‘To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell’: on the rise and fall of men and monsters in Berserk

Image courtesy of Lyaska

Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal World! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor – one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven [...]
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

- Satan, in John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1, lines 249-264.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lately I’ve been watching more classic anime shows in addition to the seasonal stuff. Regarding Berserk (Autumn, 1997), let me say first, as one sparkly-eyed shoujo-lovin’ fangirl to any others, beware: this show is violent. Violent, but brilliant. So, whether or not you like classic, two cour action/ violence/ fantasy shows, this one also has: engaging, fantastically structured and interestingly-used-flashback-and-cliffhanger-laden storytelling; strong, layered central characters and a solid supporting cast; and themes such as friendship, ambition and destiny. While Guts, the wandering warrior, is the main character and resident badass, the story puts equal focus on his friend, Griffith, the good guy gone terribad. And that’s not a spoiler; the story starts at the ‘end’, with Guts on his way to have a few words with King Griffith, who has, in short, been a very naughty boy. The rest of the show is a series of flashbacks that chronicle Guts’s past, how he came to meet Griffith and his band of merry mercenaries, and the rise of Griffith from resourceful commoner to ruthless despot. And it’s the depiction of the latter that provides the main tension; Griffith’s inevitable rise and the admirable, questionable and downright disturbing methods he uses, and the way he persuades and forces Guts to take part in his evil deeds. Now, if ‘evil’ sounds like a strong word, then let’s be clear: the show makes no bones about presenting Griffith as a devilish figure. However, much like Milton’s Satan, Griffith is referred to as a good, pure, even angelic being (in terms of both his character and vision), but appears more like a fallen angel by the end, and all the while increasingly convinced both that he is right, and right to use any means necessary to realise his ambition to reign as King. And now I will add, WARNING: Spoilers ahoy!

The younger Griffith starts off uncomplicately enough, as a leader of an enemy band of mercenaries who watches the younger Guts and his humungous sword make short work of an armoured version of the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters, and is suitably impressed (well, who wouldn’t be). Naturally, Griffith then asks forces Guts to join him. Thus begins an epic bromance, as both men, and another awesome, female fighter called Caska, lead the rest of their men through various skirmishes, battles and plots in a wider conflict between the warring territories Midland and Tudor. Even in these early arcs, though, it is clear that Griffith is different to the others; not only due to his superior skills as a warrior, but also in the looks and accessories departments (think long platinum-blonde haired, blue eyed bishie and creepy devil-red pendant, respectively). Indeed, Griffith’s pendant, or ‘behelit’, is an uncanny object in itself and often briefly appears as if it has a glaringly real, distorted face. It’s also shrouded in mystery, as is indicated when Griffith tells Guts that he once bought it on a whim from an old hag, who mentioned that the bearer would become a powerful King. Not that either of them believe the prophecy at the time, but the audience’s suspicions are gradually confirmed when the behelit repeatedly saves Griffith from danger and is even associated with evil ambitions by Zodd the Immortal in the fantastic episode six. Of course, the behelit takes centre stage in the final episodes, where we see it ‘awaken’ and even weep tears of blood, before Griffith’s final fall and submission to the dark side of the force. And by ‘dark’, I mean ‘effing weird’.

Moving on. Arguably, what makes Griffith’s fall so spectacular, is the distance from which he drops; he is an admirable warrior, leader and friend who loves his band of men, who, in turn, are devoted to him. In particular, it is the tangled relationship between Griffith, Guts and Caska that is the heart of an otherwise action-packed and blood-soaked tale. Griffith feels deeply for the other two (respect and fondness, I’d say, though it’s never made explicit), but ultimately uses and betrays them. Along the way, his other victims include the innocent young son of an enemy minister (Guts reluctantly kills him while on orders to assassinate the man), the Queen of Midland and her cronies, who are trapped and burned alive; and the sweet, smitten Princess Charlotte, who is seduced/ possibly raped. While the attacks on those who have tried to kill Griffith might seem tit for tat given the context of war and the need to ensure one’s survival, Griffith’s lack of concern at targeting women and children nonetheless indicates the ruthless lengths to which he is prepared to go, and does go, in order to achieve power.

The many faces of Griffith.

