Kentaro Miura’s BERSERK carries a legacy of blood, Guts, and great manga
The passing of legendary manga writer/artist Kentaro Miura will either get veteran fans of his Berserk series revisiting the dark fantasy world he created for his giant sword-wielding warrior, Guts, or new fans looking to finally take the plunge into the sprawling epic.
Whichever the case, engaging with the first book of the series means experiencing a brutal read with monsters and other creatures that’ll make you readjust your fingers at the edges of the page so as not to touch the horrors Miura committed to it. This is certainly the case with the first pages of Berserk book 1, in which Guts is having sex with a woman that quickly turns into a monstrosity that looks like something straight out of an H.R. Giger nightmare and tries to kill him. It sets the tone for the type of story Berserk while tell.
Berserk follows the now iconic Guts, also known as the Black Swordsman, as he embarks on a journey fueled by revenge. Guts is branded with a symbol that attracts murderous demons towards him, forcing him into a life of isolation. The revenge aspect of the story centers on a character named Griffith that might or might not be responsible for Guts’ supernatural affliction.
Miura presents Guts to readers, in the first book, as the perfect man to deal with the violence and chaos that governs his medieval Europe setting. It’s a dark state of affairs that is overwhelmingly ugly and ever present. Death and gore is the status quo, which explains why Guts carries a giant broadsword that cuts people into pieces after a single swipe. The weapon is a reflection of how bad things are, and in Berserk’s case, things are quite bad.
We get a taste of this in the events that follow the aforementioned sex scene that opens the story. Almost immediately after the incident, Guts is faced with a group of bandits and soldiers that are throwing knives at a Pisky elf called Puck for their own deranged amusement.
Guts makes a bloody mess of the corrupt men for what seems to be a righteous motive, but it ends up being about sending a message to their leader, a humanoid snake demon that ends up giving Guts a particularly gruesome fight as he reveals his true form.
This is all meant to establish Guts as a kind of antihero character. His mission is purely personal and his commitment to the innocent people he meets along the way initially hinges on personal gain. Guts isn’t a hero here. He’s a hardened, near maniacal force of visceral violence that responds to his cursed reality in kind.
I characterize Guts as maniacal for the bleak outlook he has towards life, its worth, and how individuals who die on his watch are more a reflection of their own flaws rather than his. The Black Swordsman has little tolerance for weakness and takes no responsibility for the deaths of those who fall in combat around him. In some instances, he even laughs while explaining this, showing little regard for the misguided moral expectations others decide to put on him.
What’s impressive about how Miura introduces Guts to readers is that a considerable portion of his character development comes through violence rather than expository text. We get to know this man through the carnage he rains down on his enemies, and it’s not all done for the sake of bloodletting.
There’s a kind of sadness to his existence knowing he doesn’t fight for glory or for the safety of others. By fighting for revenge, Guts is put on a road of no return, and he seems to be aware of it. Ruin is sure to follow and we as readers are given the necessary story elements to be able to foresee this and think on the cruelties of fate. It’s just awe-inspiring how Miura manages to achieve this level of storytelling through action rather than dialogue or narration.
Kentaro Miura’s Berserk has one of the best first books of a series in the history of manga and it does an admirable job of setting up a world and a main character that have no choice other than being iconic. Forget about the reasons you need to experience this book, just make sure you do and know that there’s a lot more waiting for those brave enough to stay the path.