The Forces of Berserk

Kentaro Miura, the brilliant manga artist behind Berserk, passed away on May 6th, 2021.

While Berserk is not his only work, it is undoubtedly his most prolific and influential, and it is what I knew him for. I was first introduced to Berserk back in the early 2000s, by friends who had already ravenously consumed the ongoing tale of the black swordsman. I became just as hungry for more.

The Golden Age

It started with the animation, lent to me by a close friend, which covered what is referred to as the “Golden Age” arc of its story. As a guy who loves high fantasy, it certainly left me wanting in some regard, as its prologue promised much more mysticism in the future. However, the extended flashback that is the Golden Age sets up that world beset by dark magic, and along the way it told a powerful story of struggle, hope, and dreams.

And wistfully standing in the wind, as one does

The main character Guts had an incredibly depressing childhood, born from a hanged corpse and forced to kill his adoptive father to escape his abuse, we find Guts in the midst of mercenary work, attracting the attention of other major characters Casca and Griffith. Guts is content to live his life a day at a time, simply fighting for coin until he falls, but after being recruited by Griffith into his Band of the Hawk, he begins to find some semblance of a family. He falls for Casca, and is devoted to helping Griffith achieve his own goals. That is, until Griffith enacts a cataclysmic paradigm shift, flooding the world with demons and sacrificing the entire Band of the Hawk – his friends, his family – to become a reigning force in the world through Faustian means.

Berserk Ending, Finale: Explained | Season 1 Recap - Cinemaholic
This was never going to end well…

The animation, and specifically the Golden Age arc, does such an incredible job of developing characters and putting them on a collision course with a harrowing fate. By the end, you are so invested in what happens to the characters and are just as shocked at the turn of events throughout. Unfortunately, the animation ended just as Guts sets out with his iconic slab of iron, aiming to get revenge on Griffith and any of the dark apostles that follow him. For having become so deeply invested in Berserk‘s story and world, there was only one thing to do – READ!

The Struggle

The manga the animation was adapted from debuted in October of 1989, in the magazine Young Animal (formerly Monthly Animal House). It went through several hiatus over the course of its run, and it was still ongoing when Miura passed away. The animation truncated some of the Golden Age’s story, so while it was certainly an enjoyable watch, the real deal was to be found – and ultimately appreciated – in the manga, filled to the brim Miura’s meticulous artwork.

The man sure knew how to crosshatch

Sometimes waiting for the drip-feed of new chapters of the story was arduous, and I had fallen off for a while, focusing on other interests, but that story and its artwork were always there, in the back of my mind.

Miura’s work was influential to many, and I happily count myself among that group. Miura created such a viscerally disturbing and unapologetically dark story with Berserk, but it was also still so full of light. The things that happened to Guts and his companions, those he currently traveled with and those he lost, are undoubtedly depressing. You’d figure that if you were in his shoes, you would have given up long ago, but no. Guts is The Struggler, and you should struggle too. For as much of a misanthrope he is, and despite having been betrayed by one of his closest friends in the worst ways imaginable, he has not given up on companionship, and more importantly, he has not given up period.

Sure it helps that he’s got a giant sword and a cannon for an arm, but those only help him with the external forces that harry him and those he cares about. Guts is also deeply scarred internally, harboring a festering rage that is depicted as a metaphysical, bloodthirsty beast. While admittedly cool to look at, that Beast of Darkness represents a man who is heavily traumatized. That trauma, given form as a ghastly wolf, even protests Guts’ desire to protect those he cares about. That beast was born of rage after all, a desire to kill demons and exact revenge on Griffith, it doesn’t care for Guts’ goals shifting towards looking out for others.

What makes the beast so much more interesting than simply being a man’s inner bloodlust, is that it is deeply entwined with Guts’ psyche. When Griffith sacrificed the Band of the Hawk, Guts and Casca were the only ones to escape, though not unharmed. Guts lost an eye and arm, and Casca, watching her comrades brutally devoured by demons and raped by the Griffith himself, was left mentally broken. Guts and Casca had only recently fallen in love, and while their time together was short-lived, Guts had opened his heart to her. Traveling in the demon-infested world with Casca, who was a shell of her former self, caused Guts no small bit of grief. He couldn’t even talk to her, let alone express his love to her, and that became a fixation of the beast within him too. Displayed as a violent lust, the beast urges Guts to just give in to his desires and take her, but he refuses. He knows it’s wrong, but it doesn’t stop a dark-as-pitch part of himself from howling about it.

The Beast of Darkness is so emblematic of how trauma can affect a person, and how they act because of it. Guts is a very angry man, and he’s even given in to the beast at times, but he struggles against it as much as he does everything else that has gone wrong in his life. It would be so easy to just give into his desires to kill anything that gets in his way, or force himself on Casca to slake his lust, but he doesn’t. He protects his companions, and cares for Casca until they can one day be as they were.

Guts is The Struggler, and you should struggle too.

(read right to left)

Don’t despair, look at what you still have and move forward. Don’t take the easy way out – it may be easier, but it won’t make you happier. These are the lessons that can be found in Berserk.

What makes Berserk stand out for me, and I would assume so many, is not that it was simply this hardcore, violent, and dark story where you watched terrible things happen to people. Unlike a lot of dark, horror-aligned work, Berserk didn’t exist simply to make people squirm. For as much care as Miura took with drawing the traumatic events of the story, he also took just as much, if not more, care in depicting how that trauma affected the characters. Miura uses the darkness to tell a story of people fighting for the light, clawing through tragedy to come out stronger than the deluge of black ink that stained the world they lived in.

Forces

It is incredibly unfortunate we lost such a talented manga-ka like Miura. Of course there is the fact that the fate of Berserk is now uncertain, if not already destined to have no definitive end; but also because his work was so evocative and influential, and that force is gone from the world. His work is another that proves to me that you can mix many different elements, and not lose an ounce of impact and meaning in the story you wish to tell. The only solace in the loss of Kentaro Miura is that there are so many who were inspired by his work, and it will live on as a force that pushes us all to continue our own journey.

One of the most iconic songs to accompany the Berserk animation, and what essentially became the theme of rallying against all odds, was Susumu Hirasawa’s Forces. The entire song is amazing, but a part that would randomly pop in my head from time to time is a line in the first verse, which has Susumu Hirasawa crooning. The line’s delivery is juxtaposed with the rest of the song’s forceful (heh) on-beat singing, which is why I think it sticks out to me amidst the rest of the incredible song.

The song is, of course, sung mostly in Japanese aside from the titular choral line of chanting “forces”. The second line is 忘れはしない / キミのことは (wasure wa shinai / kimi no koto wa). In English, that line essentially translates to “I will not forget about you”. Those words are more potent than a simple earworm now. It’s a culmination of everything I love about Miura’s work with such an incredible series. Intense admiration of his meticulous skill as an artist, and his impactful and deeply resonating characters.

Rest in peace, Kentaro Miura. I will not forget about you.

Art by Wanotta

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