While we previously got to examine the sword Mugenjin from the Kenshin manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki (a manga whose full title is Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story), the next article will delve more into a manga with a very unique fusion of eastern and western styles called Berserk, a series created by Kentaro Miura.
While Berserk has been commented on in articles presented here in Comics Classroom before, this in-depth examination will go into the lore of not just the Dragonslayer sword, but in the lore behind monster hunting itself. Also, we will get into swords as instruments of vengeance across such comics as DC Comics (represented through the Soultaker sword wielded by Katana, one of the Outsiders).
Before going further into the topic of revenge we should look at the basic definition of the word: to take vengeance for; inflict punishment for; avenge. While there is a tendency to think of revenge as a negative trait, this is often because the word is used in relation to crimes or actions with a social component, i.e. a person should not take revenge into their own hands because there is already a social function for this called the Courts.
We tend to frown on revenge as a social action, yet this is normally because we tend to think of revenge as being solely an action taken against other men and women. But what about taking revenge against things which are not human? Can revenge be something admired if it leveled against beasts or monsters not of the ‘natural’ world? Mythology not only says you can, it shows how in older civilizations this ideal was admired in heroes.
Perhaps one of the greatest revenge stories ever in Beowulf, an epic about a warrior who undertakes a holy cause to slay the beast Grendel after it murdered not only the men and women sword of Beowulf’s ally King Hrothgar, but also many of Beowulf’s own companions-at-arms. Japanese mythology famously includes the story of the warrior-god Susanoo who slew the serpent-beast Yamata no Orochi after it terrorized mortals and demanded their daughters. It was from the body of this fabled, many-headed creature that the sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi was drawn. This epic Japanese story parallels with Beowulf’s later triumph over a dragon, as well as with the story of Thor v. Jormungandar and Marduk v. Tiamat.
The manga Berserk is wonderful because it is a hybrid of both eastern and western story elements. The setting of the Berserk world is distinctly western in that almost all of its settings take place in English-inspired landscapes. From the smallest village to the loftiest castle-towns, Berserk exists in a world modeled after romantic views of England, and to a lesser extend France. The main story focuses on a mercenary band known as the Band of the Hawk who wage war for different lords and kings in the lands of Midland. Midland is embroiled in a 100 year war with their rivals, the kingdom of Chuder, a parallel with the Hundred Year’s War.
The main character of the saga, Gatsu, is a mercenary who was conscripted into the Hawks by Griffith, the leader of the company. While the details are far, far too numerous and wonderful to go into, Gatsu and Griffith’s relationship changes constantly. They begin and enemies, then become as close as brothers, and then Griffith’s ambitions force disaster into the Hawks. Suffice to say, the story quickly becomes about Gatsu desiring revenge against the man who was once his closest companion and then becomes the man who destroyed not only his life, but the lives of all who served him with loyalty and dignity.
Gatsu at one point in the manga, having first gone on his own way apart from Griffith before their falling out, befriends a blacksmith named Godo. Godo builds weapons and armor for whomever can pay him and he spends much of his time with his adopted daughter, Erica. Gatsu befriends Godo and Erica, thus eventually returning to their mountain home after the falling out with Griffith. For reasons relating to the story which should not be spoiled (seriously, read the story – it is astounding), the grief-stricken Gatsu and his lover/companion Casca come to rest at the home of Godo.
Unfortunately, it is then that a demonic beast attacks the dwelling and threatens everyone within. Gatsu, having no weapons on hand, raids Godo’s storehouse picks up Dragonslayer. Gatsu makes quick work of the hideous demon, a fact which terrifies Godo as no human should be capable of even lifting the impossibly huge blade.
The history of the weapon itself is shrouded in secrecy except for the fact that Godo made the sword to satisfy the wishes of a King. The King coveted a weapon capable of slaying even the mighty dragons, yet Godo was sentenced to death by the very king who commissioned the weapon be made. The sword was never used, yet its purpose remained: defeat the most impossibly-strong of beings.
Gatsu’s ability to not only wield the Dragonslayer, but to use it to hurt a spiritual being like a demon (called an apostle in the manga) is a terrifying moment as it hints that Gatsu is linked to something beyond the domain of normal man. Gatsu’s lifting of the weapon to slay a demon is the birth of his role as a monster slayer in a formal sense.
