Berserk
Episodes 1-3

by Jacob Chapman,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Berserk (TV 2016) ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Berserk (TV 2016) ?

How would you rate episode 3 of
Berserk (TV 2016) ?

I feel like someone wished on a Behelit for this Berserk series. After almost two decades of waiting and wishing for a continuation of the anime that covers post-Eclipse material, some fan reached their most vulnerable and desperate point and got a "Do as thou wilt" from the God Hand. Now the rest of us have to suffer with the Apostolic result: Berserk 2016 is an abominably ugly and almost forcefully unpleasant realization of our dreams, with cut-rate CGI, questionable music choices, and disorienting camera work.

Actually, call me a heathen, but I kinda like that last one. Since we've known for a good long time that the new Berserk TV series was going to be ugly, I definitely didn't want it to be sluggish and boring to boot. Berserk 2016's acrobatic camera work and schizophrenic editing can really turn your stomach sometimes, but at this stage of the story, nightmarish revulsion is almost always the intended tone anyway. Since this anime can't recreate the haunting artistry that achieved this feeling in the source manga, doing it through fever dream storyboarding seems like the next best option.

To me, the most important thing to maintain in this surrealist style of direction is clarity in the action. So long as I know where all the important characters are in relation to one another as action accelerates during a scene, the nightmare cuts and panicky camera are fine by me, and director Shin Itagaki has basically built his career on this fast-paced, trippy, music-video style of anime direction. The hellhouse battle in episode three is a perfect example of this; despite the lightning-fast cuts and nauseating spinning dives of the camera, I always knew exactly where every character was in relation to one another and the mansion itself, from Guts right down to his poor wandering horse. It helps elevate what could have been a far more disastrous production for me, but if this dizzying nightmare-fuel style of direction isn't your bag, it's bound to be the final nail in the coffin for trying to enjoy Berserk 2016.

In fact, if there's anything that can keep fans who are disappointed with all sides of the production watching, it's just the opportunity to see Kentarou Miura's deeply disturbing demonic fantasy given moving life of any kind after all these years. Full disclosure: I'm reviewing this as a huge fan of the 1997 anime series who hasn't read any further in the manga because The Eclipse traumatized the shit out of me as a 15-year old, and comic pages are way more potent than cartoons at overloading your horrified imagination. The idea of starting over with a brand-new cast after 90% of them had been slaughtered or mentally broken beyond recognition was too much back then, and I didn't have room for that kind of mindscrew in my life. Now I'm a crusty desensitized toadfrog by comparison, but I won't deny that the fate of Guts's horse in episode 3 still had me staring into the middle distance for a while. Berserk's imagery is not something you see every day, and I'm happy to retain my sanity by just digesting it once a week.

For anyone else who's only familiar with Berserk's Golden Age arc, it's safe to say that those days of politically-driven low fantasy struggles are long behind us. Griffith's wish to become the ruler of Midland (and perhaps the world!) has opened an apocalyptic seal of Apostles to rain down upon the Earth, and Guts's new mission will be to endear enough allies to his side to keep him alive, while he slaughters demon after demon in a seemingly neverending pursuit for information on the God Hand. Frankly, it does feel like a step down from the heights of character-driven subtlety we enjoyed within the Band of the Hawk, but that doesn't mean that great character work can't be done with the new cast members we've been given.

Guts has picked up two reluctant allies thus far. First there's Lady Farnese, a deeply insecure flagellant knight who blames Guts for her first twinges of doubt in her faith, not to mention her shame-filled realization that she enjoys self-flagellation for sexual reasons rather than pious ones. "Self-righteous masochistic bitch" is a deeply unfortunate genre stereotype, but Farnese escapes the worst extremes of her archetype because Berserk wisely decides to aim its cruel vitriol at a much higher target: the God she worships rather than Farnese herself. Most women of Farnese's stripe are both irredeemable villains and horrible hypocrites, existing in worlds where some benevolent God is implied but they misrepresent his wishes to bolster their own power (and libido). But Farnese is a victim, because her benevolent God doesn't exist. (Correct me if I'm wrong on this one, but I believe Berserk takes place in a world where pagan creatures like fairies and monsters exist, but the Church's monotheistic doctrine is just a farce used to control the populace. Cruel but not unfamiliar territory for this kind of fantasy world.) Farnese is unable to see the good supernatural beings (like Puck) that actually inhabit her world, because her dogma is too narrow to include him. She's hurt both herself and others with her restrictive and punishing faith, so now it has come back to punish her. She can either succumb to her denial of the truth by killing Guts, the only person who has seen through to her true corrupt self, or she can process and work through the shame to come out of this whole ordeal stronger. I have hopes that Farnese will get a redemptive arc, but this is Berserk, so you never know. She might just get raped by a horse and then decapitated or something instead. Seeing as that very thing almost happened in episode three, I would be grossed out, but not surprised.

The second member of Guts's new crew appears to be her servant Serpico, a smiling rogue with a very different take on doctrine than the fundamentalist holy knights around him. He hasn't had much time to do anything but show off his fancy fencing thus far, but if Farnese is the new Caska, Serpico would appear to be the new Judeau, wiser than those around him to the truth of the world, but tragically passive when it comes to expressing his true beliefs and feelings. I'm expecting him to play a secondary support role compared to the two explosive personalities beside him, but maybe we'll get a look at his hidden depths too (right before he dies in some horrible fashion, no doubt).

Both narratively and artistically, Berserk ain't quite what she used to be, but once you manage to unclench your teeth at all those garish cel-shaded puppet bodies smacking against each other, Miura's compelling story and captivating world still shine as one-of-a-kind flights of dark imagination with poignant characterization, even as they struggle under such a lackluster production. In some small way, I'm grateful for the wonky renditions of all this gruesome imagery. There's only so much demon rape you can stomach in twenty minute chunks, so you might as well make it a little less frightening, right? There's a silver lining to every cloud!

Rating: B-

Berserk is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Jake has been an anime fan since childhood, and likes to chat about cartoons, pop culture, and visual novel dev on Twitter.


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