WARNING: THERE WILL BE IMAGES OF GORE AND NUDITY. THAT IS THE NATURE OF THIS MANGA. THERE WILL ALSO BE FULL SPOILERS FOR A LOT OF MAJOR STORY EVENTS. THESE DO NOT RUIN THE READING EXPERIENCE, BUT IF YOU ARE BOTHERED BY THIS, THEN PLEASE READ THIS ARTICLE ANOTHER TIME.
I have recently completed every available chapter in the gargantuan manga series: Berserk. As evidenced by my unhealthy bingeing, I loved the series. But, of course, it has its faults. People have gushed about how much they love the series, but I want to talk about the aspects of it that bothered me. I want to talk about what I cannot justify or defend.
So sit back, ready your pitchforks, and be ready to debate against everything I say, because these are the things I did NOT like about Berserk.
1.) Edgelord Shock Value
Gore and Nudity are abound in Berserk, but these superficial aspects are not what engage people in a story. These factors act as a quick, easily explainable reason to call the manga “dark” and “adult”, while missing the heart and soul of the series. I doubt people have spent hours reading a story because of gore, and if they wanted that, they could find that in the SAW movies, or any other red-coloured fluff.
The heart of Berserk is its characters, themes, and conflicts. The conflict and duality between Guts and Griffith is the driving force for the story. The public’s perception of Griffith as an angelic hero who erected the holiest city known to man via magic, and opened his doors to anybody is seen as a god-like figure to the world, whereas Guts, who is constantly hounded by demons and other monsters, often receives little recognition or credit for his actions. You can write a whole essay just on the masses of people in Berserk, and the consequences of the two main characters’ actions.
People don’t enjoy the visuals of Berserk because of be-headings or intestines, they enjoy the minutia of character expressions from the wonderfully talented artist, Kentaro Miura. Miura can illustrate lush forests and desolate ruins. He can create hellish landscapes full of dead bodies, blood, and demons, but also the purity of a child’s smile. Berserk’s world is not one that is hopeless. There are strong individuals who live peaceful lives within the world of Berserk (I could not find an official name for it.)
But, the temptation to tell people that a series is coated in blood and gore is tempting. It’s like a prideful ritual, in which you proclaim your badassery for having read something so hardcore. There is the presumption that gratuitous imagery is “adult”, and it transforms people as wiser individuals for experiencing it.
However, in my opinion, gore, nudity, and shock value for the sake of being edgy, is the laziest, most childish way to garner attention. Sansa’s rape scene in season 5 of Game of Thrones is an egregious example of what I mean. It did not fit thematically with the story or her character progression. It simply existed for BuzzFeed headlines.
Berserk is, unfortunately, guilty of this edgelord shock value. It often plays into that identity of being known for being dark and blood-soaked. Because of this, there are unfortunately many story events that feel like over-the-top, gory, filler.
The biggest offender of this is the Trolls that appeared for, almost an entire volume. Long story short, Trolls kidnap women of the local village, Enoch, and murder anybody who gets in their way. In their hunt for trolls, two main characters, Casca and Farnese, get lost in the forest, and witness a few trolls raping the female inhabitants of the village. The female inhabitants then have their stomachs explode, giving birth to baby trolls.
This section is completely unnecessary, and I would honestly classify it as filler. The only thing that comes out of this mini-arc, is the reader becomes slightly more educated on how magic works in the world of Berserk, but, nothing else.
Another pointless example of shock value is when the group goes to a small village of faeries, and they begin engaging in “human activities.” To them, this means killing, burning, murdering each other and doing generally horrible things. This is completely unnecessary as well, as the activity they were doing previously was already unnerving. The concept of mimicking human activity already fell into the uncanny valley, and it didn’t need elaboration. This was here to mortify the reader, and nothing else.
Berserk as a whole uses its violence as a way to characterize its world. Keep in mind, these examples I’ve listed are outliers to the manga’s use of blood and gore, but they are important to bring up. As a story goes on, these stories usually try to one-up with something more obnoxiously edgy for the sake of meeting some imaginary quota. If the tone of the story changes to being more fantastical like Berserk has become, then focusing on slaying creatures and protecting people is what is important now. I’m fine with nudity and rape in a narrative if it feels appropriate and impacts the story and setting meaningfully.
