There’s an uneasy juxtaposition at the very heart of Berserk. On the one hand, it’s an anime series about a triple-hard bastard (named Guts) who wanders a cruel medieval world and carries around a sword the size of God’s disappointment in humanity. But on the other hand, Berserk is all about inappropriately upbeat J-Pop songs and Bishōnens.
Berserk is known, however, for its uncompromising brutality. Based on the manga series by Kentaro Miura, Berserk can best be described as anime’s Game of Thrones. This is a world where you can’t even pop to the market without encountering more corrupt knights, rapey barons, insane warlords, and occasional demon than you can shake Robert E. Howard‘s desiccated corpse at. It’s in this melting pot of death and destruction that Guts the wandering warrior finds himself, as he shacks up with Griffith the Bishōnen and his mercenary group – the Band of the Hawk.
Griffith, like Simba, just can’t wait to be king. He leads his men from exploit to exploit, rising from commoner to knight to contender for the throne. Guts serves as Griffith’s henchman for three glorious years, though I’m not sure why he’s needed. Sure, Guts doesn’t mess around. Anyone with a name like Guts isn’t trying to make friends with salad. But Berserk does the usual anime where all the flamboyant characters are as hard as the beefy ones.
What is the point, exactly, of lugging around a sword as massive as Godzilla’s arm if you can’t even beat a guy who looks as though he should be the front-woman for an university electronica band.
I suppose that’s the point. Berserk is an exploration of worth in a world which values only martial force. Guts is an artist with the blade, butchering his way through entire armies. He’s a literal berserker; you know hell’s going down when he goes into one of his trademark ‘roid rages and he screams at the screen. In this brutal setting, killing’s all that defines him. And yet he yearns for more; for some kind of goal in life. It’s a nice subversion on ‘the muscle’ archetype you normally find cast on the sidelines in anime.
Guts’ theme from Susumu Hirasawa‘s legendary soundtrack exemplifies this hidden element to Guts. You’d expect a theme song for a huge guy like Guts to have the high octane energy of a cat in a toilet paper factory. But Hirasawa instead went for a reflective, almost serene, piece. A nice touch as it sums up Guts’ desire to put the fighting behind him – in a series which largely involves him hacking people to pieces. He never considers just taking up knitting instead.
Most of the series revolves around the relationship between Guts, Griffith, and Griffith’s Lieutenant – Casca. This means a lot of time is spent building character and establishing motivations. This series is like Oprah, handing out motivations left, right, and centre. Everyone gets a motivation; even the tea boy probably got one.
Towards the middle stretch the story becomes one of court intrigue and political machinations – as Griffith’s quest for power draws the attention of powerful forces. Though the price for Griffith’s ambition is hinted at in episode 1 – which takes place in a crumbling Dark Souls style world, set sometime after the remaining 24 episodes – it’s the ending which hammers home the consequences.
Infamously, Berserk ends on a completely bizarre note. Imagine if Frodo reached Mordor and found it infested with Cenobites. That was meant to be a joke, but it’s actually a fairly accurate description of Berserk’s final episodes which all take place in a genuinely disturbing hellish setting with body horror demons. And after three intense, surreal episodes the series just ends. Until the 2012 films, and 2016 sequel series. A ballsy ending to a series which is otherwise fairly grounded – geysers of blood not withstanding.
You’ll either love or hate the ending; there’s simply no middle ground. Whilst I appreciate that the ending comes out of nowhere and feels completely abrupt, I can’t think of a more befitting way for this series to end. It’s the brutal Eighties horror movie ending, akin to something Lucio Fulci would have pulled.
Samurai Jack – a similar(ish) series about a wandering warrior trying to find his place in a strange violent world – followed Eastern philosophy and thus it made sense that series’ lead would eventually find inner peace. Berserk, on the other hand, is an utterly ugly series with a nihilistic view of fate and the gods, so this style of ending works. It’s not a needlessly cruel experience, but ugly nonetheless. Just like school picture day.