Published by: Hakusensha Monthly Animal House , Young Animal
US Publisher: Dark Horse
Writer/ Artist: Kentarō Miura
Translator: Jason DeAngelis
Letterer and Art Retouch: Dan Nakrosis
The Black Swordsman arc is the opening story to Kentaro Miura’s sweeping comic epic- or manga, if you’re inclined to use Japanese terminology. The story is told across the first three trade paperback volumes in eight chapters, or tankobon. The story is broken into two parts: The Introductory to the Black Swordsman and The Guardians Of Desire.
The Black Swordsman
The first part of the arc, and the section from which the overall arc takes its name despite only comprising about one third of it, introduces the series protagonist, Guts and details his meeting with Puck, his would-be friend and traveling companion. The initial story is somewhat of an oddity in the greater whole of Berserk’s narrative. The story definitely strives and succeeds at making an impression; the very opening panels telling you immediately that this is an adult series. The very first panel, and first image, of Guts is a fairly unrestrained, fully nude shot of him in mid-intercourse with a woman beside a campfire. The scene takes an unexpected turn when the woman becomes a grotesque monster, telling Guts it was her intent to eat him. In turn he unfazed tells her he had used her plan to trap her. Here we see that Guts, as presented here, is a man willing to use any means to get to his enemy. While this scene is odd and inconstant within the greater story of Berserk (which I will touch on soon enough), it effectively shows you what kind of series this is; and in particular, this introductory story.
Much of the Black Swordsman portion of the arc is a fairly by-the-numbers introduction. Guts is introduced with no real explanation of his quest or history and saves Puck. Puck is an elf, though more like what most would consider a fairy. He is a fairly friendly, if mischievous, guy whose moral decency and general innocence stands in stark contrast to Guts and the world he inhabits. After being saved by Guts (inadvertently by Guts’ account), Puck decides to follow him, much to Guts’ dismay. As much out of curiosity as anything, at first. As he follows Guts, who is currently attempting to get to the Baron of the town in which they met, we are given only hints of Guts’ purpose and history.
For the most part, it is just an introduction to Guts and the dark, brutal aspect of the world he inhabits seen through Puck as something of an audience surrogate. The story shows that this fantasy world is not a pleasant place; innocent people, including children, are killed indiscriminately. And the only person who seems capable of standing up to the demonic forces, responsible for a fair share of the horror, is himself; a haunted, damaged, violent, and at times sadistic and apathetic man, who seems too often as horrible as the monsters he so relentlessly hunts. Indeed Puck is, for much of the story, the only aspect of decency and hope. Despite this, he is insulted, threatened and at times physically hurt (to some degree unintentionally) by Guts.
After the incident with The Baron is resolved, there is a short single issue story called “Brand”. This issue better establishes who Guts is; making some implications to the larger story and beginning to show some of the physical and emotional stress he is under. Importantly, it offers a view into the cracks in Guts’ horrific and aggressive behavior; showing that he is a person in a great deal of pain but capable of caring, even though he is shown fighting it.
These stories are interesting, and reading a series with a protagonist possessing nearly no moral compass has some potential. While they are somewhat important in the overall story, mostly for introducing Guts, Puck and the Demon Child, it is easily one of the weakest parts of Berserk’s story. Miura was still developing the story, and at this point he had the who and what of Guts and his quest figured out, but not so much the why. Once he did get a full handle on who Guts is and where he comes from, the series becomes stronger and this portion of the plot falls strongly into Early Installment Weirdness. The opening scene in particular is at odds with Guts’ later established motivation and characterization. So much so it’s best ignored.
The Guardians of Desire
The Guardians of Desire is the second part of the Black Swordsman arc. This is the point where Berserk’s narrative really starts to shape into what it would be for most of the series. It is still an unrelenting and dark series; creating a similar feel to the previous story, although having a greater focus on character development, building the world and its history with more nuance and emotion.