I believe the Conviction Arc uses religious violence incredibly well, and works as a great reflection on religiously motivated terrorism. The gore and horrific imagery in torture chambers, and the mass plague ritual still resonate in my mind and leave me rattled. But, that was the intention. It was to make you feel uncomfortable for a story’s sake. It was to make you despise the new villain of that arc, Father Mozgus, and feel conflicted when that same murderous monster is shown engaging in acts of kindness. It makes you feel ambivalent. It is morality that is found in some of the greatest stories penned in the history of fiction.
My gripes with Berserk’s violence only apply when the story utilizes it for needless “stake raising,” or to appeal to the younger audience who believes more blood = more maturity. I just wanted to highlight that this fantastic series is guilty of this as well.
2.) Meandering Pace
So as a typical fanboy, I believe the Golden Age Arc to be the superior story arc when compared to the rest in Berserk. It has the most deliberate and intricate storytelling, and it ends on a phenomenal note that sets up the central conflict for the rest of the series. Griffith betrays Guts and his friends, rapes Casca, a woman who once loved him, and destroys her mind for good measure.
Then the story goes to random places. Guts, after surviving the mass slaughter of his comrades, swears to get revenge on Griffith and restore Casca’s sanity. But, Guts then abandons Casca to kill Apostles, which are demons who were once human. He goes and kills a bunch, but returns to the house Casca was staying at, to find out she has gone somewhere else. this is the beginning of the Conviction Arc. Guts is (rightfully) berated for this decision by the blacksmith who’s house he was staying at, and now he searches for Casca again.
As much as I love The Conviction Arc, and as much as it builds the world of Berserk by showing different factions and the religious politics of it all, it does feel somewhat unnecessary. All it forwards is the resurrection of Griffith into the Physical World after he become a member of the God Hand, but even that did not have sufficient build-up.
There is also the next arc after this one, which is called the:
F A L C O N O F T H E M I L L E N N I U M E M P I R E A R C
This arc is all about Guts wanting revenge on Griffith, but realizes that the dude is literally an assistant of God, and cannot be harmed by physical means. He then forgets about that goal, and focuses on restoring Casca’s mind. It is only then, that Puck, an elf that accompanies Guts, tells him that his queen can restore Casca’s mind…even though Puck had been with Guts ever since he went on that emo-loner journey and never thought to bring it up.
How long does it take them to find a boat to go to this island? About, 10 volumes or so until they ride a boat to Elfhelm.
But that’s not all! Once they boarded the boat, that is when the series decided to have major hiatus’. Now, I personally was not there to experience the pain of the “boat arc,” but according to the Berserk Hiatus chart, the main crew were on this boat for roughly 5 real-life years before readers saw them reach their destination. The fight with the sea god was very entertaining and intense, but it lasts almost an entire volume, and if it were cut from the story, not much would change.
I felt like more time could be spent during the F A L C O N O F T H E M I L L E N N I U M E M P I R E A R C developing Griffith’s conquest of Midland. His dynamic of being an incredibly overpowered monster who gracefully defeats all opponents in his path is pretty interesting, because not every character in his band are terrible people. The apostles he employs aren’t just demonic creatures bent on feasting on humans, but they have emotional needs and compassion.
Nosferatu Zodd is a horrible person, but he is also an interesting character with a strong internal conflict and suspenseful motivation. There are lots of little touches that work to build the world and make the experience more engaging and immersive, but there is, at least to me, a bit too much edgy black swordsman-dude swinging a big sword at everything.
3.) Mistreatment of Farnese and Isidro
Farnese De Vandimion (Yes, I had to look this up) is introduced in the third major arc of Berserk, The Conviction Arc. She is the most interesting character to come out of this story. She is a noblewoman who was forced to lead a prestigious group of religious knights, called the Holy Iron Chain Knights, or HICK’s, if you want an abbreviation. She was called to this because tradition dictates that a woman must lead, regardless of past expertise. Farnese was selected against her will by her father, as her noble family were major financial supporters of the Holy See, and thus, wanted more prestige within their family.
Farnese was a victim of emotional and mental abuse. Everytime she would show emotions such as lust, desire, greed, or anything seen as “sinful” in the eyes of the Holy See, her father would force her to repress those emotions. This led Farnese to have an obsession with fire, as she believed it was the only way to purify and cleanse anything. She burnt her house down, burnt property, and even engaged in burning heretics alive. Like I said, this arc has a lot of gruesome imagery. Religious killings make me queasy and enraged, what can I say.
