This ICHF was written by Sir K, who you can find at https://www.deviantart.com/sirkaijuofvaudeville. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Image provided by Sir K
Robbed of a mothers love at birth
(left to drown in blood)
he was to die beneath her corpse.
Meant to rot in a cesspit of despair,
born to die as a waste of air.
Raised as a child one shorn of fate
in a fit of rage he, knows a violent destiny
will await, only life by sword shall reign
and he never to death be slain.
((A content warning: the following details sensitive subject matter such as sexual assault, violence and child abuse. If you have any problems with those or ANY COMBINATION OF THOSE, you’ve been warned))
Some stories have a reputation. Some of it deserved, some of it not so much.
And to anyone with more than a passing interest in anime or manga, there is one story that has a reputation up there with gore-schlock such as Elfen Lied. And often overlooked, despite said series effect on the fantasy and horror genre as well as on video games and anime as a whole whole.
I of course talk about Kentaro Miura’s seminal epic in progress Berserk.
Berserk is, in my opinion, one of the seminal works of Dark-Fantasy. Every Dark-Fantasy game from Dragon’s Dogma to Dark Souls and I’d argue that every Japanese fantasy story today owes at least some aspect to Berserk and the tropes it popularized and set. However, despite its legacy and that of its main character, Berserk gets lumped up or chalked up to a grimdark medieval fantasy which is “gritty and realistic” with a generic meathead edgy 90’s protagonist which revels in grotesque ultraviolence where some character is getting sexually assaulted every other chapter.
I’d argue that is far from the truth. Is there sexual assault? Yes, and it’s some of the most graphic and horrible depictions of it in any medium too. But it’s also a series that handles it a progressive manner and actually shows the long-term damage it does to a person in an in-depth meaningful fashion..regardless of the gender it was inflicted upon. Its deliberately uncomfortable and used surprisingly sparingly, at least in comparison to say Game of Thrones which the series is often, unfairly, compared too.
But to dispel that notion and to give credit where it’s very clearly due, let’s look at the protagonist of this series and his character. Let’s look at Guts.
The imagery of Guts is immediately iconic though for how fucking *90’s* he looks. Giant ass sword, squinting eye, black color, and grizzled look with pouches EVERYWHERE. Guts on first glance is condensed 90’s. However, despite initial appearance of an edgy 90’s anime Ashley Williams knockoff (Kentaro Miura actually was petrified of legal disputes directed at him when Army of Darkness came out since Ashley was so superficially similar to Guts according to an interview he did) is a character of surprising complexity, depth and personality. A character who instead of propagating the 90’s instead subverts it as well as harken back to heroes of Gothic Horror past while tying him back into a refreshing whole.
Guts as a character is quite possibly one of the most in depth and tragic characters in the whole of manga and anime. Guts despite his appearance isn’t a power-fantasy character. He’s no Cloud Strife or, ugh, Kirito (don’t get me started on how much I hate Sword Art Online) who imitated him years later.
When we first meet Guts in manga, we meet him In Media Res, some years after one of the most traumatic events of his life and the event which had sent the whole world it seemed spiraling into darkness. He stops a bunch of corrupt Guardsmen who torturing a defenseless elf, no not a LOTR Elf, a straight up folkloric fairy, named Puck. By kicking in the door to the Tavern and in some really damn well framed panels reveals one of the core staples of Berserk and what many would consider a core staple of anime in general:
A Giant Sword.
Although the narration makes it abundantly clear by everyone looking on, this thing was too big to be called a sword, it was too rough, too heavy and far too thick. It was more like a heap of raw iron.
Now, as of this writing, the year is 2018, Giant Swords are nothing new. Final Fantasy and other JRPGs have beaten them into everyone’s consciousness. It is the most peak anime thing you can possibly have.
However, Berserk when it was released was in 1989. The trope of the warrior wielding a sword much longer (and heavier and wider) than his body was novel at the time, and I can’t find barely a record of an older series using a similarly sized sword. My point being here is, Guts, if not the trope founder, is damn very well the one who popularized it.
