Remember when I posted my Top Five Manga and Anime list? Well, I sort of pussied out on my fifth manga, and left it un quantified... which made sense at the time, because I really didn't know which book I liked so much better than others that I would put it in my Top Five. But after monthes of deliberation, and a lot of reading, I've finally figured it out. So, without much fanfare:
5) BERSERK by Kentaro Miura
BERSERK is hard to sum up in a paragraph, because the entire point of BERSERK is that it's an epic. It's a massive, sprawling, medievil fantasy along the lines of Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, but far, FAR, more graphic in it's portrayal of sex and especially violence.
BERSERK is the tale of Gatz (or Guts depending on the translation), who starts his life born from under a corpse tree when his mother is hanged with a number of other people who have been persecuted by the 'Land of the Black Sun's' leading religious sect, The Holy See. Gatz, who was never meant to have been born, is from that point on cursed as "The Struggler." Every day of his life is a fight to survive. He knows almost no happiness, and spends his childhood abused both emotionally and physically by his Gaurdian and mentor, a man named Gambino, who teaches Gatz the art of sword fighting, but having no swords small enough for a child to train with, Gatz becomes accustomed to using blades three times his size (which becomes one of the series most prominent staples; Gatz huge, black sword, which is unwieldable by any normal human).
As is typical with most manga, the first story starts off without any sort of context, taking place sometime in the middle of Gatz' life, showing him as the reader will come to know him in the future. By the end of the first story arc, you're sent into a multi-volume flashback that shows the growth of Gatz from a young mercenary of 14, to the tragic events that shape his destiny in his early twenties. You see him make friends with Griffiths, a beautiful and charismatic young mercenary Captain of the Band of the Hawks. You watch him assist Griffiths in his meteoric, almost pre-ordained rise to power in the courts of the Kingdom of Midland; you see him made friends and comrades among the Band of the Hawks; you see him find a deep and lasting love with his former rival, the female mercenary Caska; and finally you see the tragedy of Griffiths betrayal of them all as they are branded as sacrifices to the God Hand, the sinister ruling power of the Astral World and the other planes of reality that make up the metaphysical world of The 'Land of the Black Sun.' Gatz is the only survivor of the sacrifice when annoints Griffiths as the Fifth God Hand, Femto, 'The Wings of Death.' Caska also survives, but is raped into insanity by Griffiths and a horde of demons, leaving her childlike and autistic. Gatz, marked by the Brand of Sacrifice, which draws evil to him, vows revenge on both Griffiths and the God Hand, swearing he will undo all their works and eventually cut them down with his immense sword, The Dragon Slayer.
To that end, the series then becomes a quest book, as Gatz travels around the world looking for clues as to how to cure Caska, find Griffiths, rid himself of the Brand of Sacrifice, and unravel the mystery of the God Hand and their prophecy. Along the way Gatz faces countless encounters with demons, monsters, and 'Apostles', humans transformed by artifacts called the "Beheliet', or the 'Egg of Kings', small red stones with human features which bring out the idealized form of humans possessed of great 'Od' (ether, mana, MP, ki, chi, spiritual power, whatever).
Also, like any good RPG, Gatz eventually forms his "party", recruiting a number of similarly damaged misfits; the mischiefious elf, Puck, the arrogant wannabe child brigand Isidro, the former regligious zealot and daughter of a well-to-do family Farnese, her supposed half-brother/vassel, the fox eyed Serpico, Schierke the child witch, her scarcastic fairy companion Evarella, and Casca. All are damaged goods in some way, the rejects of proper society, who find comfort and strength allying themselves with other outsiders.
In the background of all of this, there is also the continuing storyarc involving a Prophecy, of which Gatz has been a part of since birth; Griffiths, as is typical, is most prominent in the Prophecy as "The White Hawk", who will eventually control the world and all other planes of existance (the Prophecy is unclear as to whether this is a good or bad thing though, as Griffiths is never actually defined as being either good or evil; just ambitious), while Gatz takes the role of the 'Struggler', a man who fights hopelessly outmatched against impossible odds to confound the Hawk.
So, given all that, what is it that I like about BERSERK? A lot of things really. I love Muira's incredibly detailed art (or, at least the artist he would become after 20 or so volumes), which starts off fairly typical of ultra-violent seinen manga, and slowly evolves over time to look like medievil etches. I love his sense of drama and character; how he builds characters from the ground up, slowly revealing the events and tragedies that shaped their beings into the people they are today, and how they still learn and evolve, striving to become better people not bound by their hideously tragic pasts. I love the thought and detail that Muira puts into the world of BERSERK, which is a mish-mash of research on the real history of medievil Europe and the more familiar DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS/TOLKIENesque fantasy worlds, which he combines with musings about the nature of the metaphysical worlds beyond this one. I like that he examines the darker aspects of human nature and religion, but does not condemn either humanity or faith, merely showing what could happen if one took things to far.
Bizarrely, I think the thing I identify most with about BERSERK is that it's central theme seems to be about hope. Gatz faces impossible odds and an endless stream of horrors, both metaphysical (demons, monsters, Apostles, and immortals), and human (reglious persecution, slavery, war, plague, rape), but perseverses, struggles, and survives. Though he man solves most all of his problems with incredible, bloody, violence, he's not an unintelligent characters, and is given to musings about the nature of humanity, as well as his own nature.
Gatz is an incredibly complex character, in that the only thing he really seems to fear in the world is himself. His inability to control his incredible rage and his baser instincts, which actuallybecomes a plot point around volume 25 or so as his darker impulses take on the metaphysical form of a sort of abstract black wolf, which is constantly taunting and tempting Gatz to give into his animal instinct and just completely lose himself in bloodlust. This metaphysical foe becomes a phsyical threat when Gatz recieves a powerful weapon against the Apostles in the form of the Cursed Black Armor. The black armor grants Gatz incredible, superhuman fighting ability, but unleashes the Black Wolf, which overtakes his conciousness, making him a true Berserker; a menace to friend and foe alike, but also to himself.
BERSERK is just an incredibly compelling, dark, adult, fantasy story with some of the most graphic violence you'll ever encounter. It's the kind of shit I started reading manga for in the first place, and like any good seinen manga, the ridiculous violence is tempered by a complex, mature, character driven plot that is as sweeping and epic as anything Tolkien or Gaigax evern came up with, only, you know, actually fucking interesting (because of the sex and violence).
On a related topic, BERSERK is almost one of my favorite anime, which adapts the first story arc (which is, like, volume 1-8 or something), showing the genesis of Gatz, and one of my favorite ever video games, namely, SWORD OF THE BERSERK for the Dreamcast, which has the toughest, most epic EVER, Boss battle in the middle of the game against my second favorite character from the series; Nosferatu Zod, or alternatively, Zod the Immortal (pictured fighting Gatz). He was almost literally unbeatable, and tougher than the final Boss, and he comes at you in the MIDDLE OF THE GAME. He's like this unclimable wall you have to pass, which is pretty much what he is in the manga as well.