FEATURE: Head Space - "Berserk" Fear, Despair, and Growth

While grand events unfold, the same story repeats itself below

Hello everyone! For those of you who don't know me by name (it's near the top), I'm Peter Fobian, although you may know me better as "that guy who writes all those think pieces on Re:ZERO." To give a bit of continuity to my work and clue people in on what they can expect from me, my future articles will be under the title of "Head Space". I have a background in psychology and a love for literature, which means you can expect pieces focusing on characters and narrative themes. Since Summer has come to a close, I thought I would kick things off by writing about a series near and dear to me, Berserk. Specifically, I'd like to focus on a character from the Conviction Arc who seems to be the subject of quite a bit of controversy.



Despair is the central theme in the world of Berserk, suffusing every corner of Miura's world. Each character of any prominence, hero or villain, experiences the emotion. How it transforms them, whether it drives them to grow or break them, defines the role of the character in the story. Both Guts and Griffith were transcendently talented individuals who ultimately divided by their despair. Guts grows from it and Griffith was destroyed by it. Farnese is poised to become a central character due to her conviction to follow Guts to learn how to overcome her own fear. The Egg of the New World is a creature born out of hopelessness of its despair. While all these characters are likely to have a greater impact on the larger story, the struggle most central of the Conviction Arc is that of Nina.


 

History has a way of repeating itself in Midland. Nina's story has more than a passing resemblance to that of Guts from his origins in the Golden Age. Born into a harsh world with no opportunity to learn a trade, both were forced to commodify their own bodies in the profession that put them at the highest possible risk for their respective genders. Each copes with a tremendous amount of self-loathing. Guts struggles with his past tragedies, mistakes, betrayals, and failure to protect his loved ones. Nina despises her own weakness and her reliance on others. Both characters are unquestionably self-destructive. Guts reckless mercenary career and new pursuit of Apostles could be considered an indirect form of suicide. Nina’s involvement with the cult is similarly reckless, driven by her immature defiance of Luca’s directions despite her reliance on Luca.


 

As a perspective character, Nina provides the audience with a vital frame of reference for the people of Midland that was previously unavailable. She exists at the very bottom of society and lives in a place where she is able to see the worst evils mankind commits against itself. Through her eyes we can see how terrible the world can be and know what it’s like having no ability to do anything about it. She lives a destitute existence in fear of war and famine. Her only ambition is to avoid becoming a victim of circumstance and her only tools are remaining so small as to be beneath the notice of those that can crush her. While these are nearly constant themes in Berserk, it’s difficult to appreciate how terrifying the world is from the perspectives presented before Nina's introduction. Her frustrating weakness is simply a symptom of being a normal person in a hostile world.



Perhaps the most important similarity between Guts and Nina is their selfish will to live and the accompanying hypocrisy of their wish for death. While Guts has gained wards requiring his protection and his vengeance to drive him to survive, his previous wandering left the impression he was trying to find a place to die. Nina constantly questions the value of her existence, what she might hope to accomplish or what happiness she might dare to find living as a prostitute with a venereal disease. As sure as Guts’s brand, Nina’s syphilis is a death sentence, one which promises a great deal of suffering before her demise. The Skull Knight refers to Guts as “The Struggler”, which is an apt label for both of these characters. When the threat of death approaches, each of them, despite their self-destructiveness, instinctively fight against it. No act is beneath them, nothing is too shameful or pathetic that they wouldn’t resort to it if it meant saving their own lives.



As a narrative mirror to Griffith, Luca is a personality that exists beyond the ken of the population of Berserk. The certainty of her actions drive others to follow her unquestioningly and she faces danger and death with resolute rationality. Even the Skull Knight was impressed with her calm decision to save Nina by falling a distance she surmised would simply break both her legs rather than killing her. Where Griffith led out of self interest, Luca leads out of altruism. Ironically, it's her tremendous insight into the flawed hearts of humanity which separates her from the populous of the camp. She confronts mankind's hypocrisy directly and recognizes the strength of working together to accommodate the weaknesses of others, to prove they are different. Where Griffith desired Guts for his strength, Luca protects Nina because of her weakness.



It’s natural that Nina would fall in with the others and begin to rely on Luca, it’s also natural that Nina would begin to resent Luca’s strength when she is struggling with her own weakness. As Luca herself said "Humans are wretched creatures, they envy those who have more and sneer at those who have less." After becoming Caska’s ward (another thing she and Guts have in common), Nina is forced to directly confront the difference between herself and Luca as she alternatively feels protective of Caska and resents the difficulties of taking care of her. She is put into the same positions as Luca, to accept personal danger to protect someone who depends on her, and comes up short. When faced with torture, she capitulates almost immediately, sacrificing Caska for her own well-being. The final straw comes when Luca stuffs Nina in a barrel to keep her safe from the demonic mass consuming everyone in the castle, almost assuredly sacrificing herself in the process. Nina sees the gap between them and realizes just how desperately she wishes to live.



The microcosm of Berserk’s plot comes full circle at the arc’s conclusion. Nina comes to the realization that staying with Luca will be accepting her own weakness. This self-awareness comes with the understanding that her rediscovered admiration of Luca will eventually give way to the same resentment she felt before if she continues to rely upon her. Despite her numerous failings over the course of the story, Nina decides she has to forge her own path. Although her disease and circumstances make her survival seem unlikely, Nina is finally able to find the bravery to finally break away from her security and friendship. To grow or to die. Once again acting as a mirror to Griffith, Luca accepts the necessity of Nina’s departure rather than demanding that she stay. Although significantly less glamorous than Guts's journey, Nina was forced down a similar road and reached the same destination.

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Peter Fobian is an Associate Features Editor for Crunchyroll, author of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, and streams on Crunchyroll's official Twitch channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @PeterFobian.

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