What ensues next is what is considered the “Black Swordsman” arc. Which introduces us to the current Guts. What we know of Guts after the last few chapters are he’s a man with a missing eye and missing arm, replacing with an artificial hand with a crossbow and cannon built in. And barring his giant fuck-off sword (which we much later find out is called Dragonslayer – there are a lot of 80’s fantasy nods in Berserk) is a cursed brand on the back of his neck.
The curse, called the Brand of Sacrifice, is a tool which lures demon kind wherever he is. No matter where he is, once night falls, the entire forces of evil-kind descend upon him of which the brand shoots with pain alerting him to their arrival. The dead crawl from their graves, boogeymen and spirits crawl from nightmares, and ancient anthropophagous entities emerge to try and consume his flesh.
And this will happen for every single night for the rest of his life, as if fate itself was trying to correct his survival. It is deliberately stated that it is as if he was mere words on a page fighting a story as it was being written with fate trying bend backwards on itself to retcon his continued existence at every turn. Every person he gets close to, barring the elf-Puck, gets victimized by these spirits. To even be around Guts means experiencing a gruesome and cruel fate, and is considered a walking disaster.
Thus, by the time we meet Guts, he’s cruel, abrasive, and one-track minded, thinking only of revenge on the man (now monster) who saddled him with this curse. However, by the end of the Black Swordsman arc we see this façade shatter as we see a man who has experienced immense treachery, pain and crippling loneliness in the world, a man whose life encapsulates some of the worst humanity can do to a person.
From there we are taken to the ‘start’ of the story, quite literally, with Guts’s birth. Who was born from the corpse of his mother hanging from a tree. His body however was resuscitated by a local prostitute traveling with a mercenary band who had recently lost her own child and adopted him as her own. This scene will be constantly harkened back to by several characters and even Guts’ own leimotif in the three Berserk movies, Blood and Guts, at the opening of this analysis/retrospective.
This, and everything coming forward, establishes one overarching theme with Guts, in that Guts is one whose destiny is that of a cruel death, a death he cannot ever escape. Guts was meant to die, he was never meant to survive in any capacity. He is no chosen one, he is the polar opposite.
Guts’s birth, though he does not ever recall it, is repeatedly harkened back to thematically as he returns to being reborn in blood and being robbed of love over and over, especially during the Eclipse.
However, Guts is still a wee lad, so lets move forward. Several years later we see young-kid Guts grow up under the wing of the leader of the mercenary band by the name of Gambino, who oooooh boy.
If you think Shou Tucker from Fullmetal Alchemist was a bad father, just wait.
Gambino would regularly violently beat young Guts (starting around the age of six!) while training him how to use a sword and how to be a mercenary. With the young kid using a full-sized adult sword from a young age (which is the soft explanation for why Guts can use giant swords in story… just roll with it) and fought his first battle when he was nine years old.
And then… and then… well…
(Note if you weren’t scared away by the content warning, be warned now there’s no turning back…!)
Okay, I warned you.
You know how I mentioned that Berserk was sort of progressive in showcasing sexual assaults devastating effect on a person’s life, *regardless* of gender?
Well put two and two together for poor young Guts, who was sold to another merc by Gambino for the night when he was drunk (though he remembered doing it later and had no remorse for it). This being a comic, we actually… see much more than most series would dare imply, nonetheless show. And this would damage Guts for most of his life.
The trauma he shows manifests initially as an incredibly violent reaction to being touched by anyone. Not often is the long-term aftermath of such violence is shown, and I can hardly recall any series where it happens to a male character, or one that has any real follow up. This event would have consequences as it would spiral into Guts killing his own father figure (by accident, Guts still unconditionally loved his father figure, because well, *kid*) and every other act of the series.
This is a level of outright human horror that does not often get addressed, and if it does it is almost always centered a female character, and even then we seldom see the long-lasting effects on them as a person, only the effects on their surrounding male characters. Especially during the 90’s and the early 2000’s sexual assault and rape is only something that happened to women in fiction and was akin to fridging. Guts subverts all of that.
This trauma would haunt Guts for most of the series and have several callbacks, and the consequences on Guts and others haunt the story to come. If there is one thing about Berserk that is always true, it is that every action has a reaction and a consequence.
