Berserk: Manliness and the Importance of Person

At first glance, Berserk seems to have all the bells and whistles of an edgy teenage boy’s daydream. It sports an incredible amount of violence, almost every one of...
courtesy of deathisabishi - Deviantart

At first glance, Berserk seems to have all the bells and whistles of an edgy teenage boy’s daydream. It sports an incredible amount of violence, almost every one of its leading female characters appear nude on screen at least once, and the majority of actual sexual encounters in the series are either violent rape or attempted rape, both of which dare you to look away. In effect, Berserk could be called the Game of Thrones of anime. And while my description thus far might make you think that the show lacks substance, strangely, I found that the show taught mature and complex lessons on manliness. While its grittier aspects have likely, and understandably, caused some people to drop the show before its more redeeming qualities can kick in, I consider that all the more reason for me to defend and share why Berserk was edifying for my understanding of what it means to be a man.

All of Berserk’s lessons in manliness follow the character development of the protagonist Guts in relation to the people he encounters. Guts’ development is most affected by the Band of the Hawk’s leader, Griffith, and a female member of the Band, Casca. Griffith’s ambition is to be the lord of the world’s greatest kingdom; to possess not just power but also people as devoted property, which he acquires with an unnatural charisma. Guts wants to win Griffith’s favor as a friend and an equal, and as he and Casca both struggle to earn Griffith’s approval they end up falling in love with each other. Griffith becomes obsessed with the fact that in turning their affections to one another, he no longer has sole and entire command of their devotions. In response to this insult toward his supremacy, when Griffith comes into power, he rapes Casca and forces Guts to watch helplessly before putting out Guts’ right eye so that the rape of the woman he loves will forever be the last image that eye saw. Did I mention this show’s kinda dark?

Understandably, Gut’s chief goal becomes making Griffith pay for what he did to Casca and protecting her from any further harm. He develops a PTSD state of wrath and bloodlust that can overwhelm him completely and which he attributes to wanting vengeance for Casca. But later, during an attempted rape of Casca at the hands of thugs, Guts flies into a rage and kills her assailants but then turns and forces himself on her. Guts comes to his senses, sees what he is doing, and he is horrified at the realization that the anger at his core was not because of what Griffith did to Casca, but what Griffith did to Gut’s pride. Griffith raped Casca not out of a desire for her but because he desired to use her as a tool against Guts, to prove he still owned her in a way and, if not, that he was capable of ruining her. Guts’ nearly used rape as a powerplay of his own to demonstrate that Casca was his possession and not Griffith’s. Instead of killing Griffith, Guts became him.

The interactions Guts has with Griffith and Casca teach that becoming a true man revolves around the need for person. The truth is that it’s incredibly difficult to model yourself after the photo-negative of someone or something. It wasn’t enough that Gut’s declared his ideal to be “whatever Griffith isn’t,” because Griffith remained the standard by which he measured himself and eventually became his destination. The goal you’re aiming toward has to be specific, personal, and, therefore, has to be a person. The same applies to Guts’ wrath for Casca’s sake. While his own attempted rape of Casca served as a wake-up call for where his focus truly was, the importance of person is reinforced for Guts later when he discovers that putting Casca and her defense as his focus is the only way he can escape the rage that overwhelms him. It is instinct for Guts to fly off the handle, and he must make the decision to submit those instincts to the service of a person other than himself if he wishes to master those impulses.

Jesus warns us in scripture that such is the nature of things. He declares that he can not help but do the will of the Father who begat him (John 8:28-29). Then, in the same breath, he tells the people listening that they are bound to lie and kill because their father is the devil (John 8:39-47). In fact, the very reason Jesus had to redeem humanity is because we are hopelessly incapable of perfectly following a code of unembodied laws (Gal. 2:15-16 & 3:10-14). And, again, this inability of ours comes back down to our natural headship under Satan and the need to be adopted by God through submission to the headship of Jesus.

Other lessons in manliness come as Guts starts to attract a band of followers like Griffith even though he has no ambition to do so. One of the members is Farnese, a female commander of an army whose efforts to stop Guts were so thoroughly frustrated that the entire army under her leadership dissolved and Farnese joined Guts band in admiration. As a leader, Farnese was sadistic and cruel, so her character growth mirrors Gut’s growth in that she learns to care about people instead of use them. But, for a series that features so much sexual violence, Berserk actually takes a very traditional turn in distinguishing Farnese’s growth in this area as a woman and Guts’s growth as a man in an Ephesians 5 sense.

Even though Farnese was previously a military commander, Guts does not ask her to accompany him in fights when their band is in danger. Instead, he asks her to look after Casca who, due to trauma from being raped by Griffith, has regressed to an infantile state of interaction and lost the ability to speak. This is not the equivalent of Guts telling Farnese to “get back to the kitchen” and “tend to the children.” Farnese regularly risks her life to rescue and defend Casca in order to fulfill her role within the group. But it is interesting how the show juxtaposes Farnese laying her life down for the defenseless within the band, while Guts is laying his life down to protect Farnese, Casca, and the band at large. The result is that both Guts and Farnese become more dynamic characters as Guts learns to fight for the sake of others and as Farnese allows herself to be defended even as she lays her life down for Casca.

