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Thank You, Kentaro Miura

In this world, fate will weave the threads of causality into an unavoidable tether. We are tied to people, places, and events, though we may not see things this way. We may tell ourselves that it was always us, and our choices, that we made the decisions that led to our current circumstances. Usually I’m a proponent of free will, but sometimes, the actuation of fate seems strong enough to be real.

Two weeks ago, I was up late as always, wandering through YouTube’s suggested videos and wondering when I’d finally accept that I’ve been depressed and should probably just go to bed. A more consistent circadian rhythm would probably do wonders for me, but I resist consistency with all my being – it’s my way of fooling myself into believing I’m a “creative type,” as though all artists are recklessly unpredictable and unhealthy. That was a strong sarcastic statement, but I think I should spell it out ’cause tone doesn’t always transfer through the written word. Anyway …

I was up late, on YouTube, watching one of VaatiVidya’s ruminations on the Soulsborne series of video games. At some point, a song sprinkled with soft piano and haunting vocals played, and I had a nostalgic flashback – but to what, I couldn’t remember. I just knew I’d heard the song before, and it hit me in just the right way. I looked at the list of featured songs that accompanied the video, listened to each of the original songs that it might be, and couldn’t find it. How strange, I thought to myself at the time. I know this song, it was definitely featured in the video, and yet the list yielded nothing – at least, it didn’t bring me to the song I wanted. I quit my search and went to bed at last.

Last week, I returned home from my weekly Pathfinder 2E session on an uncharacteristic Wednesday night (we usually play on Tuesday but I pushed us back a day), a little earlier than I usually do. I walked past my brother, who was sitting on the living room couch and playing Monster Hunter Rise before he went to bed. Our friend and roommate was down there too. He asked me how the session went, I gave a quick “It was good” or something similar, and headed up the stairs to my room. Habits cling fast – I turned on my computer and hopped onto Reddit. That’s when I saw it – a post stating that Kentaro Miura, the creator of Berserk, had died about two weeks prior.

I furrowed my brow. I grimaced. I felt a quick pain, then walked to the stairs and said “Guys, Kentaro Miura died.” A quick “Who?” followed by my “The author of Berserk.” “Oh shit.” Right? My brother, our roommate, and I are all relatively geeky, in our own ways. My brother still has a fairly sizable manga collection, and I’ve watched a handful of anime heavy hitters. But it had been a while since we experienced Berserk, and I had never read the manga.

I can’t precisely say when I first saw Berserk, but it was probably around ten years ago. My brother’s girlfriend at the time was his high school sweetheart, and they both enjoyed reading manga and watching anime together. I walked into the room while they were watching an intensely violent show – a band of mercenaries was cutting foes asunder, often literally, and the protagonist used his ridiculously large sword to cleave fools in twain. I think I saw a battle, then the political aftermath of that battle, and I just sat down and kept watching it. I was hooked. I didn’t need to start at the very beginning to understand that this man, Guts, loved to fight, and beneath his rough demeanor beat a heart of gold. He cared about his friends and comrades. He fought because he enjoyed it, yes, but he also fought to protect the people he cared about. The Band of the Hawk … ah hell.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but I got to the end of that anime and I was devastated. I didn’t go so far as to read the manga and become a full-fledged fan, but I kept the solitary season of the 1997 show in my back pocket for times I’d want to sound cool. A stupid and shallow thing, when I think about it, but hey – I wasn’t gonna gatekeep myself. I watched the show and I enjoyed it.

Throughout the decade or so since then, Berserk’s influence has reached many of the things I enjoy. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the brilliant man who created what many gamers call the “Soulsborne” series, refers to Berserk with a nigh-religious fervor. Enemies, locations, characters, weapons, armor sets, all these things and more: if they’re in Dark Souls or one of its spiritual successors, there’s a high chance they’re inspired by Berserk. Nearly every D&D campaign I’ve experienced has featured someone asking “Oh, is your character like Guts?” All of us nerds know of Berserk, even if we don’t study it or devote ourselves to it.

I often tell people that my love for horror and philosophical questions stems from Castlevania. I played Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow when I was a teenager, and it led me to all the things I love: vampires, demons, monsters and monster slayers, fancy weapons … I’m sure that The Legend of Zelda is frowning right now ’cause I definitely played Ocarina of Time before Aria of Sorrow, but the fact remains that the Castlevania series is the first I experienced that explicitly addressed demons, their ilk, and their legendary enemies – the heroic Belmont clan!

I’ve gone way off topic, but the previous paragraph is there to lend credence to the following assertion: if I’d known what Berserk was when I was a teenager, I would have eaten it up.

Would I have been able to digest its more mature themes of purpose, self-determination, and perseverance? Shit, would I have been able to handle its mature content? Maybe not. It’s possible I rediscovered Berserk at just the right time. But we’ll get to that, I promise.

Over the years, my brother and I moved out of our parents’ house to live together. Jobs, careers, and relationships have changed drastically, but we’ve struggled onward together. A few years ago, my brother approached me with a shirt. “Do you want this?,” he asked before explaining, “It doesn’t fit me anymore.” I took it and held it out to get a good look at it. It was a red Berserk t-shirt, with images from what I now know is The Golden Age arc. The arc I saw in the anime. Part of me didn’t think I deserved to wear the t-shirt, since I hadn’t read the manga, but I didn’t wanna look this gift horse in the mouth. I accepted the shirt.

