I had a plan for a blog post that I was going to write called “Of Woodcuts and Weeaboos,” talking about two of my favorite artists and a new comic book I was reading called Berserk. The artists, Gustave Doré and Albrecht Durer, were brilliant men who worked in woodcuts and engravings and created some of the most visually stimulating images I have ever seen using only black and white. The illustrator and writer of Berserk, Kentauro Miura, works in pen and ink and his art evokes a similar feeling from its audience. It was supposed to be an exploration of Doré and Durer and a discussion about my first foray into reading manga. That was the plan. Then I got to Chapter 40 of Berserk and everything spiraled out of control.
Please note that spoilers for Berserk are coming up shortly, and despite anything that I may say about it, I do strongly recommend that everyone read it.
Now if you’ve read my blog for a little while you’ve probably noticed that I have something of a fixation with Dante and depictions of hell. Maybe this is fueled by an obsession with the mythology of Christianity and the hierarchy of angels and demons, or perhaps it’s just a fascination with the morbid part of the human psyche. After all hell is, by definition, meant to be the worst thing that anyone can imagine. Therefore each depiction of hell tells us a great deal about the person, or society, that imagines it. Given my obsession with these depictions of the underworld you might think that I have a strong stomach for such things, and that I was prepared for what I was about to read. You would be wrong. So, so wrong.
The way I felt about this manga was the exact same way that I felt about the movie Oldboy. If you haven’t seen it, Oldboy is director Park Chan-Wook’s masterpiece, a pinnacle of the revenge film genre that is half Count of Monte Cristo and half Room. It stands apart as one of the greatest and most viscerally upsetting films I have ever witnessed, and one that transfixed me while I was watching it. I turned the film on while taking a break from writing a paper one night, thinking that I would watch a half an hour and then finish the assignment. Two hours later I was white-knuckling the arms of my chair as the movie came to its perplexing, upsetting, conclusion. I immediately got up, walked over to my roommate, and asked him if I could have a hug.
Last night I read through almost fifty chapters of Berserk and my experience was almost identical to that of watching Oldboy three years ago. As I read through page after page of stomach-turning images, I was struck by the artist’s illustrative genius and his incredible storytelling. Like Doré and Durer, Miura manages to bring remarkable life and color into his artwork despite only using black and white. His pages have a richness and detail that leads to vivid images laid before the reader in gruesome tableaus. Doré created some of the most striking and hauntingly beautiful depictions of hell in his illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. Yet Miura surpasses him handily, combining Doré’s detail and draftsmanship with surreal creations reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch. His creations leap from the page and burn themselves into the reader’s mind in a way that is truly unique.
Please see this excellent discussion of Berserk’s art for a detailed comparison between Bosch and Miura http://www.exprofundis.com/the-art-of-berserk/
Yet what horrifies me about Berserk is not the depictions of violence and gore but the story that drives it which is, if anything, more scarring. Fundamentally, Berserk begins as the story of Guts (Gatsu in Japanese) who is a captain in the band of mercenaries-turned-soldiers known as the Band of the Hawk. Guts is a distant, cold warrior whose only pleasure in life seems to come from swinging his massive sword in battle. He is terrifying to look at, particularly in battle, and seems to have resigned himself to his fate as a weapon to be used for others’ purposes. The Band of the Hawk is made up of a number of lovable and roguish characters who have committed themselves to following their almost inhumanly charismatic commander, Griffith. Griffith is charming, intelligent, remarkably skilled with a sword, and possesses ethereal beauty. All of Griffith’s actions are focused on his singular goal: to someday take the throne and become king of Midland, the fictional world of Berserk.
Each of the many characters in the Band of the Hawk are committed to serving Griffith in his dream, but none more so than Casca and Guts. Casca is the only female member of the unit and is desperately in love with Griffith, even if she knows he will never reciprocate her feelings. Griffith meanwhile has an obsession with Guts that begins to make him lose focus on his dream. Their friendship is intense, and shows a level of connection and humanity that Griffith seldom displays. When Griffith confides to the princess of the kingdom, Charlotte, that only his equal could ever truly be considered his friend, Guts begins to re-evaluate their relationship. As a result, Guts wants to find his own dream, and chase it with the kind of gusto that Griffith pursues his desire for the crown.
Eventually the band rises to the height of prestige and each member is set to become a member of the nobility. Just when they have achieved all of their goals, Guts decides to leave them to follow his own path. Although many of the members of the band attempt to talk him out of this decision, Guts refuses to change his mind. Shaken, Griffith decides that if he cannot have Guts, then no one will. The two duel to decide whether or not Guts will stay and Guts proves victorious. He leaves Griffith broken and depressed, and also leaves behind Casca, with whom he had been developing a burgeoning relationship. By hoping to be seen as an equal by Griffith, Guts irrevocably wounds him. And this is when the series becomes truly dark.
Distraught over Guts’ perceived betrayal, Griffith commits political suicide and seduces Princess Charlotte. He had been laying the groundwork to marry into the royal family, but by bedding the heir to the throne he earns the ire of the king and is thrown into a torture cell for a year. The action resumes after the year, when Guts and Casca lead a team to rescue Griffith and finally find him at the bottom of a nightmarish pit. All of the Band of the Hawk had staked their hopes on this moment, when Griffith would rise from the ashes and lead them onto glory once again. Sadly, this would not be the case.
