Berserk volume 4 finally offers some answers

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The one thing that Berserk has given us up to this point is questions. Why is Guts such a bastard? What is his relationship with The God Hand? Why is his sword so big? It isn’t until volume four of this influential manga that we start to get some of the answers to these questions. Those answers are still slowly drip fed to us, but that only makes me want more.

A quick word of warning on this volume of Berserk. It starts with some incredibly traumatising material. While I won’t be using pictures of it, volume four involves sensitive subjects including sexual assault involving children, so now is your chance to spare yourself if that would be triggering for you.

Even in the Golden Age, Berserk is full of darkness

Berserk volume 4 guts kills Gambino

Though this arc is referred to as the Golden Age Arc, it is pretty clear from the onset that people are still awful in this era. Volume 3 ended with Guts surviving his first true battle as part of the mercenary group that raised him. However, Gambino, Guts’ adoptive father, is the first true monster the young man has to face. Volume 4 of Berserk starts with another mercenary paying Gambino a total of three silver coins to spend the night with the pre-teen Guts.

There is a struggle, as you’d expect, but ultimately Guts is subdued and the larger man manages to get what he paid for. It is horrific, especially with the reader already knowing how deep the betrayal goes. It isn’t until a few years later that Guts finds out that Gambino not only condoned the act but actively encouraged it. The fight that breaks out between them costs Gambino his life and sends Guts on the run from the only home he’s ever known.

This incident is the spark of the anger and hatred we see Guts fight with in earlier chapters and you can see how that trauma frames his actions throughout the rest of the manga. That exploration of trauma is at the crux of what Berserk is about. Guts is as much of a monster as the demons he kills, having been made that way by the ruthless world he was born into.

We see the young Guts continue to grow after he falls in with another band of mercenaries. Over the next four years, he becomes one of their strongest fighters, wielding a sword that begins to mirror the huge blade we saw him use before the flashback started. As successful as he is, there is something dead behind the teenager’s eyes. He fights without regard for his own life, not caring if a risky move will get him killed. On one hand, it makes him a dangerous foe, but it also will almost surely lead him to an early grave.

It all goes back to the trauma he suffered as a child, which is perhaps the one thing that redeems the inclusion of such a horrible event in the manga. Guts pushes everyone away and has a visceral reaction to even the most friendly physical touch, which is a realistic reaction to what has happened to him. It’s not just the physical scars of being assaulted at such a young age, but the emotional pain of knowing the man he trusted the most let it happen. Guts’ pain is both realistic and palpable, which is what Berserk does best.

Berserk guts in armor

After killing the enemy general and earning a huge reward for his efforts, Guts is sent off with a bag full of gold and a target on his back. He is set upon by yet another group of mercenaries who, despite seeing him take down the enemy general singlehandedly, think he is an easy mark. A fight ensues and Guts is eventually taken down by the combined efforts of Casca, the second-in-command of the mercenaries, and their leader.

The leader, we find out, is none other than Griffith.

The way Griffith is drawn is wonderful. His blond hair seems to disappear into the white background of the page, giving him an ethereal, almost angelic look to him. It is a stark contrast to how he is depicted in earlier chapters, when he was harsh and radiating demonic power. It is never acknowledged by anyone else that Griffith looks any different from them, which makes the depiction here all the more striking.

While the rest of the mercenary group struggles to take down Guts, Griffith manages to incapacitate him with a single blow. Rather than killing him, he orders Casca to use her body heat to keep the boy warm while he recovers from his injuries, stating it is “a woman’s duty.” While this would be a prime example of misogynistic behaviour at the best of times, it is made even worse by the fact that Casca is shown to want to be perceived as a man rather than a woman.

It is hard to tell if this is part of Berserk being a product of its time or an intentional part of Kentaro Miura’s world-building, especially when you include Guts’ use of homophobic slurs to describe Griffith a few pages later. I am inclined to think it is the latter, based on the underhanded tactics Griffith employs as the leader of the Band of the Hawk. It is part of what Berserk has spent the last four volumes establishing for the reader – the world is full of darkness and pain. Even those who are seemingly angelic and merciful cannot escape being tainted by it.

Berserk guts vs griffith

Griffith manages to convince Guts to join the Band of the Hawk by beating him in a duel. This volume of Berserk ends with the mercenaries causing chaos among the enemy forces a short time later, with Guts given the dangerous yet important job of keeping the enemy cavalry at bay while the bulk of Griffith’s forces makes their escape. There are some incredibly detailed panels in this sequence, with art that continues to stand out but it can’t overshadow the troubling subject matter on the pages.

This was a tough volume to read through but also an important one. We now know why Guts is such a deeply angry man and the origins of his relationship with Griffith. The Golden Age Arc is the payoff for the non-linear storytelling that Mirua has employed up to this point. It is a difficult technique to get right, but the impact that it allows him as a writer makes it worth the risk.

Despite the incredibly upsetting events depicted, Berserk remains worth the effort to read. You can grab volume 4 in paperback or digital format on Amazon.

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