Berserk (1997 IMDb)

Categorization

Dark fantasy.

Subject

A mercenary band finds a newborn boy under a woman hung from a tree. The boy, Guts, is raised to take orders and kill. Powered by the rage of what his father figure does to him, he wields a blade as tall as he is, even as an adult. Under the blue skies of youth, he enters the service of Griffith, an up-and-coming mercenary leader who treats him well and earns his unquestioning loyalty.

The first episode shows Guts at a much later stage, a cruel and solitary figure with one eye and one arm, hunting Griffith in a land of living nightmares. The reasons gradually unfold. One night Guts, having performed a particularly horrible service, hears Griffith explaining how a real friend is someone who does not follow him, but who has his own dream instead.

Commentary

This covers the ground of the comic roughly through volume 13, only recently released at the time. The story has a special place in my heart. The pessimism and imagination of the setting are comparable to The Night Land (1912), the grand sweep of the slowly escalating power fantasy resembles The Stars My Destination (1956), and the historical verisimilitude—15th-century pseudo-European—is well above what I expect from ultraviolent seinen manga.

Berserk is an intelligent treatment of the motif of restoration in fantasy narratives. In The Lord of the Rings (1954), Narnia and the large-scale narratives of Nazism, social democracy and neoliberalism alike, disorder afflicts the land. Villains like Sauron, Jadis, the Jews, the capitalists, Keynes etc. are said to work against the shared interests of all humanity, threatening to take over the world. Underdog heroes revolt against this disorder, overcoming it and restoring order. That restoration narrative is the spine of so much fantasy because it allows the listener to identify vicariously with representatives of a common good against a supposedly universal evil behind whatever is nebulously “wrong”. Used simplistically, without critical thinking, it feeds a dangerous narcissism and can prop up whatever values the narrator associates with the heroes, like divine right in Narnia or racism in Nazi Germany. Berserk, and this series’ portion of the narrative in particular, rejects the restoration narrative. Although the God Hand works against humanity and much of Guts’ miserable life describes the progress toward peace in Midland’s sengoku jidai, the less obvious and more important story arc points downward. Nothing is going to be restored.

The plot of this first TV adaptation is a bit neutered. In one of the comic's most infamous scenes, a male mercenary tries to rape a preteen Guts, who resists until he understands that Gambino himself has sold him for the night. None of that in this adaptation, just a demonic hand to mark its place. Still a great storyline, though it ends on a cliffhanger that leaves a lot of space between the first episode and the end of the massive flashback.

The colour design is drab by Japanese standards, but looks excellent to me. The shading is a bigger problem, with lots of plate armour looking thick, flat and dull. The score, by Hirasawa Susumu, is brilliant. He did not do the inferior opening or ending themes.

Allow me a rant on the original title, Kenpuu denki beruseruku: kenpuu is a neologism composed of ken for “sword” (or “blade”), and fuu for “style” or “method” (and “wind”); denki is written with a set of kanji that imply the meaning “romance”, in the sense of knightly romance (den means “strange” or “curious” in this case) rather than a love story. However, a materially more common way to spell denki gives it the meaning of “biography”. A clumsy literal translation would be “Berserk: A Romance of Swordsmanship”. Focusing on other visual and auditory layers, we might get “Berserk: Legend of a Life in the Swordwind”. Either way, the concept of a berserker doesn't really show up until the sequel.

References here: Adventures of the Mini Goddesses (1998), Paranoia Agent (2004).

Japanese production animation series

Remake:

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King (2012 IMDb)

Viewing

Seen in 2013.

Categorization

Cel-shaded 3D CGI. As such, it's relatively bright and clean.

Subject

As in episodes 2-10 of the TV series, but omitting, for instance, the circumstances of Guts' birth and childhood, and the scheming Foss.

Commentary

Too compressed to tell the story properly. This is just a digest version of the manga, but in good cinematic style. The level of gore is at least as high as in the TV series. The film, like the TV series, elides the rape of Guts. Here it's a low-frame-rate fever dream that only readers of the manga will understand.

Japanese production animation movie

Sequel:

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc II - The Battle for Doldrey (2012 IMDb)

Viewing

Seen in 2013.

Commentary

Less rushed. There are still some ugly CG shots, but the general standard is more mature.

Japanese production animation movie

Sequel:

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc III - The Advent (2013 IMDb)

Viewing

Seen in 2017.

