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Berserk: An In-Depth Analysis (Part 5)

Understanding Guts Through Other Characters

A great sign of well-written characters is that they approach each situation and person without a set pattern i.e. they are varying gradients to their persona. Like real people, a well-written fictional character bases his response on the situation they find themselves in and the nature of his or her relationship with the other person. A truly well-developed character can speak volumes through his relationships alone. Furthermore, their relationships with other characters offer hints at their own thought process and character arcs. In all great works of fiction, a protagonist’s relations not only mirror him but also represent what he lacks or is striving for. As such, one of the best ways to understand a character is to compare him or her to the people in his or her life.

A great example of this is the show Firefly. All the main characters represent something that the show’s protagonist Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds has either lost or is struggling for. Kaylee represents the innocence and optimism that Mal no longer has. Zoe represents purpose and direction whilst also mirroring his own stoicism. Wash symbolizes laughter and humor that Mal struggles to retain. Wash and Zoe together show how a loving relationship can cushion the most difficult of lives—something Mal fails to find due to his aversion to all things “complicated.” Jayne symbolizes the kind of crude, ruthless pragmatism that Mal struggles against daily to retain his idealism and his humanity. Simon represents duty and devotion to family which, as Mal says time and again, is everyone on board his ship. River not only represents innocence like Kaylee but also mirrors how damaged Mal himself has become at the hands of the Alliance. Lastly, Inara not only acts as a reminder of his aversion to “complications” but also represents status, sensuality and all other alluring things that Mal can’t have given his outlaw status. In her diplomacy and pragmatism, Inara also highlights how one can use discretion and mediation to live a conflict-free, comfortable life—something the rigidly idealistic Mal often fails to do.

In a similar vein, to understand Guts it is vital to explore his friends and foes, and what they represent for Guts.


Gambino

                       “I gave all I had because I needed your approval.”

                       Guts, Season 1, Episode 10    

By and large one of the cruelest, most tragic characters in Berserk, Gambino was Guts father for all intents and purposes. While it is easy to label him a heartless monster, Gambino remains a complex character who despite his relatively brief appearance in the story holds a long reach in terms of his influence on Guts and some of the dominant themes.

A common motif in Berserk is that Guts’ oppressors don’t expect him to live long. Zodd famously predicted Guts’ death and expressed surprise when he found him alive following the Eclipse. Corkus expressed disdain when Guts returning alive after becoming the Century Slayer. Casca too muttered “hurry up and die in battle” when Guts joined the Falcons. Gambino’s final words “you should’ve died!” are often used against him by many future foes and still haunt him in his nightmares years later. Ultimately, the Brand of Sacrifice proves to be the literal manifestation of these words becoming the source of his greatest despair and his strength.

Gambino allowed his mistress Shisu to adopt Guts solely to indulge her, confident that the sickly infant would never survive. He ignored his men’s dread that a child born off a corpse is terrible omen (a prophecy that would prove true in a roundabout way once Guts is marked with the Brand of Sacrifice). Though he shrugged it off as mere superstition, he later looks back at the scene of Guts’ birth, visibly shaken. The idea that Guts is going to ruin his fortunes has already been planted at the back of his mind.

Three years later, when Shisu succumbed to a plague, it severed Gambino’s sole connection to kindness and decency. More importantly, it lent credence to the theory that Guts was indeed an ill omen, making the boy an easy scapegoat for Gambino’s acrimony.

Though Gambino’s approval seemed to be the centre of Guts’ existence, their relationship remained ambivalent with the mercenary leader fluctuating between being a neglecting parent and an abusive one. Their sparring sessions frequently got violent (Gut’s most prominent scar on the bridge of his nose was a result of a particularly violent sparring session) and Gambino’s constant berating stifled Guts. He even cursed Shisu out loud at one point for leaving him alone to fend for Guts. To make matters worse, whenever the mercenary was drunk or enraged his rancour towards the boy intensified hinting at him unconsciously blaming the boy for Shisu’s death. It suggests a man forced into fatherhood against his will and single fatherhood to make it worse. While Gambino had moments of remorse at how he treats the boy, he quickly shrugged them off under the guise of machismo and indifference—a penchant for not thinking about painful issues would be something he passed on to his son.

When Guts is eleven, a drunk Gambino sells the boy to the paedophilic Donovan. Armed with a sword, the boy planned to slay his mentor but stays his hand when he realized that Gambino was under the influence when Donovan bought him. The swiftness with which Guts forgives Gambino highlights how much the young boy hungers for his approval and wants him as a father.

Sometime later, Gambino was caught in an explosion that amputates his leg. Coincidentally, “Gambino” is an Italian nickname for someone with short legs. His lover dead and his mercenary career over, the hatred simmering inside him burst forth. One particular scene serves as a motif, a setting that replays again in Guts’ nightmares. On their last afternoon together, Guts excitedly shows off his bounty to Gambino who seemed more interested in playing with a pet dog. Smacking Guts in the face, Gambino ordered Guts to feed the animal. When the boy left, Gambino kicked the dog away in disgust. A pair of mercenaries joke that he was in an enviable position now that he no longer had to fight which prompts Gambino to challenge them. They back off and Gambino stumbled away in fury, the dog timidly in tow.

