Nostalgia Chronicles, Part 1: Berserk

For me, nostalgia is always an interesting phenomenon, like the sudden influx of déjà vu and yet clear and tangible. My memories, when I slip into them rather than merely draw upon them for some piece of information, are akin to a waking dream. I can see myself where I was, smell the smells around me, and even feel part of the emotions that I felt when the memory was made. When I am overcome with the images and words of the past, I call it nostalgia. It’s an intense experience, and can create feelings undulating between extreme pain and extreme pleasure, depending on the memory.

I know that for many people memory is not like this, and I am also aware of the limitations of all memory, how the brain edits on the fly to exclude the unimportant bits. When I remember something particularly happy – a moment of joy with friends, for instance – I know that the circumstances surrounding it may not have been so happy. As a matter of fact, when I think of such things, I often take a step back in my mind and remember that overall timeframe of that memory was filled with misery. Perhaps that heightens the emotion of the moment, and island of happiness in a sea of trouble is all the more memorable.

Similarly, sometimes I have a rush of memory for something very painful: an embarrassing moment, a moment of heartbreak or doubt, or a failure. These moments may be surrounding by happiness, but shine out darkly because of their bright background, intensifying the memory process and the pain of recollection. I have to be careful letting myself be overcome with such recollections, for even though the experience was in the past, the way my memory works causes the all the emotions, the pain and disappointment and embarrassment, to become very real in the present.

Like a flashback, Nostalgia is triggered by odd thing. Smells and tastes that I associate with a time period or place, or more often, music and books that take me back to the period where I first heard or read them.

With that in mind, I thought I’d start a series here, dubbed the nostalgia chronicles, of some particularly powerful memories and what they mean to me. Most of these center around certain things like art, games, and entertainment, since these are the things that usually trigger the feelings, but more than few of them are just odd moments.
Nostalgia Chronicles, Part 1: Berserk
Berserk started its life as a manga (a type of Japanese graphic novel) penned by Kentaro Miura, but my first experiences with it were with its televised anime adaptation, and later experiences occurred during several life eras with both the manga and repeat viewings of the anime.
I. Mid 2005
The young man who was rapidly becoming my best friend (Matt Wellman, the man of infinite jest) moved into a house nearby me with another friend of mine named Ryan (I was graduating from Fresno State and still lived in North Fresno with my parents), which increased the frequency of our hang-outs enormously. We were writing metal, drinking Moosehead, and generally having a good time most nights. I walked into Matt’s bedroom one day to see him watching a very imaginative, as well as horrific, anime on his computer.

He let me see the final episode before we went out for more beer (our main activity on a week night). The show made no sense to me and seemed to take place in hell, but intrigued me, probably as a result. Later on, he bought the anime on DVD, and I would come over and watch it with him, sometimes along with Ryan and Gary (the other roommate, who would also become a good chum of mine). In Fresno fashion it was usually hot and muggy inside the house, with Ryan’s dog Jacka constantly panting as she lay on the floor. I remember sitting in Ryan’s chair, feeling the sweat on the back of my calves stick to the reclining pad. That was how we watched it, between parties and music.

I remember first reading the graphic novels after moving into my first apartment, which was a tenement by some standards. I found myself sitting in a brown leather chair, given to me by my friend Darryl, who had in turn claimed it from our mutual employer Patrick. It had several tears on the back from moving, but I enjoyed it as a comfortable reading place, lit by an old jade lamp that belonged to my grandparents. My roommate and I liked to keep the apartment very cold, and remember how much I liked the slick, cool leather on my skin after coming indoors from the heat of Fresno, which, if you have never been there, is substantial and persists from March into early November.

Our apartment was a smattering of things, with a beat-up sectional couch (later replaced by a set of free furniture that looked like it belonged in the waiting room of a dentist from the 1980s), my small tube TV sat upon a tall stand Jabriel (my roommate) and I made literally out of garbage we found on the back porch upon our move in. Draped black curtains hid the contraptions, which was made out of a few wooden boxes and a large piece of plywood, and also served to house our DVD collection. The dark brown carpet, the color chosen as much to hide stains as show its age, I reckoned, always felt a little stiff on the feet.

Even though the apartment was not the nicest, it was ours, and it at least was not painfully small. My own bedroom was large enough that I could put my leather chair in it, leaving the other chair (a funny pink affair Jabriel and I had nabbed from the curb) in the living room. Once or month a so a new English translation of Berserk would come out, and I would head down to Winco and buy a can of “Green Dragon Energy Drink,” a bargain-bin caffeinated beverage from Hong Kong (I think), park myself in my chair, and read the next installment of Berserk, in all its gory glory.
II. Berserk: Violent Paragons.

Berserk is a strange fantasy story, taking place in a world similar to medieval Europe, without magic (except for demons) or guns (though there are cannons from time to time). The central characters are Guts (Gatzu), and his best friend and nemesis, Griffith, who leads the band of mercenaries that fill out the cast. The anime chronicles the rise and subsequent fall of Griffith and his band of the hawk, from mercenary band to exalted champions of the kingdom, to criminals as Griffith’s tragic flaw takes effect.

