A Beautiful Machine for Pain…
The Black Swordsman
At the troubled heart of Berserk, there’s an image that lingers. Built like a football player and packing a sideshow of weaponry, this lone swordsman is a quintessential example of the Japanese dark hero, whose villains must be grotesque and awful enough to match up. There’s something beautifully perfect about Guts, and no matter how far Berserk tries to push, he’s the anchor, the appeal, and he tugs back even harder.
It’s two parts: his giant sword, and the engine of his anger that drives it. There’s catharsis to the former, and tragedy to the latter. Because this is an epic revenge tale, the tragedy seems to power the catharsis, and each swing from the Dragonslayer (or the pre-Dragonslayer) is sharp enough to slice armor, and packs a concussive force to send body parts flying. Doing so however is answer to a carefully constructed emotional core, dramatized in the commercially legendary Golden Age Arc.
Guts’s sword might just be the most satisfying weapon in genre fiction, and as a devastating outward expression of the character’s fury, gives the icon meaning beyond the novelty of a plus-sized blade. It isn’t overly large simply for the fuck of it, though if it were, it’d still pack that earth-shattering wallop. It functions as a sword but plays like a baseball bat – absolutely wonderful, and setup for the Leone-esque moments before the snap of violence. In the Italian westerns, the ritual of the standoff is more important than the shooting, and in Berserk, the demon underestimating Guts is filling the audience with a perverse sort of enticement.
Enticement which goes double in other cases, for if he’s doing this to demons from beyond our world, what’s he gonna do to these weary Midland bandits? Just you wait, fella, just you wait…
This… is a little bit troubling, isn’t it? Surely, but there’s nothing wrong with provoking questions in an audience, even if the first question goes like, “is this okay?”
Berserk is brutal, almost to a fault – knowing beat for beat what happens during the Eclipse does nothing to discourage the immediate search for puppy videos on YouTube after seeing it each time. But for such a lumbering brute of a story, it does have dimensions. Guts is not a brooding anti-hero, nor is he morally bankrupt. Instead, he’s got an almost childlike sense of humor and level of patience, where he’s insulting people or whining about the odd thing. What this does for the character is set him apart, from his kinsmen elsewhere, by setting him within the world of the story. He engages, and he cares, and he grows. On the hilltop, he shares anecdotes about fellow members of the Hawk, and we and Casca see that he values their dreams.
On that line, Berserk also demonstrates a surprising dramatic edge. Typically, it’s Guts and Casca, sharing their philosophies or coming to blows. Their relationship is so well constructed, it hurts to suspect that it was all a setup. Guts again is the locus for emotion here, and so it isn’t just the heft of his swing that makes him compelling, nor his fury, after which a few Berserk-related titles are named. He’s a well-rounded character, with charm and wit, the kind of guy who exudes confidence. Underneath that veneer however, there’s insecurity and self-doubt. We have the entertaining surface, and the more profound internal element. Encounters with Griffith and Casca have him question himself and his motives for the first time ever, this kid who’s been fighting all his life – as an adult, he finally asks ‘why?’
In the movies particularly, Guts and Casca’s scene by the waterfall is the most devastating in the series, especially when burdened by the knowledge of what comes next. In a fury, Casca attempts to kill Guts, breathlessly explaining that it’s his fault Griffith has been held by the castle for the past year, that his dream is utterly destroyed. Guts articulates it, his life leeched out of him, that he was only doing what he thought he had to do, and we complete the thought in our minds: he was doing what he thought he had to do… for Griffith.
It’s a pathetic moment rarely glimpsed in other action heroes, never mind anti-heroes, and the utter innocence of the error puts us right in Guts’s headspace. It’s brutal, to watch him grapple with this revelation, understanding he was operating on a child’s logic, acting in a way that could never be spoken, because it’s silly. He was off looking for his purpose, having been so inspired by a role model.
