WARNING THIS ARTICLE WILL BE DEALING WITH SOME VERY DISTURBING, TRAUMATIC, NSFW, AND SPOILERY MATERIAL FOR THE BERSERK MANGA! PLEASE BE ADVISED AND READ AT OWN RISK.
A sentiment I hear quite frequently in anime review circles is “there is no subject matter you can’t portray in art.” It is a sentiment, though, that is almost universally brought up right before the speaker bashes some show for covering troubling subject matter and “doing it wrong.” Sexual content is usually the culprit, and violent/disturbing sexual content especially so. What is rare to find is times where such depictions are able to be considered “good storytelling” and even rarer to find substantive discussions on what about such depictions can and should be considered “good,” “bad,” or “unnecessary.”
Anime and manga are mediums especially prone to falling into this kind of problematic storytelling. There is a marked increase in sexually exploitative material, as well as depictions of sexual assault, rape, and sexually suggestive disempowerment as compared to other mediums (especially more “western” content). Thus understanding where and what makes a depiction of such sensitive material “good” or “bad” is all the more important for any thinking, conscientious, and/or aware consumer of anime/manga. Which is why right now I am going to try my best in dissecting a series that has one of the most extensive and varied case studies of “good” and “not-so-good” depictions of sexual assault out there: Berserk.
The world of Berserk can at the worst of times be best described as HELL. Kentaro Miura’s masterwork contains within it an oft horrifying image of human lusts, greed, ambition, cruelty and desire that are not only mentally disturbing but thematically poignant. During my recent introduction to what has become one of my favorite manga series ever, I was struck at the thematic resonance and depth that Miura was able to bring out of such disturbing images. The stark, horrifying realities of violence and suffering that Miura is able to portray through his artwork are awe inspiring, even as the subject matter can often stray into territory ill fit for polite conversation. Horrific violence in physical, sexual, and even emotional varieties are all within its pages, with the first two of those making frequent occurrence. And while in the West we are much more accustomed to “gratuitous violence” as a method of nuanced storytelling, sexual violence is much less common, and therefore much less likely to be scrutinized with the proper respect, or due diligence it really should deserve. Hence this essay, in which we shall survey the many forms of sexual violence (assault) that are portrayed in Berserk, how Miura uses it, the story and ethical implications of his depictions, what he gets right, what he gets wrong, and what his work can tell us about a patriarchal society with a demonstrably pervasive “rape culture.”
Sharpening Our Blades (Heaps of Iron)
Before we dive deep into the blood-soaked mud of Berserk, it may be good to look at what I am looking for when dissecting controversial subject matter like use of assault. My basic rule basically boils down to “CONTEXT CONTEXT CONTEXT!” Rape and assault are terrible events, and therefore should be used in storytelling contexts that require the emotional trauma. So, how is the aftermath handled? What does it mean for the victim, the perpetrators and those around them? What does it tell us about the world, or the society that leads to this? And does it rely on storytelling tropes or misconceptions? All of these are important questions, and ones that Berserk tackles in some sometimes surprising ways.
I will make the small disclaimer that I am not by any means an expert here. Feel free to comment below if you find any of my analysis wrong-headed, or ill-informed. Nevertheless I hope this project is as insightful for you as it has been enlightening for me.
~ Major SPOILERS for Berserk Manga from here on! ~
Carrying that Weight: Berserk and the Tragic Backstory
Let’s start at the beginning shall we? Berserk’s long history with depicting Sexual Assault begins very early, the first and second chapters in the “Golden Age” arc (The literal first chapter doesn’t count as that is Assault during Sex, not Sexual Assault. Ha Ha... Not). In it we see the formative years of Guts as he grows up in his mercenary band. The chapter culminates in the extremely frightening rape of Guts as Gambino sells Guts out to fellow mercenary Donovan for Donovan’s sexual pleasure for 3 silver coins.
Guts however is not the only one dealing with tragic backstory, Casca as well is faced with very dire circumstances as she is sold as a slave, before being nearly raped by her new owner. Only some timely intervention by Griffith actually results in Casca’s escape.
