I recently (finally) watched the anime series based on a popular manga called Berserk. It’s a short anime series, having only 26 episodes, and it’s also somewhat old – it’s been released back in 1997. A couple of my friends mentioned it, referring to it as violent and bloody, but all of them agreed it was excellent. This intrigued me and I wondered what was so excellent about an anime based purely on violence.
The thing’s been on my queue for a while, so I turned it on one Saturday. I didn’t really figure out the first episode, so I let it hang until Sunday morning when I started watching the second episode. I can only tell you one thing – I was pinned to the couch for the next 14 hours or so, barely taking the time to go grab a snack from the fridge once or twice. I watched the thing in that Sunday in one go, no breaks.
Berserk is possibly the best anime I ever saw. So, before you continue reading this post, I recommend that you go and watch Berserk. Even if you’re not into this sort of thing, you might like it (oh, and in case I haven’t told you this before – you should always watch anime in original Japanese audio track). Plus, there could be some spoilers below. If you’re even remotely interested, you should watch this on your own, draw your own set of conclusions and observations. I’m serious. You were warned.
So, what’s this all about? The story in Berserk revolves around a wandering swordsman named Guts that one day ends up joining a group of mercenaries lead by a charismatic, highly intelligent individual named Griffith. Guts is a typical example of a lone wolf – a character who bears no allegiance, follows no leader, cares about no authority (yeah, that’s the jolly fellow you can see on the image above). He has no friends, no family, only his sword. Although he is highly skillful, he doesn’t think far ahead, he’s quick get agitated and draw the weapon, and his fighting style is reckless. His life is a life of discipline, stoicism and no particular goal other than to fight as a hired sword.
I believe you purposefully put your life in danger, and seek the meaning of your existence by battling to preserve it.
So, there is little wonder in his initial resistance to join the mercenary group and reluctance to accept them, enlarged by the fact that he is forced to join them. This, however, changes over time and Guts grows to appreciate the cameraderie they share and share the respect others have for Griffith. He makes some friends, as well as some enemies. With Griffith’s skillful leadership, and with no small help from Guts, the mercenary group slowly works their way into the royal guard, and a large part of the anime describes what happens to them along the way.
Griffith is an extraordinary leader almost to the point of being cliche. Everything he does, he does with a measure, there are no mistakes, he is as precise in combat as he is in dealing with people, be it his subordinates, his employers or his adversaries. This deadly precision and cold determination follow his character everywhere. His emotions are always in check, he never slips, everything he says seems weighted and carefully chosen. His eyes rarely smile, and even when he laughs he seems to be under control. And yet, he is as graceful as he is ruthless.
But, there is more to Griffith than meets the eye. While it may seem at first that he is merely an excellent strategist and an excellent leader for no reason at all, it soon becomes apparent that there is a deeper cause behind Griffith’s persona. Early on in the anime, Griffith lightheartedly hints to Guts about what he wants. This desire, this dream he has, is something that determines Griffith’s nature.
A dream can fortify a man’s life, or it can bring suffering upon it. A dream can make a man feel alive, or it can kill him instead. Even if a man is abandoned by that dream, part of it will remain smouldering in his heart.
As the anime progresses, the initially mystical aura surrounding him is gradually lifted, to reveal a person deeply obsessed with a dream he aspires to make reality at any cost. In this aspiration, he treats everything he encounters as an obstacle on the path to this goal, his enemies, his mercenary band, even his friends. This dream serves as a driving force for his existence. The dream is what shapes him, what allowes to him to rise to the heights that he is at. “Strive for nothing, and you stay nothing”. And seeing everything as means to achieving his own dream is not an understatement. He is unable to empathize with anybody, he is cold and things only about his own gains. Even when he shows warmth, it always seems to be calculated and with a goal. This Machiavellian aspiration, however, isolates him from everybody else and leaves him as lonely as Guts is a loner. In this pursuit he remains utterly alone, even though surrounded by his soldiers, allies, enemies and so many other people. Those who attempt to become close are mostly people in his own mercenary band which follow him blindly, without question, people who are ready to die for him and for his own vision. Nevertheless, Griffith always keeps a distance from these people. While he cares and watches over them, he never becomes close to them – he cannot allow himself to show emotion, weakness or his human side. Yet, even though he tends to show little emotions, his reliance in Guts and a secret desire for someone he could regard as his own equal become apparent as the story progresses.
In my eyes, a true friend is someone who never clings to another’s dream. Someone independent who can find his own reason to live and follow that path without guidance. And if anyone tries to crush his dream, protect it heart and soul. Even if that person happened to be me.
For me, a true friend is someone whom I consider my equal.
Ironically, after eavesdropping on a conversation and hearing this, Guts,
who previously swore to himself to dedicate his life to following Griffith
and his cause, turns to achieving exactly that – following his own
dream, only to eventually leave Griffith later on.
The whole scene is symbolic – Guts is standing below Griffith, looking up at him, from the base of the stairs he has yet to climb to reach Griffith, who is shone with a light and looking up, away from him. There are a few anime in which you can see such devotion to detail.
