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.