Reviewby Theron Martin,
He is the Black Swordsman: Guts, a hulking former mercenary with a metallic left hand and a sword so massive it can cut down multiple foes at once. He is also a man on a mission, first to slay the monstrous Apostles and then to find Casca, a former comrade and lover who lost her mind to the horrors they faced. Woe to any who get in his way – not just because of his combat prowess, but also because of the brand on his neck which attracts demonic spirits. The Holy Iron Chain Knights, and especially their leader Farnese, find that out the hard way when they attempt to capture Guts for questioning. Accompanied by the elf Puck and the young thief Isidor, Guts battles all manner of human, undead, and even demonic threats as he forges a path of destruction that offers little hope of peace.
The 2016 version of the Berserk TV series is a direct sequel to the trio of Berserk: The Golden Age Arc movies released in from 2012 to 2014. Knowledge of those movies is not strictly necessary, as this series provides enough references and brief flashbacks for a newcomer to piece together much of the important information – a cursed brand, a long history of battle, a traumatized lover, a quest to destroy demonic creatures – is familiar enough to easily be accepted without much explanation by medieval fantasy fans. However, watching the movies first (or being familiar with the original TV series from 1997 and googling the manga's conclusion to the Eclipse) is recommended.
No anime better epitomizes the darkest and grittiest side of high fantasy than Berserk, if only because no anime succeeds so well at wallowing in suffering and depravity to such an effective degree. The world of Midland embodies the grimmest periods of the Middle Ages, times when suffering and grisly punishments were commonplace, apocalyptic visions were rampant, and the Church was harsh and unforgiving even while commanding faith and loyalty. Berserk uses images of pagan gatherings drawn straight from the most fanciful descriptions of witch hunters, horrific creatures which doubtless draw at least some inspiration from the apocalyptic European paintings of the 1300s and 1400s, and depictions of torture instruments that are almost too loving in detail. Even skeletal warriors still have little bits of flesh clinging to them just to up the nastiness factor.
It goes without saying that Berserk is among the most graphically extreme of all fantasy anime. Torture room scenes are horrific, with no punches pulled on depictions of mangled bodies and human suffering. Bodies, heads, and limbs regularly get severed in bloody sprays during action scenes, and the camera fondly lingers on shots of rotting, desiccated, or savaged corpses. Prurient elements are strong too, with substantial doses of nudity (one female character runs around topless for an entire episode) and depictions of intercourse both consensual and not. In other words,it's not a series for the weak of stomach.
Given that context, some of the directorial choices in this series are odd. For all of its grim overtones, episodes are regularly punctuated by SD depictions of the elf Puck or Isidor, which seem entirely incongruous and don't succeed at lightening the mood; in fact, most any attempt at levity seems grossly out of place. The color palette also ranges lighter and warmer than seems warranted, as if an attempt was being made to integrate the source manga's grittiness with modern high-contrast tastes in anime. These aren't major distractions, but they detract from the tone enough that I'd be curious to learn why these kinds of choices were made.
The other big factor that earned this Berserk renewal the most vociferous complaints was its art style. This is hardly the first TV anime to be done primarily in CG, but as a reboot of a classic franchise with a grizzled aesthetic, it was bound to be beholden to unique standards. The result is a jarring visual transition for established fans when compared to the original series. The CG holds up pretty well in action scenes and depictions of nude bodies, but it looks more awkward in ordinary scenes depicting facial expressions and body language, and the attempt at manga-style shading creates a weird visual aesthetic. The only places where the CG seemed too artificial for me to stay immersed in the story were in the depictions of bloblike monsters late and the skeletal knight, but viewers who don't normally care for Japanese CG aren't likely to be won over by this effort.
The story currently fits into the classic mold of the wandering warrior who unwillingly collects followers over time as he traverses the broken land being a badass. Guts dominates the screen with a sense of physicality akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime and shows more personality than many of his genre peers, but the more dynamic and interesting characters are still found in the supporting cast. Despite his moments of SD comedy, Puck still makes a worthy addition to the cast as the somewhat detached observer, while prostitute Luca is a source of genuine nobility in the story, with her compatriot Nina serving as her opposite, so crippled by fear that she cannot maintain any conviction; she knows that she's weak and making poor choices but feels powerless to change, which makes her relatable enough to be sympathetic even when she does bad things. The most interesting character is Farnese, the young commander of the Iron Chain Knights, whose crisis of faith as a result of meeting Guts compounds many of her deeper issues. Isidor is far less endearing even though he proves useful in the story, while Casca just drifts around in her addled state to help drive the plot. The villains are generally far less interesting or developed, though there's still some nuance to them as well.
This whole story is backed by a powerful musical score. Music director Shiro Sagisu has been in the business for decades, with top credits including Neon Genesis Evangelion, Bleach, and Magi, but Berserk offers some of his career-best work with a score that mixes full orchestration with rock-infused synthesizer and isolated string numbers, sometimes accompanied by dramatic vocals. The result is a nerve-wrackingly intense sound during action scenes that faithfully sets a heavier tone elsewhere. Hard-rock opener “Inferno” is awash in imagery from the preceding movies, while gentler and more melodic closer “Beyond Closed Eyes” is a good song but an uncomfortable fit for the series. The sound effects in the series also deserve special mention, as the metallic clang of Guts' massive blade conveys its sheer weight and power better than any other giant broadsword sounds I've heard.
NYAV Post provided the English dub for the movies, but Bang Zoom! Entertainment takes over for the TV series and delivers a solid dub from top to bottom. This naturally means that the roles carrying over from the movies have been recast, but Kaiji Tang does a wonderfully deep, gravel-voiced interpretation of Guts which nonetheless retains suitable emotion. Other highlights include Sarah Anne Williams as Puck, Ryan Bartley as Nina, and Derek Stephen Prince in a small role as the Egg of the Perfect World, but you'd be hard-pressed to point out a weak performance anywhere. Funimation provides the physical release on behalf of Crunchyroll, using one of their standard Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs. Extras in the standard edition are limited to promo videos, clean opener and closer, and a reversible case cover, though a Limited Edition with an artbox and additional physical extras is also available for purchase.
The influence of the Berserk franchise on many dark fantasy anime is clear, and that strength of material isn't lost even in a visual aesthetic that some will find unfavorable. I generally have a higher tolerance for anime CG shows than most, so I didn't find the animation so odious. If you can tolerate the visuals, then you will find potent entertainment for those occasions when you want to muse on the ugliness of the world.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B-
Music : A
+ Great action scenes, plenty of graphic content, strong supporting cast
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