There are actually three main characters in Berserk. Guts and Griffith are two, but the other is Casca, the fiercely loyal female commander of the Band of the Hawk.
A life as a martyr to his dream
Episode 10 of Berserk is amongst the finest episodes of anime I’ve ever seen. From the moment Guts kills the boy Adonis, we’re forced to re-evaluate the righteousness of Griffith’s conquest and whether it’s worth its price in blood.
“But there is one other thing more precious to a man beyond all else. Something one pursues for one’s own sake and not for that of any other. A dream. Some dream of ruling the world, dedicating their entire life to forging the perfect sword. While some can be pursued alone, some are like storms, blowing apart hundreds or thousands of other dreams as they go.” –Griffith
The moustache twiddling decadence caused by extended aristocracy is an issue central to the narrative of Berserk. Regardless of social standing, we all like to dream that we are destined for greatness, to achieve something worthwhile. Aristocracy exists to elongate wealth and protect respect no matter what the cost, and that often includes suppressing the common mans talent to protect one’s position.
The beauty of Berserk, and especially the Band of the Hawk, is that these are classic underdogs who dare to have ideas above their stations, chasing their dreams, doing something important with their lives. The truth, as Berserk is clearly documenting, is that anyone can do anything with their lives provided the right amount of skill and desire. It’s such a romantic concept.
Griffith, the symbolic wings of the Band’s hawk, is talented and has an unquenchable desire to conquer. Despite his peasant roots, he is the future, he is brave enough to fight for his dreams, and others are attracted to that, feel inspired by it or fear it. Most are just content to jump on his back and enjoy the flight; the Hawk that soars ever higher, the view from up there is beautiful, but Guts is different, even now it’s clear that he is a punk, and like Griffith, can never be tamed.
Guts and Griffith are at once the same and totally different, they enjoy true social freedom and unerring self belief, but Guts is a blood thirsty warrior, only looking at what stands in front of his sword, while the elegant Griffith conducts his army like one would a game of chess, his mind calculating ten moves ahead. The early fight in episode 3 between these two is particularly revealing, especially in Guts case – he is completely direct, willing to throw mud, bite, kick and punch his way to victory. He refuses to give up, and in the end Griffith is forced to dislocate Guts shoulder to win the fight, Guts could have surrendered, but replies “Go to hell”. Win or bust.
Episode three marks the end of the beginning, Guts finally joins the Hawks and we are treated to their comradery. The Band of Hawk isn’t simply a group of mercenaries looking for a quick buck; they are friends fighting for each other, dreaming of a better future, this all comes across really well in episode three. As does Susumu Hirasawa’s excellent score, combining his surreal industrial style with authentic medieval instruments and chants – the tracks “Forces”, “Guts” and “Earth” are all used during the episode, and all are essentially brilliant tunes, ever complimenting the poignancy of experiencing the journey of a lifetime.
Episode two introduces us to the important characters that make up the “Band Of The Hawk” – in other words, the personalities that dominate the rest of Berserk. The dark-skinned Casca is an exceptionally talented swordsman who just so happens to be a woman. That she commands so much respect amongst her comrades suggests that her power is second to only one man. The white haired Griffith is the leader of the Hawks and a lethal warrior; his strength and ability with a sword matched only by his elegance and charisma. Men follow Griffith because they can see he is destined for greatness, he shines so brightly – the Hawk is a legend waiting to happen.
Between Casca, Griffith and Guts, you will discover the soul of Berserk, the way they talk to each other, the tense body language and variable facial expressions; it all makes for such riveting viewing. Even during this early episode, sparks are flying between Casca and Guts. I should point out that Casca is deeply in love, bordering on obsessed with Griffith – she cannot stand to see his attentions elsewhere, and every second Griffith spends talking with Guts is like another small tear ripping through her heart. She hates Guts because Griffith likes him; basically, she is jealous.
It’s obvious that Griffith is special. During his exchanges with Guts, he talks like an ageless poet. There is no doubt in his voice, no fear, just the unrelenting calm of a man who could be very well be cradling the fate of the world in his palms. Most people are in awe of Griffith, but Guts would happily spit in his face. That’s what fascinates Griffith and infuriates Casca. Guts is an enigma and uncontrollable, a man who only feels alive in the heat of battle. Nothing else matters to him. And as it turns out, nothing else matters to Griffith either, but in Guts he finds a kindred spirit.
