This one’s a Kentaro Miura interview by Yukari Fujimoto, a writer/professor of gender studies and shojo manga. It’s a pretty old conversation — originally published in September 2000, which in Berserk terms is just before volume 20 came out. Lots of good stuff in it though: he talks about the friend who was the inspiration behind Griffith, how little of the story he had planned out originally, and why the Berserk world is, at its core, Japan.
This isn’t the full interview — just what I thought were the more interesting chunks of it. It was really long and a true bitch to translate into intelligible English, so I just don’t have the energy/interest to do the thing in full, at least not right now.
–When I first started reading Berserk, I was like, hey, this is Violence Jack! And then I was like hey, this is Guin Saga! And then when I got to the part where the demons swarm around Guts and tell him he belongs to them I was like, hey, this is Dororo! That’s just what it reminded me of personally, though, so I’d like to start by asking whether you actually did have any works like that in mind when making Berserk.
Miura: I was a manga reader. There are things that I’ve consciously borrowed from, but there are also things that have sunk to the bottom of my consciousness and pop up out of nowhere later. They’ve become part of me. Violence Jack and Guin Saga are things I was obviously really into, and I do think that Guin Saga was the biggest source for this fantasy universe. That atmosphere it has just stuck with me and now I think of it as the standard to measure things against, so I suppose you’re right.
–I see. How about the sword, then? It’s one of Guts’s main features. Did it not come from Violence Jack?
Miura: That comes from Shinji Wada’s Pygmalio. Also, I think it was in the Guin Saga spin-off The Snow Queen, there was this illustration of a two- or three-meter-tall giant wielding a sword. Guts’s sword is a cross between those two. It’s just the right size to be still somehow carryable, while giving that close-to-the-action feeling of violent men’s manga. I couldn’t make up my mind for a while, though, and Guts’s design went through quite a bit of change — long hair, wielding a katana, etc. After agonizing over it for a while I ended up with what he is now, and I felt like I really nailed it. All I had to do was somehow capture the swinging around of that sword and that pleasingness of it. I probably don’t know what I’m talking about given that I’ve only created the story for one manga, but when you do manage to hit upon that crucial something before you start, I feel like it works out.
–Absolutely. I wasn’t expecting you to be inspired by the sword in Pygmalio, though. I mean, Kuruto [the protagonist] does have a small body and carries a big sword, but the art and universe in your manga seems completely different. Then again, your editor did say that all kinds of surprising things appear in your manga in bizarre forms. (laugh) Like, apparently you’ve used Ranpo as reference when drawing. Of all manga, though: Ranpo and Berserk…
Miura: Is that surprising? (laugh) I’m using it for the backgrounds, though.
–Ah, of course! That makes sense.
Miura: The thing is, when you’re just an ordinary manga fan not aiming to become an artist yourself, you get to choose whatever manga you like and read within your own safety zone. When you’re trying to become an artist yourself, though, that’s not wide enough. You won’t make it. So there was a time that I was trying to read as broadly as possible — which there’s a limit to, but I’d try to read basically anything that wasn’t painful to read, anything that people recommended to me, anything that was popular.
–When would that have been?
Miura: From high school to university, roughly. All kinds of books, manga, movies — as much as I could.
–Most aspiring manga artists don’t go that far though, do they?
Miura: The truth is that I sat at my desk drawing manga all the time and seriously lacked personal experience, and I felt insecure about that. Which is why I started thinking that I had better at least absorb as much of the stuff people recommend as possible.
–When was it that you feel you’d cleared the bar in terms of art? By which I mean, when was it that you started feeling satisfied with what you draw and your style came together for you?
Miura: Now, here’s the thing about drawing. When we were young and stupid, we used to copy stuff drawn by guys like Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and Fujihiko Hosono and practice drawing mangalike pictures. We were in fine arts, though. We used to have to draw things for class and I was pretty good at it, but I wasn’t very good at manga art. So I wanted to learn how to draw like Fujihiko Hosono, but I also wanted to make use of my realistic drawing abilities. And then meanwhile, I wanted to do an intricate story like Guin Saga, but I also liked how over-the-top Violence Jack was. All of that gradually coalesced into my current art style, I think.
You know how they said on [the TV show] Manga Yawa that I was bad at drawing? They’re absolutely right. Ever since high school, I’ve been trying all sorts of different things to combine being good at drawing reality with being good at drawing manga art. If I were doing a story like Fist of the North Star, I would be able to really concentrate entirely on just drawing well. The manga I want to create, however, has aspects to it that can be downright shojo mangaesque, and I wouldn’t be able to pull that off if I went all-out Fist of the North Star in terms of art. So I have to strike this balance between delicate drama and Fist of the North Star, and after much wrestling with this I finally ended up with my current art style, although I imagine that it will still be subject to change.
–Ah, so you try to give a certain delicacy to your art as well as the story. I actually have this personal theory that Berserk is really a shojo manga, but I take it then that it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise for you to hear that?
Miura: Makes sense to me. Shojo manga is all about expressing every feeling powerfully, and in that sense it’s not as contrived as manga for men. Men’s manga tends to come off as more calculated to sell well, whereas shojo manga are somehow just… fluffier. I realize that’s not a very descriptive word, but anyway, that might be something I have in common with shojo manga.
–You have fluffiness in common?
Miura: I guess what I mean is, like, in order to express emotions, logic comes second, whereas it’s usually the other way around.
Miura: [In high school] I was in a group full of people saying they wanted to be manga artists, but were actually busy getting girlfriends and getting into fights, so they weren’t really all that otaku. So I was basically the biggest manga nerd out of the bunch. It was a group of five, and I was pretty much the yellow ranger of the group: lagging behind in terms of emotional growth, but way ahead of the others in terms of drawing ability. I wasn’t capable of making a story that would really make anyone feel much of anything, though.
So that information coming from outside — the other group members’ love troubles and fights — was really new to me. Also, there’s the fact that people who go into fine arts tend to be people with big egos who all have something that they’re particularly good at, and so with these other guys showing off what they’re good at, I wanted to find what I could do. Drawing, I decided, was my only option. The only way I could keep on equal footing with these guys was to make my mark as a manga artist. It became this strange obsession for me.
–Is that idea that you had to stay on “equal footing” something that is reflected now in the relationship between Guts and Griffith?
Miura: Yes, it is, quite a bit. I don’t know what relationships between boys these days are like, but back in the eighties, boys were really obsessed with stuff like how good their friends were at things, how highly they “ranked” in comparison to their friends, etc. For boys, friendship isn’t about consoling each other. Sometimes you even try to take the other guy down a peg or two. But to break away from those friends would feel like admitting defeat, and you do help each other when you find some sort of goal. That’s where the Band of the Hawk comes from.
–I see — so, that core from your high school days has been transformed into the story in Berserk.
Miura: Right. I’d done some training to change that group of high school friends into a band of mercenaries by the time I was graduating university.
–And you took that formative experience and put it into the sprawling original fantasy world of Berserk. When’d you come up with that idea? How much did you plan out at that point?
Miura: I’d hardly thought any of it out at first. I had no idea how far I’d be able to run with just that original idea for the manga, and I really hadn’t come up with the idea for the Band of the Hawk at all. Aside from the monster-slaying black swordsman, I had this idea that it’d be easier to give him something to fight if I added the element of revenge to it, and that was about it.
–That’s true of the prototype story, but from the very start of the actual series we see Griffith’s transformed self as well as Apostles and the God Hand, so it at least certainly seems like you had worked out quite a bit of the universe before starting it, though.
Miura: It looks that way now in retrospect, but up until volume three all I had in mind was that it would be a story about anger. In preparation for starting this series, first I asked myself what it was that I had to pay attention to, and what I decided was that I would make sure that the character was angry. So then I asked myself how to make him angry. There are a lot of ways to depict anger — there’s the explosive kind of anger, but then there’s the kind of anger where your face just loses its color and goes expressionless. I decided I would just focus on expressing anger and hope I’d find something to work with.
So how well I could evoke the fascinatingness of an angry person was going to make or break the manga at the start. Now, how do I go about making Guts angry? Depending on the answer, he might come out looking like a scary monster and seem inhuman, or maybe he’ll be scary in a more human way. And so when the God Hand showed up in the manga, Griffith still wasn’t all that important yet.
–Really? I figured that you must’ve had the antagonism with Griffith in mind from the start.
Miura: I think there were a bunch of things overlapping in my mind, and they start coming together around the third volume of Berserk. First of all, if Guts is angry, there is going to have to be an object of that anger. So I asked myself what people get angry at, and, well, something you see a lot of is the murderer of one’s parents, but as I already said, I was someone who friendship mattered a lot to, so the idea of making the target of Guts’s anger a friend, or at least a man of the same general age, naturally came to mind. So I put that character in, but then I have to give the reason why Guts is angry. So then we have the Band of the Hawk, where I make use of my own past.
–So it was the idea of creating an “equal” character for your protagonist that brought out these things from inside yourself.
Miura: I’m not sure if this works as a lesson to take away from this, but like I said before, when you’re working hard on something, sometimes you just hit upon the right thing and it all starts falling into place. I myself am someone not very good at planning, but when you stop and think about the manga you’ve already made, I think you’ll find that there was some sort of reason behind it. Assuming you don’t have multiple personalities or something.
–It’s all connected on a subconscious level, you’re saying.
Miura: And if I dig into that enough, it comes together as a story. It’s not something done intentionally.
–Getting back to the topic of planning Berserk, though, there’s a long flashback arc that starts in volume three, showing things like Guts’s youth and leading up to the Eclipse. Did you at least have parts of that long story in mind when you started drawing, or did you just make it up as you went?
Miura: Back then it was more like I was making it up as I went, I’d say. I actually hadn’t planned for Guts and Casca to get together, you know — it just occurred to me partway through that it’d be more dramatic that way. As I remember it now, all I’d really decided at the time was that there’d be about five characters, and I’d make them similar to five of my friends.
–I see — so those five friends are the base models for the characters.
Miura: Pretty much. The only difference is, there aren’t any Griffiths or Guts in our group. There really was a guy similar to Judeau. We had a Corkus too, and a Rickert. There’s no Casca, though, since it was a group of guys. And then Pippin is me, in terms of physical appearance.
Miura: The yellow ranger, basically. I’m pretty sure that was the role I played. On the inside, though — and maybe manga artists tend to idealize themselves, but — I would have Guts-like thoughts, or Griffith-like thoughts. Manga is a funny thing: rather than taking base models and inserting them into your manga unchanged, you can do things like break the models up and rearrange their different parts into all sorts of strange things.
–What exactly do you mean when you say you thought like Guts or Griffith?
Miura: So, for example, in terms of manga, I was head and shoulders above everyone in terms of drawing, but at the same time, I looked up to the guy who used to act as the leader. He was very much like Griffith in terms of ability: he was the type who put his money where his mouth was, and he even had a bit of that touch-of-the-divine feel to him. In terms of violence, though, I’d say he was very much like Guts.
He would go out and get into fights every day and then come to my house afterwards and say, “Alright, let’s draw some manga,” and then he’d go to his part-time job the next day, sleep deprived. He was a wonder. So in order to keep up with him I felt like I needed some sort of trick of my own, and I decided to work hard on drawing manga. Later on, though, I would find out that he apparently used to act violently the way he did because he was amazed by my ability at manga.
So then in university he gave up becoming a manga artist, and he decides he’ll do things that the rest of us will be jealous of — sleep with a hundred girls, get hired into a first-rate company, that sort of thing. And he manages to pull it off. Then he becomes an illustrator, and starts pulling in tens of millions of yen a year while he’s still in his twenties. But it’s still manga that he wants to do, so in the end he throws it all away and starts from square one in the manga industry.
–Wow, that’s an amazing story.
Miura: See, so up until that point, he’s Griffith. But then from there he falls and re-examines what it is he really wants to do, and so in that sense, that makes him Guts, right? Maybe Griffith and Guts are symptoms that affect boys. When a boy seriously tries to do something, he could become either one.
