Fatigued, broken and injured, the remnants of The Band of The Hawk make haste after their once powerful and great leader; a shell of his former self. This man's dreams, hopes and work are all hopelessly destroyed, and, as he calls out for salvation, the sky is adorned with a deep, dark red tint that masks the entire area in the colour of blood. Bone chilling laughter fills the cold, stifling air, as the mere mortals look on in despair at the grotesque and horrifying beasts before them. The eclipse has begun...
Berserk is easily one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved series out there, sitting at the number one manga spot here on MAL and not without good reason. The manga tells an epic tale of man versus beast coupled with fantastic artwork, interesting and memorable characters as well as some of the most grotesque and downright disturbing scenes in any manga I've ever seen. While I wouldn't consider Berserk to be a masterpiece (in fact, the more it goes along, the harder it becomes to care for the narrative as it begins to go around in circles after a while) I can appreciate what it did for the manga landscape as a whole and why it is held on such a pedestal today. However, when it comes to adaptations, they've been less than stellar all around. The infamous 2017 and 2016 adaptations are essentially, at this point, just massive jokes in the community, and for good reason to boot. Both adaptations featured some of the most awkward and jarring CGI animation I've ever seen combined with strange reworking of the original script and every time Guts swings his sword, it sounds like a frying pan hitting a piece of metal, even when cutting into flesh. It's so fucking strange that it's actually hilarious and I burst out laughing every time I hear that fantastic "CLANG" sound. The Golden Arc film trilogy, produced by Studio 4c is overall a much better experience than these two series, with much more competent CGI animation intermixed with fantastic looking traditional 2D animation. The only problem I have with these movies is that, as expected of pumping around one hundred chapters into three films, they're rushed beyond belief which kills most of the emotional weight the original story carried since much of it had to be cut out. And finally, this brings us to the original Berserk adaptation all the way from 1997, in which, surprisingly, the only good adaptation was made by the same studio that produced every single Pokémon series! I don't know why but I find this fact to be delightfully funny. In fact, both series were being produced and aired at roughly the same time! Wouldn't it be funny if one of the episodes of Berserk was accidently placed in the Pokémon TV time slot or something and thousands of Japanese children witnessed one of Gut's killing sprees? (Yes, I have a sick mind since that thought alone brings me nothing but pleasure). Anyway, I've talked for too long now. Let's grab our behemoth of a sword, put our grasses on ('cause nothing will be wrong, y'know?) and dive into the hellish dark fantasy world that is Berserk!
Berserk starts up in the present time, where essentially the world has gone to absolute shit! It's dark, miserable and depressing, as we see our main character, Guts, wander through the lands adorned with a cloak and a massive lump of steel for a sword, which he then uses to cut a guy in half whilst in a tavern of sorts, effectively rescuing a young girl from a group of men. Later on in the episode, we see that Guts suffers from horrible, traumatic nightmares which are accompanied by visions of demons, before having a rather kick-ass fight with a giant snake-like demon in real life! The introductory first episode mainly serves as a foundation block for the rest of the series to be built upon and is quite effective in generating intrigue from the audience, not only from the atmosphere established or the fight scenes, but from all of the subtle little hints the show gives to us without ever having to resort to using expository dialogue. Everything is conveyed through the visuals alone, from Gut's horrific nightmares, to the state of the world as well as Gut's several body disfigurements from having only one arm and one eye, as well as having a brand on his neck that bleeds frequently. All of these elements are what drives the rest of the narrative as the audience is left to speculate how Guts came to be this way and why the world is in such ruin, and these questions are gradually given to us as we watch the rest of the show, since the entirety of the series is essentially one massive flashback to an earlier time of Gut's life, as we see him join a mercenary guild called The Band of the Hawk, and fight alongside a proud and rather kind man called Griffith, whom we first meet in the second episode. In fact, some great use of juxtaposition and generating audience intrigue is used once again in the first episode when we hear two men talking about King Griffith and they remark that they have to watch what they say, in fear of him. As an audience this creates a sense of intrigue as we wonder to ourselves how such a calm, and rather spiritual man could become so feared throughout the world of this narrative.