The Berserk manga portrays some moments in a non-chronological order, thus the manga starts by showing Gatsu already wielding the Dragonslayer as ‘The Black Swordsman,’ a figure who terrifies the demons that torment mankind on behalf of their master. One of the first demons slain by Gatsu on behalf of humanity is a massive serpentine apostle known simply as the Serpent Baron. Gatsu’s defeat of this titanic beast is colored by the following exchange (edited for some content so as to not spoil anything regarding the plot):
[this transcript is from the English adaptation of the anime DVD release]
Gatsu (having managed to cut the Serpent Baron in two with Dragonslayer): Didn’t you say a human couldn’t kill you? (Gatsu then shoots the Serpent Baron in the face with a crossbow bolt). You’re right. We are mortal and fragile. (second crossbow bolt) But even if we are tortured or wounded, we fight to survive. (More bolts casually fired). You should feel the pain we feel and understand. I am the messenger that will deliver you to that pain and understanding.
Serpent Baron: No … stop it … don’t kill me!
Gatsu: And what is it you said when those people [you killed] begged you for mercy? (More bolts fired).
[the ruins of the fiery village collapse around the two as Gatsu ‘delivers’ more understanding to the apostle]
Gatsu’s slaying of a serpent demon with a magic sword certainly holds the same mythic elements which made the story of Susanoo so exciting. A serpent beast who preyed on the local people was defeated by a great warrior. While Gatsu starts the story with his magic sword, the sword Dragonslayer is named after the feat which gave the Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi its origin: monster slaying.
In a sense, the sword can be seen as a tool through which humanity has carved civilization from chaos, but the idea of our myths showing men avenging themselves against monsters is fascinating: why monsters? Why magical weapons instead of just being fantastically strong?
Some could argue that swords represent man triumphing over nature because it was man’s metallurgic talents which allowed weapons to be made, thus man triumphs over nature through having mastered the ability to bend and transform natural materials to their whims. While there are heroes who are fantastically strong (Herakles comes to mind), most heroes need weapons because tools are the only means through which impossible monsters can be defeated. A man, with a sword at his side, represents a person holding the sum total of his people’s best skills and artistry through which he then defeats what threatens his home or lands.
In the case of the Dragonslayer, Godo was able to complete the impossible task of creating the weapon to the specifics desired; however, no mere man could lift it nor utilize it to its true potential. Gatsu’s friendship with Godo, a fact which proved vital and saved his life, lead to the moment in the story where Gatsu was able to lift the mighty weapon.
The bonds of companionship were also what spurred the Dragonslayer to be picked up at all, thus the weapon serves the archetypical function of a civilizing tool (much as a Sword of Restoration might), yet the story element of monster-slaying and revenge against demonic forces push the Dragonslayer into its status as a Sword of Revenge.
Still, not all swords with fictional powers are from the slaying of physical monsters. Sometimes swords are granted their powers by humans renouncing their humanity and becoming monsters themselves. One of the best examples of his might be the sword Soultaker, a mystical weapon wielded by Katana … but one which was not empowered by her.
The history of the Katana/Tatsu Yamashiro character began in 1983 as a Brave and the Bold character. Tatsu’s backstory involves the fact that she wed a man named Maseo instead of his brother, Takeo. Takeo, desiring revenge, has steading begun engaging in more and more criminal activity until he was a full member of the Japanese yakuza. His character was physically shown to have committed to this lifestyle after having had a dragon emblazoned upon his chest.
Takeo then took two swords to Tatsu and Maseo’s home in the hopes of challenging, and then slaying, Maseo for Tatsu’s hand in marriage. Takeo impaled his own brother with his sword, awakening the horrifying power of the blade that would be then known as Soultaker. After having taken Maseo’s soul into the weapon, Tatsu defeated Takeo and retained possession of the blade. It became her horrible burden, a blade forged out of the revenge which corrupted Takeo’s soul and which had damned Maseo.
