Word broke the other night that Kentaro Miura, creator of Berserk, one of the most meticulously realized and genuinely ambitious stories I have ever read, died earlier this month of an aortal dissection. "Devastated" doesn't begin to describe the feeling. It was like someone telling you the moon had vanished.
Berserk was Miura's life's work, about which I have written in these pages before (and I plan to write about them again for Ganriki at some point). One of the dangers of any project that long and involved is the danger you'll never see it to completion, at least not by your own hands. Miura died at the age of 54, with forty-plus volumes of Berserk on the shelves, and something like an estimated fifteen more before Berserk would have been anything like finished.
For myself and many in my immediate circle of friends, Berserk was ... well, the way I put it to one of them the other night, "part of my mental furniture." It was as much a part of our nerd oxygen as Star Wars is for many other folks: something eagerly awaited in every new incarnation, and whose continued existence seemed a given. I encountered it when it was still a relatively new thing outside of Japan, and when I had not one but three different people tell me this wasn't the usual sword-and-sorcery stuff, I decided there was indeed Something Going On there. The original TV series adaptation of the manga, crudely animated as it was, and limited in the scope of what it covered, still landed home like absolutely nothing else around it.
I watched it again years later and, if anything, it had even more impact. Miura had created three of the most fascinating characters in fantasy -- the one-eyed swordsman Guts (or "Götz", if we go by the historical derivative Miura based his figure on), and the mercenary leader Griffith, both absolute incarnations of the Byronean and Nietzschean ideals. He'd also given them a story of equal strength: Griffith, tempted by visions of what could be, pledges himself to a kind of council of diabolical gods, and Guts literally moves heaven and earth to stop him. Caught between the two of them is Casca, the swordswoman who joins Griffith's band but who gravitates towards Guts as the greater kindred spirit.
Miura did not believe a story like that could be told in a few succinct volumes. I normally disagree; for me, the essence of good storytelling is selectivity, not compulsive expansion. But Miura made a better case for his story being a big one than just about any other work of its kind had. Every detail in Berserk is cumulative and palatable, especially the details laid out in those first ten volumes. (If you read nothing else of it, read that). Most people, after reading the first ten books or so (the "Golden Age" arc, adapted into the first TV series), are hooked, and can see why this is such a long-haul investment.
The pace of his work slowed in recent years, but after putting out forty-plus books in the series, it seemed reasonable he would want to be careful. But now the work has fallen out of his hands entirely, and the rest of ours, too.
Fantasy fans have some precedent for this sort of thing. Robert Jordan died before The Wheel Of Time could be completed. That duty fell to Brandon Sanderson, who finished the series in three more volumes from Jordan's detailed notes. Assuming Miura left behind material outlining his story (and I can't imagine someone of his meticulousness not doing that), it's possible to do the same thing with Berserk, but it would still not be what was intended. You may be able to find someone of Miura's level of technical skill, but you will not find someone of the same aesthetic skill -- someone who could make equally brilliant decisions about what to show and why, and not just how. (Satoshi Kon's film The Dreaming Machines, unfinished at the time of his death, remains unfinished because of the producer feeling they cannot find someone of the same caliber of vision to step in and complete the job.)
I take all this so keenly not simply because I was a fan. Berserk did more than give me something to read and anticipate as it came out. It gave me a bar to rise to. Miura's work ethic, and the product of that work ethic, were objects of positive envy. I hoped one day I could create something with even a shred of that ambition, a sliver of that totality of vision. I don't think I ever will, and it hurts all the more knowing Miura will never be able to see to completion the ambition and vision he gave so many, that there will be that much less of it for any of us to draw on to fuel our own ambitions.
I am also now doubly aware of how my own mortality may constrain the work I choose to do. One reason I elected to work on many self-contained projects instead of one big, ongoing one was exactly this: the fear of leaving it unfinished. Osamu Tezuka left behind countless finished projects in his lifetime, but the grandest and most cosmic of them all, Phoenix, remained unfinished at the time of his death. So now I have what feels like multiple cautionary tales about how such ambition can fail both you and others.
And yet, look how much we do have! That this thing entered our lives at all seems more a miracle now than ever. People say "don't be sad it's over, be glad it happened", and I already sense my movement from the former feeling to the latter while writing this. But what a different feeling it will be to re-read Berserk now, knowing the wall of death lies across the end of the last volume. I suspect it will inspire in me an even greater sense of creative urgency than it did before. And, perhaps with it, a greater appreciation that such things can even be possible at all.
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Other Lives Of The Mind