MANGA REVIEW: BERSERK
A review of volume 1 – 34
Genre: epic fantasy, military fantasy, dark fantasy, seinen
Author: Kentaro Miura
Years of publishing: 1990 - present
STORY AND CHARACTERS
Fantasy is one of my favorite genres. Mostly because it has so much potential for amazing storytelling. Writers can create a wholly unique and wonderful world full of magical creatures yet at the same time also tackle pertinent social and philosophical issues in the relatively safe environment of a fictional setting. And this is why it really pains me that the vast majority of fantasy writers don’t go beyond trying to imitate Tolkien. Don’t get me wrong, Lord of the Rings is amazing and does all the things I just described. But that story has been told and I don’t think anybody did it as well as Tolkien did. In the last two decades or so though there has been an influx of writers trying to craft different kinds of stories in the genre. Like George RR Martin and his eponymous Song of Ice and Fire which was the inspiration for the HBO hit series Game of Thrones. But even those are few and far between. So it’s always a real treat for me when I discover a fantasy series that does something different from the norm yet still manages to capitalize on all the potential the genre has to offer. And Berserk does exactly that!
Chronicling the history of the war torn country of Midland through the eyes of various factions fighting in its many wars. The world of Berserk is brutal and unforgiving. A world where the worst things can happen to good people and where political cunning and strength in numbers trumps idealism and wisdom. Yet also a world full of wonderful creatures where magic reigns supreme. Hidden from the eyes of regular humans. It’s a story that’s equal parts dark and violent as well as beautiful and awe inspiring.
After a brief teaser, that I would recommend not reading before you’ve read volume 14, the story of Berserk proper starts about halfway through volume 3 with the so called “Golden Age Arc”. It starts with our main viewpoint character for a large chunk of the series: Guts. A young orphan who as a young boy gets recruited by a mercenary group known as The Band of the Hawk, led by the charismatic and beautiful commander, Griffith.
Skipping forward several years and Guts is now a young man and a respected member of The Band of the Hawk. The band is ordered to take back a Midland castle from the invading Chuder empire. Griffith and his band succeed but this victory is only the first step in Griffith’s masterplan to acquire his lifelong dream: his own kingdom. However what he nor any of his fellow warriors realize is that this path will lead them into great peril and might ultimately spell doom for them all.
The above is a very brief and incomplete summary of the first couple of volumes leaving out many subplots and important characters. Like Casca, Griffith’s second in command who harbors secret feelings for both Guts and Griffith. Or the other band of the hawk members like Corcus, the cynical rogue who’s assholery is only matched by his dry wit and goofy antics. Or Judeau, the pretty boy of the group with a very sensitive nature and a caring personality but who can also be a total badass when he wants to be. Or the wise and calm hulk of a man called Pippin. And that’s just Band of the Hawk members. There are so many other great characters in this series as well. Like Nosferatu Zodd, an immensely powerful demonic being with a fondness for philosophy. Or The Skull Knight , a hugely intelligent undead warrior with a very complicated ethical code that he strictly upholds. There are so many amazing characters in this series I could talk about them for days. But I won’t because I have other things to discuss.
When I said that Berserk is wholly different from the formula Tolkien unwittingly established I meant it. While there is a lot going on beneath the surface at its core Lord of the Rings is a story of good guys fighting bad guys. In Berserk the distinction is not so clear. In fact the plot itself is as much about the horrors of war as it is about how a hero is nothing more than a public image conjured up by those who control him behind the scenes. History is written by the victors after all. And though this is the history of a fictional world it is no less true here than it is in our own world.
But it’s not just the story and themes of the series that diverge heavily from Tolkienesque fiction either. It’s also the way the story itself is structured. Lord of the Rings is a very clearly mapped out story that follows certain beats to eventually reach a predictable but very satisfying conclusion. Berserk on the other hand seems wholly governed by chaos and happenstance. I’m a fairly avid Dungeon and Dragons player and reading Berserk I couldn’t help but feel that the entire series is one hugely complex drawn out DnD campaign. Lives of characters you’ve come to know and love are abruptly snuffed out and fates of nations are changed forever without their seemingly being any kind of build up to it. Almost like the roll of a die. Causality is a major theme in Berserk but because so many variables are at play at any moment it’s impossible to predict any of the major events in the series. While this very unconventional take on storytelling might turn off some readers it is in a way very true to life and it gives the series a wonderful sense of unpredictability that’s rarely seen in fiction of any kind, much less fantasy fiction.