A potent example of her repressed sexual urges come when she is possessed by demonic spirits around Guts. This puts her into a delirious trance, and she begins to engage in intercourse with Guts’ massive sword, Dragonslayer. I’m not making this up.
It’s a disturbing image, but a powerful scene. It isn’t just W0AH DIZ MANGA IS EFFED UP!!!!! It hyperbolizes her inner feelings by bringing forth her repressed emotions via physical violence. She takes her complex emotions and translates them into physical pain. She explains complicated mental thoughts into a sensation, regardless of how unpleasant it is.
She was never enamored with the Holy See, and she even realizes the horrid acts she has committed as a child, and as a representative of the Holy See. She understands her privilege compared to the impoverished peasants of Berserk, and wants to do better for the world. By meeting Guts, she realizes how minuscule and selfish her world view is, and she desires to broaden her perspective on life, its beauty, its depravity, and its horror.
But, after she cuts her hair in an act of symbolic defiance and renewed identity, her complexity disappears, and you realize, as a character, she does not have much personality. My favourite part about her are her complex emotions and history, but when I consider who she is as a person, and how her mannerisms are compared to the rest of Guts’ group, she is easily the most bland character.
In the F A L C O N O F T H E M I L L E N N I U M E M P I R E A R C, she goes through another minor character arc of inadequacy when compared to Guts’ companions, and that is about all the development she receives. She visits her family again and there is an interesting dynamic there, but we as readers do not see her grow or develop into her own person. I can describe Casca as fierce, determined, but also socially awkward and loving of those close to her. I can describe Schiercke as somewhat prideful, but also innocent and wise. Farnese is bland.
In the second half of the manga series, Farnese’s most notable feat is being able to keep Casca calm and contained. She is a sidekick to a much more interesting character.
One may ask why I do not complain about how Casca’s character was viciously changed. There is a fundamental reason why Casca going from a strong woman to a braindead plot device does not bother me: Casca went through the most traumatic experience imaginable, and she had her mind broken because of it. Would you be fine if you saw everyone you ever loved eaten by demons in front of you, stripped by said demons, and then raped TWICE by them? She isn’t herself anymore because of a major story event, and her broken mentality is a major driving force for the narrative.
Rather than blossom into a fascinating character, she is mistreated, and turned into a bland girl who fantasizes about how Guts is such a cool dude.
Another character I didn’t care much for, and one I feel that has wasted potential is Isidro. In terms of backstory, Isidro is about as generic as you can get: he is a child who felt out of place at home, and left his parents in search of adventure. I actually don’t mind this backstory, as not every character has to be incredibly complex. He’s a nice relief to the other characters of Berserk.
His problem is similar to Farnese’s, in that he rarely grows or matures. Rather than blossoming into a responsible man, he stays as a short-tempered, comic relief character. His combat ability grows, but that doesn’t really matter to a story. In his defense though, he starts from nothing, and does become a reliable, competent member of Guts’ companions. But there is almost nothing to him, other than being a frequent punchline for jokes.
I feel that Isidro could have been an interesting insight into the common folk in Berserk. You don’t see much of the peasants, so having Isidro there could be a chance for stories of regular life, its mundanities, and its pleasures. But, Isidro never reveals anything personal, and he is always present, but you rarely notice him. He’s often in the back joking or being antagonized by Puck, and I feel he could be so much more.
My section on Isidro is much shorter than Farnese’s because, despite being in 200+ chapters of the story, there really isn’t much to this character, which, is a shame.
4.) Weak World
When I think of the best fantasy worlds, I think of worlds like The Continent from The Witcher, Forgotten Realms, New Vegas in Fallout New Vegas, Auldrant in Tales of the Abyss, and Arcadia in Skies of Arcadia. These places are all unique, have believable people and systems in place, and they all include memorable set pieces and locations. They have great lore and history as well, and laws of nature that govern its politics, magic, and conflicts. In short, great worlds feel lived-in.
Berserk, while excelling in some of these factors, is definitely lacking in others. Let’s run down the factors I just listed, and see how Berserk holds itself up. Yes, this will be a sub-list in an article which is a list. This is 2017, people.