Now tragic and rape filled backstories are nothing new, especially in the “darker and edgier” ends of the fantasy/sci-fi/superhero culture. (See Tv tropes for examples). And Berserk seems to fit the general trope here, of having two “hard-ass” characters defined in their cold, tough demeanors heavily influenced by tough lives and especially sexual assault. However unlike a majority of other examples, I believe in this area Berserk actually excels in justifying its use of rape in these major backstories. For starters, there is some gender parity between the two main examples, and between the two of them Guts, the male, actually has it the worst. In a trope heavily female victim-centric, this is by far a major “good” step, at least in execution. A second more subtle, but equally profound outcome of having both Casca and Guts have similar but not the same senses of trauma. Guts experience of actually having been raped, has led him to an isolationism and fundamental distrust of others. Casca on the other hand, learned to be both self-sufficient in combat, as well as trusting in the Band of the Hawk, and Griffith in particular. Between the two it is easy to see that Guts is by far the more psychologically damaged from childhood, as well as the more socially maladjusted between the two. Thirdly, i s the broader point is that rape in Berserk is at least thematically consistent with its world. So while Casca’s backstory is a fairly standard “girl-became-tough-because-of-assault” trope, it is not, in the context of Berserk, as shocking or as singular to women, as Guts’ own arc uses the same trope.
These two backstories are in my opinion some of the most poignant use of sexual assault in Berserk. They are both significant character developments, whose scenes have very nuanced repercussions, though they also explain a lot about the world. Gut’s scene relates the nature of the amoral hateful mercenaries that roam this world, while both Guts’ and Casca’s stories show the kind of ingrained patriarchal society of male-superiority, and human-property that is common to all levels of Berserk’s society. These also happen to be the first 2 real cases of assault in the series, which allow them to be some of the defining moments of our characters, and since not much else has happened to them yet by that point (we will discus the treatment of Casca beyond this point in later sections) they stand out in their use as disturbingly formative acts whose effects have taken years to deal with.
But now that we have discussed both Guts and Casca, it’s time we get to the third main pillar of Berserk, Griffith.
Toxic Relations: The Fall of Griffith
Griffith has always been one of Berserk’s most fascinating characters, he’s magnetic and resourceful, a brilliant leader who can inspire humans and even demons to follow him. But for our purposes right now, Griffith is most insightful when the power he so desperately strives for is stripped from him, leading to a character arc spiral dominated by sexual assault. For all the wonderful things about the original Band of the Hawk, Griffith as commander is a possessive control freak. Oh sure he trusts Guts, Casca and Co. wholeheartedly and cares deeply for them, but the moment things began unraveling is the moment Guts decides he can’t simply be Griffith’s subordinate, and in so doing leaves. Griffith is shaken to his core and proceeds to assault Princess Charlotte in her bedchamber, showing the same controlling, self-serving narcissism he always had, as he pressures himself onto the shy and surprised Charlotte. In this first instance with Charlotte she eventually gives in and accepts Griffith’s violent advance, though it is clear that Griffith is clearly taking advantage of her for his own emotional needs. I think it’s important that even if Charlotte ultimately forgives/accepts Griffith’s advance that the art itself is not sympathetic to Griffith here. We all understand that Griffith is in the wrong here, which is at least a far better portrayal than many other abusive relationships which to seem to be in vogue (Diabolic Lovers and 50 Shades series being examples). Also of note is that this incident has long standing repercussions on both parties, not least of which is Griffith’s imprisonment that leaves him broken and impotent.
At this point Griffith has lost most of what of everything he cared about, with one of the final straws being witnessing an intimate moment between Casca and Griffith. This leads him to attack Casca, though being incredibly feeble, does nothing more but pitifully hump her chest before easily being stopped by a pitying Casca. This scene, which I found very shocking when I read it, I think shows the base, pitiable nature of people who need to force themselves on others. The pathetic Griffith wrapped in bandages over an emasculated body, has almost no dignity remaining to him, no power and still tries to take what little control he can and fails. Lying down a repugnant, loathsome man.