I wear the shirt, but sometimes I forget the details that come along with it. Before meeting with friends one weekend, I wore the t-shirt into a liquor store. The clerk said “I like your shirt, man. Is that Golden Age arc?” I replied in the affirmative before adding that I still hadn’t read the manga. “It’s online, dude. Check out [insert name of website that I forgot after we left the store].”

I said thanks for the tip as well as the service, left, and promptly forgot all about the exchange until recently. Being a Castlevania fan, I eagerly awaited the release of the Netflix adaptation’s fourth and “final” season (quotation marks around final because the creators say they’d like to continue the show, but with a different group of characters – works for Castlevania!). When the new season released, people kept saying “Yo, that one fight scene – that’s totally Berserker armor!” Uh, what? I watched the scene and thought “Oh, yeah, her armor and her stance are totally reminiscent of Artorias.” If you’ve played Dark Souls, you know that Artorias is a notoriously awesome boss in the DLC, and if you’ve read Berserk, you know that Artorias is directly inspired by the Berserker armor from the manga.

Yeah, I’ve played Dark Souls but I hadn’t read the Berserk manga. I knew one link in the chain of inspiration for that badass armor, but I didn’t have the full story. Not yet.

Let’s run through the chain of events as I remember them, to get the causality right. First, I play Ocarina of Time as a child (as well as read Redwall), which gets me enjoying fantasy. I later play Castlevania as a teenager, sparking a love of horror and stories with darker themes. Some years later, while I’m still slogging (struggling?!) through college, I watch the second half of the Berserk anime. I feel great sadness, and I avoid the manga. My brother hands me his old Berserk t-shirt, which later prompts a friendly cashier to tell me “You can read the manga online.” Dark Souls happens somewhere in the midst of this chain, and I notice Berserk references more and more. Enough to make the connection to the Castlevania show.

Then, last week, I learn that the creator of Berserk died recently. Kentaro Miura’s name is now etched into my memory, and I read Reddit threads praising the man for his beautiful work. A few commenters state that Berserk changed the way they live their lives, and taught them valuable lessons.

Oh shit. This is my favorite kind of story. This is why I love literature and stories and writing in general – words, and stories in particular, have the power to save us from the ever-encroaching darkness of real life. They can lift us out of despair, and steer our feet back to the paths of righteousness and goodness. If Berserk had such a profound effect on people, and I love powerful stories, then I must read it.

So I finally did what that liquor store clerk suggested – I read Berserk online. Over the course of about five days, I crammed Berserk into my aching eyes. I scrolled over page upon page of beautiful ink drawings – line work that turned illustrations into paintings of sublime skill, character traits shining through simple gestures and expressions, beliefs and convictions poured into sword swings and knife throws and spell setups. I stayed awake until the wee hours of the morning, the sun rising outside my window, and I absorbed every. Beautiful. Page.

I essentially crammed thirty-two years’ of work into my brain and heart in a little less than a week. I knew a few of the important plot points thanks to the internet and my curiosity, and I was still touched. No, I was moved. I cried. I cried numerous times throughout the harrowing journey. Lots of sad tears, and some happy tears. Once I caught up with the current state of things, I read more accounts of readers’ Berserk experiences. I read the statements issued by Kentaro Miura’s colleagues and publishers. I cried more.

I have to support this man, and his creation. His art. I looked for copies of the manga – paper copies! – to no avail. Even my usual online retailers didn’t have copies in stock. Eventually I came to my senses and just did a Google search, which led me to a place where I could order one of the beautiful deluxe editions of Berserk. I’m buying them one at a time this time, slowly, with the intent to read the story deliberately – so I may savor each page.

After I ordered my first real copy of Berserk, I went to YouTube to wander through videos again. Maybe take my mind off the weight of the loss we’ve all suffered. But a lot of the content I consume is tied to video games. The Soulsborne stuff, in particular. And we’ve all been hit hard. So naturally, one of the first videos on my feed is by the magnificent Zullie the Witch. It’s a tribute to Kentaro Miura, highlighting many of the connections tying the Soulsborne games to Berserk. In the video, a song plays: soft, persistent piano accompanied by haunting vocals.

It’s that song. The one that filled me with nostalgia without giving me a name. But Zullie, bless them, gave me the song’s name.

Gatsu, or Guts’ Theme, by Susumu Hirasawa. From the 1997 Berserk anime.

I know that I chose to watch the videos that brought the song back into my life. I acknowledge that I’ve made a lot of choices that have led me to where I sit right now, listening to Guts’ Theme on repeat and writing about my experiences with Berserk. It all looks and feels like fate, but I think it’s more than that.

It’s the power of an artistic vision that understands struggle, consequence, and choice. Kentaro Miura filled Berserk with overwhelming troubles, then breathed life and spirit into people who could make the choice to face those troubles – or ignore them. Guts and his comrades could give up in the face of the overwhelming forces that deter them, but they struggle on. Their trials and their growth endear them to us, and we love and root for them. Their powerful stories, brought to life in beautiful detail by Kentaro Miura, bolster us in dark days and remind us that we too may fight the forces that threaten to destroy us – and learn, and fail, and grow in the process.

I could chalk up my string of Berserk experiences to fate, but I want to give Kentaro Miura more credit than that. Berserk is a work of art, and Miura-san is an artist. The sheer popularity of Berserk ensured that it would keep coming back to me, until I embraced it and loved it as it deserves.

I love Berserk. Thank you, Kentaro Miura, and may you rest in the dimension that follows life.

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