Berserk is proof positive that a comic of any kind does not have to be colored to look amazing. In fact I would say the series benefits from not being colored. The stark black, white and grey of the manga works perfectly in order to convey the misery and dread of a world ravaged by war. The art of Berserk is rough and sketchy yet also extremely detailed. From the always ominous skies to the brilliant lighting and shadows to the exquisitely drawn streams of blood that soak almost every battle in the series. The world of Berserk is one of a living hell. And not just because of war. Just outside the perception of most humans, gruesome monsters stalk the land and Miura draws them in all their repulsive glory. Remember being scared half to death by a monster in a Miyazaki flick as a kid? Well Berserk has that same effect on adults. From a human merged with a wormlike demon to a blubbering mass of rotting corpses who’s souls still shriek in agony. The beings Miura commits to paper in stunning detail are abominations you couldn’t even dream up in your worst nightmares.
But it’s not just the monster design that’s impressive about the art of Berserk. The character designs are no less amazing. If someone wears armor then every single piece of plate is drawn, if someone uses a crossbow than even the engraving on the handle is drawn. And let’s not forget Guts’ signature sword “Dragonslayer” which is one of the most iconic swords in popular culture. Known by even those who have never read Berserk.
One of the biggest drawbacks of manga is that action is often hard to stage without actual movement and therefor hard for the reader to follow. Not the case with Berserk as huge battles, often between a large number of opponents, are drawn in a very clear and easy to follow style that’s also very dynamic and makes you able to actually imagine the movements.
One last thing thing I want to discuss is the way magic is depicted in the series. In the world of Berserk magic has a certain otherworldy quality to it. As something that by most cannot be seen but can certainly be felt. And Miura plays into that beautifully. White magic is this sort of ethereal mist while black magic is depicted as black smoke that swallows everything in its path. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a depiction of magic that conveys the feeling it’s supposed to invoke this well purely by its visual design.
Berserk is a household name in the world of manga and a modern classic in the fantasy genre. Boasting one of the most well developed and rich fantasy worlds ever with a huge cast of incredibly complex and lifelike characters that develop tremendously over the course of the series. While it’s unconventional narrative and moral ambiguity might be a drawback for some readers, it’s also its greatest strength.
Now if I have one gripe with this series than it’s with the pacing which is godawful at times. Berserk is a huge series. Both in the scope of its story and simple page count. And so it’s not unusual for there to be two whole volumes with just worldbuilding and character development with nothing going on in terms of action or excitement. And then directly following that two whole volumes that are just people fighting with nothing in the way of story or character development happening. Now this is fine if you’re like me and read the series in chunks of like a dozen volumes per sitting. But if you’re the kind of person who likes to read through a series on a volume to volume or even chapter to chapter basis than this might be a very frustrating read.
But if you can get past that, than you will find a work of fiction unlike any other. Showcasing an almost poetic beauty in its elegant writing, beautiful artwork and it’s strangely appealing world of suffering and misery. Kentaro Miura managed to do something very few writers have achieved. He’s created an unforgettable epic that’s very much his own. A tremendous work that’s taken all the best elements of fantasy fiction but infused it with a dose of much needed realism. And in that way Miura has created a masterpiece of genre fiction for the modern age. Whether you are a fan of fantasy fiction or not Berserk is a must read for any manga reader.
Berserk is published in English by Dark Horse Manga with every volume still available.
Because Berserk is such a unique series there’s not a lot that I can think of that would make for a good recommendation outside of a couple of novel series and maybe Game of Thrones. So neither of these recommendations are perfect fits though they are still good in their own right.
First up is Vinland Saga. A historical manga about Vikings that’s heavily inspired by Berserk. It takes a while to get going but once it comes into its own, it gets really good.
Second recommendation is a little known manga called Leviathan. Written by the same author as the much more popular MPD Psycho and Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service manga. If you liked the monster slaying bits of Berserk more than the political and worldbuilding parts than you’re definitely gonna like this one.