This of course utterly changes during the eclipse, where Griffith ascends to godhood as Femto. Having done so he proceeds to take by his now overwhelming force his spiteful revenge upon Guts by raping Casca in front of his eyes. The dispassionate gaze with which Femto stares down Guts even as he tortures Casca with the ecstasy of her own body, is chilling and frightening. It makes it clear that rape has nothing to do with pleasure, or even sex, but rather control and dominance. This is Griffith reborn, he who will command and control his closest friends. This chapter is one of the hardest things to read in berserk, and arguably of of the best in bringing out emotions. The terror, the agony drawn out of the reader by every stroke of Miura’s pen is excruciating. Part of this is that , the readers, know all the characters involved. We can see the effects on Casca, and Guts who is being forced to observe everything. However it’s also shockingly different in how it’s drawn to almost any other assault scene in Berserk. This is the rare instance where the act isn’t exaggerated by the titillating shredding of clothing or the anticipation of horrifyingly thorny phalluses, rather Femto/Griffith’s penis isn’t even really drawn, focusing us toward the immaculate sensuality of the scene. This isn’t a demon jerking off into a meat sack, this is a man who is pleasuring a woman against her will, and it is horrifying.
Rape isn’t just a thing that happens, it’s personal, and in real life often perpetrated by those close to the victims. In this sense Griffith’s perpetrations of assault are some of the most real, and thus some of the most horrifying aspects of Berserk. Aspects that are defining points of the series as a whole, and drive the emotional core of Berserk.
Lasting Impacts: Berserk and Long Term Damage
If the Eclipse is it defining moment of Berserk, then its defining theme may be dealing with the long term effects of pain and suffering. As stated in the first section, both Guts and Casca are forced to deal with long term trauma from childhood, which comes to a head after Guts’ return and they finally realize their feelings with each other. proceeding to have blissful, consenting sex beside a waterfall. In the midst of this bliss however, Guts is suddenly brought into a violent, tearful fit as he succumbs to some post-traumatic stress based upon his rape as a child. It’s a terrifying scene, but one that shows the emotional frailty such fundamental hurt can cause. Though even compared to Guts, nothing is as profoundly striking as the impact Cascas life takes.
Casca post-eclipse is one of the most poignant pieces of Berserk, fundamentally broken by the eclipse, her reversion to an almost toddler-esque mental state is an ongoing reminder of the terrible betrayal of Griffith durind that event. It is also not a short-term or easily solvable problem. In terms of sheer manga length Casca has spent nearly 250 manga episodes and 20 real life years walking around terrified of men, acting with no more concern than a babe, and only now are we anywhere close to possibly having her recover from the shock, and whatever repercussions that might have. The impact of having such a long length of time dealing with these ongoing issues, I believe, is a strength, it makes it palpable to the audience the pain and suffering the eclipse gave her, while also giving us time to see how this also fundamentally affects those around her, especially Guts.
Guts’ rage, anger and hate for Griffith has been spurred on to drastic proportions since the Eclipse. And the burden of taking care of Casca has been a hard one for Guts, feeding the dark monster within him, so much so that he eventually lashes out at her in a fit of berserker possessed rage, almost raping her himself before he realises his mistake. There’s an emotional intelligence in the writing that Miura captures, in showing how rape not only affects the individual but the community too.