But the point is that even a heart seemingly as cold and inhuman as Griffith’s, deprived of most emotions needed one thing in the end – love. Love that could overcome the loneliness he felt, that allowed him to open his soul to another human being. He loved Guts, because “to know one is to love one”, and he wanted love from Guts, because “to be loved is to be understood”. And this is the ultimate conflict in Griffith’s soul. Griffith had a dream of a kingdom and nothing would stand in his way, not until he met Guts. It is the conflict between love and the dream. Submit to love, and you will forgo your dream, forget it, but still let it smoulder forever in your heart. Follow your dream, and you denounce love, remaining lonely in your trek. This conflict, this choice, is something we all share more or less. Dream, which gives meaning to existence, which is the driving force of life, is in the same time a source of suffering, a curse cast upon you from the moment the dream comes to you, whether you decide to follow it or not. Ironically, it is the very dream that shapes that also destroys a man’s soul. And how wonderfully is this portrayed in the Griffith character!
This dilemma between the love and the dream, between submitting to peaceful and mundane, and remaining loyal to one’s vision is present in many places later the anime. And these questions carry a paramount weight in Berserk. Is there a choice between the love and the dream? Is the choice absolute, are the two mutually exclusive? Or is there a middle ground? Can you submit to love, without yielding your dream?
But, these are not the only morals in Berserk. There are many other motivators in life besides love and dream. Ambition is one of them.
Every man sacrifices himself for his ambition. Especially when he possesses a young heart, he is unable to suppress his burning ambition. To gain glories, and to lose dreams, those are the fates one can scarcely avoid.
Whether Griffiths motivator was ambition or merely his dream is in the end open to interpretation.
The most fervent followers of their dreams sometimes falter. Sooner or later, one has to pay the price of sacrificing everything else for a dream. This price is called regret. When Griffith reached the top, Griffith thought he had nothing of value. Maybe this is the ultimate message in this anime – if you focus too much on the goal, you will miss out too much along the way, a similar message to the one in Cavafy’s poem. The tragic fate that meets Griffith in the second part of the series illustrates this in a very dramatic twist. Perhaps an even better evidence is Griffith’s dream at the very end of the anime.
If you desire one thing for so long, it’s a given that you’ll miss other things along the way. That’s how it is… that’s life.
Even though the main protagonist of this anime seems to be Guts, Griffith is beyond any doubt the most complex character. Guts (at least in the anime, I didn’t read the manga yet) is relatively plain and flat. Guts is simple, where Griffith is conflicted. And this simplicity, the absence of an obsession with a dream, is in the same time his blessing. His dream is very different, it’s like “forging a perfect sword”.
While some dreams can be pursued alone, some are like storms, blowing apart hundreds or thousands of other dreams as they go.
Among the other characters, Caska is the most notable – a female warrior in the mercenary group whose past has made her harsh and difficult. Her undivided loyalty contrasted with her hidden love for Griffith makes her a conflicted character, quick to develop hatred towards Guts to whom Griffith shows so much, in her view undeserved, affection. Although she is closest to being Griffith’s friend, even being close to him at one point where he briefly breaks and shows emotion, in her admiration and respect towards Griffith she’s, just like so many others, unable to truly be his friend – she cannot be his equal. And even though her love for Griffith is unquestionable from the start, he is unable to accept it, since he feels that he can only be loved, understood by those who are his equals in everything. While he is fully aware of this love, and a part of him even desires to accept it as is hinted at the very end of the anime, the dilemma of setting aside his dream prevents him from doing so.
Don’t waste your life.
The anime was made some time ago, so you shouldn’t expect fancy animation. But, given the content and fullness that the Berserk has, is this even necessary? On a somewhat related note, I always thought that in computer games, for example, gameplay is much more important than the graphics (although I do like CG). And gameplay is dictated by the content the computer game has – the story, the message, the interactivity. In my view, Berserk is a fine example that at least in the world of anime content is much more important than animation or visual effects.
There’s no doubt that Berserk is full of violence, blood and gore, sometimes deeply disturbing scenes of murder, death and rape. But Berserk is not about that at all. This is merely a facade, a realistic illustration of the medieval-like setting in which the story takes place, the fantastic component of which becomes more apparent towards the end. The real value is hidden in character portrayals and their interactions, as well as hidden messages imbued throughout the anime, coloured with occassional light-hearted humour. Once you get into the story and the characters, brutal, violent scenes become pretty secondary to that. I feel pity for anybody discarding such a work of art over, such abundance of hidden messages and meanings over something as trivial as the form in which these are conveyed.
In fact, the violent and brutal surface of Berserk is precisely what makes it so amazing. Berserk if full of small subtle symbolic scenes that I haven’t mentioned, probably many more I haven’t even noticed. Many things the characters say may appear random and meaningless, but there are few things in Berserk that are random or unrelated. It takes great skill and wisdom to embed such fine points, such subtleties into an anime which is at first glance nothing more than an action story about a bunch of mercenary warriors – there are many anime out there that pretty much end at the action part. So, praise to Kentaro Miura and everybody else who contributed in making this anime.
Quite frankly, Berserk can be described with only one word – a masterpiece.
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