The year of torture left Griffith crippled beyond repair, having lost his tongue, patches of his skin, and the connective tendons in his hands and feet. Griffith’s perfect physical form, which had been such an integral part of his charisma and leadership abilities, had been marred almost beyond recognition. Moreover he would never be able to lead his men in combat or fight on the battlefield himself ever again. During the escape from the dungeon he attempts several times to pick up a sword, only to have it clatter out of his useless hands. Griffith is filled with resentment for his fate and for his friends, feebly trying to strangle Guts and ineffectively attempting to force himself on Casca. When Casca falls into Guts’ arms and remarks that, “Griffith is so small now,” it seems that she does not just mean his body. Griffith’s dream is dead, and with it went everything he ever was.
To be honest this is the part of Berserk that haunts me the most. Stories of mutilation and body horror have always disgusted me, but they also upset me on an existential level. I try very hard to be self-sufficient and internally strong, but I know that my body is a part of that. Our body and spirit are connected, and I attempt to strengthen the former to improve the latter. The idea of being physically transformed and mutated into something else is terrifying to me because I wonder how it would affect me internally. We all get old and get weaker, and I hope to do that gracefully, but the idea of some sudden and dramatic change makes me shiver. If my physical form were to change so dramatically, what would that mean for who I am inside? How would I define myself if such an important part of me were taken away? Would I become bitter and small like Griffith? Perhaps it’s a silly fear, but it’s one that haunts me. That being said, this is just a fraction of what comes next.
Miura and Doré respectively
At several stages of their journey together, Guts and Griffith came across otherworldly monsters that attempted to kill them. The pair managed to hold their own against them and they ran from Griffith when they realized that he had a special object called the Behelit. This “Egg of the King,” was lost during his torture but came back to him at his lowest moment, as he weakly attempted to impale his neck on a sharp piece of wood, it floated back to him. His blood triggered a reaction in it and he and his Band of the Hawk were transported to another dimension populated by grotesque demons that would have made Bosch and Dore proud. Four immense gods offer Griffith a choice, to sacrifice his precious companions in the band and become a god, or give up his dream and continue living in his almost useless body. To pursue his dream, determined never to look back, Griffith chooses to sacrifice.
What followed was pages upon pages of jarring, revolting imagery as each member of the band was savagely cut down and torn limb from limb. The hellscape that NAME presents is bizarre and tortuous, where the ground itself is composed of human faces screaming into the abyss. The hawks’ deaths are brutal and cruel, as their suffering is used to remake Griffith into the pristine black god Femto. Only Casca and Guts survive, but each is changed forever.
Guts fights frantically to save Griffith, only to be told that this was his friend’s choice. He proceeds to slaughter countless demons as he rages against the circumstances that have brought him and his friends to this terrible place. Guts loses an eye and a forearm, but this is nothing compared to Casca’s suffering. To spite Guts, Griffith brutally assaults Casca again and again as his old friend looks on helplessly. Although she escapes relatively unscathed, Casca’s mind is too shaken by the trauma to go on and she reverts inward. The two are saved by a mysterious otherworldly figure called the Skull Knight, but the reader knows that their troubles are only beginning.
So in the course of a few hours I read through these fifty chapters of trauma and betrayal, love and loss, and the worst part was that I knew exactly what was going to happen. I first discovered the manga due to the outrage surrounding its thoroughly unremarkable animated series, and had almost every one of these events spoiled in its entirety. It is a tribute to the skill of Miura, that I not only wanted to read through this section, but that I was still at the edge of my seat the entire time. In fact, I had the exact same reaction to Oldboy, having heard the major plot twist prior to viewing the movie. I still loved the film and could barely take my eyes off of the screen, hoping to god that what I had heard wasn’t true.
I have never cared much about having things spoiled for me, but for tragedy I think that it actually adds something to the experience. By knowing what is going to happen before ever beginning to watch or read the story, the audience already has a tremendous amount of dramatic irony set up for them. The ancient Greeks understood this when they invented the genre itself. No one walked into Oedipus Rex and left surprised, but it still remains a commonly produced play simply because it is too fascinating to ignore. So long as the characters strive and fight to reach what they think will be a positive outcome, we will still be gripped by the drama. Great tragedy functions effectively because the characters do not know where they are headed, even if the audience does.
This is why I have no reservations about recommending Berserk, despite the fact that I briefly summarized its first 100 volumes or so. It is a masterfully created piece of fiction that is both an incredible story and a brilliant example of one visual artist’s work. The characters are rich and detailed, and the world is perfectly executed. In fact the only caveat that I would add is that the series is a veritable gun range of triggers of sexual assault and violence, and if you are sensitive to that I would consider approaching it with caution. For everyone else I strongly advise that you pick up Berserk and take the time to explore it. It is at times not a particularly fun read, but it is an incredibly satisfying one, that will leave you both emotionally drained and desperate for more.
A link to the Super Eyepatch Wolf video that turned me onto Berserk
A link to Doré’s illustrations of Dante: