Berserk seems to be reaching a turning-point as the war between Midland and Chuder focuses on a decisive battle for control of the Doldery stronghold. Following their brave and lucky escape at the hands of the Blue Whale knights Guts and Casca are given the task of serving directly under Griffith in this important task as the Band of the Hawk edge ever closer to being the most respected and influential military force in the Midland army. Despite the imminent mission however, Guts begins to question his place in the Hawks.
The story so far has shown the Hawks to be slowly and incrementally working their way up in status in the Midland army but any viewers growing weary of the successive battles in which Griffith and co achieve victory after victory against overwhelming odds will find a refreshing shift in storyline here. In the battle for Doldery, it’s not just the fact that the Hawks are outnumbered that makes it so compelling; it’s the tantalising possibility that, if they are victorious, the return of control of Doldery to Midland would render the war as good as over and promise a brighter future for them all.
The exhilarating battle scenes are still every bit as brutal and bloody as we’ve come to expect so far but the circumstances surrounding the carnage are as always what sets Berserk apart: there’s the intervention from an interesting character during a particularly tense moment in the battle reminds us that Guts’ fate may not be in mortal hands; there is also the identity of the opposing commander to consider and how this could have a bearing on Griffith’s tactics and the risks he is prepared to run in such an important phase in the conflict.
As ever though, it’s often what happens off the battlefield that continues to make Berserk what it is. The bond between Guts and Casca, complicated somewhat by the different types of admiration they have for Griffith, continues to slowly grow beyond mere comradeship: their increased willingness to confide in one another suggests to me that their relationship is going to become a bit more personal but even if this does not turn out to be the case we certainly get a lot of insight into their characters.
In keeping with the historical setting and their outwardly stoic behaviour there isn’t usually much in the way of getting inside these characters’ heads so the moments of frank openness are especially welcome in understanding the decisions they make and how their adventures are affecting them. During these introspective and remarkably tender scenes (we actually get to see Casca in a ballgown at one point, which ought to indicate how far the Hawks have come), Susumu Hirasawa’s synth-driven score is especially emotive and outstanding, slowing the tempo and contributing subtle background harmonies that really enhance the mood.
It’s particularly interesting to learn that, despite being so respected and apparently finding such an integral place of Griffith’s group and strategy, Guts still feels like an outsider and has yet to find a goal beyond surviving the latest battle. Is he merely a tool for his superiors, or can he find meaning in life beyond swinging his sword? The fact that he and his comrades feel as though Griffith is more than just a born leader goes a long way to explaining Guts’ doubts, despite the amount of respect that Griffith has for him: the Hawks’ chief is in a different league to his subordinates, none of whom, not even Guts or Casca, truly understand him or know what makes him tick.
I’m reluctant to give away too much of the latter part of this volume because it becomes much more unpredictable and character-driven; it’s a break from the battlefields that comes at exactly the right time. Suffice to say that the Hawks are paying the price for their previous successes, and as a result the wheels of conspiracy in the royal court continue to turn. The mature age of the current king, the personal agendas of the queen and scheming courtier Foss, not to mention the obvious romantic crush that the princess has on Griffith, all make up a melting pot of ambition and intrigue that threatens to boil over at any moment. Various other nobles and military commanders are looking on with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation as the political landscape begins to change and I can only agree with them in that the current situation is going to be very interesting as the events unfold in the latter episodes.
As we have come to expect, Berserk offers more visceral action, character introspection, conspiracy and ambition all make the fourth instalment yet another compelling continuation of a series that, as I’ve said repeatedly in previous reviews, amounts to much more than a brutal action-adventure. The shocking cliffhanger at the end of episode #17 also ensures that if you’re as enthralled in its darkly compelling storytelling as I am you’ll be anxious to see what happens next.