The Philosophy of Berserk (Anime) – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Berserk!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Dean Bottino
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Berserk (Anime) – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up, everybody? Jared, again. Today we’re talking about a show that’s definitely gonna get us demonetized on YouTube: Berserk. Based off the manga of the same name, Berserk is one of the oldest ongoing series out there. The anime premiered in 1997, before going on an almost 20-year hiatus, and has returned with a controversial new animation style.
Since the show is still going, we can’t quite decipher the entire message, here. So, while Guts’ quest for revenge against the God Hand and Griffith deals with some fairly obvious themes, ranging from religion to free will — “Everyone is merely swept along by the tide. The tide known as fate.” — we’re going to leave that for a future video. Instead, we’re here to talk about the most visually obvious and philosophically subtle aspect of the show. That’s right, Berserk’s metric crap ton of violence. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Violence in Berserk. And, as always, spoilers ahead.
Now, I know it might seem like the phrase “mindless violence” was coined to describe Berserk, but what’s going on beneath the surface of its BDSM-inspired angels and gruesome deaths is actually pretty smart. Berserk is unique not only in how it uses violence to horrify and mesmerize us, but also to transform us. To understand the violence in Berserk we need to consider its genre. While the influences of psychological horror, cosmic horror, and even gore-porn can be seen in Berserk, the show specifically rests in horror’s monster sub-genre. According to aestheticist Noel Carrol, monster horror has two very important implications: 1. Horror as a genre affords us a critical distance, allowing for “a safe space for fascination to take root”. Simply put, violence in real life is bad, but violence on a screen is kosher. 2. The monsters depicted on screen embody what Carrol calls “categorical violation.” They defy traditional categorizations, and simultaneously attract and repulse for the same reason.
It’s these two points that make Berserk so… well, Berserk. Why are we be okay with witnessing Guts literally slice people in half? Because we can view this over-the-top violence from a safe distance. And why do we find these awful acts of violence so compelling? Because violence in the show – like its subject matter – defies traditional categorizations. This blurring of typical categories – and the fascination and repulsion that it generates – is Berserk’s calling card. These binaries can be the distinctions between life and death, such as when Guts mows down a group of animated skeletons or the distinction between man and beast in the Apostles. But they can also be less literal. For example, Father Mozgus, head-bulging sadist extraordinaire, claims to be an agent of God, but is actually serving the demons. He and his ragtag team of torturers even gain wings as if they’re literally angels. Lady Farnese, now seeing the truth behind her Order, realizes what they actually are. “Father Mozgus… your form. An angel? No, more like a monster.”
Even Guts, the epicenter of the show’s violence, embodies this idea of categorical violation. He’s both a murderer and a hero, an object of religious prophecy and an anti-religious crusader. In the original anime, Guts is branded as a ritual sacrifice for the God Hand, a moment that was supposedly pre-ordained. “The symbol that has been branded onto your skin marks you as sacrifical offerings.” But Guts managed to defy fate and survive. Guts is simultaneously an object of religious prophecy and a middle finger against faith. Or as Farnese originally sees him: “This is the black swordsman. His malice is unmistakable. He is the one written in Revelations.” And how Guts sees himself: “I tend to act first. Rather than wait for some great miracle. I think your scripture is about to let you down.”
And much like the man himself, Guts’s violence possesses the trademark sense of categorical violation. It repels us yet attracts us; it’s animalistic yet refined. This is most apparent when Guts puts on the Berserker Armor and blurs the line between man and beast, his armor even transforming to mirror this change. As Guts releases a savage cry and charges the battlefield, you can’t help but notice the compelling, choreographed ferocity here. As his opponent Grunbeld notes: “No man in such heavy armor with that huge sword. No, no human can move like that.”
And when Guts delivers the final blow of the first bout, he does so with a grace that is, more than anything, well, beautiful. While it might seem strange, according to thinker Joel Black, an act of violence can, in fact, be beautiful. In his book The Aesthetics of Murder, he writes, “If any human act evokes the aesthetic experience of the sublime, certainly it is the act of murder … if murder can be experienced aesthetically, the murderer can in turn be regarded as a kind of artist – a performance artist or anti-artist whose specialty is not creation but destruction.” Of course we’re not giving a thumbs up to murder, but Black’s point is that when performed with the right craft, style, and force, violence can have an almost transcendent effect on its viewers. This idea that something can leave us in awe and transcend understanding is what philosopher Immanuel Kant referred to as the Sublime, or the state of mind created when a certain experience stops being an object of our judgement and starts controlling it.
Starting to sound familiar? Like monster horror, the Sublime has the power to “violate the purpose in respect of the judgement,” and “to do violence to the imagination”. It works through a process of categorical violation, breaking down the divisions between our commonly held beliefs. So how does the Sublime in Berserk transform us? By forcing us to reconsider our traditionally held ideas. Specifically: beauty. Throughout both the new series and the 1997 version, we are bombarded with intensely violent images that are, in their own way, beautiful. When Griffith and his band of heroes – er, monsters – liberate Virtanis from the invading Kushans, Griffith’s seer, Sonia, comments on the aftermath. “Everything is stained red. Red as the setting sun casts its rays on the blood. The sight should be gruesome, and yet… And yet it was like a painting, beautiful beyond compare.”