Some concepts endemic to Berserk are fantastic, while others are fairly generic. The Behelit, to me, is the most interesting artifact in the world of Berserk. When a person has desires strong enough, or they are brought to their absolute breaking point, they can activate the Behelit.
Doing so will give you the option to sacrifice the people in your life closest to you and become an apostle: half-demon, half-human. This is a symbolic gesture of ridding yourself of human love and happiness, and embracing your inner depravity. It is one of the most terrifying and fascinating artifacts in fiction.
But, other than the Behelit, there aren’t many aspects of Berserk’s world that differentiate it from any other fantasy setting. Which, admittedly, is absurdly difficult to do, given the glut of fantasy settings in the written sphere. A lot of Berserk’s creatures are taken from religions, folklore, or other settings and given a unique twist, but not unique enough to outdo the competition.
Although, the design for a lot of the apostles and horrific creatures in Berserk are very detailed. No two creatures look the same, and that takes an incredible level of talent, regardless of the production.
I love the commoner’s and peasants in Berserk. They are realistic and believable for a setting full of pillaging, murder, and rape. They search for any quick solution to their problem. In an impoverished setting, it makes sense why a villager would become enamored with faith. It makes sense that the starving parent sells their child into slavery, regardless of how horrendous that act is. It makes sense that the plague infested citizens view Mozgus as a god, when they see him sprout wings and fly, telling them to burn Casca.
Unfortunately, civilians in Berserk very rarely offer any world-building information. They are there to further the plot, and that’s a bit of a shame. Insight into the world of the everyman is, at least I believe, integral to building a powerful world. I love Fallout New Vegas, because it feels like everybody has a place there, regardless of how mundane it is. You meet hunters, farmers, and people trying to attain power.
Don’t get me wrong though, the named characters in Berserk are always interesting. They have motivations, personality, and goals to uphold. Overall though, the individuals in Berserk’s world are great.
This is where the world of Berserk begins to fall flat. None of the locations or warring nations in Berserk are very interesting. Other than the first arc, the Golden Age Arc, there is little exploration of the politics of kingdoms. Berserk is more so about adventures and conquering. It is more akin to Dungeons and Dragons, than it is Game of Thrones, despite its superficial similarities to Thrones.
But, aside from the gorgeous imagery, the world of Berserk doesn’t feel genuine. It just feels like a series of generic fantasy locations. Travel and conquest doesn’t matter if you don’t care for any place, or really know anything about it. I don’t know where a place like Midland is in relation to the Kushan Empire. I don’t know where Doldrey Castle is. I don’t know where Elfhelm is. There is no map, and you very rarely get any directions anywhere. It just feels like a lot of loose locations hardly strewn together with any cohesion, and it takes you out of the story. By having the locations of Berserk feel disconnected, the world feels fake and fabricated.
Again, all of the locations are illustrated beautifully, but few of them are memorable or striking. None of them have unique quirks or spectacular designs. I can’t tell you the difference between any country or castle.
It’s also damning that it feels like the world just has countries appear out of nowhere. The Holy See, for example, was never mentioned once before the conviction arc, and many years of story took place during that time. It especially seems off, since characters from Midland reference The Holy See in the Conviction Arc, which is strange, because it appears that the religious authority holds massive power over nobles. There is no concrete system, and the political climate seems to change rapidly off-screen. The politics of Berserk adapt conveniently to fit the narrative, and it just feels sloppy.
Lore and History
There is almost no lore or history in Berserk. Other than a few text boxes describing the past of certain items or events, there is hardly anything. This is tragically a problem with the manga medium, as almost all of its story is conveyed through dialogue, and not walls of text, but a lack of history does not give Berserk’s world an identity. Berserk focuses more on the present, and history is made through characters’ actions. This unfortunately does not lend Berserk’s superficial medieval fantasy setting any advantage other than hellish monsters.
Laws of Nature
This category is kind of vague, but it is the physics, chemistry, and natural qualities of a world that help give it an identity. I genuinely enjoy the concept of magic in Berserk. Having a magic system that neccessitates preparation and extensive knowledge makes it seem so important, and allows spells to feel important.
Berserk has some fairly strong supernatural elements, but doesn’t do anything more complicated with them other than present them as fodder for Guts to swing his big sword at. Characters with magical abilities are also present, and the anime aesthetic lends itself to being more fantastical. But, like the world of Berserk, magic abilities seem to come to random characters completely unexplained.