The tragedy of Guts begins with his very birth, and never lets up from there. He takes life as a child, and wanders from battlefield to battlefield, finding pleasure only in swinging his sword. He joins a mercenary band for the long haul, the Band of the Hawk, and finally fields those questions about his emptiness. Maybe he’s meant to swear himself and his sword to this man, Griffith. Maybe he’s meant to claim his own purpose to match Griffith. Why? Why does he fight? Perhaps, the answer was here all along, in the Hawks Raiders, or most likely, in Casca. But of course, everything comes down. Ultimately, the only meaning he’ll ever have is the same from the beginning – just as in the manga and the original anime series, he’s rounding back to the start, and we’re taken on that violent curve along with him.
That’s heartbreaking; it’s a more understated parallel to the devastation that is a rain of bloodshed in the closing moments of the Golden Age Arc, a perfect cap to the most traumatic origin story ever told.
Hollywood is always hot on recycling origin stories, and this is possibly because the character in question starts out relatable, before embarking on -his- fantastical journey. The origin story is also not mired in the complexities of mythos, and the cast of characters is numerically consistent with an average film. This holds true for Berserk, and it’s not hard to blame fans for being disappointed by a revisit to the Golden Age – this is three times over the story exists.
Pick Your Poison
As a big fan of the film Blade Runner, I’m used to being anal about optimal media experiences. The Director’s Cut is the only way to go – don’t let the marketing fool you into thinking the Final Cut is superior. The music and editing during ‘Tears in Rain’ is all wrong, just all wrong. For Berserk, there are also criticisms and praises worth addressing.
From 2012 to 2013, Studio 4ºC produced the Golden Age Arc trilogy of feature films, retelling the story as retold in the original anime series. Things were shortened and cut out, and the most immediate problem, as several point out, is the exclusion of Griffith’s backstory, specifically his affair with the governor of Tudor. There’s enough exposition given de facto, but this story detail is meant more to better our understanding of Griffith’s ambition, that it’s initially more self-sacrificial than it becomes.
Judeau fares much better in the series. His actions during Guts and Griffith’s confrontation in the snow came as a mild shock in the film, where in the series, we see that he shared a conversation with Guts beforehand, and comes to understand his side of it. On the opposite end, the extended runtime only serves to make Corkus more confounding. The entire time, it’s ‘why hasn’t Guts knocked this guy’s teeth out yet?’ We’re not spared enough time to mull over Corkus in the movies, though we still do.
I’d say the biggest improvement from series to film is Guts’s killing of Adonis, Julius’s son. In the English dub of the series, it’s almost self-parody, where Guts runs a sword through this Rickert-like child, and takes his hand to say, “Hey. I’m here.” Of course you are, Guts. In the film, Guts’s reaction plays more naturally. At the very least, he doesn’t immediately switch into ‘caring father’ mode, which is… if not completely inappropriate, then at least a touch insensitive.
Excising the murder of the Queen was also a smart choice – it doesn’t add too much, and plays as essentially a repeat of Julius’s attempt on Griffith’s life, albeit on a larger scale. I wouldn’t lose it if I had the choice, but if anything had to be cut for time, it’s that. I also felt the appearance of demons in the forest before the Eclipse was a strange creative decision. The one very Princess Mononoke-esque tease in the misty morning, with those two idiots chopping wood, is a better reminder that there are supernatural elements in the world, and that something bad’s coming. It does so without undercutting the utter surprise of the Eclipse. To that, Rickert’s fate is left ambiguous in the original series, and if I didn’t know better, I’d assume he died. A fitting end for the most unlikely character of all time. This Young Link MFer – what on God’s green is he doing in an anime like this?
The amplifying of the Eclipse is something I’m not sure about. I suppose, you’re already at eleven, might as well go for it. This is Attack on Titan to pornographic heights, with fuller animation of screaming bodies being bitten through and consumed by black holes of teeth. Let’s see, the demons are more grotesque, the sound design and purple sheen make it less metal album and more truly alien, that Wicked City demon chomps down on Corkus’s head, and Guts pulls his arm off instead of slicing clean through it. These revisions each contribute to making Berserk: The Golden Age Arc III undeniably the most disturbing movie I’ve ever seen, over the hysterical, hideous ooze of Society, the numbing trauma of Irreversible, any violence of Miike, Evans, or Won, or the personal hot-poker of Naked Lunch’s own demon sodomy. Is this technically an improvement? Your mileage may vary.
