Berserk by Kentaro Miura
|Publisher(s):||Dark Horse Comics|
|Genre(s):||Dark Fantasy / Seinen / Action|
|Release Date:||October 22, 2003|
Berserk is fantasy at its finest. There are faeries, sages, knights, and demons – tropes, in fact, that may be terribly clichéd in a novel yet are fresh and exciting in manga. In addition to excellent writing, Kentaro Mirua’s drawing adds a certain gravitas to his dark fantasy that authors like Joe Abercrombie would adore.
Berserk is the story of one man, the infamous Black Swordsman, and his turbulent, heart-wrenching journey through a medieval world of brutal realism. There is gore and death, humour, romance, pain and transcendence. It is a bloody drama where the weak die and the unjust prevail. It is as compelling as it is agonizing and you will feel anger reading it.
The protagonist is Guts, a classic Byronic hero, and his dark, torturous quest is one of revenge. Kentaro Mirua seems to enjoy giving him a frequent beating along the way. Guts’ character development can be summed up with the wise words, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Indeed, the abuses Guts suffers are many and varied, both physical and psychological. In this war-torn world all he can do is survive, grow, and learn to fight back. He transforms from an orphan, born of a dead mother, to a scarred and jaded warrior.
“Even though I know it’s safe here, without my sword, I cannot sleep.”
Action scenes revolve around Guts’ massive sword and are delightfully gory. Horses are halved, armor cleft, and pages are soaked in black-inked blood. Stan Lee could throw Guts – as Kentaro Mirua made him – into the Marvel universe and he would do just fine. Objectively, he has superhuman strength, endurance, and martial prowess. As it is in many Japanese comics, most of these feats are attributed to the mystical force of willpower. Other major characters in Berserk are cool-headed tacticians, witty swashbucklers, and altruistic magicians, but Guts is just a fighter. “Actions speak louder than words” may be his unwritten motto. When all the threads unravel and death is snapping at his face, he grins and swings away, the impassioned warrior who refuses to surrender or despair. Instead of sadness he has rage. Each misfortune is another coal in the furnace driving him to slaughter all who bar his passage, making Berserk an apt name for his story.
Guts’ obsession with revenge is also his undoing. Rage gives him strength and takes away his humanity, turning him into a mindless beast of war. Yet he cannot ignore the beast and stay true to his quest – he needs this transformation to fulfill his purpose and become an instrument capable of killing his foes. This downward spiral towards self-destruction is Guts’ greatest weakness and threat. It is his curse and his blessing. Without it he would be but another man: weak, passive, and unable to assert his will. But with it he becomes an animal in human flesh, devoid of coherence and overcome by bloodlust. Guts can only do his best to keep his berserk rage on a tight leash and walk the lonely path between man and monster. This state of exile is how he chooses to live and how he continues moving forward. Friends and fellow travelers accompany him during different parts of his journey, but ultimately, he is the keystone, the lynchpin, and is always willing to walk alone. When others balk or fall, he goes on.
“Humans are weak… but we want to live… even if we’re wounded… or tortured… we feel the pain…”
Readers love Guts for his selflessness, his strength, and his resolute will. We love him for his stoicism amidst endless opportunities for vice, and for facing death times beyond count to protect his friends. It is for these reasons that readers care that Guts continues to be strong enough to stay true to his person. “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one,” is the silent mantra of every fan. This inner jihad is part of the human condition we all share. We all have beasts to keep at bay, so we cheer for Guts when he staves his off, and hope that he will triumph in this timeless, colossal struggle. As Faulkner and George Martin postulate, “the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.” For thousands of years writers have shown this through their works. Guts is a 21st century embodiment of this tradition, a modern Odysseus, fighting battles without and within.
Berserk won the Tezuka Osamu Award for Excellence in 2002 and as of 2013, has sold 25 million volumes in Japan and 8.5 million internationally. It is consistently rated as one of the best manga of all time. It is my hope that it will one day be considered fantasy canon in the West.