–Interesting — so you’re saying that you have both of them inside you.
Miura: They’re both there. When things start going well, Griffith starts sprouting up. If Berserk were to start to slip and fall, I’d probably go back to Guts. Anyone trying to build up something experiences both sides, I suspect. This is something I only realized talking about it now.
–So, about the Egg Apostle: I heard that he was created out of empathy for hikikomori or the uncool kids or something like that.
Miura: Okay, so for better or for worse, monsters constantly appear in Berserk, and there’s an old trope that the reason monsters are violent is because they’re sad. People like Tim Burton have really nailed that sort of thing, the sad but scary, and it’s something I want to do, too. And then you look at modern Japan for sad and scary, and you’ve got people who turn to crime, or are on the verge of it, or are at least scared that they might turn to it. And that’s something that I want the reader to sympathize with. By the time you’re in high school I feel like everyone has this fear that they might do something bad someday, or have something bad done to them. It’s something I still vaguely feel, even at this age. I think people these days tend to try to exclude anything that’s different from themselves. It’s the “Me” generation. But we can’t let ourselves forget that there are a lot of people out there who can’t speak up for themselves.
–I feel like that syncs up really nicely with the sense of fear in Berserk. It might not be on a conscious level, but I really find that there’s a lot of resonance going on between Berserk and the present. Do you watch the news much?
Miura: Yes, I like watching the news, I like documentaries. The main things I can’t bring myself to watch are dramas and variety shows.
–I can relate.
Miura: And in that sense I think I’m just like the kids in high school and university who can’t bring themselves to go out into public. I mean, I myself am currently living the life of the uncool, after all. (laugh) So I guess if I had a family or something then I’d make manga geared more toward family men, but for better or for worse I’ve stayed the way I am and I do think that comes out in my work.
–So, about all those refugees [in the Birth Festival storyline], when they’re hunting for heretics: I heard that you came up with the idea for them from when refugees in Yugoslavia or somewhere like that were in the news.
Miura: Back then I guess it would’ve been Yugoslavia, or maybe the Tutsis and Hutus. I’m not really sure. Anyway, it made me say to myself, “God, the world’s a really cruel place right now.” So part of the idea was that I’d put in something resembling those people in order to make things a little topical. But then it’s crucial that I make it so that it’s actually about Japan — my readers are reading from a Japanese perspective, after all — and so I use the refugees to show all sorts of things like how xenophobic groups can be, or how people will refuse to act for themselves and just wait for someone else to do things for them. The idea was to expand upon the bad aspects of groups in the present day.
–So those refugees are Japan, then?
Miura: Things from outside Japan do go into the manga on a superficial level, but the Berserk world is, in terms of the way it feels, essentially Japan. It started from a pretty core Japanese place right from the start.
–Wait, so you’re saying that while it may not look like it on the outside, Berserk reflects Japan on a mental level?
Miura: Something like that, yeah.
–This conversation is making me realize that there are a lot of surprising things appearing in surprising forms in Berserk: the refugees are actually Japanese, you’re influenced by Yumiko Oshima…
Miura: I don’t consider myself a special person doing something that only I can do, though. I think of myself more as pretty much just an ordinary person. It’s not like I’m looking at all kinds of stuff, either — I’d say I take in about as much as the average person. I suppose I do make more use of what I look at, though. I can look at things that most people would get nothing out of — some weird movie or something — and take something away from it, so long as there’s some sort of human drama in there.
Basically, people live their lives taking the stuff happening around them and breaking it down into something that makes sense to them, and for me, manga is where I talk about that stuff. It’s a matter of being able to connect it together into a network, I think. I don’t think of leisure and work as separate things — even what’s happening here right now will go toward the manga, in the end. It’s a matter of bringing everything out into the manga.
–I do think manga is a medium that could probably contain the whole world.
Miura: Right. So, I don’t think the information I take in is special, and I don’t think I’ve got an especially sharp way of thinking. I couldn’t do a manga that slices things clean in half — I do more of a brooding, writhing kind of manga. But what I think is unique to me is that I can connect everything together in my mind, and I can mull it over long and hard. Persistence, I guess you call it. Hence my haunting obsession with not letting anything go to waste.