Of course, as we see in the final episode, Griffith certainly does go to extreme lengths to complete his goal, namely via the total betrayal of his closest friends and the surrender of his very humanity and soul. On the one hand, having barely survived being captured, tortured and permanently disfigured and disabled beyond recognition by his enemies, one could argue that the broken, tormented Griffith has little choice but to accept the demons’ deal and become one of them. However, of course, the heroic suffering of his betrayed former comrades point otherwise, and we empathise entirely with Guts, Caska and company. And did I mention that this show is violent?! Indeed, and the last episode is a total bloodbath, further emphasizing the full horror of Griffith’s actions. Furthermore, the supernatural elements are not only unnerving in themselves, but also because they represent how powerless the hitherto Terminator-like Guts is in the face of all the horror; his disbelief, hurt and rage is thus also felt acutely by the audience.

The final episode aside, only Guts is really privy to Griffith’s progressively shadier actions, and so one might also blame our hero for not recognising when Griffith may have crossed the line. Indeed, Guts does leave Griffith in the penultimate arc. However, this seems more to do with the fact that he no longer wants to serve Griffith in an inferior capacity or live in his shadow, and not because he takes any particular offence at Griffith’s methods. Of course, Guts eventually returns to Griffith, and clearly blames himself for his friend’s capture in between, before helping to rescue him. Guts is obviously a complicated fellow too, as is evident from the use of his own flashbacks (yes, flashbacks within flashbacks, lol) and dream sequences. However, Guts is largely (no pun intended) a do-er, not a thinker/ dreamer/ schemer, and this is also evident in the recurring sword imagery. Big, forged in a fire, damaged, repaired, and causing ‘sparks’; Gut’s sword is symbolic of Guts himself, the way that he has been forged by his violent past, how he is repeatedly injured/ scarred, how he is somewhat healed by the help of other people, and how his impressive skills versus his anti-social manner causes friction wherever he goes. In other words, Guts is less concerned with the vision or dreams of other men, and more interested in living in the moment, by his sword.

As is evident from the comparison of Griffith and Guts’ differing motivations and the consequences of their behaviour, the price of selfishly following one’s own desires can be high indeed. In the cases of these two figures, though, it also makes for great TV. Especially regarding Griffith, whom we both admire and abhor: we admire him due to his skill, the steadfastness of his vision and the unwavering manner in which he pursues this; and we are repelled due to the inhumane methods that he employs. Or, to return to the comparison with Milton’s Satan; though Griffith may be kidding himself about his justifications, he is nothing if not tenacious. Thus, as the story draws to its inevitable conclusion, we are satisfied to find out how such a good man could fall so low, if also surprised by the bloody and twisting turn of individual events that lead us there. A series of bloody events, which are not only fascinating to watch unfold, but are full of tension also because we come to care so much about Guts, Caska and the others, even Griffith. Or, in other words…

Tl; dr? A great story, masterfully told, painting particularly startling portrait of conflicting, conflicted and fascinating warriors. And it has a very big sword.

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12 Comments

  1. Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Yay, someone else who gets the fascinating character that is Griffith!

    I think the scene that makes his downfall more ‘human’, if you can call it that, is that inner battle he has with the path to the castle being paved with bodies. He still has enough human in him to resent the idea of taking that path, but he gives in to his overwhelming ambition in the end

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      Aside from The Rose of Versailles, I think I enjoyed this the most out of all of the classic stuff, so thanks for recommending it so strongly!

      Yes, that’s certainly a striking scene, and I also found his inner argument over his mixed feelings for Guts and the others (e.g. ‘love’ as well as ‘hate’, etc.) interesting for similar reasons. I guess what’s also/ even more interesting is the extent to which Griffith’s ambition is part of an inescapable destiny, as opposed to being more to do with the exercise of free will. Either way, I enjoyed the lack of easy answers and how entangled both of these possibilities were.

  2. Dein
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve never really watched Berserk, but my friends keep relentlessly recommending the manga to me (which is, apparently, superior). But we did have a rather interesting chat once, where someone told me most of the story in great detail, after we discussed the Witcher (books and games) of all things. The idea was that, characters and plot lines aside, what berserk and witcher do well (from what little I’ve seen myself and what other people told me about berserk), is set up a stage of true middle ages. Fantasy is far from uncommon, but most of it focuses so much on the “magical feeling,” that the world around becomes a bit, shall we say, timid. Instead, berserk and witcher show it for what it really is – a world of violence, filth and sin. I think for delivering that atmosphere and not sweeping anything under the rug, despite my somewhat biased dislike for berserk, I’d say it deserves all kinds of respect for doing the things it does with the “scenery.”

