Berserk: Past, Present, and Futureby Brittany Vincent,
Kentaro Miura's Berserk is twisted, grim, and otherworldly. It also happens to be one of the greatest dark fantasy series ever penned. From its humble beginnings in Monthly Animal House magazine (and later on Young Animal) to a 26-episode anime series, three feature films, and two video games, it's rocked fans with its unique blend of epic battles, sword fights, and outright gorefests.
At 38 volumes, it's still going strong. The manga has yet to reach a conclusion, though the original anime adaptation ended abruptly during one of its pivotal arcs. While there were three feature films released several years after the anime series ended, none of these fully explored the aftermath of this pivotal turning point in the series, ending at roughly the same point as the original anime. There were glimpses of the days beyond the Golden Age arc, but nothing so promising as the new anime series that's being produced for a dazzling debut this July.
Each of Berserk's different iterations support the mythos in its own unique way, especially when it comes to staying true to the source material. So what could be improved upon when the new series begins airing this July, and what was already done well in the first place?
To answer these questions, we must first go straight to the source: what's Berserk all about anyway? Berserk follows Guts, a wandering warrior with a huge sword and an even bigger store of questions about life and his own fate. Guts travels with the Band of the Hawk, led by the ridiculously charismatic Griffith. It's with Griffith and the rest of the Hawks that Guts, haunted by a harrowing past and wrestling with what makes him human, learns the true value of loyalty and brotherhood, until things go horribly, horribly wrong.
If you're new to the series, you'll want to start with the anime. It's the definitive way to take in this sprawling narrative without just diving into the manga. After offering viewers a relatively tame dark fantasy start, it quickly devolves into a nightmarish onslaught of despair, copious amounts of gore, and a surrealistic haze that envelops the entire cast of characters. This jarring transition makes Berserk stand out, and it's one of the greatest reasons to hop aboard this fandom train for the long haul. The anime series excels in setting up this tone that defines the story, even if it happens to end abruptly without any real conclusion—that's when you head to the manga to pick up where it left off, during one of the series' most pivotal arcs.
This anime isn't perfect, as most will attest, but it's an excellent stab at bringing the story to life, especially because it's so all-inclusive for beginning viewers. The art is lush and colorful for the most part, with eye-popping swordfights, a gritty feel that's somewhat lost in the modern film trilogy, and a lack of some of the more off-putting details from the manga series. It does have its share of low-quality animation at times, with wonky facial proportions and oddly-drawn characters in some shots, but it generally sheds these issues during pivotal moments. It's a good thing too, since Berserk is rife with confrontations and doesn't shy away from graphic depictions of the satisfying battles that comprise most of the series' run.
However, the young elf Puck is missing from the anime series. This character acted as both comic relief and Guts's constant companion. His omission from the series serves to make it a much more serious and foreboding affair. Jamming in comic relief commentary when there are plenty of humorous moments scattered throughout the series already would throw the balance into disarray, so watching Guts go it alone feels much more comfortable, and it makes sense for such a dark and brooding personality to revel in being a loner.
There are also several moments in the anime that speed up time or slow it down considerably, glossing over some events, but it could also be argued that these alterations were for the best, as viewers are gradually allowed to get to know the characters, especially Griffith as he slowly descends into madness. It's a lot easier to understand the decisions he ends up making when you watch it all slowly unfold before you, versus reading at your own pace with characters like Puck creating some flow issues. While the manga does allow for a strong connection with these characters, the anime's more delicate touch makes the final impact of Griffith's transformation even more hard-hitting.
Where the anime is better for a slow build, the Berserk film trilogy known as the Golden Age Arc, which kicked off in 2012, acts as a lovingly animated and CG-laden retelling of the anime with a miniscule bit of additional content not seen before in the series. Its problems as an adaptation are minimal, so while the film trilogy was enough to sate anime viewers hungry for more, it wasn't rich in the extra content that the hardcore fanbase was clamoring for: a storyline that would draw from the still-running manga series as a full-fledged anime adaptation.
The films mostly excel at providing a backdrop for new viewers to become fully invested in the Berserk mythos with minimal viewing time. For instance, over the span of about six hours (compared to 10-12 episodes of the anime series), viewers could siphon all they needed to know about Berserk to continue reading the manga or investigate spinoff media like the video games or fan creations.
The animation, while crisp, can be jarring for fans who took in the anime series first or consider the manga the most appropriate way to enjoy Berserk. Some of the large-scale fight scenes look like cutscenes culled straight from low-budget video games, cheapening the battles in a way that makes them seem like they were created for a Berserk musou title. (Interestingly enough, one of those is right around the corner!) Griffith takes on many more feminine qualities than his character design previously suggested, whereas Guts also adopts a slightly different look. There are several issues with the animation and designs later on as well, most notably a dead-eyed Casca during a moment where you'd expect a little more emotion from her, considering her vulnerable state. To the films' credit, however, there are several moments that accomplish what Miura intended to convey through the manga in ways that transcend even the original medium.
It continues to be a sore spot amongst the Berserk fan community that the anime series simply cuts off right as things spiral off into complete madness. However, since the latest series will push the animated realm of Berserk beyond the events of the original anime, there's now a light at the end of the tunnel. The situation is looking very positive, as the show seems to have been crafted to ensure that another chunk of the manga series will receive the same treatment as its first few volumes.
If this new addition to the Berserk mythos is to live up to the first anime and films, I'd absolutely like to see higher-quality animation that's more consistent with the narrative, akin to what we see from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure on a regular basis. While the new series unfortunately seems to be adopting the same type of fidelity seen in the film trilogy, its episodic format should allow for a great deal more quality, unless it goes the way of Sailor Moon Crystal.
But looks aren't everything, as our protagonist Guts can attest—though some might argue he's the real looker of the series (sorry, Griffith). The content needs to stay faithful to the source material while refusing to compromise. It's an adult series with adult situations that need to remain such, without pesky edits and frustrating content redactions that could lend a “neutered” feel to our best hope at a real continuation of Miura's saga.
Berserk is undoubtedly one of the most unique and engaging Western-style fantasies of all time, and while it does incorporate several of the most familiar anime tropes, it doesn't rely on them singlehandedly to tell its story. It transcends the bonds of “classic” anime storytelling with its graphic depictions of gore, sex, violence, and the atrocities of war for the good of the narrative. If you've got the stomach for this story, it'll linger with you, perhaps even as long as Griffith's desire to achieve greatness. Here's to hoping its latest incarnation delivers!
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