What follows after is unknown, but what came before is a tale of friendship and of camaraderie. It is a tale of hardship and of sacrifice, fuelled by the pursuit of one man's dream. Unfortunately, it's a tale without a proper conclusion. You ever watched something that had you completely engrossed with what was going on and then RIGHT when it gets to the most soul-crushing and depressing part, it suddenly ends? No? Well too fucking bad. That's what the deal is with Berserk. This is my third time watching the anime, and even though I've forgiven virtually EVERYTHING else that was wrong with this show, I can NEVER let such a gigantic middle finger of an ending slide, especially given how much was cut out of the manga (albeit with Kentaro Miura's approval).
Let's start off with what this show does right: despite the absolutely horrendous animation, the story is more than enough to make up for it and despite Berserk's infamous reputation for being one of the most gruesome mangas of all time, various changes were made for the sake of pacing and in the process, many of the manga's more explicit scenes were either modified so that they weren't as gruesome or were cut out of the picture entirely. Themes of friendship and ambition are also further emphasised, rather than causality and the supernatural. If you've been hesitating to give Berserk a shot because of its reputation, the anime will certainly be able to give you virtually everything this series has going for it (i.e. the story, the characters) with a fraction of all the baggage it comes with.
If you take away all the raunch that Berserk and other such dark fantasy stories like Game of Thrones come with, you'll find that its story is quite a delight. It's a careful mix of medieval politics and war drama with plenty of fights to spare along with a ghastly nightmare caused by a generous helping of cruel irony thrown in toward the end because why the hell not? The driving force behind the story is our main man, Guts, a guy with a troubled past and no ambitions in life who happens across Griffith, a man with ambitions larger than life itself who leads a mercenary troupe known as the Band of the Hawk along with their ascent as they become the #1 military force in all of the Kingdom of Midland. If you're the kind of person who prioritises a great story and characters over aesthetics, Berserk was practically MADE for you.
While the actual animation is nothing short of revolting, the art direction itself is quite nice. The visuals are murky and ugly at times, yes. However, this contributes pretty damn well to the overall atmosphere of the show. It's exactly the kind of look that an animated dark fantasy story *should* have. Furthermore, when Berserk wants to look good, it looks REALLY good (i.e. pretty much any scene taking place inside Midland and not a battlefield). Going back to that absolutely repugnant animation, I have to give props to Oriental Light & Magic for at least not re-using footage like OTHER shows that came out at the time did (i.e. Evangelion, DBZ, Gundam Wing) and whilst it doesn't improve by a considerable margin, there IS a noticeable change in quality between the animation of Episode 1 and the animation in later episodes. It's still not very nice, don't get me wrong. But it's NOT as gut-wrenchingly unpleasant as it would seem.
Furthermore, when it comes down to audio quality, Berserk has it down-pat a good 90% of the time. The OST is composed of medieval/folk tunes which set the mood perfectly every time. Really, the only flaw I can find with it is the fact that the OP theme grates on my ears in a fashion similar to the first OP of Rurouni Kenshin or the 2011 reboot of Hunter x Hunter's OP. I'm sorry, but upbeat rock music does NOT befit a dark fantasy story like Berserk in the slightest. Who in their right minds at Oriental Light & Magic thought that this theme was a good fit for this show? Seriously... the 1990s were full of awesome OPs (i.e. Rurouni Kenshin OP 2, Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Serial Experiments Lain, etc.) and you'd THINK that Berserk would fall into that group, but it sadly does not.
The voice-acting is also deserving of mention because BOTH the Japanese and English tracks are absolutely spectacular. I recently completed Berserk subtitled rather than dubbed like I have the first two times, and I have to say... I'm absolutely torn between Nobutoshi Canna and Marc Diraison as Guts. I mean, I'm biased toward the English dub because that's what I'm more familiar with, especially given that the dub actors reprised their roles for the Berserk movies but I honestly didn't have any idea as to what to expect from the Japanese track, so it completely threw me for a loop when I found out how good it actually is. This is one of those instances where deciding between the dub and the sub boils down to a technicality. If you can't handle the fact that the dub has trouble matching up with the mouth movements on occasion, go with the sub. If you find that you can't keep up with the subtitles for whatever reason, dub all the way.
