Power Dynamics & Abuse in Berserk


Emotional abuse or violence is mostly about maintaining power and control over someone, usually for completely selfish purposes. It goes far beyond of just being rude and mean to someone else. It’s a sum of repeating actions for a specific purpose, like stroking your own ego.

I see a lot of aspects in Berserk that appear to originate from some kind of emotional abuse or trauma and find them extremely relatable, whether these aspects were consciously integrated into the story or not.

Now, I also have to say that being emotionally abusive is not quite the same as emotional manipulation. Abusers, that means, narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths and others (I will commonly call them “abusers” from now on) do use emotional manipulation, but not every means for emotional manipulation is abuse. In fact, to a certain degree emotional manipulation happens in normal interactions, but abusers use those techniques to pursue their own selfish goals, often at the expense of others.

The same applies to all other manipulation techniques emotional abusers have in their sleeve. These techniques are tools that can be used to benefit or harm someone. Whether someone is using these tools to benefit them while actively and maliciously harming someone else usually tells you that someone is being abusive or toxic. In my opinion, this subtle but extremely important distinction is also what makes Griffith the “bad guy” and Guts the “good guy” of the story, so I would even go as far as to say it’s one of Berserk’s core themes.

The subtle distinction can be extremely hard to detect, especially if someone is a bad judge of intent, or simply if someone’s perception is being manipulated (abusers are masters at that). Sometimes, intentionally or not, it is quite ambiguous, too. In other words, it is a very complicated topic with a lot of gray areas here. As a rule of thumb, someone who experienced abuse will know whether an act is abuse. Remarkably, even this ambiguity of abusiveness is accurately portrayed by Miura in Berserk. But not only that: he is capable of displaying different aspects of abuse as well.

Let’s start with examining the dynamics abused and abusers have. I will partially make use of my own experiences with abusers. In particular “Why does he do that” by Lundy Bancroft is a great book on this topic to understand the techniques of manipulations used. Other sources will be appropriately noted.

The Profile of an Abused Person

The perfect victim for abusers are people who…

  1. Take responsibility for themselves and their actions. Instead of blaming someone else, the victim will blame themselves and attempt to fix their mistakes, if any should occur.
  2. Work hard to achieve their goals. They are industrious people and enjoy reaping the fruits of their hard labor. Their endurance and perseverance are completely unmatched.
  3. Are highly empathetic and inspirational. They wish to heal and empower others, make a difference in the world, striving to better themselves.
  4. Weave their plans for the long-term. They think ahead and both their goals and their relationships are usually made to last.
  5. Have troubles enforcing their boundaries. Their communication skill is usually not very well-developed, which causes them to prefer to have their boundaries violated in quietness, without other people even knowing.
  6. Tend to give more than they receive. The target person has a problem with receiving help in any shape or form and prefers pleasing others instead.

I hope this already makes you think of a couple of Berserk characters already.

Learned Behavior vs Malicious Behavior

Before continuing, I also want to add that there is also another side-effect in being exposed to abuse for a longer time-period: through mirroring and learning from the abuser, the victims can be under the impression that abuse is normal, which is especially the case with abused children. As such, their behavior towards others tends to be abusive as well. In this case and in my understanding, it is mostly learned behavior that can be untrained and healing can be achieved by having normal relationships. 

Narcissism or psychopathy are both considered a personality disorder, where inferiority or superiority complexes, lack of morals and empathy, or self-centered attitudes play a major role. Either or both disorders can make someone act maliciously and intentionally abusive. Naturally, someone who was abused can become the culprit just as much. Abusers have to learn that they cannot treat people like tools and that the resulting isolation caused by people distancing themselves from them will make them unhappy in the long term.

This is also why there is a lot of gray area in this matter and not every abusive person is maliciously and intentionally abusive. Sometimes it is a genuine (but immature) expression of hurt, disappointment or other feelings. In either case, abusiveness can be treated, e.g. through appropriate therapy, personal growth and emotional maturity.

Dynamics in Abusive Relationships

Now the dynamic with abusers that unfolds here is as follows:

  1. Because of the victim’s tendency to blame themselves, abusers will take advantage of this, even though the abuser is the problem, not the one being abused. Because of this, victims can be “trained” by the abuser to take responsibility for things that aren’t even theirs.
  2. Abusers take advantage of the victim’s industriousness. They will twist a one-sided relationship around, making it seem like that maybe one day, the victim will receive what they have been craving from the abuser (often in the form of praise or attention), even though an abuser will factually never ever be satisfied, no matter how much effort they put into the relationship.
  3. A victim’s empathy is also being used, by invoking pity or other techniques, e.g. “guilt-tripping”, although for the abuser, it is a cold and self-serving calculation. The victim is supposed to feel bad about the perpetrator, because they had such a terrible, terrible childhood and past, and just accept these flaws as though accountability never existed. In other cases, they pretend to care about the victim, they point out their contributions to the relationship, which are completely disproportionate in relation to the victim’s own contributions. In fact, abusers will get really mad when you draw boundaries and hold them accountable for their actions.
  4. Because the victims are usually playing the long game, they are a potential threat and rival to abusers, who tend to have very shallow and short-lived relationships because of their toxicity. For this reason, abusers switch cities, jobs and friend circles often to escape their bad reputation.
  5. The fact that victims have problems enforcing their boundaries only feeds to the abuser’s pursuit to violate them for his own advantage. The abuser also sets very clear boundaries, but will not respect the boundaries of others at all. Communicating, setting and enforcing boundaries is one of the steps towards breaking out of abusive dynamics.
  6. Finally, victims generally have a tendency to give more than they receive in relationships, and they are more comfortable with giving than receiving either, so an unbalanced relationship to an abuser goes unnoticed for longer. Abusers take advantage of that, too.