Katana became one of the Outsiders and eventually, she managed to exact revenge against Takeo, yet the soul of her husband remained trapped in the sword. The story-telling elements of Katana and the Soultaker mirror some from Berserk: a falling out between family which culminates in revenge-killing burdens a hero with a sword they’d rather not wield … yet must.
The most obvious divide between Berserk’s Dragonslayer and the Soultaker sword of Katana is, perhaps, in that in Berserk the forging of the sword and the man who forged it is as important as who wields it. While western mythology tends to have divine beings craft swords for heroes, some of the more interesting Japanese katanas were made by historical swordsmiths who, over time, became legends of their own. The bond between a weapon might be said to have a shared connection between the crafter and the wielder.
Two of the most famous Japanese blacksmiths were Muramasa Sengo and Goro Masamune. Both men were said to have infused their weapons with aspects of themselves, with Muramasa’s swords having been said to hunger for the blood not only the enemies of its wielder, but even the wielder’s blood as well. There are myths about one of the fabled Muramasa blades, one called the Hojo Muramasa, having harmed the very men the sword was created for, the military dictators of Japan, the Tokugawa. While the sword is now lost, its status as a revered but mysterious weapon touched by its creator shows one aspect of the kind of spiritual link that can exist within weapons depending on the culture.
While the Soultaker sword does not have its origin explicitly described in some of its iterations, the bond between the weapon and the wielder, and the revenge which prompted their joining, is a dynamic story. Gatsu’s Dragonslayer is also a weapon steeped in grief and violence, yet (interestingly) both Gatsu and Tatsu wish to put up their weapons in time, or at the least to be with the ones they love.
Amusingly, Wolverine has a history with a Muramasa blade that showcases multiple aspects of the weapon’s link to soul-connections with its forger and wielder, as well as with the idea of the sword being a revenge-centric object. The first appeared in Chris Claremont’s run of Wolverine from 1988. Wolverine becomes embroiled a plot to see one of Muramasa’s sword recovered by the Cult of the Black Blade.
In the end, Silver Samurai was capable of taming the insane weapon and become its wielder. Wolverine becomes involved with a second Muramasa sword, this time granted to him by Muramasa himself (since, naturally, the Muramasa of the Marvel universe is immortal). Wolverine is granted a sword which shared a piece of his soul, a weapon stepped in his rage and anger. This sword is Wolverine’s lust for revenge as a tangible object, a weapon so powerful that it proved capable of ignoring healing factors completely.
There is a haunting middle-ground between the weapon helping Logan act as a monster-slayer and as a man-slayer, a dualistic quandary which, ultimately, serves to draw out the more interesting pieces of the Wolverine mythos. Logan understands he will use the weapon to kill men, yet in the end it is also the only weapon capable of putting down the most dangerous monster he knows: himself.
Swords which embody revenge against monsters capture the epic past of heroes, the time when man needed to pick up arms against the unknown to secure their family and culture. In this aspect, the Dragonslayer is a weapon of spiritual conquest, a revenge driven by the human will to have freedom over the unseen and the chaotic. But, on the other hand, swords as tools of revenge against humans is ever truly heroic, nor are their stories honorable.
Dragonslayer, while wielded against monsters, is picked up partly because of Gatsu’s burning need for revenge. The burden of his weapons as a vengeance tool against his friend makes the weapon a tragic icon. Soultaker is a similar weapon because, regardless of its power, it exists as a tool which divides humans from other humans. And while eastern and western cultures place different emphasis of the source of where a magical weapon’s power draws from, whether it is from Heaven or from the soul of the weapon’s blacksmith, the end goal for both is similar: swords exist in fiction to help manifest aspects of the drama which are most important.
In a visual medium such as a comic, ‘telling’ that a character is emotionally burden is not quite as dynamic as saddling a character with a sword that weighs 400 lbs. or showing that the character must carry the sword which killed her husband. In comics, swords as revenge symbols walk a line that borders on either monster slayer or man-slayer, but the ultimate image of a figure rushing to slay the dragon which burnt his town is still heroic. Similarly, a figure who wields a sword in the hopes of avenging his murdered family also has dramatic weight. While revenge stories link swords in different ways to heroes than restoration, they still help tell the stories we often love best.