–Roughly how far along are you in your overall plans for the manga?
Miura: I’m not sure — that’s something I worry about myself. The relationship between Griffith and Guts is about to start for real, though.
–Wait, it’s only starting now? So it’s all just been prologue up until now?
Miura: Well, no, I wouldn’t say it’s just been prologue. We’ve come to the part in the story where the score starts getting settled, though.
–Huh, so Guts and Griffith’s relationship is just starting for real! That’s exciting news. Surprising, but also exciting.
Miura: Yeah. It’s sort of been vacillating back and forth up until now, but now Griffith is going to come to terms with having become a demon. I basically see it as the beginning of the relationship between the two of them having become adults. And also, the demon child that Casca gave birth to is going to become something of a key point — despite the fact that I didn’t even plan for it to be Casca’s baby when I first drew it.
Miura: I didn’t even have Casca in mind at the time.
–Ah, right. That means it wasn’t supposed to be a fetus at the start, then. And I guess there was no plan to have Guts lose his eye and arm the way he did, either…
Miura: None at all. That part was left open. Basically, I had planned that he’d have it done to him somehow by Griffith, and then a love story came into the picture, and taking that to its extreme just happened to fit together nicely with the climax. It’s not as though I had it planned from the start. And now it turns out that the demon child is similarly going to snap very usefully into place.
–Wow… hearing this stuff is really amazing. You say you didn’t really have things clearly planned out at first, and yet every little thing fits so snuggly into place without any plotholes, as if you’d had it all figured out from the start. It’s a great mixture of the intuitive and the logical.
Miura: It’s true, lately I’ve come to trust in my own carelessness. In my experience things often pop nicely into place even without having been planned ahead much. I do think it probably wouldn’t go very smoothly if I were to work with stuff that isn’t me, stuff that I’ve borrowed from elsewhere and simply stuck in, but there’s hardly any of that. Even when I do bring in something from elsewhere, I run it through myself and quality test it before using it.
–But I think a story that’s only being thought up afterwards wouldn’t generally fit together so perfectly. I mean, the demon child is — in a manner of speaking — the three characters’ baby. The fact that you’ve managed to take this thing that appears right from the start and turn it into a key point in the later story is sort of incredible. Is the way it looks going to change?
Miura: Yes, it’ll change — and the relation between Griffith, Casca and Guts will change a little with it. Plus, an actual witch is going to enter the picture soon.
–Is it even possible that we’ll see a happy ending?
Miura: I’d say it’s possible. I used to have the final moves planned out, but lately I’ve been thinking I’d rather figure them out when I come to it, so now it’s hard to say what could happen. Being the sort of person I am, though, I actually don’t think I could let such a long grim story end with a grim ending — like, say, having him suddenly die. I don’t really like that kind of entertainment. I’ll leave it to my subconscious.
–I see. I have a few more questions on Berserk’s mysteries, now. What was the “216 years” thing for the Eclipse about?
Miura: Ah, that’s just when solar eclipses happen at the same place.
–Oh, so that’s what it means.
Miura: Yeah, and if you divide it by a thousand years you get exactly five people. Just happened to work out.
Editor: This guy at the astronomy observatory told us. And then, 216 is also 6 times 6 times 6.
–So it happens to be 6 x 6 x 6, *and* it’s a solar eclipse year? It’s got an almost numerological mystique to it.
Miura: Maybe that’s where the whole 666 thing comes from.
–Ah, true, like in The Omen. Oh, I get it now, so that’s why it’s the number of the Devil. Pretty well thought-out, really. Cool.
Miura: This is something a fan told me, but in a peasants’ rebellion or revolutionary war or something in Germany a long time ago there was this knight who used to fight with a metal prosthetic arm because he’d lost his right arm to cannon fire, and apparently his name was Gotz. But I only found out after.
–So Guts wasn’t based on him or anything.
Miura: Total synchronicity. ♦