Berserk and the Ultimate Fight — A tribute to Kentaro Miura

Hamza Sarfraz
9 min readMay 25, 2021
Image Credits: Young Animal Comics

“Hate is a place, where a man who can’t stand sadness goes.”

The creator of Berserk has passed away. Kentaro Miura is no more with us. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see the conclusion to this iconic story that he so carefully crafted for more than three decades. But what Kentaro Miura has left behind in his magnum opus is a legacy that will keep on giving for those who need it, long after his demise.

Berserk is many things. For some, it is this incredibly cool, action-packed, adrenaline-inducing entertainment content. For others, it is a violent dark fantasy that raised the bar for other creators and ended up massively influencing the aesthetics and narratives of modern-day fantasy in novels, manga, videogames, anime, and even board games. It was after all a genre-defining work with unmatchable artwork. For me, as someone who first consumed this work as a young teenager, what makes Berserk so amazing is the heart-breaking narrative it weaved and the powerful feelings and lessons that it left us with.

Image Credits: Kentaro Miura

Berserk has been called the reverse-Macbeth more than once. Our POV protagonist is essentially Macduff. But while the tragic Shakespearean quality becomes evident as you go through the story, Berserk was so much more too. Foremost, it was an extended lesson on coping with pain and trauma. Miura created a world so dark and bleak that it made other fantasy settings including ASOIAF feel like petty tea parties. There is devastating war, calamities, incessant political intrigue, societal unravelling. There is cosmic horror, monsters, unforgiving deities, and an unending apocalypse. There is the worst of humanity laid bare on the pages. Miura looked at the cynicism of the modern world and decided that he was going to create a work set in a medieval setting that embodies all of it.

This might give the impression that Berserk is an edgy and nihilistic story about angry people. Certainly, the violent aesthetics of our protagonist Guts — a morally questionable man wielding a giant sword that he uses to take down monsters all across the land — can often satisfy the craving for good old-fashioned badassery. This is pretty much in line with a lot of pop culture produced in the late 90s/early 2000s. But cynicism and hatred (and all this action) were not the driving force for the narrative as much as they were the set-up for something else. Because what Miura wanted to demonstrate was the feasibility of hope, in the face of overwhelming tragedy. And the difference between fighting hard for revenge versus a more significant purpose. He wanted to show how amidst all that has happened, something meaningful can still be built. Though thematically he may well be similar to countless other storytellers, not many can match his skill, execution, and consistency in pursuing a narrative arc.

It would be quite a task to explore every theme and motif that Miura incorporated in this saga. Also, certain elements of the story — particularly with regards to the treatment of a few characters — do not hold up well in retrospect. Those flaws are very much there in Berserk. But we’ll leave that discussion for another day. For now, let’s just note down one key aspect of Berserk that really captures the message Miura intended to convey. No one embodies it better than the protagonist of his story, Guts.

First of all, the most salient observation about Guts is that, by most storytelling conventions, he shouldn’t be the protagonist or even the POV character for us. He is after all a character you’ll struggle to empathize with from the get-go. Heck, for the first three volumes of the manga, you’d almost think that in this already terrible world, he is the biggest horror himself. When I initially read the manga, I kept thinking that the story had opened with the introduction to one of our main villains and that the hero of this story will appear soon to take him down. This is because Guts seemed like the Other, a demonic being, instead of a likeable character whose story I wanted to follow. But no new character appeared to take him down and soon I had to accept that this brutishly terrifying and morally ambiguous man is the hero of the story. However, over the course of the story, as the background and the world were unveiled slowly, I began to see Guts for what he was. I could recognize how the world he is fighting against is what created a character like him.

Image Credit: Kentaro Miura

Sometimes, Berserk can feel like trauma porn. All characters go through extreme and unbearable struggles. Some of them tend to ostensibly regress towards nihilistic tendencies and conclusions. Perhaps none more so than Guts. Born and raised in the most horrific circumstances possible, Guts is a character constantly fighting against a reality that is never on his side. What makes it more tragic though is that he isn’t necessarily cursed (until later in the story) and there is no higher being who has chosen this fate for him. Because if that was the case, he could at least know how to deal with it. There is no fate. His tragedy is just the result of the random and inexplicable cruelty of the universe. He doesn’t hold enough importance to be destined for anything. He has to create it himself. In that, he isn’t much different from us in our reality. The story is essentially him trying to fight it out against a world that is getting increasingly unpredictable and harsh.

The question though is that why is Guts the protagonist of Berserk. Why are we being asked to consume the story through his eyes? Why are we privy to his internal world, out of all the people? I mean there are many other fascinating characters who could serve as insightful windows into this world. But here is where Miura’s genius lay. He chose this character to be our guide to the story because through him we can unearth the lessons embedded in it. And as we get to live inside Gut’s head, the layers upon layers of his character are revealed to us.