The separation of planes of reality is slightly interesting, but it has been done in many fantasy settings before. Berserk does not try to expand on these concepts or innovate them, but rather, constrains its narrative by following them.
5.) Yugioh Battle Discussions
This one personally bothers me, but I feel there are too many Guts vs. any opponent scenes. My favourite battles are those where there are multiple participants, or those which have a lot of strategy behind them. Guts fight scenes are always over with him crushing his opponents with a few swings. There aren’t any memorable fights, but that’s okay, because Berserk isn’t about the individual battles. Combat is a means to an end to progress the story. Combat itself, does a wonderful job, in telling stories.
What bothers me, is when Guts has his fight scenes with any opponent, his motley crew are always on the side, gawking and providing commentary. It seems a little out-of-place for Berserk, and takes away a lot of tension from battle scenes. Having Guts swing a sword, and then a cutting to a character commenting on how well he swung that sword, doesn’t really feel necessary to me.
To clarify, I am not condoning reaction shots from characters. A lot of powerful moments are amplified when it cuts to characters being shocked about the strength of an attack. It lets the reader know that what they are seeing is not normal, and it keeps fights intense and exciting.
It feels odd that this happens a lot, because it invalidates a lot of Berserk’s side characters by forcing them to remain on the sidelines. Rather than participate and gain their own moments of glory, they are relegated to cheering on the main character man do his thing. It feels like wish-fulfillment for the reader. It’s a cheap and lazy tactic for the reader to cheer on Guts and feel like they too, are the super badass man XD.
Harem anime is the most basic, fanservice thing you can do. Make a male main character, and every girl loves him and wants to be with him for some reason. I’d be guilty in saying I don’t indulge in it. Persona 5’s confidant system enables you to develop a harem, there is no way around it.
But when a harem forms in a story that takes itself really seriously, it becomes extra noticable. Berserk has a lot of anime elements, but it doesn’t contain many cliches. The aforementioned YuGiOh battle cries in the background are one of them, and the harem is another.
Having Farnese and Shiercke develop crushes on Guts seems weird and out of place. I can understand Shiercke liking Guts because he shows her kindness when others barely did, but Farnese’s affection seems to appear out of nowhere.
Guts pretty much dismantles Farnese’s entire worldview, kidnaps her and uses her as ransom to escape the Holy See, and shows pretty much no care for her. He isn’t mean or dismissive of her, but he just does not seem to love her at all.
Shiercke’s affection could add a lot to her charcter if she was balancing her innocent kindness, adolescent crush, and respect for Guts. It would be a fascinating look into complex emotions of adoration and love that human beings, especially tumultuous teenagers, experience. But, it gets relegated to “she wants his big muscles.”
What makes it even more frustrating, is Guts clearly loves Casca. So much of the manga is spent developing their relationship, so the harem is ultimately pointless. Shiercke and Farnese won’t win Guts’ affection, and if they did, it would undermine the entire purpose of Guts’ journey. It would hurt the story if Guts stopped loving Casca and loved the others.
The harem also plays into the pointless and childish wish fulfillment method of making Guts seem like a better character. It allows the reader to think “Ooh! Since i impose myself onto big sword man, all ladies love me too!” It’s a superficial manipulation tactic, and it cheapens the story.
It ESPECIALLY hurts Farnese, because it takes away the strong character she was, and just becomes a token of affection for Guts. She becomes a friendzoned trophy wife, and it’s just childish.
BIG OL’ WRAP UP
I know it sounds like I hate Berserk, but that’s the opposite of the truth. I adore this series, and I would give it an 9/10. The issues I listed above don’t ruin the series, but prevent it from becoming that perfect 10 that it could be. But, the series isn’t over yet so maybe these issues can be rectified. Maybe there can be a bonus edition of the series that details the world, its lore, and its natural systems. Maybe now that Farnese and Shiercke know that Casca and Guts were intimate in the past, they will ditch their unrequited love and become stronger individual characters.
I wanted to highlight what I viewed as worthy criticism for this manga, as people continuously call it a perfect 10/10. It’s easy to get complacent and ignore issues as the story goes on. There are so many other factors that make me love this series, and I will continue to folow it until the day I die. Because it will probably take 50 years to actually end.