Another member of Guts’ band is Ishidoro, a young thief who began following Guts with hopes of being trained by him. Guts becomes the person of Ishidoro’s focus like Griffith was for Guts. Because of this, many of Guts’ lessons to Ishidoro are also lectures to himself:

Ishidoro: “Is this good enough? I mean, isn’t training [supposed to be] practicing basics for a long time and inheriting techniques and stuff?”

Guts: “You’re practicing basics everyday. […] Do you expect to go to battle only after training for dozens of years and becoming a master swordsman? That’s a pretty long game.”

I: “No I don’t!”

G: “Then you need to manage with what you have now. Isn’t that what you’ve been doing all along anyway?” 

(2.16 “Forest of Demonic Beasts”)

The tactic of focusing your life on the right person in order to change can seem easy when you’re example is the strong, will-powered, and all-suffering character of Guts. In a similar way, submitting yourself to Christ and making him your focus also sounds simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. Ishidoro’s complaint is the same as the Christian man’s often is, “Isn’t there more to this than just daily faithfulness? Isn’t there some kind of secret technique or special method that I need to learn before I can start ‘fighting the good fight?’” Guts gives an answer he has found to be true through years of struggle, but it’s one that God seems to tell us men as well: “What else is there but daily faithfulness? You should start by learning to manage with what I have given you. I trust you enough to include you. Now, trust that my grace is sufficient for you (2 Cor. 12:9) and that I am strong enough to defend you even as I train you to fight.”

Berserk takes a theme that, in a younger show, might boil down to, “the power of friendship,” and makes you feel it viscerally by adding actual stakes. Guts is not a manlier character because of the violence and sexual violence he faces and suffers in the series; rather, he starts becoming a man when he finds people for whom he is willing to fight and suffer all of those things. The band began forming once Guts had that horrific realization after his attempted rape of Casca. He realized that he could not bear his responsibility alone, so he let people in to help bear the load like Farnese and Ishidoro. Even though Guts is described as the formidable “Black Swordsman,” with personal kill stats that would qualify him for King David’s Mighty Men, and a hard-nosed loner complex the likes of a Clint Eastwood character, Berserk develops Guts into a character who recognizes his own need for help. He recognizes his need for person, for people, and then focuses the sacrifice of his life and physical well-being on those people. That is what makes Berserk’s Guts an unexpected study in manliness.

Matthew is a lover of words, stories, and song. Takes Shounen way too seriously. Spends his life trying to show the fear of God even (and especially) in a handful of dust. On occasion, quotes T.S. Eliot to seem deep and brooding.

4 Comments on this post.

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  • David Schooley
    12 October 2017 at 11:50 pm

    Interesting points, thank you for making this post I watched the old anime series so I actually thought Griffith raped her to death, I kinda needed to stop after that point for a while because of how brutal the scene was. Anyway I like your point about how guts doesn’t become a man or at least doesn’t show aspects of manliness till he is willing to open himself up to others wishing to help. Fantastic post.

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    • Matthew G
      13 October 2017 at 1:10 am

      Thanks a lot, David. I sympathize with that need to stop. I lost it too after Griffith’s rape of the king’s daughter, and the whole Eclipse episode was even worse. I appreciate that you thought the post worth while. God bless you!

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      • David Schooley
        14 October 2017 at 2:02 am

        Yeah that was messed up but I don’t think he raped the princess, she actually consented to it and wanted to continue, what did bother me and really shows how nasty Griffith truly is in such a twisted way. The entire time he is thinking of guts. What this tells me is that after he lost to guts he felt powerless and weak so he went to someone who truly cares for him and just like everyone else in griffith’s life he uses her as a tool, really nothing more. That is what sickened me about the scene, it was truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing stealing the from her what she will never get back, and the sad truth is as far as the story goes (at least for that arc) she is perfectly fine with it because she is still disillusioned by the wolf believing like everyone else that griffith is pure. He was the devil from the beginning by the way he deceived all he knew, the irony comes from the fact that when he takes his true form at the end and his loyal followers all die except for two (being that they are main characters and all.) Griffith is a great example of the devil, luring his prey with lies of happiness and glory but only to end in misery and death.

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        • Matthew G
          18 October 2017 at 11:05 pm

          You’re right and that use of the princess foreshadows Griffith’s later use and abuse of Casca. That similarity is what I had in mind when I presumed what happened with the princess was rape. Perhaps it was consensual, but there were so many moments in that short (yet eternally long) scene where I thought it ceased to be so. It’s awful that it impresses me, but the levels of depravity and psychological complexity in each of those scenes is one of the reasons I find the series so arresting. That devil comparison certainly isn’t far off, and the fact that Griffith was still so very human is what made it all that much more horrific.

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