Here, the senseless death and destruction wrought by Griffith’s army overwhelms Sonia, possessing a beauty that challenges her very idea of what beauty is. Through tapping into the Sublime, violence in Berserk, frequently becomes a vehicle for change. Sonia, opening her eyes to dazzling death brought by Griffith, leaves her old life in the village behind and follows Griffith on his journey to become godking. But Berserk is very careful to make sure it doesn’t depict all violence as evoking this sense of awe. In fact, the show juxtaposes the artful killing of Guts and Griffith with “ordinary” violence seemingly common to everyday life. Whether it’s the villagers stoning someone to death, or a knight whipping a prostitute from the comfort of his horse, these moments are strangely mundane, petty, and underwhelming. In the end, these figures and institutions lack the skill and artistry to evoke the Sublime. If skill and craftsmanship are the keys to evoking total awe and wonder, then Guts can be viewed as something like a violent performance artist.
So what’s the effect of Guts’s visceral and bloody art? Does it have a greater purpose or is it just as French writer Théophile Gautier calls “art for art’s sake?” While it might be tempting to think it’s the latter, Guts’s acts of violence do have a greater purpose: demonstrating the hideous nature of societal violence and ultimately disrupting it. Through the distinction between artistic and non-artistic acts of violence, the show glorifies those that work against the grain of society, contrasting them with the drab of cruelty of the institutions themselves. A prime example is Griffith when he is reborn into the world, fulfilling the wishes of the Egg of the Perfect World to upend the world order. “This world is too flawed. So much unjust death, and the agony and terror of the living attempting to escape this fate. Order, created to hide the chaos, yet full of hypocrisy. The people appeased by that order bringing death to others.”
True to this cause, Griffith and his army take back Virtanis. In this instance, Griffith is working against society, his upstart rebel army ousting the Kushans in one fell swoop. But once Griffith reinstates the Holy See’s control of the city, he becomes enmeshed in the established power structure. Typical to the violence perpetrated by institutions, Griffith’s violence afterwards becomes tasteless and crude. When Guts and company arrive later at the city, they find hundreds of slave traders hanged as enemies of the state. Far from possessing beauty, this scene is sterile, methodically organized, and revolting to Schierke. Unlike Griffith, though, Guts’s violence is never part of a greater societal system. Guts fights for only himself, making enemies out of whole armies, religions, and even God-like beings.
In fact, the brand on Guts’s neck attracts demons and Apostles, continually forcing Guts to abandon society. In the first episode, Guts attempts to re-enter society by agreeing to take a carriage ride with a kindly man and his daughter. Guts falls asleep, only for his brand to attract demons who slaughter the father-daughter duo. Instead, Guts is cursed to live and act on the peripheries of society, his violence becoming destructive force upon the world. Lady Farnese realizes this when she becomes disillusioned with the Holy See, as all Hell breaking loose on the battlefield. “Whenever the black swordsman appears, it breaks apart. The world I know shatters with a deafening roar.”
Guts’s violence, invoking the Sublime, becomes a powerful force that disrupts the status quo and forces people to renegotiate their core ideals. For Farnese, this results in her abandoning her post and even her God. “I’m going to follow the Black Swordsman. I am leaving the order.” In tying artistic violence to the individual and unartistic violence to society, Berserk is challenging us on where we focus our attention. While we’re drawn to the shining brilliance of Guts’s violence, we’re seemingly blind to the everyday violence that takes place in the greater world of Berserk. We, as viewers, live for the battle scenes – the crystallization of violence.
But this ignores the existence of structural violence, or the idea that certain power structures can prevent less powerful groups of people from meeting their basic needs. True to form, look who gets screwed over by society in Berserk. Ishidoro is essentially forced into servitude, being the glorified busboy of a mercenary group. Casca, essentially a mental invalid, is almost singled out for death by Father Mozgus and almost raped by a strange fertility-cult-thing. And Luca and her gaggle of young friends are forced to risk their lives by working as prostitutes at the base camp, both servicing military officers, while simultaneously fearing those very officers’ judgements. Berserk is challenging our ideas of what peace really is. We like to think that peace begins when the battle stops, when Guts has finished putting his opponents through the proverbial blender.
But because we can’t take our eyes away from the dazzling acts of violence committed by Guts and others, we’re unable to notice or care about all the other acts of violence committed by society. It’s in the lulls between battles, when Berserk decides to show us the the artless and repulsive violence in the world around them. In these rare moments when we see people stoned to death, or mountains of dead bodies, or even a lake of blood and entrails, we see the limitations of thinking peace is simply the absence of battle or war. But for all these complex intellectual ideas, we don’t blame you if you only remember Berserk as the anime where an anthropomorphic horse licks a semi naked woman. And there goes the last of our YouTube adsense revenue. Thanks for watching, guys. Peace.