OLM, Inc.’s 1997 adaptation of the late Kentaro Miura’s seinen classic Berserk continues to be the manga’s definitive onscreen portrayal, despite only covering the series’ first arc. This section of Berserk, the “Golden Age Arc” is—on the surface—a quintessential action-fantasy plot. Behind its macho veneer, however, lies a moody world of intrigue and horror, all led by an intricate web of relationships mostly centered around three people: Guts, a vagabond-turned-mercenary; Griffith, the ambitious and charismatic leader of the Band of the Falcon mercenary group; and Casca, the Band’s unit commander and one of Midland’s few female warriors.
The anime follows the three as they toil with fame and trauma in the twilight years of the Hundred-Year War, a century-long conflict between the show’s main setting of Midland and the neighboring Tudor Empire. The Band of the Hawk proves instrumental in several key battles and, eventually, claim victory for Midland that effectively ends the war. As celebrated mercenaries, Griffith joins the inner court of Midland’s nobles while Casca and Guts contend with their burgeoning feelings for one another—as well as their fluctuating loyalties to Griffith, who values his dream of glory above all else.
Berserk is a story about pain and loss, but more so about the neverending journey towards something that makes us feel whole. To dream is to be emotionally vulnerable—dreaming, in Berserk, is inherently a foolish thing to do, something that leads to heartache and dashed hopes. In this way, Berserk is not a story about morality. It is not concerned with right from wrong. It is only concerned with the desires people have and what they are willing to do to achieve and protect their overflowing wants.
The epicenter of this theme is, of course, Griffith, a man who came from little and strives for his very own kingdom. Griffith is strikingly beautiful and effeminate, with long, white hair and intensely blue eyes. He isn’t traditionally masculine in any sense other than his overwhelming prowess on the battlefield. His true strength, though, lies in his charm; he’s a person who can get what he wants by using others, and thus considers himself the owner of people indebted to him. That’s exactly what his relationship with Guts is predicated on—a sense of entitlement, of masterhood.
Guts is emotionally reserved to the point of frigidity. He’s also broad-shouldered, musclebound, and wields an impossibly big sword. He’s the perfect foil to Griffith; where Griffith is delicate yet fierce, Guts is hulking and afraid to investigate his identity. Burned by the people of his past, he chooses not to trust others and not to give much thought to anything other than survival. He’s content (but not pleased) to be Griffith’s right hand because it’s something to do, something static and unchanging. He doesn’t have to grow or morph to adapt to the situations the Band finds themselves in—until he does.
Griffith’s philosophy is predicated on the strong taking what they want by sheer force of will, and using what tools and opportunities are available to him. One manner in which he does this is through using his very body. Autonomy and free will are intrinsically connected in Berserk—our control over our own bodies must be wrested from the fraught society they operate in to truly be free. Even Griffith struggles to control his own body at all times. One of the show’s most precarious elements is how it handles sexuality, and the frequency in which sexual assault is portrayed. Nearly every character is a survivor of some sort of encounter, and Griffith is no exception. In order to jumpstart the Band in its early days, Griffith slept with a pederast noble for funding. Griffith later assures the noble he is unmoved by this transaction—it was merely a means to an end, effectively severing his mind from the trauma his body faces.
Guts isn’t so capable of separating the two. To Guts, his body is his mind; the pain he feels is always physical, and he channels any mental anguish he might encounter through his sword. His emotional state stems from his childhood, when his adoptive father brutally inducted him into his own band of mercenaries, and later attempted to kill Guts for an accident beyond his control. The anime lives out a crucial segment where Guts, too, is peddled off to a pedophile in exchange for money, perhaps in an attempt to salvage Guts’s hypermasculine image. This is perhaps one of the anime’s greatest failings as an adaptation of Miura’s manga. Though I don’t revel in the series’ frequent deployment of sexual assault as a means to communicate power imbalances, this early infringement on Guts’s body robs the viewer of a queer interpretation for why Guts is so eager to form a lasting, equitable bond with Griffith, and also why he and Casca are so drawn to each other despite their inherent differences.
I’ll be honest: Berserk has a serious problem with misogyny and portrayal of its women, and Casca is a prime example of this. She’s also one of Berserk’s greatest characters. During the course of the Golden Age Arc, we see Casca be harassed or even assaulted several times. Everything about the setting of Berserk seems to imply that it’s no place for a woman—even Guts says as much, decrying her place within the Band of the Hawks despite her unwavering dedication to the company. It’s hard to say the show ever truly transcends this opinion, and Casca’s existence as an object of Guts’ affection is used as a weapon by Griffith in the arc’s waning moments. The show preys on essentialist notions of gender, implying Guts could never truly understand Casca because he doesn’t deal with “woman troubles.” Because he doesn’t have a uterus, he’s supposedly incapable of empathizing with her.
Berserk’s world very much operates on the structural exchange of women. When Guts abandons the Hawks, Griffith copes with his grief (as well as his loss of ownership) by seducing Princess Charlotte. This is a manner of establishing masculine status—that Griffith is still dominant despite his loss, and that his feelings for Guts are nothing in the face of sexual capital. This is what leads to Griffith’s assault on Casca as well, all the while Guts is unable to interfere. Griffith is signalling his own invasion on Guts through Casca.
This is, of course, a highly problematic way to communicate queerness. Miura’s strategies to illustrate Guts and Griffith’s relationship are evocative but troublesome. In the anime’s quieter moments, though, their tension is palpable—when they talk of the future in mid-autumn as leaves flit past Griffith’s flowing hair, or when Guts muses on the “bonfire of dreams” that he can only sit by and rest and never kindle. It’s easy to understand why Guts, propelled by Griffith, feels such an intense wanderlust; he looks to Griffith as an ideal, a person who possesses what he can never have.
Griffith’s followers see him as infallible, and Griffith does everything in his power to live up to such a lofty station. By the time of his betrayal, he’s become as downtrodden as it gets—physically frail, mentally broken, and unable to fight. He’s forced into a position of gendered violence, in which his masculine traits are forcibly stripped of him. After his rebirth, one of his first acts is one of sexual invincibility; he’s no longer a person that has to trade his body as a means to an end, and can instead force his will onto others without consent. He becomes a warped version of the supreme ruler he wished to be as a child—with power comes subsumption, and Griffith’s ideals don’t allow for his subjects to disobey him.
By the end of the anime, Griffith has become much like Guts. He’s so disconnected from his body that he refuses to take responsibility for his actions. He swallows the shame and guilt associated with the hundreds of deaths made in his name like a bitter pill, and looks towards the future as if it’s something he is owed. Guts, on the other hand, realizes what he ultimately seeks is a community he can be a part of. He was always a part of one, really, within the Band of the Hawks, but his emotional immaturity caused him to cut himself off from the people who truly cared about him. Both of these men are, in a word, toxic, and slaves to their own masculine ideals and preoccupations. Their virulent, fractured senses of self directly affect the people around them, pulling them into a vortex of pain, suffering, and unanswered feelings. But you can’t totally blame them for being the way they are—the society they live in has trained them to act this way as a means of survival.
Berserk ends unresolved, and with Miura’s passing, the manga may well join it in its eternally unfinished state. It’s somehow fitting—Guts is left to wander an empty world without ever really finding closure.