These elements that I've listed here, and the use of subtle hints to create intrigue in the story may seem rather strange to praise and rather counter intuitive to do so, but the number of films and anime I've seen that simply start up with a narration of the state of the world, or directly tell us the circumstances of the characters is staggering, so I can always respect a story more when the audience is able to think for themselves, and I believe the opening episode of Berserk does this very well. All of the little clues and hints dropped in the first episode get answered and act as the driving force for someone to continue the narrative to find out how the events transpired, and by opening up with more atmospheric shots, drives the investment and intrigue of the narrative even thuther. Anyway, as previously mentioned, Guts joins a mercenary group called The Band of the Hawks, lead by a man named Griffith, as previously mentioned, an extremely proud, respected and headstrong man, where his dream of having his own country is the only thing that drives him. The rest of the series sees Guts slowly warm up to The Band of the Hawk, as the group slowly become more powerful, taking on huge scale armies in war, eventually earning nobility from the King, before seeing everything crash to the ground in the final two episodes of the show. Berserk is not a series filled to the brim with symbolism or allegorical writing (barring a few scenes that is) but what sells the entirety of the Golden Age arc is how tightly written everything is as a whole. Everything is insanely interesting to watch unfold and the various war scenes are so well executed since the characters are very likeable (thus creating narrative tension and stakes) and what each character believes in idealistically, and how these complement each other are enough to hold the show together. Each event plays a larger factor into the story which makes everything incredibly satisfying to witness. The best example of this is in episode six, when Guts and Griffith fight off against a giant demon called Zodd the Immortal, who retreats after noticing Griffith's necklace, the behelit, before delivering a bad omen to Guts that anyone who does stay with Griffith, will reach an unfortunate end, foreshadowing future events in the narrative. A similar omen was spoken in episode twenty-two of the show when two giant, black figures remark that the eclipse will transpire soon.
Before I continue on, I'd like to say that there were a number of changes that were made from the original manga in this adaptation, and, depending on how much of a hardcore fan you are of the original, can be a bad thing. However, despite the numerous changes, none of them were ever a game breaker for me, nor did it ruin the overall narrative and, in some instances, the changes benefited the overall show. Such an example is the opening, where, in the original manga, we actually see Griffith in the present day and what he looks like, where in the anime we don't. I believe this to be better since it creates a sense of suspense and intruge into the person will become down the line, rather than just showing him to the audience straight away like in the manga, although the manga beginning is ultimately better for setting up many more plot threads. The lack of some scenes in the manga don't inherently make the Golden Age Arc bad in the anime, only a less satisfying viewing experience all around when compared to the original. The anime cuts out the infamous King scene, where he lusts over his own daughter (did I mention Berserk is fucked up?), Grittith's extensive talk with God and the Gut's meeting with the Skull Knight, who is the coolest fucking thing ever! Again, these are missing elements in the anime are not a game breaker, but I felt to the need to point it out anyway.
Berserk is, at its most fundamental level, a tale of a man, in this case our main protagonist, Guts, trying to search for a place in the world and a purpose for being, in essence, his own dream, rather than following Griffith's dream. What makes the Golden Age arc so incredibly addicting to watch is seeing each character grow during the duration of the show, their relationships as well as the constant plot twists and acts of revenge enacted in the story. The narrative's pacing is pretty consistent and very strong, always pushing forward at a comfortable pace, often wrapping up various plot threads while introducing new ones, keeping things interesting and fresh. What helps sell the emotional weight of Berserk is how attached we become to these characters as actual people, much like how Guts becomes more attached to the people of The Band of the Hawk himself. As Guts learns more and more about them and opens up more to them as well, so do we as an audience member, which makes the final two episodes all the more hard hitting, in an event called the eclipse! While I won't get too much into the nitty-gritty since the scene is far more emotional the less you know about it, I will say that this scene is easily one of my favourite moments in any piece of fiction ever. The amount of emotions I felt during the eclipse is staggering, ranging from almost being on tears, to anger and downright despair. The end to Berserk is visceral, disturbing and grotesque, and this is only emphasised more in the manga with incredibly detailed artwork.
If I do have one complaint with the narrative of Berserk before diving into the characters, then that is the very final scene of the show, and how abruptly it seems to end. The final scene of the show sees Guts screaming in anger before awkwardly cutting to the ending without any resolution at all. Now, of course, I'm not expecting a resolution to the entire series, since, even after twenty years, the manga has not concluded yet (as Kentaro Miura would much rather place Idol Master than finish up Berserk) but I was expecting a resolution to the arc at the very least. Ending the show this way feels rather lazy and is honestly quite a kick in the nuts to the viewer as well. It's not something that inherently breaks the entire show for me, but it did leave me in a rather frustrated mood when I finished watching. Some other moments can feel a little trite or sometimes silly, such as in the case of an enemy character by the name of Adon, whose cowardice and stupid egotistical speeches could sometimes get annoying (after the third encounter I just wanted him to die already) , and in the case of when Zodd throws a massive, fuck-off sword to Guts during the middle of a battle to win a fight and nobody questions where this came from at all. Again, these elements are not necessarily enough to take me out of the experience, but they are slight things that annoyed me to a certain degree.
