Is there a piece of pop culture that made an impact on you and you stuck with it as an ongoing story, only for that story to not get a finale, or at worst an unceremonious resolution? Come on, we’re all a fan of something and sometimes that thing can let us down, leaving you without any closure. For me personally, I was disappointed that we never saw the finale of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy trilogy. Plus, I’m sure that for a section of the Star Wars fandom, wouldn’t it have been better if we got Colin Trevorrow’s Episode IX rather than The Rise of Skywalker?
The lack of closure in pop culture has been a recurring theme, but this particular year cemented that idea with the sudden and tragic news over the passing of Kentaro Miura. On May 6th, 2021, the creator of Berserk died due to an acute aortic dissection at the age of 54. His death was announced two weeks later, with floods of tributes from other manga artists and a worldwide community of Berserk fans. Although Miura had done other manga, including his first published manga at the age of 10, Berserk left the biggest impact on the world of games, manga, film, anime, and even literature.
Like its massive sword-wielding protagonist Guts, if you’re a fan of Berserk through Miura’s manga or its multiple adaptations, you have to struggle, whether it’s with the extremely dark content of the story or the long hiatuses of single chapters getting published in the Japanese magazine Young Animal. Now with the author’s passing, there are some fans who will feel like the story is now incomplete and we’ll never see how Miura would have concluded it. Those fans will feel disappointed, even though they should be gratified with what this 32-year-old story has given them.
My introduction to Berserk was in 2016 through a recommendation to watch the 1997 TV adaptation, which serves as a nice gateway for newcomers who are not ready for the density of the source material. I was initially hesitant to watch this show from seeing the DVD front cover featuring a rageful Guts swinging his sword and blood splurging out; I got the sense that this was a Conan the Barbarian knockoff.
The first episode, entitled “The Black Swordsman”, follows that typical Conan narrative as Guts is introduced as a lone drifter who kills some nasty men and then a giant snakelike monster. However, questions are raised throughout this episode such as how did Guts get the brand on his neck that is attracting hellish creatures, what are the demonic relics known as Behelits, and who is Griffith, someone who Guts hates so much? Before the first episode ends we go back in time to see Guts as a young orphaned mercenary, and thus the remaining 24 episodes explore the days where he serves as a member of a group of mercenaries, the Band of the Hawk, that will lead him on a path to become the Black Swordsman.
Adapting the most well-known arc of the Berserk manga, “The Golden Age”, this series is produced by Oriental Light and Magic, the same studio that was also making Pokémon at the time. Their animation work was limited; you can tell that they didn’t have the money to showcase the epic battle sieges, in which the Band of the Hawk would ride to victory whilst Guts’ singular fights were a repetitive series of him swinging his sword. That said, Naohito Takahashi’s stellar direction, along with stunning paintings and an iconic soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa, who has defined the music of all subsequent Berserk media, gives the show an impact whether it is through the bloodiest sequences on screen or the most intimate moments between its characters.
You could see the 1997 show as an imperfect adaptation of the source material, removing some crucial character work and even the more twisted sequences that are too extreme to be televised. However, despite these exclusions, the creators are clearly fans of the manga as their adaptation, more so than any other, is the closest to capturing the language of Miura’s work, which has some of the best characterization I’ve seen in dark fantasy storytelling. Sure, people will remember the pleasure/horror of the violent spectacle, but what truly sticks with them is the quiet moments where the characters get to express their feelings and their dreams. The complex triangle of Guts, Griffith and Casca is the emotional core of the show as their relationships with each other are distinct and they evolve over the course of the episodes. Even through scenes with other members of the Band of the Hawk the series conveys the key theme through the entirety of the manga, which is what you do want to do in life. During a tender moment with Casca, whom he has always butted heads with, Guts explains that everyone in the group has a dream but all he has is his sword, and he realizes that he needs to leave to find out what his dream is.
For all the darkness that this story can throw, it has moments of hope. Which is why it is so heart-wrenching to see how Berserk (1997) concludes, leading to one of the greatest betrayals in all of fiction; I wouldn’t be surprised if George R. R. Martin took a cue from Miura when writing A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of fantasy books that we still haven’t read the conclusion of, despite its TV adaptation having concluded. We may see the origin of how Guts became the Black Swordsman, but there are still questions left unanswered as the show doesn’t so much end but fundamentally stops. No doubt this conclusion left a polarizing response from those who are introduced to the world of Berserk through this show, whether they felt unsatisfied or craving for more from this story.
Years later, Studio 4°C produced a trilogy of films adapting “The Golden Age” which certainly have better animation and show how cinematic Miura’s story can be, but trim a lot of the intimacy that defines Berserk. Because those films were not a big success, the plans for the studio to continually adapt the subsequent arcs of the manga were abandoned and once again we had no closure. And then came the 2016 TV series, which did continue the adventures of Guts but shows how poor directing and crappy 3D animation can ruin a story. After two seasons the show ends with a title card: “THE STORY CONTINUES…”, only we don’t see the continuation. Again, no closure.
If you feel frustrated by these adaptations, no matter what good intentions they have, then to experience the full uncut glory of Berserk you have to read the manga by Kentaro Miura, a master in the industry. His artwork is incredibly detailed from the early chapters that were visually inspired by Fist of the North Star– the manga that had the greatest impact on Miura’s own work– to the subsequent arcs that show an evolution in his craft, particularly the use of digital art techniques. The series is known for its frequent and often extended hiatuses; one of the reasons could be that Miura was so obsessed with detail he would perfect every image from the tiniest panel to the double page spread, and the results are spectacular. Plus, with forty volumes available to purchase the storytelling is a rich and varied tapestry of characters, monsters and locations, all of which serve a purpose in Guts’ endless journey. In terms of fantasy world-building, every one of the five story arcs adds something new, including not only the presence of more fantasy creatures but also how the dynamics of religion and politics can alter.
For me personally, reading “The Golden Age” didn’t make it any easier, knowing its bloody conclusion. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to read what other hardships Guts had to go through. It was only after Miura’s passing that I decided to read more from Guts’ quest for revenge, where there is glorious spectacle, heartbreak and teary moments of characters finding their humanity in an inhuman world. However, reading the final chapters, I knew I was approaching an ending that was going to lead to more questions and was actually setting up the next big arc in the story. After reading Chapter 363, it was all over and like before, there wasn’t a sense of closure. My emotions were mixed, to say the least.
However, on September 10th, the latest issue of Young Animal will be published, featuring a posthumous chapter of Berserk as well as a tribute that will include messages to the late creator. It is unknown what the future of Berserk will be after September 10th and one should never jump to conclusions, but if we are witnessing the end of one of the greatest manga of all time, so be it. There are fans out there who will feel upset that we won’t see the true conclusion to the story, but instead of bitching about it on the internet, just be happy for what this story did for you and how it hopefully will inspire you to create your own story. Miura has stated that he learned the basics of storytelling from George Lucas and how he was influenced by Star Wars, another successful franchise with a hugely divided fan base; if you didn’t like the prequels or how the newest trilogy concluded, go off and make your own Star Wars.
As someone whose first exposure to manga was reading Berserk, which inspired me to read other titles within the medium, all I can say is: Thank you, Kentaro Miura.
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