Slashing through the jungles of Manga Island this week is one of the most popular fantasy manga to make it outside of Japan. Kentaro Miura's "Berserk" (aka "Sword of the Berserk") is brutal and unrelenting; it has sliced its way out of Japan and into many other countries. Current installments of "Berserk" are published as a serialized story in the anthology publication "Young Animal" in Japan, and subsequently collected into large volumes (tankubon or "tanks" as they are often referred to) once there are enough chapters to fill a graphic novel. The series has gained almost as rabid a following in Germany and the United States as in Japan. It has also spawned an anime series (with a sequel series rumored to be in the works), video games, soundtrack albums, and a fantastic line of action figures and statues that were popular enough to make to certain mall based video stores. "Berserk" is not for the faint of heart or anyone easily offended by gore, sexual themes or extreme violence. Often it can be seen in bookstore wrapped in plastic to keep curious kids from prying into its pages filled with blood, demons, carnage and dark humor. But for fans of dark fantasy and barbarous adventure, "Berserk" delivers in full.
I first discovered "Berserk" through my Internet feed here on Manga Island. Images and previews of a game full of blood, a sword taller than the wielder cleaving men apart, and various weapons (such as an arm cannon and repeating crossbow) caused me to seek out anything I could about this bizarre and blood splattered series. Soon after, a copy of the first episode of the anime in fansub format washed ashore on Manga Island, and I was hooked.
It wasn't long before I had acquired the US release of the Dreamcast game and immersed myself in the world of the anti-hero Guts and his traveling companions, the fairy Puck, and the tragic mentally damaged Caska. Although the game sometimes felt like small vignettes of action between cut scenes, its emphasis on action and swinging Gut's immense Dragon Slayer sword (often described as "too big too be sword, more like a heap of raw iron") and bloody damage it deals was something to behold. The plot of the game takes place in a side story away from the manga, with little explanation of the characters motives and previous hardships (barring what can be learned in a text based extras glossary section) I was left me wanting to learn more about the battle-hardened Guts and his world.
Luckily, the anime was given a really sharp R1 release by Media Blasters (Anime Works). The English dubbed and subbed version can be had in 6-individual-disc format (with optional box) and "brick" format with all the discs packaged in an economical all-in-one box. One of the most interesting things about the anime is that it starts well into the manga series (late in book 3 of Dark Horse's series), and ends as soon as it has told that section of the manga. This outraged many of the anime fans but also left room for Dark Horse to swoop in and fill in the gaps with their release of the manga. If all goes well, and Dark Horse continues to catch up with the Japanese releases (volume 6 is about to come out in the States and the last collected volume released in Japan was 27), fans will be able to have the answers to the question "That's the end??! What the heck happens now?!!" that usually entails watching the ending of the anime series.
As savage as the anime is (it originally was shown at 1:45 in the morning on Japanese TV, so endured less censorship than if it had been an afternoon or primetime show), the manga takes things a step further. It opens with Guts entwined with a naked woman, who subsequently turns into a demon that he blows apart using the cannon that has replaced one of his forearms. This sets the tone for one of the darkest fantasy comics I have ever read. In the first issue alone, torsos are chopped apart, a man is beheaded by a child and demons are taught lessons in sadism. Not for the squeamish!
This is not just pulp hack-and-slash fantasy, however. The art and story are compelling and well rendered, and the characters are intriguing, drawing the reader in with each turn of the page. Guts himself begins as a brooding, hard-edged fighter that we know little to nothing about. Loosely based on Rutger Hauer from the movies "Flesh and Blood"(aka "The Rose and the Sword") and "Salute the Jugger" (aka "The Blood of Heroes"), Guts embodies the toughest of the tough action and fantasy heroes. For the first half of issue 1, all we know is that the man known as the Black Swordsman has a grudge against demons and bears their mark. His enormous sword, cannon arm and repeating crossbow show that he is a warrior through and through, yet he is willing to protect those weaker than him, even at the risk of his life. He plays at caring for nothing and no one, but we can see that there is more to him than his tough, battle scarred exterior betrays. He isn't extremely likeable on first reading, but his presence, and the mystery surrounding him make the first encounters Guts "The Black Swordsman" compelling.
