Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Berserk: The Golden Age Arc
Blu-Ray - The Egg of the King
A land of war. For a hundred years Midland and Chuder have fought one another. Guts is a wandering mercenary, taking advantage of the war to make his living. In his wanderings he catches the eye of Griffith, the young leader of an up-and-coming band of mercenaries. The meeting isn't a happy one. Guts kills some of Griffith's men and Griffith stabs Guts in the chest. But Griffith is taken with Guts' skills, and duels with him to force him into his mercenary corps, the fabled Band of the Hawk. Years pass. Despite his hot temper and frequent clashes with Griffith's lady lieutenant Casca, Guts has made his place in the Band and grown fast friends with the brilliant and ambitious Griffith. Through siege and raid, against man and immortal demon, assassin and scheming noble, Griffith and his band rise ever victorious through Midland's ranks. And always at his right hand is fierce Guts, trusted with all the dirtiest and most dangerous of his tasks.
If ever a film began under an intolerable burden of expectation, it's this one. Kentarou Miura's ongoing Berserk manga is one of the great fantasy epics, and its 1997 television adaptation one of the greatest and most human of all action anime. That The Egg of the King isn't crushed under the weight of our expectations is a testament to its strength. That it cannot in any way measure up to its progenitors is proof of its weakness. It is a good film, rousing and occasionally deeply felt, but also a truncated one—an introductory lesson in Berserkology that falls somewhere between the full version of Guts' saga and the Cliff's Notes.
As the name states, the trilogy that this film belongs to covers the manga's “Golden Age” arc. It's the logical place to start: an account of Guts' roots, the events that shape him into the person we never see in this version: a bitter, violent man driven by a soul-deep vendetta. It is arguably the finest of the saga's arcs, and unfortunately also the one that Naohito Takahashi's near-perfect television series was formed around. It is here we meet the players in Guts' early life: regal Griffith, the common-born mercenary of godlike martial skill, driven by his dream to one day rule the nation; Casca, Griffith's devoted second-in-command, who hates Guts in equal proportion to Griffith's regard for him; the Band of the Hawk, the stragglers and misfits drawn in by Griffith's charisma and held together by loyalty deeper than money or prestige.
It is here that we first hear the rumblings of something horribly, awfully wrong. There's Griffith's necklace, an unnatural thing covered in disordered eyes and ears, given by an eerie gypsy woman and said to grant the wearer the world—in exchange for his flesh and blood. There's Nosferatu Zodd, a battlefield monster whose very existence hints at cracks in reality beyond which lurks…god knows what. And there's Guts and Griffith, whose partnership is struck a blow at the film's end that sends subtle cracks through their lives that will eventually tear the world asunder.
They are the building blocks of a huge, far-reaching tale of sinister magic, unknowable forces and the people caught up in them. But for now they tell a tale of war and friendship in medieval times: detailing the rise of Griffith and his bond with volatile Guts. It's a tale of battlefield violence and complicated relationships, of political sparring as deadly as battle and, yes, some sinister magic. There is heartsick tragedy here—especially in the assassination Guts carries out at the end—and stirring action and comradeship detailed and later dissected.
And all of it packed artfully into a slim seventy-minute film. It is impressive how seamlessly the film condenses Miura's expansive tale. Scenes whose purposes overlap are joined together or excised altogether. Important details from eliminated scenes are grafted invisibly on to others. Simple reasons are given for things that would've taken long minutes to explain. Dialogue that illuminates court dealings is combined with evocative montages detailing the Band's progress. The end product is clean and streamlined, delivering everything the next films will need in an impressively compact package and without feeling crowded or rushed.
Inevitably, though, something is lost in the process. Nothing essential to understanding Guts' tale, or to the impact of the film's few crucial (and great) scenes. But the texture—that is gone. Guts' monstrous childhood is dealt with in a single distorted dream (likely it is one of the sequences to be joined with another, probably in film three). Supporting characters, so important to creating the feel of Griffith's band and in making its fate matter, find their roles pared to the bone: Judeau and Corkus and Pippin and Rickert, full-blooded characters reduced to mere scenery. Nuances of relationships, the slow-built power of characters' feelings, details of their world—all polished away. The film has the scale of the story right, its sweep and ominous foreboding, but lacks some of the human depth that both Miura and Takahashi brought to it.
It also lacks Takahashi's directorial judgment. Takahashi told his tale of men and their bonds and the doom that they bring with rough-hewn art and animation whose very limits suggested tales of yore. It looked like a myth illustrated and brought to life. Toshiyuki Kubooka and Studio 4°C opt instead for a slick modern veneer, mixing world-class background art and fine designs with lots of 3DCG character animation. It's a terrible mixture. Not in a purely technical sense, mind you. The animation is clean, and the combination of traditional and cel-shaded 3D art surprisingly smooth. It can be hard to notice the transitions from one to the other, with characters moving into three dimensions mostly for ferociously-edited action and back into two dimensions when shades of emotion are called for.
The problem is that it's plain wrong. Like video-game characters acting out the Bible. Why Kubooka opted for this strategy is beyond understanding. Especially given that his other instincts are so good. The choice of Shiro Sagisu for composer was inspired—his darkly beautiful fantasy score is pitch-perfect—and Kubooka's use of his compositions is thoughtful and intelligent. The action is fierce and lucidly assembled and the scenes that should sing, sing loud: The terror of Guts' assault on Zodd is acutely felt; the stomach-turning power of the climactic assassination is just right; and the many emotional facets of the final scene, in which Guts and Casca listen to Griffith discuss philosophy with the princess he means to woo, are all there, perfectly in place. That someone who can do all that can also think that rubbery 3D characters are a swell idea boggles the mind.
Ten years after he dubbed the original series, ADR director Michael Sinterniklaas somehow managed to round up most of the old gang for another go at the franchise. Nearly all of the major parts, and even some oddball minor parts (e.g. Sean Schemmel's single line as Guts' goofy lieutenant) are reprised by the veterans who first inhabited them. The years have been kind. If memory serves, the television dub was a bit stiff and emotionally awkward. Egg of the King has no such problems. It is nicely performed, smartly written, and faithfully cast. It is also helped by an all-new Japanese cast who are a good rung or two below their television predecessors.
Just like the film itself. Though it isn't so many rungs down that it can't still whomp you in the gut and make you look forward to being beat to hell by films two and three. And certainly not so far down that Berserk: the Conviction Arc I doesn't sound like an absolutely fantastic idea.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : A-
Music : A-
+ Smooth, efficient introduction to the Berserk world; great main cast, good action, nice art; immensely powerful pivotal scenes.
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