Note: If these dynamics seem similar to you in any shape or form, please, seek out help. There are trained professionals out there that help you understand and recognize your unhealthy relationships and coping mechanisms.

Examples for Abusive Dynamics in Berserk

There are quite a few different abusive dynamics portrayed on Berserk. I will name a few instances briefly. The abusive character is marked in bold. I really like Jill’s story so that is what I will dig deeper into (more instances are going to be featured in detail in my book).

  1. Young Guts and Gambino 
  2. Guts and Casca in the early Golden Age (motivation: jealousy)
  3. Farnese and her Father in Vritannis
  4. Farnese and Serpico during their younger days
  5. Jill and her Father, including a particular friend or relative of her family

Note: I was considering placing Guts and Puck during the Black Swordsman Arc as an example, but to me it always seemed like Guts was edgy because he’s hurt, not necessarily because he wished to manipulate people for his benefit. Admittedly, there are abusive ways to express and deal with hurt, too, that is the case with Farnese & Serpico.

Jill’s Family

Jill’s family is completely dysfunctional. Most of the abuse is coming from her father. We also see him beating her up, so it is not only emotional, but also physical abuse; the latter being also the most obvious form of abuse. Her father uses her as a scapegoat, who blames his life failure on Jill, essentially making her responsible for something she can’t even help, something that narcissistic parents tend to do (insider.com). Her mother does make some efforts to protect her, but she too is victim of her father, since she appears to be beaten up by him as well. The worst part about this whole thing is that Guts, our protagonists, sees and understands these dynamics and decides to do nothing about it, either (he appears in an internal conflict about it at least, as shown when he sees Jill’s bruises when she visits him and falls asleep next to him).

During the Lost Children chapters (which is also a very fitting chapter name in many ways) we also see how a friend or perhaps relative of the family withdraws from a family gathering to go to the toilet, but instead, is about to enter Jill’s bedroom to (possibly sexually) abuse her. The fact Jill is already waiting for him, locking the door instead, shows us she anticipated this, that it has happened many times before, and that it has happened enough times already that she found a way to defend herself. We then see how Jill cowers next to her bed, snuggling into Guts’ cape.

So Jill is not only a victim of her father’s abuse, but also that of their family friend. On meeting Guts, who she saw fighting literal monsters, she started to extrapolate his situation to her own, and understood that she could make a change in her own life by standing up to herself. She does that almost instantaneously by evading a punch of her father, right before Guts departed into the darkness.

Image
“Don’t you talk back to me!” — Abusers do not like resistance at all. He takes a swing trying to hit her, to keep her obedient

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Breaking The Cycle

It is interesting that Jill started to break away the moment she saw how weak her own father was. When Guts takes Jill hostage to get away from the angry villagers without killing them, they both passed by her father. Instead of perhaps stopping Guts or saying something, he cowardly hid behind the wall.

Image

Jill’s mom acted differently: when Guts took Jill hostage right after the barn was set on fire, it seems like she wanted to walk over to Guts to release her child, because a villager behind her places her hand on her shoulder, as if holding her back.

The illusion of power and authority her dad has over her crumbled. Guts made it clear to her that “there is no paradise to escape to”, as well. I mean after all, running away is something Rosine had done, and it turned her into a monster causing even more pain and agony to others: raiding her village, taking away the children, turning them into pseudo-apostles, making them play “war”. What Jill is left with is her own struggle, her own battlefield. A battle (e.g. against an abuser) can’t be won if you cannot stand up for yourself. Jill’s illusions were destroyed and this is when she discovered her own strength and capacity to do something in her final monologue.

Jill is not the only one who broke a cycle of abuse.

It is worth noting that something similar happened to Farnese. Her mother stated that her father was in fact weak because Farnese was an engima to him. He was someone who had to be in full control over all aspects of his life and only rests once everything is going according to his schemes.

“Oh you didn’t know? Your father… fears you. […] You see, he is weak.”
[…]
“He moves people and things all throughout the world like they were toys, and once everything is arranged according to his schemes, he finally relaxes. In my eyes he is slave to the world.”

Now Farny was not easily to control, as evident of her burning down the mansion to prevent an unwanted wedding. Farnese was always a thorn in her father’s eye, and he acted accordingly.

Guts also started to break away the moment he saw how weak Gambino was once he lost his leg. He contemplates how Gambino, who always acted all superior, suddenly has become such a whimp. Shortly after that, he was driven out of the mercenary group for killing Gambino in self-defense.

“You’ve always acted superior to me… High and mighty, selfish, cold. Always smiling like you were looking down your nose at other people.”

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It is most fascinating that Casca too broke away from Griffith the moment she saw how weak he was when he was severely injured by Zodd. She even blames Guts for making him weak during the Waterfall Scene, even says that she realized that Griffith is “just” a human being. Maybe something similar happens later when the Hawks rescue Griffith, who has been tortured for a year. Remarkably, Casca would have continued to take care of him. Had she done that, this relationship too would have been one-sided since he could not talk nor move properly. In other words, she would have stayed in those dynamics that were destructive to her. And then… the Eclipse happened.

It seems like the realization that their idols were actually just human and fallible empowered all these characters, discovering their own strength and freedom in the process.

Miura seems to have a deep understanding of the matter and (subconsciously?) integrated all these topics in his fictional work pretty well. The fact Berserk is also a work revolving around healing, growth and learning, and a found family does say something about the author, as well.

Thank you for reading. Let me know what you think about this topic in the comments section below!

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