Have the Game of Thrones off-season blues got you down? Do you love your sex, violence, political intrigue, deception, seduction, and tales of comradery, ambition, and brotherhood with horror elements all trussed up in an epic medieval fantasy story about mercenaries making their own destinies in a hostile world where they can’t trust anything but their own blade? If so, consider going Berserk.
This series and I go a long way back. The original anime adaptation of the popular manga aired in 1997 and inevitably found its way to my DVD player. At the time, there was nothing else like it. It was like the fantasy series I always wanted but had never found; something that treated the genre as adult entertainment, taking place in a world that is corrupt at its very core and never shying away from the horrors of violence or the deceitfulness of human nature. Berserk was almost like a more linear and action-oriented anime equivalent of George R.R. Martin’s work years before it ever found its way to television.
Unlike so many other anime shows, the battles were fast-paced and brutal and the characters didn’t really fall into the typical archetypes. And unlike most fantasy stories, it wasn’t some good vs. evil tale about a pint-sized audience surrogate underdog facing overwhelming odds in a quest to defeat some all-powerfuldark lord and save the world or whatever. It was a show where the people were people, and their main concern was day-to-day survival navigating battlefields and, as their success and fame increase, the vipers’ nest of castle politics.
You kids with your fancy computer graphics and high definitions. Why, back in my day…
The original manga is beloved to this day and is still ongoing, but the first anime series petered out after one 25 episode season, leaving fans hanging for a very long time. After more than ten years with no word, I’d given up. Then a few years ago, another studio took it upon themselves to pick up the bigass sword and run with it with the intention of adapting the manga in its entirety as a series of films, beginning with a trilogy for the Golden Age arc that would effectively remake the existing anime.
My original plan was to wait and begin buying the DVD’s once the retread movies were done since I already own the original show, but when production on the film series stalled (WHYYYYYY!?!?) and I saw the trilogy for rent on Amazon Instant Video, I couldn’t resist seeing what they’d done with the old material; especially the insane series climax. I was all hyped up for more Berserk and I was going to get it, damn it.
Condensing over two dozen episodes of story chronicling the rise and fall of the Band of the Hawk into three films naturally means a lot less character development for the supporting cast and none of the protagonist Guts’ insanely gritty backstory, but what Berserk: The Golden Age Arc lacks on those fronts, it makes up for in style. The CG-enhanced visuals made for some really nice sweeping battle shots and the music was as epic as it should be. The biggest complaint I had about the original series was an incredibly weak opening. Let us compare.
Do not judge the series in any way by that lame sauce. Instead, take a look at this new hotness.
And that’s how you do that. The trade-off was somewhat worth it. As much as I enjoyed the storytelling of the original show, I don’t believe it ever popped my eyes open like the films did. The visuals are glorious at times, and while the narrative flow feels rushed in comparison, I doubt the pacing will bother newcomers at all. The English dub even features the original voice actors from some 15 years back so the material feels just right.
With its focus on masculine musclebound marauders and brutal beasts smashing and chopping one another up, it’s safe to say that the target audience for Berserk is men. As such, the story has an interesting relationship with its women, even discounting the explicit sex and nudity. The Hawk’s field commander, Casca, provides a focal point as one of the only females of consequence. She’s a great character and an incredibly competent field commander on one hand, but on the other the story repeatedly treats her in ways that the feministically inclined are likely going to have trouble with. Like having to be saved in single combat by the show’s hero, Guts, because it’s “that time of the month” kind of ways.
On the other, other hand (I like to picture myself with a few extra hands) she’s got some terrifically badass moments and is very developed overall, portrayed as a heroine determined to make her mark on the battlefield in spite of it being seen as “no place for a woman”. All of my other hands are clenching spoilers so I’ll leave it at that and let you decide how you feel about it. Fair warning, though.
See, that’s what I’m talking about! Always gotta shove your way to the front, Guts.
While Casca’s often contentious relationship with the other characters is vital to the story, the real thematic meat lies in the relationship between the male leads, Griffith and Guts. The elegant Griffith’s bottomless ambition stands in direct contrast to the brutish Guts’ carefree desire only to live in freedom day by day, but the two strike up a really interesting relationship that drives the entire narrative to its batshit conclusion. Speaking of which…
Where Berserk: The Golden Age Arc really cooks is in the last film, The Advent. While the story was a really cool and different take on fantasy right from the start, the looming darkness never really comes to a head until the end of the arc. The last episode of the original show broke my brain by going full Lovecraft and made it an instant classic when I watched it the first time, and the trilogy finisher essentially expands it to feature length to make for some of the nastiest and most horrifying visuals ever animated. It’s like every death metal album cover ever come to life.
That said, I’ve been pretty bent out of shape over the lack of news regarding a continuation from the studio that’s been putting them out. They promised they were adapting the entire manga and they just now reached the end of the existing anime series. Stopping now is just cruel to fans who’ve been waiting a decade and a half for more. Seeing as the manga is one of the most beloved in existence and its fans lord its superiority over us anime peasants, it’s time to finally cave in and start reading it.
I was torn between a cutesy face image and a monster porn image here. Guess which one won.
Anyways, given the fairly recent conclusion of the first (but hopefully not the last) trilogy of the newest incarnation of Berserk, now is probably a good time to hop on the bandwagon if you’re looking for another fantasy franchise with a layer of darkness that goes far beyond your typical good vs. evil fairy tales. It’s got insane monsters, invincible heroes, epic battles, tense duels, crazy amounts of violence, hellish imagery, sexual intrigue, and plenty more.
To quote a line from the anime, “Love, hate, ultimate pleasure, ultimate pain, life, death, all here to enjoy right before our very eyes! The true nature of man and the devil is here and now.” And that’s probably the best way to recommend this franchise. It’s an unusual style of fantasy that manages to feel down to Earth even as it revels in extremes. It’s a shame the adaptations keep getting stalled, but when you run out of patience there’s always the source material. Speaking of which, I really need to get started on that. Meanwhile, you can get started on this: