Manga review, Halloween 2021 edition: BerserkPosted: October 30, 2021
While usually placed in the ‘dark fantasy’ genre, several people on the Internet rank Berserk among the best horror manga ever. And although there are still quite a few ‘old masters’ of horror manga not covered on this weblog – Kazuo Umezu, Hideshi Hino, Suehiro Maruo – the untimely passing of Kentarō Miura earlier this year makes Berserk a fitting choice for what might be the final installment of this Halloween blogpost series.
Berserk (ベルセルク Beruseruku) “Ultimative Edition” vol. 1
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Kentarō Miura
Publisher: Panini (originally Hakusensha)
Year: 2019 (episodes in this vol. originally published 1989-1991)
Total number of volumes: 40 individual vols. so far in Japan (this German book is a 2-in-1 volume)
Price: € 19
Website: https://paninishop.de/mangas/berserk/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=88 (Baka-Updates)
The beginning doesn’t look very auspicious though. There’s our protagonist, Guts, the “Black Swordsman”, who travels around a vaguely European medieval world, killing people with his giant sword (and other weapons) on a quest for revenge. Not much is revealed about who did what to him, which makes his acts of killing appear all the more haphazard.
The quality of draughtsmanship leaves much to be desired, as the proportions of the characters, especially Guts, look awkward and implausible, as do some of the town buildings and castles in the background. With his tiny head on his excessively muscular and slightly elongated body, Guts looks much like other 80s action manga heroes such as Kenshirō from Hokuto no ken / Fist of the North Star (the writer of which, Buronson, incidentally collaborated with Miura on two other manga). One cannot call Miura’s drawings careless or hasty though, as many of them contain an insane amount of detail, which is probably what makes people believe that the artwork is awesome.
Anyway, things get interesting (i.e. horrific) when Guts has his first hallucinatory vision of a monstrous fetus-like creature crawling towards him, with only one eye, just like him. We don’t get to learn what this creature is exactly, but it continues to haunt Guts in each of the three loosely connected stories in this volume.
However, what makes Berserk unmistakably a horror manga is the true nature of Guts’s enemies. Mere humans he slaughters with ease by the dozen (did I mention he’s half blind? That doesn’t bother him at all), but their leaders are demonically possessed supervillains, which makes for some truly creepy transformation scenes. In one of them, a swordsman grows a tentacle arm, which is eerily reminiscent of Tetsuo’s transformation in Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira – it’s hard to say which of the two chapters in question came first, though; both must have been published in 1990.
The overall atmosphere is enhanced by a sense of nihilism that pervades the manga, embodied by the anti-hero Guts. Granted, the people he fights are evil, but he only goes after them because of his personal vendetta, and when Guts protects the innocent, it’s only because their tormentors conveniently happen to be his own targets anyway. At least that’s what he says. But in his conversations with his fairy companion Puck, the more he denies any feelings of pity and compassion, the less we believe him. Thus Berserk turns out to be not nihilistic at all but rather deeply, almost philosophically, concerned with morality – a concern shared with e.g. Gō Nagai’s Devilman, or Hitoshi Iwaaki’s contemporaneous Kiseijū / Parasyte. This allows the readers to enjoy the protagonist’s murderous rampages while resting assured that he’s essentially one of the good guys.
In the end, Berserk is a mixed bag in terms of both writing and art. Horror purists may want to give this manga a pass, but it’s clear to see why so many action/fantasy fans love it.
Scariest moment: when the demonic Count infests one of his henchmen to imbue him with superhuman strength.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
It should be noted that Berserk is one of those long-running manga series of which people say that ‘it gets really good once you get past the first x volumes’, and my verdict, of course, refers only to this first volume.
P.S.: if you read German and are considering getting this Panini edition – don’t. The translation is the worst I’ve ever seen in a manga.