Subject

About the same ground as episodes 21-25 of the 1997 series, plus scenes from the comic, to advertise it and the next adaptation: Pseudo-Arabian skirmishers, whispers of the Vatican, an appearance by Puck, and plenty of scenes with the Skull Knight.

Commentary

Slowing down to the same pace as the 1997 series, with a higher budget and animators now accustomed to the hybrid 2D-3D style, this finale is visually rewarding. It recalls the scenes of the comic better than the TV version, often with the appropriate emotional force. The landscape of the Eclipse is like Miura's obsessively detailed drawings come to life, and there are several long shots of faces subtly shifting through a range of emotions.

The Skull Knight, absent in the 1997 series, is a major presence here, and well executed; his angular visual design and glowing eyes look great in cel-shaded 3D. The uglier sides of the source material are also on display. The elaborate rape of Casca, though motivated by Griffith’s jealousy, stands in stark contrast to the elided rape of Guts. A sexist double standard. The film even shows Casca’s mental enfeeblement after being rescued, another distasteful plot convenience of the comic.

As in the TV series, the last scene is of the maimed protagonist arming himself to continue his life of struggle. This follows the end credits. The maturity of the visual style is better illustrated by the preceding shot: The camera retreats a great distance from the first dawn Guts sees following the Eclipse, and sinks into the bending CGI grass. A dolly or drone shot like this would have been impossible both in 2D animation and in live action, yet its execution here is perfectly tasteful.

Japanese production animation movie

Sequel:

Berserk (2016 IMDb)

Viewing

Seen in 2017.

Review refers to the broadcast version as seen on Crunchyroll, with censoring.

Categorization

Almost entirely cel-shaded 3D CGI. It should perhaps be regarded as a sequel to the cel-shaded remake trilogy, or a direct adaptation of the comic, rather than a sequel to the 1997 series, but the picture is confused by the large media landscape of the franchise, with a 1999 video game taking place around the end of the giant flashback.

Subject

Having survived the Eclipse and blunted a new sword, Guts meets a tiny elf named Puck, and pursues the Apostles. Casca has not fared so well.

Commentary

Material roughly through volume 26 of the comic, with the advantage of many later volumes having been released before this series was scripted, hence the extensive foreshadowing about Elfhelm. As in the comic, urban clothing styles and architecture now suggest something like the 17th century, but firearms remain extremely primitive. The darkest elements of the story, including Casca’s child, Guts’s thwarted impulse to rape her, and the trolls’ implausible treatment of human women, are all here. So are Puck’s extradiegetic jokes.

Hirasawa returns, but doesn’t do the same brilliant job. More seriously, the animation is genuinely poor for 2016, including an especially shaky start and a severe regression in episode 21. It could easily have been much better. The studio had never headed a project like this and the director—Itakagi Shin, experienced but mainly with cutesy 2D stuff—wasted months in preproduction trying for a look that had to be abandoned. The final result is noticeably choppy, with poor jaw and lip movements, inexpressive faces, dolly shots for pure distraction etc. that are more irritating to me than the corresponding shortcuts in similarly cheap 1980s shows, even if the overall quality is really about the same. The backgrounds, particularly in the many forest episodes, also fail to do justice to Miura’s original. This is clearly just an attempt to cash in on the hard-won popularity of that original. Nothing meaningful is added, but as a fan I still appreciated the voice work and the recap.

The director even imitates Miura’s compositions, with something cute happening in the background and/or foreground of too many shots. The constitution of Guts’ new party, also taken from the comic, is distasteful. I dislike Isidro, the arrogant boy straight out of shounen whose role is actually enlarged here. He belongs in a more comic children’s fantasy like The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008). I have an even bigger problem with Casca’s imbecilic fugue state. Everybody who meets her comments on her beauty; it’s complete objectification. I would have preferred if her outcome had been like Guts’, perhaps entirely blinded by acidic Apostle blood or with one leg instead of one arm, but with her strength of character intact and Silke/Schierke for a tutor to compensate. The witch is OK as a character, but the four-element basis of her magic is an irritating cliché, actually less imaginative than Kukuri of Mahoujin Guru-Guru (1994) who similarly becomes the protagonist of her series. Given that Farnese eventually decides to become a magician, Silke could reasonably have been a middle-aged woman of equal power, but Miura wanted moe. This is also evident in Sonia the Seer, who reminds me of Marcia in Poetry and the Gods (1920): an innocent maiden awed by a vision of glory. The overall tonal shift is unsatisfying, though thankfully, the underlying darker tones never completely disappear, even in the goofy children’s adventure of the final episode.

Japanese production animation series