The entire scene is a master class in visual storytelling. Every single character in the scene, every single object adds a layer of complexity to Gambino, Guts and their relationship and even harkens to themes and events later in the manga.

This was the only time we see Gambino smiling and openly treating another creature fondly. It is reminiscent of Gambino’s good fortunes prior to Shisu finding Guts. Tellingly, this scene repeats during Guts’ nightmares where the dog has Shisu’s face as the words “he should have died!” chorus continuously to a fever pitch. Gambino’s doting affection towards the dog is what Guts aches for so desperately. The chair marks the first time we see the proud Gambino sitting in the entire manga, hinting at his diminished status. The amputation also foreshadows Guts’ own amputation years later. Guts’ running reminds Gambino of his own handicap. The bounty signifies what the crippled veteran can no longer attain. In smacking Guts with the cane, Gambino symbolically blamed the boy for his handicap. Gambino intimidating the two mercenaries was a pretense to reclaim some kind of authority and remasculate himself.

The dog is a metaphor for Guts (who is already stippled with canid motifs): an innocent, helpless mutt desperately pining for its masters’ affection. Punting the dog, in turn, was Gambino’s visceral response to this very fact. The dog timidly following its abuser fleshes out and completes this metaphor for Guts and his dynamic with Gambino. Later, to drive home this very point, the ex-mercenary even cried out how Guts “followed me around like some lonely puppy.” Prior to his death, Gambino even lamented that the person responsible for Shisu’s death could never be “raised like a loyal dog”; indirectly comparing Guts to a rabid animal that can’t distinguish between friend and foe—portending the Beast of Darkness that conveniently resembles a savage black dog. In a cruel case of dramatic irony, immediately after slaying Gambino, Guts was attacked by, of all things, a pack of hungry wolves. Gambino’s words about Guts being a feral dog may perhaps shed more light on Guts’ fury when Casca called him “a mad dog” to the point that the very memory of her words enrages Guts immensely.

In terms of parallels, we can’t ignore how Guts’ appearance matches his old man. They both have pointed ears and pronounced canines (drawing home the point of them being nothing but dogs-of-war). Even Guts’ hair is styled like his father and echoes many of his old man’s mannerisms and postures. Thus, it is very possible that Guts stylized his hair after his father and mentor and then continued to do so as a tribute to him. Also noticeable is the fact that Guts dresses up like his father: a tucked-in sleeveless shirt, trousers, a large belt and long boots.

These similarities add another layer to the scene mentioned above: the shaggy little mutt Gambino was playing with may have also reminded him of the fact that both he (and Guts) are dogs-of-war. The goal of all mercenaries in Berserk (aside from Guts) is to earn enough recognition in battle so that they can become noblemen, as Corkus makes clear on numerous occasions. In becoming an invalid, Gambino can no longer escape his life as a dog-of-war. As such, his value to the world is akin to the pitiful cur he was playing with. Considering how Guts at this point was a novice dog-of-war, the mutt may also be a reminder of Gambino’s waning authority over Guts and how eventually, he would be surpassed.

Both father and son are disdainful, battle-hardened mercenaries with explosive tempers. Their tough exteriors belie a gentler side that their life on the battlefield has smothered. Curiously, whilst deeply in love with his mentally-challenged mistress, Gambino ended up on a battlefield the night Shisu passes away—a glaring foreshadowing of how Guts too threw himself into battling apostles at a time when Casca needed him the most. In that, it harkens back to Godo’s words about hatred being a place where a man goes when he can’t face his sorrow.

They are also thrust into fatherhood due to their mentally challenged lovers caring after a defiled baby. Both react violently to their child and loathe it for years as manifestation of their greatest suffering i.e. Shisu’s death and his amputated leg for Gambino, and the Eclipse and Casca’s rape for Guts. One should note though that Guts’ vehemence dwindles significantly over the course of the manga and disappears altogether at the arrival of the Moon Child.

When considering Guts’ diffidence towards Gambino, it sheds a possible light on his relationship with another volatile, caustic mercenary: Corkus. Both men antagonized Guts relentlessly and seemed committed to never accepting him into the fold.

Lastly, the sociopathic mercenary leader should also recall Griffith. The White Falcon may seem worlds apart in terms of charisma and sheer brilliance but he is in fact even more ruthless and sociopathic than Gambino. In that regard, a whole new layer is added to Guts and Griffith’s dynamic considering how the latter is reminiscent of Guts’ father-figure. It is highly likely that, at least subconsciously, Guts’ fascination with Griffith and his need to be his equal is a repeat of his unfulfilled need to gain Gambino’s approval. In gaining his new mercenary leader’s respect and friendship, perhaps Guts would have been able to attain some kind of closure to the biggest hole in his soul.

~Sado22

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P.S. the next part is devoted to Casca B-) Stay tuned!

Griffith/Femto piece, though I wished I captured more of the brightness of Griffith and less of the darkness of Femto..perhaps I’ll do a bright Griffith later, I’m so facinated by his character…! I can see a lot of the parallels between berserk and miyazaki’s work now. Very VERY interesting imagery and amazing manga art.