The Fucking Patriarchy: Berserk and Father Issues
Berserk is not the work to go to for good “father figure” role-models, but all of you should know that already. In particular though Charlotte’s father, the King of Midland, eventually comes out in the manga as a serious creep, who has been lusting after his own daughter for years. It is here we finally start getting to some of the more questionable elements of Berserks portrayal of sexual violence and its impacts. In the case of Charlotte, it’s definitely an iffy case. The King’s lust for his daughter is the accusation that really brings down the character from a potentially righteous pedestal (though his penchant for violence in the torture chamber is also horrific) in keeping with Berserk’s overall ethos of incredibly grey morality, while on the other hand in the case of Charlotte, the attack does basically nothing except act as a catalyst towards hating her father, (which is still justifiable even without the assault being shown or referenced). Even later when Charlotte’s recalls the attack while under lock and key by Ganishka it is equally irrelevant to making her hate him, just making her hatred more obvious. In fact it’s telling that neither the anime series or the movie trilogy of Berserk have the King explicitly attack Charlotte, as it drives little of the story, besides the king’s’ own deteriorating sanity (which leads to the equally glossed over “Devil Dogs” mini arc, which will come up later) and Charlotte’s rebellion against her father which can be equally well explained elsewhere. So in all the King of Midlands’ attempted rape, and lusting after his daughter comes off as not much more than an over extended pissing match between Griffith and the King, and an inclusion that really hasn’t borne much if any fruit in the series thus far, becoming a poster child for just unnecessary rape in Berserk.
A second implied instance, is that of Jill, the new girl companion of Guts in the “Lost Children” arc. It is briefly noted that her father, Zepek, is physically abusive towards her, which is hinted to be somewhat sexual, leading to her own rebellion against her father. Here the subtlety entailed in the quick backstory is at least more palatable for the reader, if not as shocking. What it does show though is that Berserk is fully capable of demonising a minor villain (Jill’s Father) without having to just show straight up rape, which is the sort of feeling the King of Midland’s portrayal feels like. Though while we are on the subject of the “Lost Children” Arc, there is one more thing of interest to look at.
Lord of the Wasps: Berserk and the Child Psyche
The “Lost Children” arc is built around a child’s view of the world. Rosine, the young child apostle, uses her behelit to transform herself and later her child captives into creepy insect-like “elves” that terrorize the countryside, while spending their days off playing “adult games” to amuse themselves in their self-made Never Neverland Forest. It is these adult games that are particularly horrifying however when you realize that what these “elves” are actually doing is enacting scenes of very real war, violence and even rape in a disturbing perversion or reality. With screams of “Adult Attack” these “elves” whip out their wasp stingers before utterly brutalising their opponents. It is a disgusting parody of of the most disgusting aspects of adult society, and a brutal reminder of what lessons we implicitly teach our children.
See the real horror of this isn’t that these “elves” would terribly misread adult society like this, but that they could at all. As already shown by Jill and her father, the towns these children grew up in are rife with moral corruption, which has led to this belief amongst these children that what “adults” do is rape and murder each other. It implies that their society has an ingrained “rape culture” that has tolerated, or at least permitted these atrocities to such a degree that these twisted street children, for sport, enact terrible crimes upon each other in imitation of the adults. It is a horrendous, gut curdling scene, but one that by implication shows the transmission of ideas of power, rape, and the inferiority of people passed down to children from very young ages, and how that in turn causes them to perpetuate those same atrocities themselves. This may be one of Berserk’s most out-of-nowhere uses of sexual assault, but by that same token one of the most frighteningly real unexpected realities that the manga forces you to watch.
Equal Opportunity: How Berserk Handles the Sexes and Assault
Finally we have come to perhaps the most problematic issue Berserk has in dealing with sexual assault. The eventual incredible lopsidedness in it’s treatment of females in its run, compared to that of men. Now granted, Guts is a survivor himself, and there is the initiation of the reluctant Joachim into the pagan orgy during the “Conviction” arc, and the implied pederasty of Doldrey commander Gennon, but by contrast there are well over a dozen scenes of women being threatened, raped, or discarded post rape, with at least 2 major instances of en mass assault on female victims (by the trolls in their den, and implied by Ganishka for the creation of his Daka legion). This vast discrepancy between the amount of female and male victims is a palpably disturbing one. This fundamentally destroys that argument I had in the first section about a semblance of gender equality in the depictions of rape. Instead the reader is presented with a world where a majority of men (as well as ghosts, and monsters) are creepy, perverted maniacs who can’t keep their trousers about their loins if there’s ever a girl around, while also showing the women largely incapable of fending off their attackers.