In the next battle Guts kills his assaulter with a crossbow after he breaks off from the rest of the group, but in doing so see’s Gambino lose his leg to a cannonball. This in turn causes the former to snap and try to kill Guts leading to his own death and Guts taking the blame and once again losing the only family he ever had and the love of his “father”. Ending up near-dead with a crossbow bolt embedded in his body before another chance encounter with another mercenary band saves him.
The next we see Guts he is around 14 years of age as a lone-mercenary going from battlefield to battlefield recklessly fighting to near death. That is until he caught the eye of a man named Griffith. Griffith is a man who will one day get his own ICHF entry (editor’s note: later this month in fact!) but he is worth noting because he and Guts are inextricably linked. You cannot address one without the other, and well, if Guts inspired Cloud then Griffith is what inspired Sephiroth.
In a chance meeting, Griffith defeated Guts and forced him to serve under him. However, despite initial hostility they quickly became fast and really close friends and him and his mercenary band, the Band of the Hawk, would serve as Guts first real taste of comradery, friendship and family (as well as loooove), leading their raider squadron where he essentially became the camp-big brother of sorts. Over the next three years they would serve under the kingdom of midland to end a 100-year war and spiraled into a character drama of sword and sorcery which many consider to be one of the best fantasy stories ever written.
This arc, dubbed the Golden Age Arc, is what many experienced Berserk by as it was the only arc adapted by the 1997 anime (which cut out a lot of the more supernatural stuff sans two monsters and the ending of the arc) as well as the subsequent three movies in the 2010’s. Compared to the gothic terror of the first few chapters, the majority of the subsequent arc is deliberately low fantasy with the horrible horror elements of the series of Berserk taking a back-seat, but always there, looming in the shadows.
One of the key relationships Guts forms beyond Griffith (who warrants his own ICHF) is of course Caska. Caska is a bag of worms who I think *also* deserves her own ICHF but I think she needs another Berserk fan who is far more qualified to talk about certain tropes and matters than I, an autistic cis-white male could properly do her character justice or tactfully explore what happened to her and what was done to her.
But moving forward, she is the key motivating factor for Guts for a majority of the story.
Guts’s relationship with Caska, up until the Eclipse, is one of the core highlights of the series. When we first meet Caska she is a pretty repulsive person, though not without good reason. She is the sole-female member of the Band of the Hawks and since we see the story from Guts point-of-view all we see of her is an abrasive, nagging, forceful woman who berates Guts at every turn and is hyper-defensive of Griffith.
However, after a battle ends with both of them falling off a cliff after she fainted (on horseback, in full plate armor, WHILE ON A PERIOD) Guts is left to care for the incredibly sick and unconscious Caska, alone, wet and cold in a cave.
This is a defining character moment for both of their characters as it marks the beginning of the erosion of Guts trauma and the abrasive walls both Guts and Caska have erected around themselves.
This ICHF is going long enough as is, so I’ll keep this relatively brief but through Caska, Guts begins the process of healing from his trauma and her old trauma. That will not last long as the world-comes tumbling down.
Guts and Griffith due to their issues, misunderstandings, and simple problems of “not fucking talking about your problems” had a bit of a falling out after Guts overhears Griffith one night which fuels Guts anxiety of not being a friend to Griffith which in turn makes Guts leaves after the war is over without telling anyone which in turn leads to Guts and Griffith fighting again and Guts winning which in turn leads Griffith in grief squandering everything he gained by going ahead and boinking the king’s daughter.
This in turn lead to Griffith getting tortured relentlessly for a year, the entire Band of the Hawk becoming outlaws and whole manner of bad things. So, by the time Guts comes back to rescue Griffith, he’s a broken husk of a human unable to fulfill his dream.
Afterwards Griffith, in absolute despair, during an Eclipse activates a cursed artifact known as the Egg of the King… the Crimson Behelit. Which in turn summons the entire band of the hawk to a hellscape filled with a horde of demons called Apostles as well as four omnipotent beings known as the God Hand. The God Hand mind you, are beings who control the fate of the world in Berserk. More on them in Griffith’s entry.
There, they give Griffith a choice. A choice I will regale later in his own ICHF. But it basically amounts to: Griffith sacrificing all of his closest friends and loved ones in order to accomplish all of his dreams and become the Fifth Member of the God Hand.