As for the CGI…? I’m not sure either. Not an animation buff, but my philosophy on the quality of animation was solidified by Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. Apparently, people find the hand-drawn and CG elements to be incongruous (which may be the point), but I find the whole thing breathtakingly beautiful. It’s more about the expression, because all animation and film is abstract to begin with. If our governing principle is, ‘as long as it’s not distracting,’ I feel like abstracting animation in your mind significantly raises that threshold. It’s tough, being one of these situations where it’s near impossible to jump into the opposite mindset, either side, because it’s something felt, not rationally pieced out.
Of course, there is magic with the original Berserk, that hand-drawn animation, the super-detailed ‘splash pages,’ for lack of the real term. It’s actually kind of a funny feint, where the characteristic anime watercolor backgrounds are this time rendering medieval castles and knights on horseback – at first glance, Berserk resembles a Rankin/Bass cartoon. But before Jeff Bridges and a talking unicorn can harmonize, Guts plugs a few more arrows into a dying snake god’s eyes, as it cries out for mercy…
Now that’s a hardcore dude.
So what’s the recommendation?
My own experience was satisfying, and that’s a word antithetical to Berserk. The cliffhanger ending in the original series is unreal. I knew there were 25 episodes, but I still checked for a 26th after it ended. First of all, the typical anime season is 26 episodes. Second, the entire show ends mid-scene. So my experience was starting with the Golden Age Arc trilogy, and immediately following it up with the Berserk manga Vol. 14, which begins the prologue of the Conviction Arc, picking up where the Black Swordsman Arc left off twelve volumes earlier.
Golden Age Arc III has an actual epilogue, including the Skull Knight’s rescue of Guts and Casca from the hellish realm inside that tornado. From there, Guts learns of Casca’s fate, battles some ghosts, and says good-bye. It’s quick, and it still leaves you hungry, but the Eclipse was never meant to be an ending. One cannot follow that with a satisfying conclusion, because it’s the realization of the setup. At that point, the viewer is ready for Guts to cut Griffith in half. So… why are the credits running?
After seeing the movies, and beginning Guts’s journey of revenge for as long as my personal budget could allow, I watched the original series, which filled in some gaps and allowed for some breathing room. I prefer television to film as media, although certainly there are ten times as many favorite movies as television shows. It’s about pace, and so the original series can feel more like an epic, despite the movies being better visually rendered.
Of course, your experience is probably different. You may have read the manga or watched the original series long ago. If you’d only seen the anime, I can’t imagine what that feeling was like, coming to an early end. News of the upcoming Berserk anime might’ve been a relief, but it’s more of that CG new guard, which doesn’t affect me at all, but it might you. Either way, I’m sure we’ll both be watching.
It’s easy for me to consider this origin story as a kind of machine, because each of its intricacies set up the ensuing, longer story of revenge. It’s too efficient, just as Berserk might be too brutal. It’s beyond the violent images and plot points however, as this machinery also encompasses theme.
I’d say that Berserk is about men’s ambitions. In this way, it could be read as a critique of masculinity, but that’s only so present in the text. Like a lot of pop Japanese storytelling I’ve seen in anime and manga, it’s the more ethereal quandaries typically of interest to the author. The why of fighting is raised, with Guts on the hilltop relating the tale of his life, that he’s always been searching, and he’s enlivened by the dreams of his men.
In the moment, this search is expressed by the chaos of crossing swords. Again, why do we fight? What’s the meaning of all this? These questions are set against the backdrop of the Midland Empire’s conquest, concluding in the decisive battle for Doldrey and the cleaving a side off of Boscogn’s horse. They’ve achieved peace for the first time in one hundred years, but just as Griffith is confronted with moments before his godhood rebirth, the cobblestone path to reach that peace was made of human skulls. Despite that the progress made is quickly dashed anyway by the onslaught of demons, there is this sense of stillness. Achievement entirely undermined, but celebrated nonetheless.