The major victim of a lot of this, of course, is Casca, who has been assaulted no less than 9 times, and while many of the scenes can be explained logically as situations where Casca is clearly weaker, either by being put upon during a PMS attack, being attacked by a demon, many demons, God Hand Femto, Guts, or being in her broken child-like state (one of which she is able to fend off, surprisingly), the sheer amount of assault that befalls her is greatly disproportionate to the same amount of other types of suffering felt by her in the series. I think this, coupled with the other many female victims of rape or attempted rape in the series, brings out a false sense that rape is “The Defining Tragedy of Womankind,” a symptom of what can only really be called lazy writing. Not that Miura is alone in this, but it is a terrible shame that authors like Miura use rape as their sole (or main by a fair margin) method of inflicting horror on the audience while conjuring sympathy for the victim. There are many things that can damage a person, methods even that Berserk has used: emotional abuse for Guts, physical torture for Griffith, isolation and self-harm by Farnese (a rare female example, though she too is almost raped by a possessed horse at one point) all of which are terrible things in their own right and don’t require rape to be involved. The problem with overusing rape is that it begins to lose potency, leading to the unfortunate effect that is our final section: Escalation
Before that though, there is one small matter I want to note before we leave the topic of the Sexes and assault, that being the pictorial representation of women. Most notably that during the group assault (as well as the orgy scenes) there is a distinct lack of body types and physical forms in the women. All the women who are not named characters in these scenes seem to be cut from the same “white, medium-tall, thin, light haired” variety which just isn’t cool. Firstly having them all very similar makes them seem far more objectified, while being in the culturally dominant caste of traditionally “beautiful women” also implicitly references the very bad misconception that only “sexy women” are raped, which is just bad, and leads to all sorts of atrocious behavior in the real world like the thinking that “she’s asking for it” used by men to victimise women. So while there may be story purposes for perhaps old women not to be among Ganishka’s victims, the overall lack of diversity even amongst a mono-racial culture is still in my mind a prominent artistic flaw.
Depths of Depravity: Berserk and Escalating Horror
Escalation is a tricky topic for many long running series, Power Creep, Spectacle Creep, these are both types of escalation and many series can fall victim to having these forms of escalation ruin their story if not properly kept in check. And while Berserk has had a very good sense of progression and increasing stakes, this in turn has made the use of rape and assault steadily worse and more drastic over time.
At the beginning of the series Donovan’s rape of Guts is a horrifying thing, highly traumatic and very visceral. However as the series continues, there seems to be an ever growing need to justify the evilness of characters, and to progressively show greater acts of evil as “smaller” acts become commonplace. Case in point: in the “Golden Age” arc, random bandits/mercs raping women happens only really once, during Guts’ 100-man massacre when Casca attempts to flee. It’s a hard scene, but not one where Casca is completely defenseless, and when the audience already knows the mercs to be evil. Compare that to the “Conviction” Arc where Casca and Jil are attacked at separate times by roaming thugs for very little reason, while Farnese is attacked by a possessed horse. But while the amount of rape between the two arcs isn’t all that dissimilar, the increase of casual violence as a norm, rather than turning points in long term characters, makes the use of rape feel all the more cheap, banal, and less interesting. Normal rape by the post-Eclipse era is no longer “special,” no longer as poignant as it was and so Miura turns to using more drastic, more disturbing forms of rape to make sure the horror of the scenes are conveyed, with varying degrees of success.
The first of these escalating scenes, is probably the worst, in the figure of Wyald, leader of the Devil Dogs. Wyald is introduced as a monstrous humanoid, who casually rapes and burns a village for fun during his chase of the Band of the Hawk. By the time he meets Guts and Co. he’s already shown himself to be a despicable, ruthless and hedonistic wretch, before transforming into a towering Apostle. All of this would have proved equally horrifying on its own, though the entire scene is ruined by Wyald attacking Casca with his grotesque giant thorn-tongue-penis that is just way too over-the-top, and disgusting. For a scene whose only real significance is foreshadowing the imminent Eclipse, which handles horror with a whole lot more tact, nuance and gravitas than Wyald, Wyald’s attack just comes off as pointless, with its only “good” moment being Guts cleaving off Wyald’s horrific phallus. It’s telling that neither animated version of the “Golden Age” makes any reference to Wyald at all, which personally I’m grateful for.