Image Credits: Kentaro Miura

I won’t give away any spoilers. But just to give you an idea, Berserk is essentially a narrative about a violent and overpowered man aka Guts single-handedly battling it out against monsters who have intruded upon this world as a result of the arrogant ambition of a few men and wicked deities. The story begins with Guts slaying them with as much ferocity and violence as the monsters themselves were going to inflict on humans. Then the story shifts back to an earlier period where a young, already battle-hardened Guts joins a group of mercenaries who are fighting for one country in their hundred-year war with another. The world of his youth is just about as vicious as any medieval setting can be. There is political intrigue, dangerous ambitions, and a general disregard for the weak. It all then escalates as Guts watches this reality crumble even further with the rise of the supernatural forces, each more terrifying than the last. He experiences a betrayal that has ramifications for not just him, but those he had gradually come to love. The journey following that features his refusal to accept this reality and fighting fire with fire.

“You’re right, we are mortal and fragile. But even if we are tortured or wounded, we’ll fight to survive. You should feel the pain we feel and understand. I am the messenger that will deliver you to that pain and understanding.” — Guts

However, the fight itself was not the key point of Berserk. Sure, the battles were equal parts exciting and scary, but the internality of Guts mattered more. Miura knew that the world he had built needed a powerful but introspective protagonist who can battle not just what is in the physical reality, but also in the mental reality that resides within him.

Guts is the ideal character for this purpose. For all the violence that he deploys against the monsters, our protagonist still possesses a strict moral code that guides his actions. Guts goes out of his way throughout the story to protect the weak and the helpless. Oftentimes, for many people, he emerges as the sole barrier against a world that is ready to destroy them. What he seeks for himself is simple. He wants a moment of peace, a family, a home. His anger against the monsters is not borne out of some inherently violent nature. It is a reaction to watching these monsters take away every opportunity he has had at building something meaningful. This profound sadness keeps on spilling out as we get to listen to his thoughts. And he is quite a thinker. His many moments of solitude are filled with haunting regrets, longings, hopes, and painful reminders of everything denied to him. His internal monologues show us a flawed and tired human who at the end of the day still possesses kindness and space for tender emotions. He is an introspective person trying all he can to make sense of the world and seeking to find some meaning in it, just as something to build upon.

Image Credits: Kentaro Miura

“Even if we painstakingly piece together something lost, it doesn’t mean things will ever go back to how they were.” — Guts

This ‘meaning’ that Guts (and by extension the reader) is looking for is exactly what Miura wanted to show. Because as the story moved forward over the numerous chapters, it became clear that Miura had no interest in indulging in trauma for the sake of trauma. His setting was not designed to be bleak just because it seemed cool. His work was the opposite of nihilism. Right from the get-go, he had set up the narrative to lead us to the point where we can see the faint but certain indications of a better reality amidst the chaos.

That’s not to say that suddenly things become rosy. Not at all. But gradually, almost painstakingly, we witness Guts and other characters emerge from the confusion of the world to find their own grounding in it. They learn how to slowly accept and share the universal values of trust and kindness. They come to find love for themselves and for each other, a love that is earned and forged through constant trials. They come to terms with the grief that engulfs their lives and start making peace with it. Their hatred towards themselves and each other is replaced with something much more fruitful and sustainable. Bit by bit, they realize that no matter how hard and unforgiving the universe is, they can rebuild for each other a better place — one that isn’t as violent and harsh and inhospitable. And finally, having lived through the consequences of others’ arrogant ambitions, they recognize the value of understanding your own grounding in this world.

Image Credits: Kentaro Miura

“If you’re alone… if it’s just your life, you can use it however you please. Wear yourself out, get cut to ribbons, doesn’t matter. But when there’s two, the blade grows heavy. Fighting like death doesn’t concern you. It becomes a thing of the past. It’s no longer just you. I threw away my way of life, relied on the strength of others, and somehow pushed on.” — Guts

It is a tragedy that Miura never got to show us the eventual destination he had planned for his characters. He had set up the journey, he had worked on their growth, but he could not show us the payoff he had hinted at. But that is okay. Even if his story is incomplete, even if we never saw Guts and other characters finally find their home and their peace, we know that they will eventually get there. After all, their creator had spent three decades nurturing them.

Image Credits: IMDB

Even with an unfinished story, Miura left behind a haunting, entertaining, and powerful missive on grief, tragedy, trauma, existential meaningless, and the human desire to eventually face all of it head-on. If you start reading Berserk right now, you will find yourself immersed in an amazing saga that may well speak to you in ways you never expected. Its lack of a conclusion has no effect whatsoever on the impact it will leave on you. That is Kentaro Miura’s genius at play.

May he rest in eternal peace.

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Hamza Sarfraz

I write about anime, speculative fiction, history, pop culture, and occasionally society and politics. Day job as a policy researcher. Sometimes I review stuff.