Tuesday, May 7, 2013
Arc Words: The Black Swordsman
A small foreword on this: This is Arc words and don't expect to see these that often. If I stole any thing from Berserk,it'd be the schedule slip. Originally published:October 5th 2012
Arc Words is a series I'm working on where I examine manga / anime arc by arc and evaluate how it aids the work as a whole. I factor in many unfactorable elements but the big three I use are: characters,story,and enjoyment. These make up, to me at least ,what makes an arc good, bad,or mediocre . Art factors in but not as much though and will be mentioned in the other parts of this review .Note that this will contain spoilers not only for the arc I'm picking at but occasionally the work as a whole. I'll try to mark spoilers with a big bold Spoiler,so be on the watch.Also feel free to point out if I mispell/use story terms.
The first arc on my metaphorical plate is The Black Swordsman arc of Berserk if you couldn't have guessed from the thread title. This arc is oft overlooked when it comes to animation. The first part is only animated in the 1997 TV series and the Guardians of Desire chapters has never been brought to the screen .Which is sad because this is probably the most important arc in the context of building the narrative second only to The Golden Age arc(the part where Berserk gets finger quotes: Good). Here a few major players are brought in and everything we need to know about the world is established.
I'll start with our characters:first up is Guts,our "Hero". Yes Guts is fairly flat at this point of the story but the story provides us with enough info to make him interesting enough to want to see more of. He comes off as a complete jerk for most of the arc. However we are shown some moments of compassion beneath this facade. He rescues Puck,he attempts to keep the priest and his daughter out of danger and his speech to Theresa at the end of the arc is genuine and an echo of his own life. It's established that the Snake baron is very strong and because Guts defeats him we see that Guts is very strong. There are numerous references to his sword being nothing but a slab of iron and Apostles fear his title,Black Swordsman. It intrigues the reader to want to know how this man became this strong and what his problems are. Which dovetails nicely into the Golden Age arc that essentially answers those questions. Remember this sentence you could call it this reviews Arc Words(Make sure to tip your waitress).
Our second protagonist is Puck the elf and we get a good feel for his character that he's memorable enough to forget we're not going to see him for the better part of 12 volumes. He's stupidly noble,naive and a tenuous bastard not unlike his companion Guts. For this part of the story he serves two purposes: being Guts' morality pet and the reader's gateway to the story. His role as the straight man allows the concepts that need explaining to be explained without feeling tacked on. It allows the reader a view of this world with out pandering. This is critical because it allows the next couple of arcs to focus on character development with out having to worry about the reader being confused.
The other characters will be brought up as they relate to the story but I'll give special mention to Griffith right here and now. He is set up as the villain and as Puck says" What happened between these two?" makes the reader want to know as well. This combined with the little glimpse we get of him, which dovetails nicely into Golden Age arc which answers those questions(told you that sentence would pop up again).
Moving down to the story and the meat of this arcs importance:World building. This story effortlessly brings up just about every major concept the series has. The first two chapters establish three things: What a Apostle is, what the Brand does and the kind of world Berserk takes place in.
Our first look at this world is dark, lawless and ugly. How do we know this asides form liberal uses of dark colors and shading,though that does help. It's the The Snake Baron,who has no claim to his title asides from brute strength(which he has plenty off). He's taken over the town and people live in fear of him. It shows that the central government is weak and ineffective or as we later see sick and twisted. That concept will be cemented in the next arc but for now we have the groundwork. The mayor of the town cow tows to him because he knows that he has no support from the outside. Him and by extension these towns are isolated from each other in this cold nasty world. The technology present and the methods of execution shown later let the reader know we are in the dung/dark ages .It allows us to safely insert things we know about this age and make the world even nastier then it already is.
The second thing is showing what an a Apostle is. Guts used the term to describe the Baron and the subsequent battle shows us the basic things that describe an Apostle. One,They are very strong,two you need to go all out when killing them and three they are monster. By having Guts fight him,it reenforces the notion that Guts is powerful. This is all woven in to a cohesive narrative that lays a nice outline for these concepts.
As we transition into the Guardians of Desire chapters and even during the previous chapters,the Brand is brought into the story by first showing the Brand bleeding and nasty creatures being drawn to it. It shows that it is some how a conduit for them. As Guts travels with the priest and his daughter,the creatures attack at night again as the Brand bleeds. This brings up the two thing we know about the Brand and reenforces them. it bleeds when these creatures are near and it that it gets particularly bad at night. This allows the story to not have to explain the Brand later on and lets us know,it's bad news.
The Guardians of Desire chapters take the concept of the Apostle further and serves as a precursor to Griffith's own fall by showing the reader the kind of person who would become an Apostle. It also puts some other concepts on the table.
The Count is shown to be a merciless man who hunts Pagans and rules with an Iron fist. Calling back to The Baron who also rules under a similar power= authority method.. Though here the church's power is shown as the simple accusation of being a Pagan is enough for death. It validates the ideas that the reader could probably gain about the setting and further cements the Dung Ages time period with the presence of the Church Which sets the mood for when the Knights of the Holy Chain show up in Conviction.
This is also the point in the story that does show Guts' cunning and endurance through his fighting style of the sword and his hidden arm cannon. He keeps the latter a secret to pull a fast one on the enemy and deal major damage. The other quality it brings to the table is Guts' role as a struggler. A theme that is brought up again and again in the story. His fighting style banks on insane maneuvers that have a high potential for failure that reenforces this struggling mentality he has. Every fight is a fight for his life and it shows that he loves that kind of thing.
Near the end of this is where the whole creation of an apostle is done. It first shows that a Behelit is needed. Th concept of the Behleit is introduced nicely by Puck being understandably ignorant . Doing this means we don't have to worry about explaining it later in the Golden Age Arc . So like the Brand we only have to see it to know it's bad news. Secondly a Sacrifice has to be made and it can't be just anyone but someone you love. Humanity has to be lost to become an Apostle. This is where the Count becomes a tragic figure and redeems himself to me. It shows that he was betrayed by the woman he loved with the very pagans he hated. In his rage and sorrow he sacrifices her to the God hand,thus becoming the monstrosity he is. It's fairly heartbreaking and even more so when he refuses to sacrifice Theresa. This is where the Count makes it right so to speak by owning up to his sins and going to hell.It shows that even those who are righteous are still human and can fall. Again a nice parallel for Griffith's fall later This section also brings up the God hand and Griffith's entrance into the story to provide the above mentioned story hook and to make things easier to identify near the end of the next arc. This whole end also serves to further reiterate that the Brand and these creatures are connected.
The final part of this story is Theresa threatening to kill Guts and Guts crying as he seems to be reminded of his past and reflection on what he's been doing before leaving and going into the Golden Age Arc.
The final part of this review/dissection is enjoyment. This being a purely subjective thing,feel free to disagree all you want. This section is really enjoyable because it weaves every aforementioned concept into a cohesive narrative with interesting/tragic characters The doctor from the Guardians of Desire part, is a great mirror for what Guts sees himself as and adds even more to Guts as a character. The two big fights with The Baron and The Count are visceral gore fests that Berserk would come to be famous for. Even the minor fights are well done.It's just fun to look and read about. Guts comes across as likable without being snarky and is a joy to watch fight.
To wrap it up,while I'll admit most of these concepts are fully realized till later but this Arc plants them into the story flawlessly.when I hit up the Golden Age Arc I'll go into more detail about some other material from this part.So yeah,if you aren't reading Berserk yet ,go change that now. The volumes are easy to find so go out and buy them like now .
ARC RATING: 4 out 5
Next Time: The Golden Age Arc Part 1