Manga Mondays: Berserk Review

(Image Courtesy of Darkhorse Comics)

For my inaugural review, I decided to go with the “go big or go home” approach and review what is arguably considered by many manga aficionados, myself included, to be one of the best manga ever conceived.  I’m speaking of course about Kentaro Miura’s epic dark fantasy, Berserk.  Originally created in 1989, Berserk currently has a total of 330 chapters, with more still in production and a total of 36 collected volumes.  In 1997, the manga was adapted into a 25 episode anime series that covered the first two arcs of the manga and featured music by industry legend Susumu Hirasawa. Most recently, the manga has been adapted into a series of feature length films that aim to cover the bulk of the source material.  While the adaptations have their strong points, the original manga is by far the superior product.

Berserk takes place in a medieval-fantasy world and follows the exploits of the mercenary Guts, or as he is more infamously known to the rest of his world, “The Black Swordsman.”  Guts travels the world in search of The Apostles, a group consisting of people of varying degrees of power, wealth, and cunning that serve a powerful extra-planar quintet known as The God Hand.  The first two arcs of the manga, “The Black Swordsman” and “The Golden Age,” introduce the readers to our protagonist, explain the reason for his hunt for the apostles (which I won’t dare spoil to new or potential readers), and explore Gut’s past life as a member of the mercenary group, the Band of the Hawk.  These arcs also introduce us to a number of other central characters in the series including, Griffith (Guts’s former friend/rival and leader of the Band of the Hawk), Casca (the sole female member of the Band of the Hawk and Guts’s love interest), and Puck (a pixy-like elf rescued by Guts early on in the story who also serves as a comic relief character).

The primary cast of characters. From left to right: Serpico, Isidro, Guts, Schierke, Farnese, and Casca. Floating above the main group are the elves Evarella and Puck,

Much of the early thematic material consists of things like sense of duty, isolation and exile, and companionship but soon begins to explore some darker and more thought provoking ideas like whether or not mankind is fundamentally good or evil and humanity’s need for the existence of a higher power. Miura does an excellent job writing and developing the themes and characters throughout the series. Guts is a perfect example of the Byronic hero, as he is cynical, viewed as an outcast, suffers from a troubled past, and is, in some cases, self-destructive.  In contrast, Griffith starts off as more of a Romantic hero, possessing traits like intelligence, charismatic charm, and a tendency to be introspective. The rest of the expanded cast do an excellent job providing a variety of strong personalities as well as serving as great sources of dynamic development for both the protagonist and even the antagonist.  While much of the tone is serious (sometimes bordering on grim), the series isn’t afraid to throw out the occasional laugh or two (usually courtesy of Puck or at the expense of the young thief Isidro) or even show moments of quiet contemplation and reflection. All of these elements combine into the “perfect storm” of storytelling and narrative quality that make Berserk such an entertaining and fascinating read.

I can also say without a doubt that this is not a series for young readers.  It definitely earns the 18+ rating that its English publisher, Dark Horse Comics, gives it.  Over the course of his journey, Guts encounters a myriad of foes ranging from humans, creatures of myth and folklore, demonic entities, and even some demi-gods.  His encounters with these foes often end in very gruesome and very violent confrontations, sometimes more bloody for our hero than his adversaries.  Nudity, both of the male and female varieties occur more than once. One of the major plot elements involves the rape of one character and how it affects them on both a mental and physical level. A lot of the imagery used, particularly in the designs of certain characters like those comprising The God Hand, can be somewhat horrific and unsettling.  I mention these things not as a deterrent, but as a warning for anyone who might find any of the aforementioned too disturbing.  For those of you in possession of a strong constitution, know that even though Berserk has its share of adult themes, they are done so in a tasteful and narratively well-constructed manner.  None of these elements exist purely as fanservice or for shock value, but rather to strengthen the manga on both a narrative and artistic level.

Many of the creature designs are reminiscent of those found in works by artists like H. R. Giger and authors like H. P. Lovecraft.

Speaking of artwork, in addition to being one of best written manga out there, Berserk also holds the distinction of being one of the most artistically engrossing manga ever.  Miura uses more realistic character models and designs, forgoing many of the typical anatomical features and stylistic elements typically found in manga.  The creature designs can be both incredibly gorgeous and disturbing. The heavy use of black can sometimes make the action in panels a bit difficult to discern but nonetheless an aesthetic pleasure to view.

In closing, fans of medieval fantasy, horror, and rich character development will absolutely love Berserk. Despite the impressive number of volumes, the series manages to maintain a strong narrative, well written characters, and gorgeous art.  Whether you’re new or old to the world of manga, Berserk is a fantastic series that will keep you hooked right from the start.