I’ve harped on about character relationships in this post but I don’t want anyone to think Berserk is just some boring period soap opera. It can be extremely gory and exciting, as the amount of severed limbs will attest. My favourite berserk moment in this episode comes right at the beginning as the young warrior Guts stands facing a bear-like beast of a man called Basuzo, who is wielding an axe and boasting about having killed 30 people in one battle; Basuzo stands a few yards in front of Guts, mocking him about being young, small and weak. Guts simply straps on his helmet, puts his head down and smiles. It is the grin of a man filling with excitement, starring death in the face, and running head first straight into it. That is Guts and that is Berserk.
I’m just going to come right out and say it — Berserk is my favourite anime of all time. I became an anime fan because of Naruto, but Berserk and its alluring quantities of bloody violence, epic action and tragic friendship immediately captured my heart and held onto it ever since. I still remember having to contain my enthusiasm when first watching it, sometime in 2002 — I so desperately wanted to marathon through it all right there and then, but deep down knew I had to take time to savour it, to consider and enjoy every new episode; I knew that feeling wouldn’t last forever. That’s how much I enjoyed watching Berserk and now, as an on-going (and quite selfish) tribute, I intend to blog-review my way through the entire show. Please enjoy my thoroughly biased perspective.
Having said all that, the first episode very nearly killed my interest before it began. As is the style of Kentarou Miura’s fantastic manga, Berserk confusingly begins half way through the story; there are no proper introductions to the characters, there is no explanation as to what is happening; we are just thrown head first into Guts’ (only known in this episode as the "Black Swordsman") violent medieval world. He is a heartless bad ass, a mountain of muscle covered in armour; he has one arm and one eye, carries a giant sword (capable of cutting through horses) and fires an automatic cross bow — simply put, he is a one man war machine hell bent on revenge.
Guts shows no sign of humanity and no sympathy for his victims; all he desires is to hunt the cannibalistic demons that have presumably ruined his life. Nothing or no one else matters – the only time we see him smile; a hellish grin, is when he is firing arrow after arrow into the butchered face of said demon.
It’s established then that Guts is seriously pissed off about something; right at the end of the episode we flash back to Guts’ past and see him as an energetic younger man (teenager, no doubt). The rest of this anime is now dedicated to discovering the reasons behind Guts’ fall into such haunted monstrosity. And at this moment we are hooked.
The ever reliable ICv2 recently posted up a list of the “ten most powerful people in the North American anime industry“. The run down makes for interesting (if a little predictable) reading and sitting at the top is Gonzo’s bestest buddy Gen Fukunaga (of FUNimation), who managed to visciously kill off any competition with his company’s swelling ranks of mediocre action anime to become “the one” (or should I say, Jyu-Oh).
This got me thinking about the people who have had the most influence on my development as an anime fan, or more specifically; which sick bastards transformed me into the hardened anime junkie I am today?
The list of shame
4. Yoko Kanno – Cowboy Bebop
Soundtracks play a great part in my love of anime and no one does it better than Yoko Kanno. I first heard her work in Cowboy Bebop and have since been totally and utterly defeated by her varied tunage and heart wrenching, nostalgic stylings.
3. Chika Umino – Honey & Clover
At a time when I was feeling seriously jaded about anime (I couldn’t even make it through the first 3 minutes of Gonzo’s Black Cat), along came a funny slice of life series called Honey & Clover that completely refreshed my enthusiasm for the genre. This was a geniuenly funny, life affirming drama with colorful, original animation and a wonderful soundtrack to boot. Chika Umino wrote this story, so deserves credit first and foremost, but irregardless of that, everything about Honey & Clover is brilliant.
2. Kentarou Miura – Berserk
Berserk was the first anime I fell head over heels in love with and Kentarou Miura is the genius behind it all. In combining though-provoking philosophy with an extremely violent, complex cast of characters, Miura will forever be the brilliant mind behind my favourite anime of all time.
1. Masashi Kishimoto – Naruto / Shonen Jump
Although it is with something of a guity conscience, I simply wouldn’t be watching anime today if it wasn’t for Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. This was the first ever fansubbed series I got my mits on and to this very day I still remember the nerve-wracking, sweat-inducing climax of the Zabuza story arc. After sitting through around 50 episodes of Naruto, I realised I had to check out more anime. And furthermore, I realized subtitles should always be the way to go with foreign film and TV.