Berserk is famous for its deep story and complex characters, which is what makes the first few pages of the series controversial among fans.
Warning: contains discussion of sexual assault
Few manga have gained the respect and admiration of readers around the world as Berserk. Central to that love is the series’ main character, Guts. The Black Swordsman is a deceptively complex character. It is this depth that explains why some fans of the hit manga just can not reconcile the first few pages of the series with what they later learn about Guts.
Created by Kentaro Miura in 1989, Berserk is the story of the black swordsman, Guts. Through the manga’s first handful of chapters, Guts appears as a completely intolerable protagonist. It gets to the point where the only reason he could be considered a hero at all is that the demons he kills are far worse than he is. In the series’ famous Golden Age arc, however, readers finally learn how Guts became so cold-hearted. Guts is a man who has lost everything he cares about several times. While Eclipse, which ended up killing his mercenary band, is the best-known example of this, Guts’ trauma goes back even further than that. Readers learn that Guts was sexually abused as a child. Suddenly, his reluctance to be touched makes sense. The cold and detached persona that defines him in the introductory chapters is suddenly a defense mechanism he uses to protect himself from being hurt. All of this makes Guts a much deeper character than the first appearances suggest … which is why the manga’s opening just doesn’t match.
Berserk’s first chapter begins with Guts sleeping with a woman. But in the violence of passion, the woman transforms. Even though she thinks she is captured Guts with his disgusting true form, he turns the table without hesitation and fires the cannonball into his arm, wiping out the monster. Instead of setting up plot points, this opening is meant to establish that the manga’s world is overrun by demons, and Guts is one who enjoys killing them. But when you look at Guts’ history and problems with intimacy, it’s hard to imagine Guts doing something similar. He even has trouble letting the actual woman he loves touch him, so it’s strange that he apparently has no problem connecting with a demon.
As a result of these supposed contradictions, some fans actually prefer to think of the sequence as non-canon. This is certainly a sympathetic attitude to take. While dark and gloomy things often happen Berserk, they rarely appear without making some sort of major thematic point about its characters or the world. In addition, the scene is never referenced again and does not set up any significant plot points, which means that it is entirely possible to take the scene out without changing anything in the series’ larger narrative. Berserk’s many adjustments apparently agree with this, as the 1997 anime adaptation of the series’ Golden Age arc omits the scene altogether. It is important to note that the scene itself is not bad in a vacuum. It still bears Miura’s signature beautiful and terrifying artwork. The problem with Berserk’s opening pages is not a matter of quality, it is that they offer too much contradiction for many readers.
No matter how you view the scene, it does nothing to diminish the legacy or impact of the series as a whole. It is no understatement to call Berserk a masterpiece once in a lifetime. Kentaro Miura’s epic may be ultra-violent, but it’s also introverted and thought-provoking. Even though some readers do not care Berserk‘s controversial opening, the series is a work of art that will no doubt be celebrated for decades to come.
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