Thoughts on ... Guts, and Perseverance
The first time I re-read Berserk, my husband got curious enough to join me. He was never averse to anime or manga, but needless to say since our relationship began six years ago, he's become more than a casual fan. I've got him hooked on loads of different series and I've got a fair gist of his tastes, so I knew he would like Berserk: the story was deep and compelling enough to hook him. He's a big fan of Fullmetal Alchemist (thanks to me) and Berserk explores similar themes of life, death and the relativity of good and evil. After devouring the 1997 anime, I had him hooked. Then we started on the manga where the anime left off.
At some point, however, his enthusiasm during my re-read began to wane. I saw him frown, muttering to himself. We had just reached the end of the Eclipse ceremony. Casca is a broken shell. Guts has run through the wilderness in distress, still unable to process the hell he barely survived. Skullknight advises him to return to Casca, who has escaped her dwellings. She gives birth to a deformed, cursed foetus, a foetus which is cognizant, staring at him with one protuberant, knowing eye. Guts is informed that he had unknowingly impregnated Casca during their beautifully written reunion. Shortly after the pair consummated their relationship, Griffith rapes Casca in front of Guts. This rape is what deformed what would have been a healthy child. In horror, Guts attempts to kill the foetus, but is stopped by Casca, after which it disappears into the spiritual world, to plague and bother Guts whenever he's at his most vulnerable.
My husband recoiled from the page.
“You know what?” he said “I don't know if I can read this.”
Credit to him, he didn't give up right away. In the end, he asked me to tell him the rest of the story, and whenever I do a re-read (like I'm doing now), he joins in because he genuinely cares about these characters as much as I do, but there is something compelling about his reaction to Guts and Casca's ordeal. Miura’s story burdens the reader with the weight of the protagonists' trauma. Only recently when we discussed Berserk did we find a name for it: claustrophobia. Berserk makes you feel trapped, and its world is so small, and the hardships are so great, and it is so bleak and violent and unforgiving, that as a reader, you begin to suffocate with it. There is nothing you wish for more than Guts's happiness and Casca's peace and Griffith's destruction. Nothing more. It’s mind-boggling to consider just how much bad fortune Guts has experienced. Berserk is a story where bad things happen to decent people, and it can be depressing.
At the same time, there is a slither of light that penetrates the dark narrative. Although the protagonists have all led fractured, traumatic lives, they never succumb to the impending desire to give up. Guts embodies stubborn perseverance, and through his struggles, the reader learns to cling onto hope.
I've mentioned before that I lurk various forums, including the Berserk subreddit. Every now and then, a redditor will share a harrowing story of how they were suicidal, or on the brink of a serious mental breakdown, but after reading Berserk, they learned to cope and persist. Guts is an admirable protagonist. He doesn't possess the innocent tenacity of most shonen protagonists, nor does he possess the grimdark, stoic and sullen demeanour of other “deep” seinen characters. He's unusually strong, blunt, crass, nihilistic, emotional and at times villainous. Akin to the pirates’ philosophy in One Piece, Guts doesn't set out to be anyone's hero. He's had a rough life and he lives for his own convictions, and yet somehow, people are drawn to him. Guts, regardless of what happens to him, keeps pushing forward. He had reason to give up numerous times each arc, but he never does. Instead, he uses his conviction and personal principles—initially a revenge quest but transforming into a means to restore his beloved—to propel himself through the story, and it's beautiful to read. Despite his reluctance to be viewed as a good guy, his very nature invites good people anyway, and his stubborn survival encourages other characters who were also on the brink of giving up. They like Guts because he's a natural survivor, and by accompanying him, they too learn to survive.