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      I might have to pick up the manga myself, given what I’ve also heard about it… And that reminds me, I meant to say in passing that it’s set in a Medieval Europe-inspired era, and what you say about the bleak and dirty atmosphere is a pertinent point. I’m not familiar with the Witcher series, but the idea might also explain, if not entirely excuse, the correspondingly violent/ sinful behaviour, given the overwhelmingly violent immediate context for these characters. Berserk definitely has a strong sense of place, which is, as you’ve noticed, used very well.

  3. Kit-A-Ron-Ron-Kat
    Posted April 3, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Good memories were invoked when reading this post.

    “A very big sword” indeed. I still vividly remember my friend introducing this anime to me (how young I was, we had just watched Love Hina of all things ! Oh and Shinobu is mai waifu) by saying the following:
    - You know how Samurai swords are all thin and look brittle ? Well this guy uses the opposite, think a weaponized steel beam taken from a railway track. Oh and he also tore it away with his bare hands probably.

    As to young Griffith, I have asked myself the question: had he been able to see exactly where that road would take him in the end, would he still have pursued his dreams ? My own gut feeling is that he would have persevered…

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      Ah, I’m glad. ^ ^

      The only other sword that came to my mind that I might compare it against is that of, er, that white outfitted character that appears halfway through the original Kenshin anime, that was also pretty damn big from what I can recall.

      Hmm, it’s all seems so inevitable, that I really can’t see Griffith not going down that route either. Though, saying that, it’s intriguing how much of a surprise his decision is to us. Or, rather, the nitty gritty of what he is asked to do by the God Hand demons…

  4. Posted April 3, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I had just rewatched the whole show, and it is indeed quite brilliant. If there’s anything I’m discontented, it’s the production. While I appreciate the style and the still images the show uses — really excellent line work and lighting, but the animation as a whole is lacking. This is why I’m excited about the upcoming production (a movie I think). It’ll be amazing to see Guts tear apart scores of soldiers with a proper animation budget.

    I’m quite updated with the manga, and while Griffith remains fascinating, the story as a whole is a departure from the “Golden Age” arc — that is the back story of the main narrative. Yes, the story of the Band of the Hawk is the back story of Berserk.

    • Posted April 3, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Mm, there are lots of elements that are great, but I think I was most impressed with just how tight the storytelling is, and how it maintains such tension. Animation as opposed to the artwork, eh; yes, definitely not as fluid as it could’ve been (though, I think I just assumed that that was a sign of the times/ available ani-tech, rather than budget). And back-story? All that was just the back-story?! Cool, I will defo bump up the manga on my To Check Out list, as well as look out for this up-coming movie – cheers, Ghosty! :)

  5. Posted April 4, 2012 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    For me, the fascinating thing about Griffith’s downfall is that it revealed how much Guts meant to Griffith. Griffith had been flawless. Huge armies, political conspiracies, no problem. He gave that one speech implying that he doesn’t consider anyone working below him a friend. Then the one time he screws up is when Guts leaves him.

    • Posted April 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      No wonder there are so many Griffith x Guts shippers out there. BL undertones aside, though, it’s certainly a big deal, almost a (albeit temporary) total breakdown for Griffith, when Guts leaves him. I guess one could argue that, by that point, Griffith is too cocky and underestimates Guts, thinking that he’ll never actually leave him. Or, the fact that someone he’s allowed to get so close to him is the first person to ever do such a thing is enough to unsettle him so much that he loses that fight. Hmm…

  6. Desirae
    Posted April 16, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Berserk was an amazing anime! ^_^ I haven’t seen it in awhile, and reading this post has made me want to re-watch it. :) I’ve also been wanting to read the manga, since I’ve heard that it continues from where the anime had ended. I really wanted to know what in the world happens next!

    • Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      You know, I’m still surprised by how much I liked it, considering it’s so different from my usual thing. I also hope to get onto the manga soon, for the same reasons. ^ ^ Thanks for your comment!

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