as well, but rarely do you see benign sorcery. Most is foul and corrupt, performed by hateful beings and paranoid people. When burning witches and heretics is Monday Night entertainment, you learn to be paranoid and mistrusting with your special skills. There are demons all around the world, but hidden behind a veil, unseen by most. But the greatest proof of the world’s evil is the Apostles, humans who’ve “ascended” into demon-hood by sacrificing their loved ones.
But because the world is so dark do its heroes—or anti-heroes to be precise—shine so much. Guts, our protagonist, was a mercenary but after his leader and friend Griffith sacrificed their entire mercenary band to become an Apostle, raping the woman Guts loves in the process, he travels the world in search for revenge. The ritual marked Guts—he also lost an eye and one hand—and Casca, the female lead, as sacrifices but they survived, but their rescuer tells them that life will never be easy for them. The mark calls evil to them, to finish the job. He also seeks a way to restore Casca’s mind, broken from the trauma of Griffith’s ritual. She’s almost child-like, with barely any sense of self.
What makes the world of Berserk so interesting is how deep it is. Yes, it’s a horrible place but there are still good people to go along with the bad. There are Kingdoms and laws, affiliations and politics. Violence, distrust and paranoia are common but there is also kindness and mercy. Kentaro Miura knows how to craft a world and a story, making sure there are enough happy and lighthearted moments, and developing his characters through it so that when bad things happen you feel the impact. Many Dark Fantasy settings work on piling on the misery but forget that even in the darkest of moments there are also pockets of hope, moments of joy that make the bad feel so much worse. But Berserk handles it wonderfully.
The world’s richness isn’t just for the mortal world. The entire cosmology, the planes of existence, also have his masterful touch, showing you the nightmarish landscapes of the lower dimensions and just by sight and descriptions alone, he evokes the beauty and peace the upper realms surely possess. Kentaro Miura doesn’t give us a black & white world, where good and evil have clear definitions but one where we constantly ask if something is righteous or not. Every character, including the main villain and every demon the characters face, has their own morality, their own views on good and evil. Some have clearly ridden the super-fun-slide of evil all the way down, but with others you can almost believe that if things had been different, then they and the protagonists might have been friends.
But Miura’s greatest strength as a writer is in his characterisation. No matter how lowly the person is, how insignificant they might be to the grand scheme of things, they will be full characters with motivations and histories. They have distinct personalities and you grow to care for them. Take the members of the Griffith’s mercenary group, The Band of the Hawk. You know they’re going to be ritual-fodder but as he tells the story of how things got there, Miura makes you care for these characters, shows you how their strength and weaknesses and teaches you how Guts changed from a loner to someone who valued his companions. Then he takes it all away from you and you hurt as much as Guts does, and his outrage at Casca’s rape becomes your outrage.
The story isn’t just from Guts’ point of view, but we see others as well, even the villains. These chapters fill out information crucial to the story but without giving any of it away. Every major arc has brilliant pacing, with Miura taking just enough time to introduce the situation and build the characters while still moving things along so when they reach the climax, it’s a satisfying one.
But it’s not just in writing where Kentaro Miura excels but also in the art. I have never seen such intricate level of detail in a manga before. During the flashback segments of the story, in the Golden Age arc, you see the many battles the Band of The Hawk fought and in each of those you see the minutest of details in enemy armours, from symbols and emblems to the individual coats of arms of the Lords. Architecture is astounding as Miura draws even the tiniest of bricks that form the façade of a building. The details in the monsters bring out their horrific nature, or sometimes their hidden grace. You can almost feel the strain in Guts’ arms when he swings his massive sword from the way Miura draws him.
The art helps tell the story as much as the writing. The pristine architecture and giant armies I mentioned help you understand the scale of the battles but also how things were and even how bright they seemed. The present is much rougher—and I don’t mean a loss of quality—with deeper shadows. The Kingdom of Falconia, a recent development, is bright and magnificent, but its shadows are some of the darkest Miura has ever drawn, to perhaps tell us of the dangers lurking within the city walls.
Berserk is a work of art, one that is still ongoing and one I will surely miss once it ends. Kentaro Miura is a master storyteller, in both writing and art, as his illustrations shape and convey his world as well as his writing. This is such an amazing manga, that I have to bring out another of these rare trophies, one for each genre/media.
After all, there can be only one.
6/5 – Highlander!