Guts’s reasons for survival differ depending on the arc, but the story narrates a progression of his character as he changes and develops a healthier mental state. In the Black Swordsman, we see Guts at his lowest: stoic and cold, he only cracks at the last moment, revealing that his despondency was just a facade to hide his anguish. Golden Age shows us that he was much more emotional and caring as a youth, risking his life for his comrades, battling regret after he left them behind, and finding solace in Godo’s company. Conviction is where Guts properly confronts the darkness of himself, realises his coping mechanisms have been self-centred and toxic, and vows to do something about it. By the time we get to Millennium Falcon, with his new companions and new desire to restore Casca, he is a changed person, his reasons for survival closely intertwined with Casca’s wellbeing and the safety of his travelling party.
Additionally, whereas before the cursed foetus triggered disgust and hatred in him, during Conviction and afterwards, Guts expresses concern for it, perhaps showing us once again how much his heart has softened since the beginning of the story. One way Miura develops Guts’s character in this way is by the use of disadvantaged children, of whom Guts regularly confronts on his journey.
The current travelling party includes Isidro, Schierke and Isma, three children who rely on his strength, whilst simultaneously offering him their own unique strengths and talents in return. Schierke is instrumental to Guts's survival, as his reliance on the Berserker armour grows with the increasing intensity of his battles. Her magic training keeps him sane, but after the heartless murder of her mentor and teacher Flora, Schierke loses herself, failing to constrain her emotions as she recounts Flora's final moments. Guts, accustomed to heartbreak and death, and empathising with the emptiness that follows the loss of a loved one (especially at the hands of Griffith), comforts her, encouraging Schierke to cry and express her emotions. He got a scalding from Godo months before; he now understands how dangerous it is to manage emotions poorly. Bottling up the pain cannot help Schierke. Guts allows her to have time to cry, and Schierke rushes to him for comfort. Her actions are childlike here, which is a change from her usual adult-like demeanour. Schierke is used to behaving older and wiser than she is, but with Guts, she learns to be a child again. The sweetness of this moment is encapsulated with Guts placing Schierke’s hat back on her head. It’s a tender gesture that speaks volumes.
And then there’s Jill, our little treasure of the Lost Children chapter. Subjected to abuse, and terribly lonely, Jill is witness to Guts’s darkest moments. The Lost Children chapter is notorious because of the violence and morbidity of the plot: child sex abuse, child murder, and explicit violence are all included in this short arc. Jill is in the midst of this darkness, and somehow, she finds solace in Guts. Here is a man who totally disrupts the monotony of her village, diminishes her abusive father to a quivering mess, and single-handedly defeats the elves of Misty Valley, including her childhood friend Rosine. I plan to write a post about this arc at another time, so I won't go too deeply into it now, but I think it's worth noting how much Guts's battle against the odds impacted Jill, who had grown accustomed to abuse, maltreatment, and neglect. Guts's fight with Rosine is grotesque, and during the struggle he has to interrogate his mental trauma several times, encountering burning children in the form of apostles, and facing off between an apostle that was an accomplice in the murder of several members of his band, and yet possessing the body and demeanour of a child. The juxtaposition of demonic barbarity and childlike innocence messes with Guts’s head, mirroring the dichotomous nature of his ill-fated child, and he falters during the fight more than once because it’s just so bloody disturbing.
Watching Guts stirs something in Jill, and after the fight is over, she begs him to take her. Contrasting his encounter with Teresa during the Black Swordsman arc, Guts has compassion on Jill, warning her that his path is one filled with a burden she is unable to handle. He wants to protect her, knowing that despite her disdain for the village, she would be powerless to fight against the evil of the wider world. Instead, he tells her to fight. Running from the village may not save her; she needs to fight against it. The village is her battle; the world belongs to Guts. Jill is renewed by his words, and, because of her encounter with Guts, learns to persevere with her own strength.
Heartbreakingly, these instances show that Guts would have been an awesome father, which makes it all the more devastating that his own child was stripped from him in such a brutal way. They similarly highlight the difference between Guts's charisma and Griffith's, as explored through the establishment of their respective crews.
