#TBT: BERSERK is the Grimdark Animation Metal Fans Can Handle
***TRIGGER WARNING*** Explicitly drawn images pulled from the pages of Berserk are in this article below. If you are offended by graphic imagery, I'd suggest visiting TBT again next week.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday! This is the place where we get to indulge in nostalgia and wax poetic about excellent metal of years past. For this, the 55th edition of this series, we visit a tale of revenge told with complex characterization and harrowing imagery the likes of which H. R. Geiger and M. C. Escher would be proud of. Berserk, a manga series birthed in the late 80's, follows the story of a man named Guts and his journey from birth to life, from betrayal to revenge. This grimdark fantasy world is froth with nightmarish representations you could find on the cover of any super brutal metal album. Skating waaaaaay on the periphery of 'socially acceptable' and even an "R" rating, Berserk explores the extreme boundaries of what the mind and body of a man can be pushed to. A story of, "love, hatred, pleasure and pain, life, death, here before our eyes" told with hyper fantastic creature creation and terrifying symbolism, this series isn't for the faint of heart.
Kentaro Miura's BERSERK
Release Date: 1989
The reason I placed Berserk in today's TBT is because Berserk really isn't for everyone. You're not going to be able to watch this anime or read the manga unless you have the kind of stomach that can handle emotional extremes and LOTS of violence. I figure that as metal fans, we're more prone to seek the fringes of everything commonplace and the extremes within them. Distortion, screaming, and ugly imagery are elements comprising the very essence of metal. Plus, we like – really like skulls and stuff. And, Berserk has tons of those. The darkness of the imagery found within Berserk's pages is one of the most obvious parallels to the world of metal music. The grittiness of the animated show and manga are not for the casual cartoon or art fan. Told in a variety of compelling story arcs, Berserk shows the horrors and complexities of man and myth without turning away when the gruesome and uncomfortable take place.
The series, spanning over almost 30 years, keeps fans enthralled thanks to interesting, well-developed characters – especially the evolution in the complexity of the protagonist Guts. Berserk started out as a manga series created by Kintaro Miura which began publishing comics in 1989. The series was first adapted into animated series in the late 90's. Technically, the manga and the show are still going. However, while the manga series has slowly but steadily produced new volumes for the last few decades, the animated series took a 20-year hiatus from from about 1996 until 2016. Inspired from books he read when he was a child, Kentaro Miura took European fantasy books such as King Arthur which weren't translated into Japanese yet and filled in the story 'gaps' (where his knowledge of English-to-Japanese translation ended) with his imagination. That is how the universe of Berserk was created.
The essence of the story of Berserk is this: A man named Guts was born beneath a tree littered with corpses (pictured above – you can see baby Guts on the ground). A mercenary band finds the child and 'raises' him. Mistreated by his rescuers for the entirety of his youth-hood, Guts runs away from the group. From there, Guts wanders from band to band until finds a new group of mercenaries – The Band of the Hawk – to call home. I don't want to spoil the series for anyone who hasn't watched it, so to put it vaguely – from here, Guts sets out on a journey fueled by all-consuming revenge, self-discovery, nightmare demon-killing, love, villians-disguised-as-holy-persons slaughtering, and demi-god encountering.
Guts, the main character, wrestles with impulse, duty, and adherence to stoicism and self-loating. The rare moments that Guts's self-admonishing inner dialogue takes a back seat to softer feelings – the story is allowed to plunge even further into the deepest plumes of darkness, mystery, moral ambiguity, and despair. Guts is a man plagued by two things constantly fighting for control of his moral compass: circumstance and humanity.
There are a few ways you can get into Berserk. You can read the manga, but be aware that the newest chapters have slowed to a crawl in terms of releases with months in between new content. That said, there is plenty to catch up on after an almost 30-year run. You can also watch the first series of animation which aired from about 1996 until 1998. The series isn't bad, and Berserk enthusiasts generally agree that while this 25-episode adaptation includes awkward theme songs and limited animations, the content is rich and it is easy to become attached to the characters.
You can also enjoy Berserk by watching the Golden Age Arc trilogy – animated movie adaptations of the mangas – which are ALL currently available on Netflix. This is by far my favorite way to appreciate the series. The 3 movies are gorgeous. The drawing is smooth and the pace is steady. With emphasises on just the right parts, this Trilogy is representative of the intent of the manga and they're quite worth the watching.
Lastly, you could watch the atrocity that is the 2016 Berserk 3d continuation. The series was cancelled after two seasons due to complaints from fans about the animation style being too choppy.
For now, let's take a look at some of the imagery that makes Berserk so memorable.
There are lots of folks who've brilliantly analyzed Berserk's content. Youtube channel Wisecrack describes Berserk's violence and extremes like this, "Berserk uses violence to horrify and transform us" which, is entirely true. Berserk's extremes are shown in the most believable way even though the violence is on the utmost superlative level. Berserk is hyperbole made real, believable, and attainable. The violence is broken by achingly tender moments of humanity. The human moments seem to punish Guts, because it reminds him that he can still love, have his feelings hurt, and be sensitive. Those kinds of emotions simply won't do for a man who is capable of slaughtering a 100-man army single-handedly.
The series in whichever iteration you choose to watch it doesn't shy away from moments that make us twitch and writhe in our seats – pain, loss, shock, envy, sexuality, and war – but Berserk approaches all these moments with artistry and overwhelming focus on story and character development.
A fair and necessary warning: Berserk is very, very adult content. Like, seriously. This series shows everything – every act of horror, violence and more – unflinchingly. It is artful, but, it is explicit. If you think that hyper violence, nudity, homo eroticism, sex, rape, cannibalism, and violence the likes of which exceed that of Game of Thrones might permanently disturb you, I'd suggest shying away. Remember, what is seen cannot be unseen. Further, I am not advocating that any of these topics be of interest to you or things which you *should* like and seek out. But again, I use the Game of Thrones as a frame of reference – Berserk has the same kind of character development and elevated storytelling as Game of Thrones does. Only, Berserk uses animation and drawing as it's medium through which the story is told. Bare this warning in mind before starting to explore the series.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the direct connections that Berserk has to metal music. Several metal bands have used Berserk as a theme in their music. First we have "Zodd the Immortal" by Beast In Black:
"Band of the Hawk" by Battle Beast:
"Berserk" by Warbell:
I recently checked another Berserk fan's playlist as we had the same idea on some of these tracks. Shoutout to Reddit user /u/IIIMorgothIII for this post containing a link to his Berserk-inspired Spotify playlist. He keeps it updated, too!
If you do want to get started in on discovering Berserk, this is an exciting time to do so. Recently, rumors of it's continuation from Castlevania (Netflix) producer Adi Shankar have fans riled up and ready to see the pages of the manga brought to life. There are several story arcs which have never been animated.