*taps mic* Hey, is this thing still on?
So, obviously, I’ve been away for a bit. Not physically away, but away from Lost in Animeland — I’ve been finishing up The Price of Valor, the next Shadow Campaigns book, and the workload got a bit heavier than I could handle. Apologies to all my fellow anime enthusiasts! But that’s more or less done, now, so there’s room in the schedule for other things.
My main fearless anime companion is away, physically, hanging out in Akihabara or something instead of catching up on the new season with me. So, instead of diving in to the Winter 2015 shows, I’m going to pick one of the greatest-hits list.
The question I’d like to think about here is: can you love half a show? That is, if there’s a show with some really good stuff in it, but also some stuff that is stupid, problematic, or both, what can you say about it? In order to make sense, I’m going to have to explain a few things about plot and characters, so this column will be a little more spoilery than normal. I’m not going to ruin any big reveals, but if you don’t want to find out that the main character survives the first episode you should probably stop reading.
With that said, let’s talk about…
Berserk is a semi-legendary series, for a variety of reasons. It’s based on a manga series that, as far as I know, has been ongoing since 1989 and runs more than thirty or forty volumes so far, which the author has described as “barely getting started”. It has a level of violence that would probably not be tolerated in a TV show today, and because it was imported to the US via fansub fairly early, it was an introduction for many US fans to the whole idea that anime went way further than Sailor Moon and Robotech. It has what is quite possibly the worst opening theme in anime history. (Weirdly, the internal music is quite good.)
Structurally, it’s a very strange story. In the first episode, we meet Guts, a scarred, badass swordsman who fights the vicious demons that rule the land and is haunted by strange spirits. Then we flash back to him as a kid, at the very beginning of his career, in a world where magic and spirits are unknown. You might expect the flashback to return us to where we came in, so we can see more demonic slaughter, but it never does — the show just about manages to get us through the catastrophic demonpocalypse by rushing the last few episodes, but it never really completes the circle. (This is due to being an extract from an unbelievably-long manga.) This false expectations throws some people; it’s best to actually ignore the first episode and just treat the flashback as the “real” story.
So, what’s so good about it? In essence, it boils down to character growth. After distinguishing himself in battle, Guts is recruited by a mercenary company called the Band of the Hawk, led by the charismatic Griffith. Initially brought in as a grunt, Guts rises through the ranks by virtue of being awesome and more than a little insane. We get his history, in a flashback-within-a-flashback, and get a good idea what drives him as he goes from a nobody to the most feared commander in the Hawks and Griffith’s right-hand man.
Good character development is distinguished by its subtlety. It’s less about epiphany and catharsis and more about gradual change; the viewer should find each step logical and plausible, in terms of the previous depiction, and almost not realize the development is happening until some situation highlights how far we’ve come. It’s this that Berserk is so good at — when Guts moves forward, it feels natural, and we watch his progression from cocksure kid with a fragile ego to a grizzled badass bit by bit without magic upgrades or training montages.
The story supports the character, too, and gives a real sense of weight to what people accomplish. We see Gut’s reputation build — when he performs some epic feat of arms, killing a hundred men single-handedly, he’s thereafter known and feared by everyone from both armies. In the meantime, Griffith uses Guts’ power to further his political ambitions, in a way that feels like a classic tragedy. Alongside his growing martial prowess, Guts grows morally from where he started as a scared kid, and goes from idolizing Griffith and relying on him utterly to rejecting his methods and his worldview.
Early on, Griffith duels Guts to convince him to join the Hawks. Griffith wins, obviously, but it’s more than that; he wins so decisively, so humiliatingly, that Guts’ hollow shell of bravado is exposed for what it is. He’s been getting by on boldness, on being willing to throw his life away and take desperate chances, but at some point even that desperation isn’t enough, and this realization is crushing.
Much later, once Guts has grown disillusioned with Griffith, he decides to leave the Hawks, and Griffith tries to stop him. Griffith is a silver-tongued character, always quipping or making clever arguments, but instead of getting flustered Guts just ignores him in stoic silence. When they fight again, it’s Guts whose victory is effortless, and the revelation destroys Griffith. It’s the first time in the series we’ve seen his plans fail, seen him not get what he wants, and his realization of how the dynamic between the two of them has shifted comes too late. Griffith’s desperate attempts to show that he doesn’t need Guts ultimately lead to his downfall.
For me, those two scenes bookend what is great about the show. The arc of that relationship is executed brilliantly, and we see at the end that while Guts has grown, Griffith hasn’t, and that’s changed everything. If that was the beginning and end of the series as whole, I could recommend it without reservation.
(An aside: If that sounds like the description of a romantic relationship in some ways, that’s very much not an accident. There’s a strong homoerotic subtext, which surprisingly for anime isn’t made out as creepy or humorous. The American translators, on the other hand, somewhat hilariously tried to eliminate it; there’s a bit where Griffith says to Guts, “I want you.” with a very intense look, which the sub renders as “I want you for my band of men.” Which, if you think about it, is not actually better. The show is not perfect in this area, but better than some I’ve seen.)
So, what’s the problem? While the first episode is cool, if somewhat weird, everything that comes after the climactic duel can best be described as “rushed, gratuitous, and a bit silly”. I’m not sure if they were trying hard to finish the flashback circle or what, but it works poorly, and lacks any of the subtlety or power of the previous portion.
There is also some stuff, even in the good part of the show, that makes me cringe. The violence is obviously horrific, but that’s more or less par for the course. Also par for the course, unfortunately, is the show’s treatment of women. There’s one female Hawk, Casca, who is introduced as a commander and a badass. This seems to bode well, except that the show instantly undermines her — Guts almost immediately ends up saving her from being raped, and she’s inexplicably incompetent for someone who gets talked up as fighter. Aside from her and a simpering princess, it’s pretty much all dudes, which is unfortunate if not unusual for the genre.
Should you watch Berserk? I think the answer is a qualified ‘yes’, but (and this is why I wrote this as a slightly spoilery column) you need to know what you’re getting in to. There’s some great storytelling there, but the ending can leave a bad taste in your mouth if you’re not careful. If you’re willing to proceed with caution, though, that arc is impressive, and it’s a great example of how character development ought to be handled. For those reason, I keep it on my “Best Anime of All Time” list, although maybe with a bit of an asterisk.
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.