Lastly (and this is more of a technicality than something that is actually good), it's also the only adaptation of the Berserk manga which feels "complete" in some way, shape or form. While I personally prefer the Golden Age Arc movies to the 1997 anime, the fact still remains that the latter are just that: films. While I do happen to like film adaptations in general, the fact still remains that there was a LOT more cut out of the movies than there was in the 90s TV series despite the vastly superior visuals. If you're a stickler for accuracy when it comes down to adaptations, the anime is definitely the way to go rather than the films. It baffles me as to why there has to be this sort of dichotomy between accuracy and visual quality but alack, there is and when it comes down to accuracy, the ugliest duckling wins hands-down. Oh if only it were the other way around :(
With all of that praise out of the way, let's get on with what Berserk fails at. Let's start out with the obvious: the animation. I've never watched Violence Jack, but I'm pretty sure that even Violence Jack has better animation than Berserk does a good majority of the time. HATUL will definitely disagree with me on this one, but there is absolutely NO excuse to have a show that came out post-1995 with animation that sucks even more than Neon Genesis Evangelion's at its absolute worst. We're talking about the anime that had its last two episodes re-using animation footage and animated in pencil, for God's sake! How the fuck is it even possible to beat Gainax when it comes down to cutting back on animating something?
Throughout the course of Berserk, there was not a single battle which was properly animated. I suppose the final three episodes are a partial exception, but even then... it's far too late in the series' run to actually excuse the fact that whenever someone makes an attack, it cuts away from the actual blow and just shows a blown-up and detailed art still before cutting back to the battle at hand. There's barely any gore at all, outside of a severed limb or two (if we're lucky) and all we ever really get are splashes of blood. I did say that the anime tones down on some of the more explicit stuff from the manga, but you see... I'm a guy who just absolutely adores carnage and if I'm denied my precious carnage, I get VERY salty. Say what you will about Evangelion, but at least Gainax had the sense reserve all their effort for the action. Here, it feels like the animators *barely* tried. At least shit's moving? I don't know what else to say, really.
As for the ending... anyone who's ever watched the anime shouldn't disagree with me on this one. I can handle the fact that there was a good deal of stuff left out from the manga (including characters like Puck and Skull Knight), and I can easily forgive the various changes made for the sake of adapting the manga efficiently. But what I absolutely CANNOT forgive is the fact that the anime ends on the most mortifying cliffhanger EVER with no attempt made to tie together the events of the first episode with what transpired in the rest of the show's run. We didn't even get so much as a sequel OVA or what have you which even tries to rectify this mistake. Say what you will about Samurai X: Reflection, but at least that was an attempt at RESOLUTION, which the 90s TV series has a glaring lack of.
Were it not for the incredibly atrocious animation and that complete middle finger of an ending, I'd easily recommend Berserk to anyone who's craving a good dark fantasy story. When it comes down to depth and complexity, Berserk easily has the edge over OTHER similar fantasy titles like Attack on Titan and Claymore. Hell... if you're able to forgive those two facts alone, you'll definitely love the everliving Christ out of this show. The fact still remains that most people probably won't, especially given that it's no better than a glorified trailer of the manga. Hell... it wouldn't even do you much good to pick up the manga where the anime left off because even though the manga's story remains intact for the most part, there were minor details that eventually become major that were left out ever since the anime began. Sure, I could tell you what these details are, but they wouldn't really make a lot of sense unless you actually read it.
With all of that in mind, Berserk gets a solid 7/10 from me, and let's face it... that's actually pretty generous especially when you look at exactly what we got. That shit ending REALLY affects any sort of re-watch value that the show might have had, the show is ugly as all hell and has extremely repulsive animation which REALLY won't sit right with people who've only watched newer shows that came out within the last 5-8 years. I'll admit that my initial impressions of the anime were INCREDIBLY hard to shake off and it took a LOT of effort on the behalf of one of my friends to actually get my views to change somewhat. But I just cannot agree with the praise that people give the 90s TV series despite all of these glaring flaws. This is a one-time watch, through and through and despite the massive amounts of praise the manga gets... the anime doesn't hold a candle to its source material and is incapable of standing alone like an anime adaptation *should* do.
If you really want to experience the story and characters of Berserk "properly," and want to know what happens post-Eclipse, do yourself a favour and read the manga.
Some helpful information.
- The Berserk manga is currently licensed in North America by Dark Horse Comics. To clear up a bit of a misconception, older Berserk volumes were once out-of-print up until late last year due to a lack of demand. Thankfully, Dark Horse got their shit together and actually re-printed them!
- The Berserk anime is currently unlicensed. It was once licensed by Media Blasters, but they lost the license a couple of years back. Official DVD copies are rare on Amazon and are non-existent on Right Stuf. The Berserk DVDs also have some of the most hilarious bloopers and outtakes I've ever seen.
- All three films in the Berserk: The Golden Age Arc trilogy are currently licensed by Viz Media and is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Let's hope that if Studio 4C does any more Berserk movies, Viz will be the one to license them all. Either them or Funimation, I'm good with either.