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Forrest Hollingsworth is one of my favorite critical voices right now, and I’m pleased and honored to have them write for Read Pile. ATOMIC CASKET, their newsletter, is essential reading, imo, and if you aren’t already subbed, get on it. Forrest picked a nice, big volume of Berserk to write about, and it’s delightful.
A little over three months ago, I set a new year’s goal of reading more manga. Familiar with only the biggest names, images, characters and more so with anime, I viewed it as a kind of new passion project to distract me from well… the pandemic world: The Year of Manga. After ten years of writing about primarily Western comic books, I wanted to break out of some of my admittedly narrow-minded views and biases about the medium, to challenge myself.
I started with the first deluxe volume of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, published by Dark Horse, a kind of monolithic, seminal work that I had a lot of peripheral knowledge of, but none direct. And I was sufficiently challenged.
Berserk, it turns out, is dense. It is aggressive, unforgiving, at times groan-inducing, and almost always demanding. I both love it in its character and gory, deterministic violent moments and hate it in its more obfuscated, genre-laden narrative structure. More importantly, I find it uniquely positioned to have a satisfying, inspiring conversation with the medium and its peripheral adaptations and inspired works, either intentionally or not.
In its best, most immediate action-driven moments, Berserk successfully paints the main character, Guts’, story as one of worthwhile retribution and revenge. He is raging against the world, angry and brash, there’s a very palpable sense of intense sorrow and weariness below his gruff exterior that inspires intrigue, especially in a world with snake demons and hulking masses of flesh indicating they want something Guts’ barren character work speaks to. He’s the quintessential ronin and Miura clearly revels in it when given the, usually gory, opportunity.
There’s a gritty bluntness to his actions — cutting through swaths of skeletons, detestable lechers, and demon soldiers in some of the most satisfyingly detail-dense and kinetically drawn action scenes I’ve seen in the medium — that draws you in. There’s also a near unapproachability to his character. He speaks with his active violence, tempered, and reserved, but he also needlessly and harshly pushes important, caring characters like Puck, a persistent often cheeky (literally) and genre indebted fairy, away in such a manner that you find it hard to sympathize with him from moment to moment. He may be that essential ronin character, but Miura always undercuts it with a dark, aggressive irony so as to not make him too much of a hero that I deeply appreciate, even if you do feel initially adrift without a singular character to really latch onto. You have to work for it, and that is in and of itself an interesting prospect, especially for manga.
However, Berserk, at least in its early volumes, also struggles to tell an interesting story for the unique characters and set pieces that inhabit its world. I’ve been told that this improves later, but that is the kind of “it gets good after ten hours” caveat that dampens a lot of enjoyment of entertainment regardless of medium. It’s obvious that Miura has a semblance of a story in mind for Guts, but the barren narrative, story structure and bleakness makes it hard to see it cohering quickly enough. When confronted with images of young girls dying, murder, rape and more without a clear direction, or from vignette to vignette, its hard to feel anything but the book being actively hostile to the reader. If the intention is to hate the world as much as Guts does, it works, but that’s also a fraught proposition that I’m not sure totally succeeds its demanding nature. There were multiple times here where I was so overwhelmed with the nature of the violence, the cruelness of the world that I wasn’t sure it was worth continuing.
But I did persist, mostly because of the uniquely striking, singular, and existentially effective look of Berserk — Miura is a master of the craft unlike many others. The sheer detail in any given panel is staggering: cracking bones, the glint of hulking blades, wrought iron armor, viscera and tactile violent immediacy. But the book is also inspired and intriguing in its quieter moments, too. The mere appearance of the Beherit, a grossly contorted egg with human features of immense narrative and artistic importance, is a smaller, but still vastly unsettling thing that Miura makes feel important and memorable even when the reader has no idea of its origin or purpose.
It’s also imagery that I didn’t realize at the time, was so inspirational to so many things I love. Namely, to the Dark Souls series of video games. It’s truly staggering to see how much of the Souls world is inspired both in structure and imagery by Miura, reading through Berserk becomes an act of conscious recognition. In-game disposable armor, swords, monsters, demons, and even dialogue becomes so much more inherently meaningful when you realize what it is honorably aping. The importance of the image in the game becomes dialogic with the importance of the image in manga — they better each other, planned or not, and I was struck with a divine sense of inspiration and appreciation upon seeing those images and ideas remixed, repurposed, into something entirely different but nonetheless reverent.
This is true, too, of Berserk’s various and more direct anime, movie, and video game adaptations. There’s a singleness to the imagery, to the world that demands viewer recognition and understanding that is unlike many other things I’ve read. All of these adaptations exist because they’ll be profitable of course, but also because they give a sense of ownership and understanding to images that within the source text often go unexplained or underappreciated. Watching creators grapple with that is in and of itself rewarding – as if the core of it is so aggressive that it demands individual salience through any means available – its obliqueness and violence become a source for decryption.
And, in the end, that’s the admirable thing here. Where the story is weak, or sometimes nonexistent. Where Guts is admirable but frustrating, where the violence and the callousness is overwhelming, Miura directs the whole thing to be nonetheless visually demanding and intellectually stimulating. It takes literal effort to enjoy the work, but it is rewarded in kind. I have never read anything like it, and though it exhausts me to say so, I am simply compelled to finish it – a more than worthwhile opening entry in a year immersed in otherness and learning.
The thing was too big to be called a book. Too big, too thick, too heavy, and too rough, it was more like a large hunk of violence.
Next time, on Read Pile:
I’m, uuuuh, not quite sure? I may have mismanaged a couple things, which lead to a…situation. So. Idk. I guess we’ll see!
Thanks for reading!