The dark world of Berserk

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The manga of Berserk has always been both highly recommended and difficult to recommend. From the graphic sex of the first pages through to the explorations of trauma and redemption in the more recent chapters, Berserk goes places that many manga try to go, but does so in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous. Despite the difficulty of approaching such subjects, this is a manga that excels in a way few manage.

Though the first volume isn’t as dark as the later chapters, Berserk is still not for those who would want to avoid certain triggering subject matters. Violence is common. Sexual assault and the exploration of trauma are key components of the story. While it is handled well in most cases, it is still present and readers should be warned. Just like with other deep dives we’ve done for manga in the past, we’ll be discussing key plot points as they come up, so beware of spoilers for those new to the manga.

The dark beginnings of Berserk


I read the first several volumes of Berserk years ago but had been wanting to do a reread of them before moving on to the newer stories, ever since the tragic death of Kentaro Miura in 2021 reminded me of that gap in my reading. Now that I’ve finished covering Battle Royale, the time is perfect to dive into the dark story of Guts.

The opening chapters of Berserk are all about setting the stage for what is to come. Guts, known as the Black Swordsman, walks into a town at the mercy of a seemingly invincible Baron. Finding some of this Baron’s minions in a tavern tormenting an elf, the warrior with a giant sword dispatches them with incredible brutality.

It is a great way to establish Guts as a formidable warrior, but there is a touch of drama in the way he approaches this encounter. Before the fight begins, Guts puts a few coins on the counter to help pay for the mess he is about to make. It is an undeniably badass move, but only because he backs it up with a giant sword and a crossbow built into his metal arm.

Berserk Guts vs a horse

After a brief stint of being captured and tortured, Guts manages to draw the Baron, who is predictably inhuman, out of his castle for a fight in the town. Guts takes a beating and seems to be pushed well beyond what a normal human is capable of, but he eventually forces the Baron to unleash his demonic powers.

The fight isn’t a long one, but we get to see hints at the artwork that would make Kentaro Miura known as one of the best black and white artists in comic book history. The line work is perfection, with a high level of detail in almost every panel. It isn’t as intricate as some of the pages that come later, but you can see why there were often months or even years between releases.

With the Baron dispatched, Guts is offered a ride in the wagon of a travelling priest and his daughter. We get a glimpse at some of the trauma that Guts lives with. His sleep is disturbed by the approach of possessed skeletons, who are drawn to him due to the Brand of Sacrifice on his neck. The skeletons kill the priest and his daughter, a fact that doesn’t seem to impact Guts in the slightest. They were, in his mind, too weak to survive in a world of darkness and pain.

The first two chapters in this volume feel like vignettes to introduce us to the world and the characters we’ll be following. It isn’t until the third chapter that we see the upcoming story set up. Guts arrives in a city run by a Count who is trying to root out any interest in the occult or pagan religions through the time-tested practice of public executions. All we know about this town or the Count is that Guts wants to kill him, so it’s safe to assume that, just like the Baron in the first chapter, he isn’t human.

The characterisation of Guts is one of the most interesting parts of these early chapters of Berserk. At no point is he ever portrayed as good or kind. In fact, his cruelty and anger are the early takeaways for readers. He revels both in the violence of his actions and the pain he inflicts on his enemies. The only thing that keeps him from feeling like an edgelord anti-hero is a brief interaction between him and Puck, the elf he saved in the opening chapter.

When Puck arrives to repay the favour by releasing Guts from prison and healing his wounds, it is shocking to see that he is seemingly terrified of being touched. With no explanation, he has a visceral reaction to Puck’s healing magic despite us seeing him enduring torture with almost passive indifference. It is the first hint that there is something more beneath the surface here that we haven’t been shown yet.

Aside from the graphic nature of the story, the bravest choice the mangaka took with Berserk was the way it drip-feeds information about Guts and his past without expanding unnecessarily. People marvel at the size of his sword, but he doesn’t give us its backstory yet. He makes a comment about the Brand of Sacrifice on his neck drawing evil spirits to him and mentions that they often disturb his sleep, but he doesn’t expand on it.

One of the most difficult things for an author to do is to give the reader just enough information to keep them interested without bogging them down with too much world-building. In this case, because we know there is something more to Guts than we’ve been shown just yet, the balance is perfect. We want to know why he is such an absolute bastard, which keeps us turning the page and diving deeper into this world.

If you want to read Berserk, you can get all of the volumes for a decent price on Kindle or in paperback in the UK. Getting your hands on the hardcover editions will cost you a fair bit more, though.

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