What Is Earned, and What Is Owed: Berserk

The Chosen One narrative is a structure that is commonly relied on in fantasy fiction. It describes a character of humble origins who is chosen to become a hero through harsh trials. They’re told by a myth, prophecy, or oracle that they will one day be great, placed against the evil forces that threaten them. Through this, they’re given the courage to fight and earn honor in the form of status (in the Arthurian way, knighthood). In Berserk (1997, Dir. Naohito Takahashi, Manga by Kentaro Miura) this narrative aptly describes Griffith’s story and defines his attitude towards honor, particularly in how he treats those around him and the expectations he sets for himself. This being a medieval saga, it’s easy to expect each character to be a lecherous, ugly thug or a similarly hideous, pompous noble. Griffith should be considered an exception to this rule, instead drawn as an androgynous, ethereally beautiful being. 

Griffith acts more prestigious than other commoners, is better read than any of the noble counts he comes across, and more skilled in combat than any warrior he’d come across on the battlefield. He seems endowed with a spirit that isn’t necessarily human, because this aura is traced back to the prophecy given to him when he was young. It comes in the form of a behelit, The Egg of the King—physically resembling a red totem shaped like an egg, creepily covered in mismatched human features. The Egg is given to those who are destined to join a covenant of Gods or, as it was sold to Griffith, ruling his own kingdom. Knowing he’s bound for his own throne, Griffith uses his intelligence, beauty, and wit to earn a form of honor that is defined by royal status. Being blessed with a Chosen One narrative, everything he does is in service of the dream; one byproduct is seeing honor as a form of currency. Prestige and status in the castle is another tool that will get him closer to what has always been owed to him. 

Berserk criticizes this common narrative trope by placing it against another type of story: The Underdog, identified by a character who fights against a world that holds them down. Guts, the protagonist of Berserk, embodies this storytelling method through the tragedy that befalls him at every turn. Presented as a foil to Griffith, he appears as an opposite—the brute versus the elegant. He uses aggression and carelessness about his life as fuel to power him through his fights, and is the principal reason he is so successful. Death surrounds him to the extent that he has no fear about his own mortality. He’s able to fight a hundred men by himself because surviving is all he can do, a struggle that has followed him from birth when he was found under a hung corpse. From that point onward, the people around Guts spin the tale that he’s cursed with bad luck. But this bad luck is always in the form of betrayal, such as when the man who found and raised Guts, Gambino, sells him for a night to another soldier for a couple coins. When he accidentally kills his surrogate father, he’s hunted by his band for “biting the hand that fed him,” and for cold-bloodedly murdering him. Every character shares a narrative in which Guts is the aggressor, despite the rarity of this. Growing up with this belief about himself has resulted in someone who doesn’t believe in morality beyond surviving. If honor did exist, these betrayals shouldn’t have happened.

Both of these origins have shaped the characters of Berserk into vastly different people, each with different ideas as to what honor can be defined as. Griffith sees honor in relation to title, as royalty appears to him as a symbol of power. Due to the otherworldly aura he brings with him everywhere, he elicits two reactions from the people he encounters: Fear and Awe, which become the tools he uses without thinking of moral implications. To gain power in the kingdom and remove anyone who stands in his way, he uses the kidnapping of a young girl to threaten her father, a minister, into helping Griffith commit regicide. The minister is targeted as a weak link when he saw the fear he elicited in him during a conversation, a weakness he exploited to kill those that plotted against him. Despite the brutality of his methods, Griffith justifies it to himself as a natural step in his climb towards his dream. He sees morality as a hamper to his success, but he’s clever enough to know he needs to maintain the appearance of nobility. Griffith has an intricate understanding of the power that honor can give a leader, even if it’s not necessarily what he believes is morally  important. 

By comparison, Guts has gone his whole life without believing in honor. As a mercenary growing up, he never built connections in the armies he worked for, even refusing an invitation to be a knight to a royal (“The fighting seems to have stopped around here, anyway.”). After the count tries to grab his shoulder, Guts snaps and screams at him. The show gives numerous examples as to how growing up in his conditions has left him with a bitter emotional armor. Just as with Griffith, whose relationship to honor changes as he grows into the mold of a Chosen One, from an ambitious child to a methodical narcissist, Guts warms to the idea of friendship during his time with The Band of the Hawk, the elite army built by Griffith. Though he’s undoubtedly brave from the beginning, he’s also reckless in the chances he takes on battlefields, something that puts those under him at risk. Three years pass, and subtly the tendency to be careless of others begins to be replaced with something he’d never experienced: trust. Though he doesn’t care about honor in the way Griffith understands it (status to strive for), Guts has built a network of respect to his friends. Without believing in it, honor has found him in the form of connections to those near him and through achievements (which mean nothing to him beyond a chance to fight).