Guts, having dispatched the Baron of Koka, yet not finding the leads he was looking for, moves onto his next target: a Count known for his brutal heretic hunts. After having made his presence and intentions known to the count and fighting some of his men, Guts is assisted in escaping by a man named Vargas. Vargas takes Guts to his hiding place, telling him about his history with the Count. Having been tortured and disfigured by the Count and forced to watch as the Count killed and ate his wife and child, Vargas hopes to assist Guts in order to get his revenge. It’s the interactions between Guts and Vargas that really begin to show the growth of the story and characterization. As before, Guts is aggressive and abusive; yet here he takes it to new levels by mocking and tripping a crippled man who has done nothing but help him. As the reasoning becomes apparent, it shows that Guts is taking his own self-loathing out on a person in which he sees too much of himself, giving a hint at Guts history along with a glimpse of the characterization and complexity that will make this series so good.
Guts’ quarrel and encounters with the Count provides a much deeper, if still cryptic in some regards, look at the world of Berserk and greater insight into Guts’ enemies and his past. The Count and the Baron are Apostles- once human beings who sacrificed that which was most dear to them, something they treasured so much it was akin giving up a part of yourself, in order to pursue some purpose, though in the process becoming physically transformed into demon-like beings. The Apostles “serve” a group called the God Hand, who are the objective of Guts’ quest. The Count is grotesque and horrific, having committed numerous atrocities and sacrificed his wife in order to escape the pain of her betraying him. Despite being abhorrent, he proves to be a complex figure and even more compelling compared to the straight-up pure evil of the Baron of Koka.
The Count loves his daughter and strives to protect her. He is a twisted man who has taken his protectiveness to extremes, but proves his feelings are sincere. This, along with the portrayal of Guts (particularly in his interactions with the Counts daughter), begins to handle one of the major themes of Berserk; the nature of evil and humanity. Exploring that while many forces (causality being another major theme) effect change and help drive to us that evil comes from people- people often like anyone else; complex, flawed beings who hope, love, fear and dream. The question of evil and human nature is one of the driving forces in this dark, complex story that often shows the absolute worst people are capable of.
A major draw in Berserk is the art. Miura is an incredibly talented artist who, at least when working, seems to put a ton of time and detail into his work. The action scenes are dynamic and generally easy to follow, showing off many elements of movement. His characters have intricate outfits and armor which is painstakingly depicted in deep realistic detail. His cities and environments feature nice distance shots brimming with life and detail. When Miura draws monsters or wants to evoke horror, he crafts images that belong in the darkest of night terrors. Despite this praise, his art was still evolving and at this point, characters faces were not as well designed or distinct as they would become. Women in particular have a generic 80’s cuteness to their faces.
The Dark Horse edition of the trade paperback is nicely done. The original right to left format is maintained, the Japanese sound effects are intact, and the art is crisp and the print quality good. The covers of the first three volumes feature an image of Guts against a white background. It works best for the cover of volume 2, but all look decent enough. The binding and back cover uses mostly brown and red, looking appropriate for this manga. It’s also amusing that the end of each volumes description features a unique sum up of the series as a whole, which is intentionally a bit over the top.
The only issue with these editions are the few sections in the original that were colored pages. In the Dark Horse editions, like most older American releases, these pages are in grey scale, making them lose detail and look muddied.
The Black Swordsman arc has received partial adaptations twice. In the 1997 series, the opening episode covers the Baron of Koka part of the story in an abbreviated form using some elements from the Guardians of Desire portion, though omitting Puck. The 2016 series takes some bits, such as the introduction of Puck, and mashes them in with parts of the Lost Children arc and the Brand issue, creating a messy introduction for the new series. Oddly enough, the Guardians of Desire has never actually been adapted. Despite the fact that this arc introduces so much of what makes Berserk Berserk, while it is still not nearly as good as the rest of the series, it is an interesting and entertaining read. The Black Swordsman arc is not Berserk at its best, its uneven, dark, and fairly graphic (though nothing compared to later volumes) but it is still quite entertaining. If you’re interested in starting Berserk, you may have heard that it’s better to start with the Golden Age arc, which is the chronological starting point of Guts’ story, though there are very good arguments in that regard. The Black Swordsman arc is an important part of the series and should not be skipped. However you do it, whether in order of release or story chronology, it’s worth the read.
Next: The Golden Age Arc