Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Berserk: The Golden Age Arc II
Blu-Ray - The Battle for Doldrey
With the kingdom's head general dead, Griffith's Band of the Hawk is more crucial than ever to Midland's war effort. During one of the Hawks' increasingly important battles, Guts and an under-the-weather Casca are forced off a cliff and separated from the main force. As the pair recover, hiding in the forest and dodging mercenaries, Guts learns more about Casca and Casca learns to hate her headstrong comrade a little less. After reuniting with the Hawks, they and Griffith snag a plum assignment: the siege of Doldrey, Chuder's main stronghold in Midland. Glory is guaranteed if they win, but first they must penetrate a fortress that has survived 100 years of attacks; a fortress guarded the formidable General Boscogn and his 30,000 crack troops. In the meantime, spurred on by Griffith's own words, Guts considers parting ways with the Hawks.
The second of Toshiyuki Kubooka and Studio 4°C's three Berserk films is an emotionally impoverished facsimile, a wispy shadow of the rich stretch of deepening character and subtly shifting relationships that it adapts. And we should have seen it coming. The ingredients of this film's doom were all out there, cavorting in plain sight in the first film. Kubooka's strategy for fitting the sprawling Golden Age arc into three relatively short films was to radically streamline Kentaro Miura's epic, polishing away whatever wasn't strictly necessary for maintaining the forward thrust of the arc. Side characters were pruned, subplots eliminated, and less essential players reduced to borderline cameos. The complex web of relationships and emotions that Miura once wove was simplified; the power and nuance of the characters' bonds triaged out by the films' prioritization of plot. So why is it any surprise that, when the time comes to capitalize on those bonds, Kubooka's adaptation falls subtly but disastrously apart? The answer probably has something to do with the knots you have to tie yourself into to avoid unfair comparisons to both Miura's original and its sublime 1997 television adaptation. We were so busy trying to compensate for our biases that we missed entirely the lethal flaw at the heart of Kubooka's strategy.
But no more. There's simply no way to ignore how damaged this adaptation has become. For all its thundering medieval warfare and gut-splattering violence, this is an inward-focused film. It is driven by the evolving relationships between Guts and Griffith and Casca, and the internal changes wrought during their mutual association. It's an engine that made this section of the manga perhaps the saga's most subtly affecting, full of unconsciously blossoming emotions and incremental transformations of established relations—transformations that lead the story to places both sweet and horrifying. That engine remains more or less intact in this film—Kubooka and screenwriter Ichiro Okouchi pack all of the relevant events efficiently into their limited timeframe—but with so many of the telling details shaved away, so much of the characters' history truncated, the engine is left running on fumes.
Put simply, the film presents us with the raw information necessary to understand events, but not the emotional depth and detail to feel their importance. We understand that Casca is changing her mind about Guts, but we have no sense for just how toxic her attitude towards him was or, more crucially, why. In better versions of the tale Casca's altered affections were a sign of her painful maturation, growing from a star-struck girl to a woman with ambitions and desires separate from her devotion to Griffith. Here, without their proper context, they only signal a (potential) romantic reversal. We know that Guts is changing and we also know why—because of Griffith's words at the end of movie one—but again we feel nothing, not without a proper appreciation of Guts' changes and how they affect Casca and the other members of the Band of the Hawk. Who, for their part, are roundly neglected yet again. When Kubooka cuts to Judeau's knowing eyes as he watches Casca during Guts and Griffith's final confrontation, we know what he's probably feeling, but he's been so reduced in personality and presence that it's hard to care.
There are uncountable such issues, both small and specific and broad and far-reaching, and their effect is downright lethal. The plot makes sense, but exerts no emotional pull. Without the emotional pull, the action ceases to matter. The main characters end up flattened and simplified, their personal journeys stripped of their rightful impact. The fatal arc of Guts, Casca, and Griffith's fate becomes a mere chain of events; events that should have ached and devastated, their evolving relationships offering tantalizing hints of romance and the uneasy stirrings of future disaster, but instead just pass on by—inert stepping stones on the way to the evil twists that Miura has in store. Which, ironically, wrecks the twists. The film's shocking final moments should have had us squirming on the floor, but all they really elicit is a vague respect for the plot's audacious sadism.
Left on the outside of the film's events, we have more attentional resources to devote to its technical shortcomings. The video-game 3D CG used for the characters is of course still a hideous eyesore, but you start spotting other problems as well. There's the 2D character art, which shows a worrying tendency towards inexpressive stiffness and an even more worrying lack of quality control. Characters' lips in particular look decidedly odd. There's also some distracting variability in the articulation of the 3D designs (the film has a particularly hard time with necks) and a decided lack of realism in the way characters move and interact with each other. (Backgrounds, on the other hand, remain unassailable, as does Shiro Sagisu's blood-and-thunder score for the most part.)
The problem that leaps out at you, though, is Kubooka's direction. Kubooka still puts together some superb individual scenes, but you notice this time around just how individual they are. As smartly assembled and ferociously executed as they are, they get no support from the film at large. Kubooka clearly has a firm handle on how to make a fight thrum or how to get a poisonous stew of emotions boiling, but his vision never seems to extend outside of discrete moments. He has an expert's eye for scenes, but seemingly no sense for how to forge them into a film.
Michael Sinterniklaas's reunited Berserk cast continues to acquit itself well, even topping the original at times—most notably in the crucial role of Guts. True, what with Hiroaki Iwanaga's badly affected rage, it isn't too difficult for Marc Diraison to outperform him, but it's still impressive work. Stephanie Sheh's script is tight in the right places, loose in the right places, and overall just a solid piece of writing. The actors work well together, and seem to be enjoying themselves—the latter being a crucial ingredient in any successful dub.
The proof of the cast's enjoyment is in the fifteen minutes of generally hilarious outtakes included on this disc. The cast betrays its collective age with their cultural references (NWA? The Princess Bride?), which just happens to be my approximate age, so it was all good. The other extras are an eye opening concert video of Susumu Hirasawa singing the theme song—most notable for showing how a set of instruments that looks like the engineering deck of the starship Enterprise can produce a startlingly ancient musical sound—and a very dull joint interview with Aki Toyosaki and Minako Kotobuki.
There are reasons to watch Battle for Doldrey. Some of those individual scenes that Kubooka puts together are worth a once-through to find—particularly the vicious death-match between Guts and a hundred extremely unfortunate mercenaries. Okouchi also makes some interesting alterations to Griffith's stratagems, including one that makes the taking of Doldrey heaps more believable. And then there are the cameos: little throwaway scenes that give us our first animated looks at manga-specific folks like Puck, Farnese, and Serpico. Those are exceedingly small charms, though, for a film that squanders so many large ones. Being a longtime anime person, you won't hear me say this very often, but read the books instead. Or better yet, watch the TV series. Objectively speaking the TV version isn't much more faithful, but unlike these films it understands the strengths of its source material. And improves on them.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C
Story : B-
Animation : C-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Faithfully communicates the plot of this slice of Berserk's Golden Age Arc.
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