The friendship that blossoms between these two men may appear counterintuitive at first because of their differences in philosophies, but I would argue that what they represent to one another is perfectly in line with what honor means to each. Honor means status, status means power to Griffith, and along with the people that look up to him, they are tools he can use to move himself closer to his dream of total domination. What he craves through his friendship with Guts is, ultimately, control. This is made crystal clear when Guts decides to leave the Band of the Hawk, a decision that represents not only the loss of his best soldier, but the loss of control over all of his subjects. Guts being under his control was a method by which Griffith gauged his own supremacy, in this case over the most powerful warrior that he’d met. It’s also critical to mention that he’d vastly underestimated his own human emotions, such as the jealousy, love, and betrayal that he felt towards Guts in this moment. The emotions he’d been denying himself, compounded by his expectation for people to follow his every whim, resulted in a man who’s personal honor was shattered. For Guts, honor surprisingly represents trust, something he doesn’t realize himself until he’s left the Band of the Hawk behind. Quite the opposite from the concept of royalty, it’s an ideal he earned through years of actions without an expectation of commendation. His trust in Griffith is stronger than any other, and he fulfills his trust by following his orders, no matter how cruel or immoral they are. 

When the Eclipse finally collides with the Band of the Hawk, and Griffith, in his moment of betrayal, dooms all of his closest friends to something far worse than death, what Guts and Griffith both consider important is perfectly visible. Griffith, as the trigger for this nightmare, is finally within grasp of the power he’d been promised all along. He’s blinded by it, remorseless of the lives he’s expending for his own selfish sake. His narcissism reaches its peak, his desire for honor along with it. Guts, on the other hand, has only his friends to think of. He struggles to rescue Griffith without realizing that the Eclipse was what he’d wanted all along. He’d even been warned by the first monster he faced, a hint that Griffith’s rise and final betrayal had always been an inevitable outcome. In his attempts to save his friends, Guts witnesses their brutal demise, and the symbol of his honor is ripped away from him. One of the most powerful tragedies of Berserk is that from this point forward our hero retreats to the state he was in before meeting the Band of the Hawk. Alone, without people to care for, Guts is nobody. Honorless, friendless, and can only interpret his loss through violence. The progress he’d made has been reduced to dust.

This is, of course, only a preamble to the main body that makes up the rest of Berserk. But it works especially well when it is interpreted as a reflection of Kentaro Miura, the author of the manga, and his approach to life and his reputation. Writing Berserk was a taxing endeavor for him. As popularity grew, so did his schedule: from a monthly release to a biweekly release. His time was reduced to nothing but his work. For years on end, he was working 19 hours a day, six days a week, without holidays (Berserk Illustration Files). This was a labor of love for Miura since he was 18 years old, designing the characters in his university sketchbooks. It was also a dumping ground for his favorite media to meld together, so evident in the early chapters, but refined through experience. He wasn’t thinking of the acclaim he would receive for his work and his privacy was of maximum importance (it’s a struggle to find more than the same four images of him online, or to hear any mention of his personal life). There exist a few interviews, but scarcely anything one would expect for a popular series running 32 years. Berserk was his way of working towards an ultimate, vague, goal for himself—something reflected in Guts, slashing away at hundreds of enemies the same way we imagine Miura hacking away at his work, page by meticulous page. Just like the anti-hero he created, he earned an international following without the express goal of achieving status, but through his work, for which he wasn’t expecting anything at all. 

I wanted to end this reflection on Berserk with where my personal connection comes in. I’ve been trying to decipher what about it makes me come back, and I think I can narrow it down to the rawness of its emotions. When Miura passed away last year, I felt like I’d lost the top name in my list-of-people-to-meet-one-day (that we all secretly have). I thought it was the end of Berserk. But it’s weird, the reaction that the community had to the news—not just the Berserk community but the Manga/Comic book sphere in general—lifted my spirits in different ways. For an artist who avoided the spotlight, the attention was entirely built out of respect towards this mystery-person. I remember my surprise that for a few days after his passing, the top three most-read Wikipedia articles had been: 1. Kentaro Miura 2. Berserk 3. Aortic Dissection (his cause of death). For one reason or another, millions had felt like they knew this person without probably ever hearing his voice. I think this is because when you read his work, you’re reading what he thinks of it all. You don’t write the same story seven days a week for 32 years without inserting your own anxieties about dreams, honor, and sadness into a work devoted to those. We all felt we knew him because of his secrecy. When there’s only one channel through which you can read a person, it feels like a connection.


Interview. Berserk Illustration Files. Miura, Kentaro. December 4th, 1996