I Want More Black Swordsman

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I need more Black Swordsman arc.

Kentaro Miura’s Berserk has been in publication since 1989, and the plot has taken many turns. Many memorable characters have died, and Guts, the ‘MC’, has almost transformed since his debut. Most speculation about the manga centres around how Berserk will end, and whether it will, at all. Individual arcs tend to be less discussed, and the opening chapters, which actually introduce us to the story, are rarely talked about.

This part of the manga draws somewhat mixed reactions from the fanbase, and it’s called the Black Swordsman arc. These first chapters are massive, thick, heavy, and far too lengthy, and we meet the eponymous swordsman, Guts, a man covered in dark armour and a black cloak. Other than Berserk: The Prototype, the Black Swordsman arc is said to have the ‘edgiest’ version of the protagonist in the manga. Many readers complain that this sadistic, violent Guts is a comic caricature compared to the more nuanced protagonist we see later, after the Golden Age arc.

As the manga and the mangaka both evolved, Berserk shifted focus slightly to the character, rather than his actions. I mean that after we know who Guts is, from the moment of his birth, the mystery surrounding him begins to disappear. This leaves us with good character portrait and a great story, but there’s something that we lose, too.

One of those things is the atmosphere, which was never seen again in Berserk. The world of Berserk, as we see afterwards, is one of Italian mercenaries, naval trading powers, religious coalitions against Eastern invaders, and, later still, magic. The world of Black Swordsman, on the other metallic hand, is an eerie, moonlit world that opens in a mountain wood where monsters sleep. There are panoramic views of walled towns looming in the distance, and demonic counts and barons grinning in the shadows. It’s a world where everyone can see Puck, because everyone believes in magic. In a very different way from the later Berserk, the Black Swordsman was uniquely Lovecraftian.

The centre of this world is the taciturn, rough-mannered Guts. This Guts is silent and angry, like a wounded animal. He has nightmares, cuts multiple attackers in half, and savours pain and vengeance.

This Guts has been called ridiculous, and maybe he is in retrospect, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of following him. The reader wonders, ‘Who is he? What happened to him? Where does all that rage come from?’ There’s a simplicity to him, too. Miura keeps the world-building in good balance, so that we can focus on a strong, silent man who is similar to other characters in literature, and yet unique enough to immediately grab our attention.

Another aspect of the Black Swordsman arc is that it takes place after the Golden Age arc. Some people like to tell new readers to ‘wait until the Eclipse’, but somehow they forget that we first meet Griffith in the Black Swordsman arc. We hear about the God Hand in the first chapter. Soon afterwards, they make an appearance, and Guts endures soul-shattering pain in an attempt to kill Griffith. All this serves only to intensify the mystery, and the scene where Puck looks at Guts’s face rounds the character of this lone warrior.

The closest that we come to the same dynamic is the Lost Children arc, which took us back to a lone Guts, venomous and aching for slaughter. This brings us to my final point – Puck. The last time that we see a Puck worth looking at is in Lost Children, and ever since, the elf has been reduced to a ridiculous caricature. The ratio of change is, funnily enough, almost proportionate to how the recent anime is compared to the original manga.

Puck in the Black Swordsman arc is a fully formed character – he (or she, as many readers mistakenly think at first) follows Guts, trying to understand him. Puck gets emotional when Guts is cruel, and often tells him to be nice, like a generic loli. Guts, on the other hand, has most of his conversations with the elf, so we get a glimpse into his mind because of Puck. Puck is almost a foil for Guts, giving the swordsman’s actions a certain character – we ‘see’ Guts through Puck’s eyes, and also appreciate Puck himself for his help, and his empathetic and healing powers. Compare that to the ‘Chestnut Puck’ of later chapters, and one finds oneself wishing for the good old days. Black Swordsman, white elf, contra mundum.

Needless to say, it’s highly unlikely we’ll get so much as a remake or redraw of the Black Swordsman arc, since the manga itself may not be finished. But we still have the chapters themselves to look back on, and whatever Berserk later became (thankfully, it improved further), we can always immerse ourselves in the forests and towns of Black Swordsman.

Sucheto Nath

Sucheto is a literature student with a great writing ability and a love for original (salty) content creation on Facebook. His work is literary and in-depth, and will make anyone totally absorbed in the topic he's discussing. He blogs at The Whisperer in Kolkata, and loves writing in general.