Similar to Wyald, the handling of the trolls later in the series seems like some more unnecessary attempts at sympathy and shock horror. The trolls capture and rape women which by implication seems to be their method of reproduction. Even that being the case, the moment of horror that scene in the portrays is hardly requiring of rape, or at least the live rape. That moment serves primarily as a way to force Guts to enter the cave pronto, as well as give Farnese a chance to develop and show her backbone in dire circumstances as Casca’s guardian. I suppose it does give a little bit of wholeness to Farnese’s character arc, as the attack by the possessed dogs and horses was what first really started changing her worldview, but that link is tenuous at best and not made immediately apparent. Since the disconnect between the personal reasons for the scene don’t really require rape to be the driving vehicle of horror then it follows that the overall scene, while definitely better than Wyald, still falls short of being a “good” use of rape in my book, being far less interesting than either Rosine’s “elves” or the Demon King Ganishka. (and frankly I’m perhaps a bit disappointed that the fantastical realms would be disturbing on solely mundane physical levels, such as rape, and not more abstract or weird.)
Speaking of the Demon King Ganishka, he, unlike the trolls, has truly horrifying ends that justify his excessive use of rape, though it is worth pointing out that these rapes aren’t actually shown on-page, nor are they perpetrated by Ganishka physically (at least it is not likely). Rather the audience is shown only that he maintains a prison filled with captured women from his conquests, and that his impregnated prisoners are then thrown into his Daka generator in order to create his demonic hordes. Of all the scenes the sheer scope of his cruelty is enormous, but seeing as Ganishka’s role is as the major, possibly world-ending antagonist of the “Falcon of the Millennium” arc the scale of the atrocity on display here is both in proportion to the threat, while also showing that it’s not necessary to show the full series of events from rape to the daka generation. The same scale of Horror can still be achieved simply by implication. On a whole this restraint is one of the best examples of how Berserk has been lessening the prevalence of rape since the “Falcon of the Millennium” Arc, where in previous arcs it was hard to go 20 chapters without some form of rape, it has been over 100 since the last on-page rape, allowing Miura to expand on the type of evils his villains can portray. All I can hope for is that Miura continues in using such acts more purposefully in the future, should the need arise.
Most of the time when it comes to media, I personally find topics such as rape and assault to be too dark, too serious of topics to be treated with the respect, dignity and care necessary to make good compelling stories from them, and that’s just for series tackling it once in their entire story. Berserk on the other hand is a rare series where such violence is both an integral part of the dark world of midland, and has been able to tackle a huge number of issues surrounding rape and assault through its work. Has it been perfect? Hardly, there’s too much of it for my taste, some attacks are just ill conceived, rape is a shorthand for female torment too often, and the overall harm it does to disempowering many of Berserk’s females is just unnecessary. But are there some occurrences I would defend wholeheartedly? Yes. And on the whole looking back on Berserk, I think it is one series that has gained at least as much from its use of rape and assault, as harm has come from some less-than-fantastic occurrences, if not more. It’s a fascinating development and one that has left me pondering what really should be the narrative function of rape. For even if at times Berserk was one of the most emotionally draining, shocking and horrifying series I’ve read, through it all it managed to keep its theme in mind: that no matter how much tragedy, pain or hell you walk through, you can still push forward from it. But to do so, even from rape, we must continue to struggle.
Thank You to Jonuiuc, MementoMori, Requiem, and ShadowHaken for their support and advice in making this piece.
All artwork is by Kentaro Miura, with appreciation of the scan and translation teams’ work I used.
If you want to follow me, you can find me on twitter @KrakkenGuides.