Both men have something so special about them that a bunch of disparate strangers can band together and risk their lives for them. The band of the Falcon was drawn together by its shared awe of Griffith, and by every individual’s desire to help their commander achieve his ambition. The Falcon mercenaries were almost dreamless, following Griffith because of his almost inhuman charisma. Additionally, Midland’s nobles—from princess Charlotte, to the senior knights and courtiers—identified that special character trait they could not describe, but rendered them entranced anyway. Griffith embodies noble power, a strong spirit, and unusual beauty. He utilises his natural enchanting demeanour to his advantage, stealing the heart of princess Charlotte—his key to the dream—in the process.
On the other hand, Guts is human. He's stronger than most, and his prodigious strength in battle separates him from everyone else in the series, but at the same time, he succumbs to weakness, he gets exhausted and angry, he openly expresses the humanness of himself, something others can empathise with. When you're with Guts, you don't have to pretend to be great and formidable, as he never hides his own imperfections. He's just Guts. It's refreshing in a world of nobles, royalty, apostles and fantastic beasts, where status and power mean everything, and a lack of both can be fatal.
It's interesting that Guts's otherworldly strength is what draws others, who lack it, to him. Probably because he never flaunts it or makes others feel insignificant. Instead, he highlights the unique strengths in others, like Isidro's confidence and Schierke's magic and Farnese's caring nature towards Casca, and Puck's ability to diffuse an otherwise depressing moment. And Guts always ensures he's at the back of the group, protecting them, knowing that he has a responsibility to use his power to save them as well as himself. This is different from his agonising moments with Casca, where he lamented the weight of the burden to protect her and keep himself alive; his new companions lifted the strain from his body, and with this extra strength, he protects them, all the while inspiring them with his inability to die, or lose himself to the beast of darkness within him.
Despite the claustrophobia of the story, I too take comfort in Guts's perseverance. As someone who suffered from mental health issues and self-harm in the past, I've been confronted with my own darkness, and there's something endearing about seeing Guts strive forward, even when the heavens fall and the world collapses all around him. Berserk is suffocating and dark, sometimes the story is so overwhelming it feels like cement walls are rising with every turn of the page, but at the heart of the series is a young man who's been through too much, and still manages to fight against the odds, no matter what. It’s not all dark. There's a lot of beauty and hope in there, too, a beauty that is evinced by Guts’s ability to challenge his past and offer an alternative to the bleakness of Berserk’s world.
Guts’s experiences with various children on his journey reveals his persistent nature in the face of harrowing trauma. The experiences juxtapose the initial and subsequent encounters with his foetus and they also contrast his own childhood wounds. He suffered from PTSD long before the Eclipse, flinching into a violent episode whenever a man so much as grazed his arm. As a child, he was raped, and in adulthood, he struggles to process the betrayal by the man he adopted as his father. Gambino selling Guts’s body, and then descending into an abusive, manipulative horror for years following his own debilitating injury, does not match up to the carefree mercenary that saved him from the rotting remains of his mother, raising him since birth, and teaching him the sword. How he chooses to treat children as an adult is divergent to Gambino’s behaviour. He has learned from Gambino’s mistake. It suggests that somewhere, deep down, Guts is resentful towards his adoptive father, despite the guilt he feels for accidentally killing him. He recognises that although his childhood was typical of the lives of commoner children, his abuse was objectively wrong, and it is not a requirement for adults to reflect the context of their society, they can choose to be different. In a world where bigotry appears to progress genetically through generations, it’s refreshing to see Guts carving his own path, and thinking for himself, when it would be so much easier for him to express his anger and disdain towards other innocent children who have yet to experience the pain he suffers from.
Guts’s mental and physical perseverance are commendable traits in a character thrust into a brutal and unforgiving world. People are drawn to him for good reason, and his desire to persist in the face of adversity is something I find both endearing and inspirational. I totally empathise with those other struggling redditors; when I read Guts’s story, and follow his journey, I feel like Jill and Schierke and Farnese and the others, hoping that he makes it, and pushing myself to make it, too. Berserk is a heartbreaking story, but it’s worth the read if you get to witness a character like Guts overcome his struggles, learn from his mistakes, and press forward.