Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Berserk - A Dark Fantasy Manga that Breaks the Mold

I've said before, perhaps, that I am not generally a fan of Manga. The whole idea that Manga represents some special expression of Japanese culture and is embraced as such by the people of Japan is silly. They're comic books. Some people like reading them, and a few of them have reached cultural icon status, but in general they're ridiculous man-boy fantasies full of pneumatic women and boys with hidden secrit ultimate powah. The rare exceptions, then, deserve some attention.

I think Berserk is one of those.

I first heard about it in reference to one of my favorite games, Dark Souls. In an interview with the Japanese magazine Famitsu, the game developers mentioned getting inspiration from several aspects of it, so I thought I'd check it out; I love not only the design of Dark Souls and its characters, but also the general atmosphere of decay and despair it brings. I hoped that Berserk would bring something similar.

I was right.

Berserk is like some kind of bizarre marriage between Lovecraftian mythics, Spaghetti Westerns and high fantasy. It's set in a pseudo-Medieval Europe, where war is endless and mercenary bands wander the country earning a living by storming castles and murdering as many people as possible. The central character, Guts (ガッツ) walks through this world like an open razor, killing and destroying without pause. Like the Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, he does do some good if only in that he kills very bad guys, but his motivations are at heart selfish...or, they might be, if he had any apparent motivation. For the first few stories, he basically just shows up in a town bearing his ridiculously large sword and kills his way to the local lord, who is for some reason always a horrible man-eating demon in disguise. Then, he kills the demon. Then, he leaves.

It's beautiful in its brutal purity.

One of my major pet peeves in Manga is the ubiquitous "cuteness." There is always a point in manga where a silly little person jumps up and down in anger, drawn in a whimsical style totally at odds with everything else, no matter how serious the story has been. There is always some tough small girl who for some reason ends up on a battlefield or in between two monsters and yells at everyone for being mean. It's silly, and it never seems to add anything to the story. Kentarou Miura, the manga-ka behind Berserk, seems to agree with me for, although he does have such a character (a little fairy named Puck), every time it starts to act up someone threatens to stab/crush/bisect it. And the little girl that ends up in the midst of battle is forced to watch her father dismembered, then is only prevented from falling to her death when Guts catches her hands. ON THE EDGE OF HIS SWORD. Sure, she lives, but I imagine she's going to have trouble tying her shoes for a while.

So here I am, reading my way through a manga series that's been coming out since 1990 or so, like some kind of otaku geek. But I don't have any plastic Puck figures on my desk, at least. Not yet, anyway...

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