What was most compelling to me was not the plot, though that was sound, but the characters. In Japanese fashion, the characters involved are not complex, flawed, and redeemable characters that achieve growth as the story goes on, which would be more typical of a western story. Instead, they are paragons; not paragons of virtue, but paragons of their immutable selves, virtuous or viscous. The progress of the story is about the fulfilling of nature, and this informs the central conflict, which is between destiny and will, and the relation between the two.

Guts is a paragon of who he is: the berserker; the struggler; the man who rebels against destiny; the man who cares nothing for life; the man who pursues his own will, even if he does not understand what it is. Guts was born literally from a corpse, his mother hanging dead from a tree, and so signifies an exclusion from the laws of destiny. He alone can act outside of destiny and be free-willed, for he is already dead. He values his life little, preferring battle and slaughter to pleasure, constantly risking his life for outcomes which seem to be meaningless to others. It is, as they cannot understand, the fulfillment of his nature.

Griffith is a paragon of the opposite: the planner; the schemer; the man whose will is destiny itself; the man with ambition. For him, all means serve his ends. He sacrifices his soldiers, his fortunes, and even sells his own body in prostitution to fund his desperate dream. Ultimately, Guts is his only equal, which means they must become enemies.

He seems blessed by destiny in a way that guts is not. He achieved victory on the battlefield over and over, often with the use of Guts, who he forces into service after a showdown – a showdown in which Guts would not submit, even at the expense of his body. Somehow though, Guts and Griffith become friends, as Guts rises to second in command of the Band of the Hawk, Griffith’s army.

Together, Guts and Griffith raise their army to the level of regular soldiers in the kingdom of Midland, and Griffith is even raised to the peerage, becoming a noble and gaining an opportunity to marry into wealth and power. Griffith destroys his opponents in the nobility as well, even using Guts as a brutal assassin, an event that has a profound emotional impact on Guts as he is forced to kill the young son of the target. Indeed, it seems as if all of Griffith’s wild ambitions, seeming to be driven by destiny itself, are coming to fruition, and Griffith will marry the princess and inherit the crown.

The story turns when Guts overhears a conversation in which Griffith describes the Band of the Hawk as “not truly his friends,” because none of them have their own dreams. Guts, hearing this, decides he has fulfilled what he said he would for Griffith, seeing an end to the war, and decides to leave, despite the protests of his other friends in the army. This realization causes Guts to want to leave his friends, leading to another duel between Guts and Griffith, who wishes to keep Guts for his own purposes. Unlike their first meeting, Griffith cannot overcome the skill and strength of Guts. Guts cuts Griffith’s sword in half, ending the duel, and walks away, without ever turning to look back.

This moment encapsulates the conflict, held at bay through most of the first story arc, between will and destiny. Griffith, having been defeated, suffers a mental break; his unwavering belief in himself and his destiny is shattered through the actions of Guts, who, ironically, opposes Guts in order to achieve what he viewed as true equality and friendship. This also sets up Guts’s role through the rest of the manga, which is as an opponent of destiny, the sole actor capable of destroying it. Griffith, in anguish, visits the princess and sleeps with her (in the manga it is closer to rape). He is caught and spends much of the rest of the arc being slowly tortured as a prisoner of the king. His destiny has, in effect, been destroyed by Guts’s free action.

This is ended with Guts’s return and heroic rescue of the broken Griffith, who on the escape journey attempts suicide and unknowingly fulfills the contracts of his destiny with the Godhand, a cabal of demonic gods who take Guts and the remaining members of the Band of the Hawk as sacrifices for Griffith’s ascendancy to their ranks. Griffith does this willingly, and his friends are devoured by demons. Only Guts has the power to resist and survive, and in final horror, Griffith rapes Caska, a woman Guts has fallen in love with, in front of the eyes of his friend turned nemesis. Guts cuts off his own arm in attempt to free himself and intervene, and is in turn saved again by deus ex machina in the form of the skull knight, a mysterious immortal being who represents rebellion against destiny.

The first story arc draws to a close in one of the most brutal ways possible. Guts and Caska are left with “the brand,” a bleeding wound which will draw demons to them as long as they live, and so Guts must begin his own quest, to destroy his friend and overcome destiny, represented in the very brand that tortures him.
III. Final Thoughts
These themes had a big effect on me as a 21 year old, and even today they have significant meaning as I feel like most of the periods of my life have been defined by struggle. When I first started watching, I was struggling to find the next step of my academic career as a musician with substantial hearing loss. I read the manga in my first apartment, struggling to meet rent and progress through graduate school. I watched the series again when I lived in Las Vegas, struggling to finish my first screenplay and arrange the next phase of my life. The idea of suffering through, and overcoming, struggle was a close experience to my heart.

I also admired the characters within it. Guts was cold, single minded, and unrelenting when wielding his sword in the present. I felt like that a lot of the time, and still do: obsessive, driving, lost in the sound of my strings as I played or my keys as I type this very sentence. I had no plans; I just did and did and did, day after day, and built myself a life out of it. When that life was swept away, I found I, like Guts, had very little to carry away with me.

Very few other examples of manga or anime pack quite as much punch as Berserk, both in artistic effect and storytelling. Very few evoke as much nostalgia, though I’m sure there will be other examples to come. The best quote I can remember is this, which has stuck with me for quite a long time:
Man takes up the sword to shield the small wound in his heart sustained in some far off time beyond memory.

Man wields the sword so he can die happy in some far of time beyond perception.

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