Undoubtedly, the crux of the narrative is the relationship between Guts, Griffith and Casca and how each person grows as individuals. Griffith, as previously mentioned, is an extremely proud, and, as we are lead to believe at first, a kind man, at least to his own men anyway. Stopping at nothing to attain his dream, he will do anything, no matter the cost, from sleeping with old men to gain money for an army, to sending Guts to assassinate anyone who poses a threat to him within the higher ups in the castle. Guts and Griffith's relationship feels genuine and builds into a sense of comradery as the show goes along, with the underlying idea that Griffith owns Guts as a person. It's more accurate to say, perhaps, that Griffith eventually cannot function even as a person when Guts eventually leaves to pursue and find his own dream in life as Griffith breaks down. This character arc he embarks on, and his character in general is easily one of the most interesting characters, not only in the show, but perhaps my personal favourite in the medium. One of my favourite scenes in the show is when Griffith is speaking to Princess Charlotte, with Casca and Guts both within hearing distance, as Griffith remarks that he believes a true friend is one that doesn't follow someone else's dream (as Guts has been doing) but follows his own path in life, which is perhaps the trigger for Guts to eventually venture out of The Band of the Hawks. The irony lies in that, even though Guts would be classified as a 'true friend' under this ideology projected by Griffith for leaving and finding his own dream, he breaks down afterwards, and blames Guts for destroying his own dream, and the aftermath is rather depressing. His mental hang ups near the end of the series are explored well enough to justify his actions, to a certain extent anyway, making for an interesting character study for someone who has to carry the burden of thousands of solder's deaths, all of whom chose to follow him.
Gut's character also receives a lot of development as well, as we see him warm up to the rest of the Band of the Hawk and finally has a place he can call home after living a life of loneliness after his first father figure attempted to kill him. The scenes were Guts is messing around with his men are genuinely charming and are some of my favourite moments in the show. Besides from being one of the most badass characters around, capable of swinging a massive sword and in some instances, taking out one hundred men all on his own, he is fundamentally a broken person at heart, with frequent traumatic nightmares plaguing his slumber. One of the best scenes in the show comes from when Guts accidently kills an innocent child after believing him to be someone else and the implications that arise for his character as a result of this; it physically and emotionally tears him up, and he has to live on with the burden of his sin. It's genuinely one of my favourite moments in the show. Finally, we have Casca, and seeing her and Gut's relationship play out is easily one of the most satisfying aspects of the show. Casca is the only woman in The Band of the Hawkes, and probably the only woman in the entire battlefield. Her struggles with being a woman, and the entire theme surrounding it are handled pretty well, most notably when she experiences a period whilst on the battlefield and falls ill. Her slow warming up to Guts throughout the duration of the show feels natural, as if it were a real relationship, and her idolisation of Griffith is explained to us and we can perfectly understand her apprehensive attitude when we first meet her. The other characters in The Band of the Hawk don't get nearly as much attention, but each, at the very least, have their own reasons for following Griffith, making them feel more like characters than emotionless planks of wood.
The animation is pretty consistent for the most part, with more emphasis on super detailed stills, which is most effectively used during the eclipse to convey Gut's raw anger. The backgrounds are also very well detailed as well, and the anime goes fall out with its blood and nudity, featuring plenty of bloody corpses (albeit, nowhere near as bloody and graphic as the manga). As a spectacle alone, the show is entertaining as fuck! Seeing people fight each other with swords and the such in a medieval fashion will never get old for me. Berserk also has one of my all time favourite soundtracks, with each track fitting the theme of each scene perfectly. While rather underutilised greatly in my eyes, the track called "Forces" where it was used to best effect during the third episode. Every time I hear it, I can't helped but get pumped up! The rest of the soundtrack is also fantastic, especially the theme "Behelit" which has a very mystical, fantasy feel to it. The entire soundtrack just screams fantasy adventure, with the exception of the opening however, which is so bad that it's actually great! Not only does the theme and more upbeat acoustics not fit with the tone of the show (especially in later episodes) the attempts of singing in English are absolutely dreadful, so much so that a line that is supposed to say "put your glasses on!" sounds like "put your grasses on!" (hence my joke in the second paragraph). There are some nice visuals however, most disturbing being a shot of a tree where we see a bunch of hanging bodies against a red background, which is a reference to how Guts was actually born. It's admittly pretty funny to listen to, but it did actually grow on me as the show went on (much like grass now that I think about it!)
In conclusion, I love Berserk. It's writing is tight and consistent, always pushing the story forward, it has memorable and well developed characters while also utilising shock factor and gore in a mature way and never abusing them to make cheap and empathetic back stories and the sheer excitement I felt while watching the show was staggering. It's easily one of the best dark fantasy stories out there, and I would highly recommend this anime for anyone looking for something more mature or darker. Berserk is a myriad of different emotions, in one package, and the eclipse, as I've mentioned various times in this review, is one I will not be forgetting anytime soon. Thanks for reading my review, and I'll see you next time!
Just always remember to put your grasses on and, by doing so, nothing will be wrong!
VIDEO VERSION: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2yPXbo-Xac