Griffith seeing Guts once more try to rescue him, smiles and says:
“Out of the hundreds of allies… and tens of thousands of enemies. Only you. Only You… Only you obscured my dream. I sacrifice.”
From there Guts and his entire newfound family are branded with the previously mentioned Brand of Sacrifice, condemning Guts and everyone else’s soul to hell for eternity as their blood and despair serves to build the new body of Griffith. Everyone with exception of two other people and Guts are slaughtered as the demons, in one of the most horrific extended scenes in manga slaughter them one by one.
Which culminates in Guts getting pinned down by demons, his arm cleaved off with his own sword and his left-eyes last sight being Griffith, or the monster he now became, sexually assaulting Caska right in front of Guts looking Guts dead in the eyes the whole time.
What ensues next after their survival of that horrendous atrocity is Guts in despair, grief and new trauma going off on his own to continue this ‘war’ the demons declared on him. While making it a point to track down Griffith and kill him, no matter the cost.
However, the world of Berserk is one of consequences.
Guts in his one-man war developed something of an inner demon, this entity known only as the Beast, manifests a subtly shape shifting black shuck from hell with lightning bolt eyes and more teeth than a crocodile and shark combined. It is unclear if this is a split-personality within Guts, an evil spirit possessing him, or simply a visualization of his own rage made manifest. But what is clear Guts tapped into it so that he could cope with the horrors he now was faced with. Becoming potentially the monster he sought after… which in turn came back to haunt him when he hurt the last people he cared for and Caska went missing while he was away and not there to protect her in her own vulnerable state. His own issues taking precedence over someone else. Caska is left fractured and unable to internalize the horror she gets subjected too while Guts does internalize it and in turn they both fall apart from each other.
Which ultimately is what separates him from the Kirito’s of the world. The world does not justify Guts’ actions. The world of Berserk is, as will be reiterated, one of many consequences. Which ultimately sums up a core aspect of Guts.
Guts as a character embodies the Nietzschean philosophy of ‘he who fights monsters’. Every action Guts takes for selfish gain comes back to bite him in the ass. His single-minded path to revenge and clinging to the memory of those he had lost damaged his remaining relationships he had left and birthed a literal demon inside him. Nearly becoming one of the same monsters he had fought endlessly for years. In his berserk rage he nearly lost everything. However, also unlike his inspired characters and other 90’s antiheros after him, he comes to realize this.
Despite all of the horrors Berserk is known for there is however one set of arc-words which defines every character:
“Don’t Abandon what you can’t replace.”
While we will talk of the importance of that later, it is an arc which defines Guts. Guts, so hung up over the loss of what he had forgot what he had left. Guts in his damage forgot to open himself up and in turn he damaged those he cared for far more, which is what gave him the support and love of Caska and the Band of the Hawk in the first place. He clung to a painful past and forgot to move on…. Instead of protecting those he had left.
In his one-man army of revenge he forgot what matters most. And so puts down his roaring rampage of revenge and instead takes up the role of protector and defender of the precious things he has left and sets out upon a journey to find sanctuary and potentially even repairing that precious thing he has.
This has a positive consequence, as in doing so found fellowship in other people he had saved along the way and receives a means of mitigating his curse with help of new arcane allies such as Schierke. Guts put down his quest for revenge, and instead sought to bring the last person he had left closure, to bring her to a safe place where she could (AND DID) be cured.
Instead of looking into the pain and the darkness of the world, Guts in turn looked to the light of the world and set off with hope, after the two most-darkest and horrifying arcs in the series. In doing so and opening himself up to others (and not pushing them away) he helped bring others to the light.
The elf he saved from the tavern who set him on the journey to begin with, a witch hunter who was consumed by the hypocrisy of the world only to realize the façade she built up for herself and in turn becoming what she once hated, her loyal guard whose devotion to her leads him to follow her on her new path despite his fears of the man she now follows, a vagabond boy with delusions of heroism, and a young witch girl he came across by chance who became one of his strongest assets, a naval captain with a strong sense of honor, and a mermaid who had been saved by a demonic sea god.
Guts in allowing himself to open up let others close to him again after his tragedies in turn brightened the whole world of Berserk up. From the Tower of Conviction Arc onwards, Berserk has been on a steadily upward spiral in terms of hope. While horrific imagery and monstrous actions still occurring routing the night to night struggles of Guts still very much rooted in horror. The shadow of the Eclipse still ever lings over our hero and his new family. Which is now threatened by his new inner evil as well as the external evil of the world he lives in. He risks losing everything at the slightest moment he loses control of himself.
Guts stands out from other anime and horror protagonists as his actions have permanent consequence. Guts in internalizing his struggle and it exploding outwards in the Beast, exemplifies toxic masculinity in the way it actually exists in. In internalizing his emotions and his struggle and instead sharing his damage and his grief with others only damaged him further and damaged everyone else around him.
If he and Griffith just fucking *talked* about their problems, it is likely the Eclipse would never happen. If Guts let himself be vulnerable after the Eclipse and tend to Caska, he would never have hurt her or Rickert and they could have built something back up together. Guts in resorting violence and following his own loner/warrior mindset ultimately isolated himself and sent him down the path of becoming a monster himself.
In a day and age where young-men with serious damage and massive mental health issues and who often get ignored by their families (or worse, family is their problem) or by the world at large until it becomes too late and there is an explosion of violence. Guts and his struggle are remarkably poignant.
I have read numerous comments, reviews, and online discussions where people who read Berserk say the series helped them through life in some way. Namely to the horrible shit Guts goes through on a regular basis since his struggle seems to validate what they feel internally.
Guts is not a power-fantasy character. No one really wants to be Guts. Guts in his struggle with a world that seems to bend backward on itself to kill him and only him, speaks to many people. There is one review I read which stuck with me, about someone with suicidal depression who read Berserk. And they did so as an escape as it improved and helped them through their dark moments, since Guts and his struggles offered some sort of escape and visualization of the struggles that person felt. Likewise, taking comfort in knowing the hell they know is not the hell Guts knows, and if he pushes on through it with hope, so can they. The words “Don’t abandon what you can’t replace” resonating ever strongly.
I myself am an autistic adult male with immense anxiety issues. I’m higher functioning than most and most help-groups or “allies” only seem to coddle or try to manipulate me to join some other cause. I have felt incredible isolation in myself and an immense alienation towards everyone around me and to society as a whole. As a Hetero, Cis, White Male, I am told I should have everything given to me and I have no problems. After all I’m not of the more ‘at risk’ or ‘more oppressed’ groups in one corner. And in another corner, I am told that I should man up and quit being a baby and just embrace having a nine to five-hell hole for the rest of my damn life and it feels like there is no one out there who can support me for what I am, which as someone on the autism spectrum is an impossibility leaving me incredibly isolated between two extremes.
Guts is not the man I want to be since deep down for me and many people like me, Guts *is* me. Guts is an exemplar of male main characters in both horror and abroad. He is a deeply flawed human being and not some icon of purity. He’s done horrible things yet he’s done incredibly heroic and good things. No one person is perfect, everyone has their own struggle and own inner demons. Yet despite this being Berserk, the series whose reputation makes Game of Thrones look like Lord of the Rings, Guts finds hope and redemption.
Guts has found himself a new family despite everything. Guts finds hope and pushes on. Even the monstrous horrific fantasy world he once fought against now embraces him as he lands in the Home of the Elves.
What lies in store for Guts? The Manga is still ongoing. And thus, his and his new families ultimate fate remains undecided. However, from what of the series there is, it is to me one of the most poignant works of fiction out there in terms of characters, artwork, handling and melding of mythologies and showing the beauty in everything… by making said beauty shine that much brighter when by us first seeing how horrible its shadow is.
Berserk is not a series of black and gray. Berserk is a series that shows all aspects of humanity from the brightest light to the darkest night. With every color of the rainbow in between. Berserk is a beautifully drawn and written series helps sell this point. And Guts despite his edgy black appearance, is a showcase of humanity and the series as a whole. In any other story his struggle against fate would be seen as the villain. While the true villain of the story… the monster which condemned Guts to his everlasting fate would be the hero.
Editor’s Note: People who don’t care for the Horror genre often ask why other people seek it out – isn’t life horrifying enough? Today’s ICHF does a good job of illustrating how seeing characters experience horror can be helpful, especially when those characters do the improbable and survive all they are forced to endure.