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.
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.