By Sean Cabot
Kentaro Miura’s “Berserk” is one of the most beloved works of fantasy to come out of the Japanese comic industry. Few other works in any medium can even hope to be as esteemed.
Calling it “award-winning” would undersell its prestige. It’s a great inspiration for many well-known Japanese creatives - such as “Chainsaw Man” creator Tatsuki Fujimoto and “Attack on Titan” creator Hajime Isayama.
And that’s just in regards to comics. Hideaki Itsuno, famous for his work on the “Devil May Cry” games has cited it as an inspiration. It’s rare for any work of art to live up to this kind of reputation. So what is the truth of the matter?
Is “Berserk” really that good?
The series follows a perpetually livid swordsman named Guts, scouring the land and fighting monsters as he seeks vengeance on a man named Griffith. And for about three volumes that’s all the story is - a series of intensely violent encounters that look cool, but whose nihilistic hero is difficult to like at even the best of times.
Then the first extended arc of the series ends, and it’s now evident that Guts is hiding a lot of baggage.
What ensues is a 10-volume flashback that sets up the basic premise of the entire story. It follows Guts from birth to his friendship with Griffith, his tenure with the Band of the Hawk mercenaries, and his romance with their only female member, Casca.
All leading up to a horrifically eldritch climax that takes the series’ cosmic horror undertones and escalates them to a terrifying extent.
I don’t know if I’ve seen a work take quite this long to get to the actual plot, and the remarkable thing is that this “Golden Age” arc, comprising one fourth of the entire story, is both an individually satisfying storyline and intensely engaging setup at the same time despite all of this.
Guts’ journey from child soldier to soldier of fortune to seeking his own place in the world is an exceptional arc on its own, and it only gets more engaging once the plot sees him building a new found family after it returns to his quest for revenge.
And if that wasn’t enough, it’s bolstered by some of the most intricately detailed artwork of any comic, period. From frantic fights to intimate moments, there’s a wallpaper-worthy drawing on almost every page.
There are two words of warning I must give however, and they’re not insignificant.
First, sexual assault is a frequent theme the series touches on, and while it gets it right more than not, it does occasionally come across as excessive. A significant portion of the main characters are themselves sexual abuse survivors, including Guts. And although it’s handled quite well in his case, its presence will definitely alienate quite a few potential readers.
Second, the series has no ending, and it’s unlikely that it ever will.
Kentaro Miura tragically passed away at 54 on May 6, 2021 from acute aortic dissection. His death was mourned by industry legends like George Morikawa, and close friends such as Koji Mori, himself a popular writer, whose tribute comic to his friendship with Miura moved me to tears.
Miura was a master of his craft, drawing upon a range of influences from “Fist of the North Star,” to “Hellraiser,” to Hieronymous Bosch’s depictions of Hell, just to name a few. And despite his erratic release schedule toward the end of his life, the quality of his work was consistent and is still more than worth reading to the end.
“Berserk” is a story of survivors of the worst kinds of abuse possible, having to reckon with the idea that their greatest desires will require them to throw away their happiness.
That’s an unpleasant idea to wrestle with, and “Berserk” is often aggressively unpleasant. But that makes its moments of triumph shine all the brighter.
A+, a dark fantasy with a shining heart