The nihilism of Berserk however is not an apathetic resignation, it’s a painful descent. Griffith’s primary motivation to become a god is Guts, but there’s also the idea that everyone who died for his dream would have died for nothing, including the one of many child soldiers Griffith innocuously recruited in his time. Violence spreads like that demon plague, compounding on itself and spreading outward. It means nothing in itself but for vagaries, that the memories of the dead should be honored, even if it means more death, more fuel for the grinding gears of the story.
Possibly, Guts and the Hawk fight simply because this is the world they live in, nihilism this time in tune with western analogue A Song of Ice and Fire. The result is that Guts wants more, but he can’t have it. His reaching out to the idyllic countryside, rooming with an old friend and his cherubic granddaughter, is only a glimpse of that dream.
In that separation from the Band of the Hawk, Guts briefly partakes in a gladiatorial contest, over which he establishes his dominance – but does so non-lethally. It’s possible that with proximity to the full lives of people he comes to care about, the black swordsman actually learns to value life itself (maybe that’s why Guts never gives Corkus a black eye). Oh, what a beautiful message that would be.
But the machine of Berserk is uncaring, relentless, and offers the possibility of this message solely for the purpose of subverting it. And so, this is why there simply is no satisfying conclusion to the Golden Age Arc. It is not meant to stand alone, but its setup is so full of life and hope, it feels like something to celebrate. Of course, all this life and hope is only another feint. This makes for highly effective storytelling, no matter how cruel.
That there are three versions of the Golden Age Arc lends it a mythic, almost legendary quality, and this is all too appropriate, given the story, and Guts. What effect do revisions and adaptations have on the moment to moment? The details change – shot selection, animation, dialogue. But the event, by staying largely intact, is made concrete in contrast.
A scene where Guts takes on the moniker of ‘the one-hundred man-slayer’ feels like part of his legend, because for the audience, it’s more than a ‘movie scene,’ and this is echoed in the text itself. During the Hawk’s rescue of Griffith from the Midland castle, the guards are stricken by fear at the sight of the one-hundred man-slayer. Those who think it’s only a myth are duly cut in half.
The scene which created that legend is all the more impressive given the economy of the story, as we see in the later moment, returning once more to the hilltop over the bonfire of dreams. Guts’s anecdotes about Gaston and the other men’s plans after the war speak to lives on hold. War has this disruptive effect on the business of humanity, but Guts has been engaged in battle for as long as he can remember. It’s where he lives, and now where he wants to escape from. He’s come to this ultimate character motivation from his time in the forest, killing man after man and struggling for a reason why.
Violence as expression for theme, almost as exposition for character, is that economy, and why Berserk rises above other nihilistic and ultraviolent sagas like it. You look at images of Guts in the manga, or the anime, and he’s screaming, flying at some demon, swinging a cartoon sword that might as well be Cloud Strife’s, or possibly Pyramid Head’s, and he’s indiscernible from Kratos, God of War, or any super angry guy who hates all things not least of which the wearing of shirts.
You might even learn some details about Guts’s character, that his birth was falling out of a hanged corpse, that he murdered a man and then the man’s young son for witnessing, and that his arch nemesis raped his girlfriend catatonic while he was held down in a pool of his friends’ blood, forced to watch – after he severed his arm to rescue her, and before that girlfriend gives birth to a demon child – and you think, wow, that’s too cool for school.But when you see him, and understand what fuels his violent rampage, and all the darkness that haunts him, you see that he’s a very magnetic character. It isn’t only rage that motivates him, and in fact, the rage is so frustrating because it invades what is actually a very sensitive, philosophical soul.
Just as we hope Guts puts the Dragonslayer through Griffith’s head, so we can bathe in the demon’s blood and then look at ourselves in the mirror, we also hope that one day, Guts can restart his journey of self-discovery, and reawaken the beauty of that soul. Such duality is magic, and all the more so for not revealing itself in what instead appears as compact and one.
One vicious tragedy utterly and inexplicably at peace with itself. May the Hand of God bless you, Berserk.