The first arc of the story reveals only fragments of who Guts is and why he bears the scars and disfigurement that make him the demon slaying, cynical risk taker that we see. We find that he is somehow linked to the demons he pursues and their masters, the almost Cenobite-like God Hand. He has business with the God Hand and bears their mark, constantly pursued by the demons that serve them. As more about the God Hand and Guts' quest for revenge are revealed the story takes a twist, and the reader is taken back to Guts past.
In book three, the story shifts to where the meat of the anime begins. (In actuality, the anime begins a little into the manga sans a character or two and loops back, bookending itself). The second story arc, entitled "The Golden Age," takes the reader back to when Guts was born. As an infant found under his mother's hanged corpse, he was born under a bad sign indeed. As the reader watches Guts grow to be the mercenary he becomes, it's hard not to be struck by the tragedy of his life. Guts never gets the luxury of being a child while growing up under the tutelage of his adopted father, the leader of a band of mercenaries. Events thrust Guts out on his own until he meets the people that will shape his life, his future, and certainly the future of the land of Midland: the Band of the Hawks.
One of Kentaro Miura's strong suits is his ability to throw so many characters into his story, yet make each one worthy of caring for, detesting, or wondering about. The scale of "Berserk" is massive once the story really kicks in. In just the American releases so far, the themes of heroism, sacrifice, betrayal, intrigue, feudal politics, and the supernatural are explored in depth. "The Golden Age" story arc pulls the reader inexorably to a conclusion we know can only end with our hero disfigured, hunted, and vengeful. Having seen where it will lead only strengthens the need to keep turning the pages to find out how this tragedy plays out.
"Berserk" is not always dark, and heavy. The occasional ray of light can most often be seen in characters that make up the Band of the Hawks that Guts joins. The camaraderie and sense of belonging that they provide for Guts is an excellent foil for the stoic and hardened warrior that we see when the manga begins. Kento Miura has stated that he based many of the Hawks on friends from college, and it is apparent in the care in which he portrays them. They add levity and the closest thing to a family that Guts ever has. Guts learns much about life, love, and his place in the world through the Hawks.
Unfortunately for Guts, his time in the Hawks also teaches him the true meaning of loss, sacrifice, and the horrible changes that his world is going through. Interestingly, at the beginning of "The Golden Age" story line, there is very little supernatural influence. As time goes on and the events that lead to the Guts we see in issue 1, the powers from beyond begin to strengthen and show themselves more and more to the mortals of the land. This shift towards the supernatural invasion is seen more and more after "The Golden Age" arc is played out and we get back to the Guts of the present. Having seen pieces of the original Japanese comics and various translations floating about, I can truly say that the best is yet to come for fans collecting now and especially for fans of the anime series who want to see how the events that transpire at the end of the series lead into the main storyline.
Another rewarding part of "Berserk" is seeing Miura's artwork grow and strengthen along with the series. Since he began in college, the first volumes are sometimes rough and occasionally uneven. In the first six volumes that have come out in the US, readers can already see the improvement in quality. In addition to the really great linework that Miura employs, he also blends charcoal style panels in with the more traditional manga illustrations for a truly striking look and feel. Some of these blended panels are worth the price of the book alone.
I recommend "Berserk" to manga lovers who are mature enough to deal with the blood, gore, and heavy themes, and for comic fans who enjoyed the magazine and novel versions of Conan, Elric, and the like. Kento Miura himself has stated that his comic is very much influenced by Western movies and books. Fans of dark fantasy who may not have picked up manga because they think of Japanese fantasy as "Lodoss, Heroic Legend of Arislan," and Slayers finally have something to sink their teeth into (although "Berserk" tends to bite back!). Although I enjoy the above manga, "Berserk" has been one of the most compelling and gut wrenching fantasy tales that has washed ashore on Manga Island. If dark fantasy, stories of love and loss, heroic bands, demonic forces, and quests for redemption are your cup of tea (and you are able to handle very adult themes and brutal gore), then "Berserk" is for you.
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.