Does it Hold Up? Berserk '97-'98by Matthew Roe,
So, story time. While in grade school, being that I could never afford my own, I read any manga which came into my local library branch. As I lived in a fairly rural area, the selection wasn't large, but I got my hands on what I could, when I could. This mostly consisted of Ranma ½, Fruits Basket, and Inuyasha. This continued as the norm for several years until, while in high school, I joined the school's anime club. Considering how being a fan of anime or manga was quick to get you ostracized by the larger student body at my school, the club held no more than half a dozen members at any given time. But most of these people had their own manga and anime collections, and most were willing to share. Because of the constant book-and-DVD-swapping going around, I was able to greatly expand my horizons. Sure, a lot of these horizons ended up as a succession of yaoi romances, because that's what all the girls in the club were reading (I still remember Youka Nitta's Embracing Love being a fairly solid series, and I hear that Yun Kouga's Loveless is still as batshit zany as it ever was – current readers will have to let me know). But during this time I discovered the holy trinity of my teen years: Hellsing, Death Note, and Berserk. While I still love all three, Berserk is the only one that is completely timeless in both its style and substance.
Now, before we segue into discussing the 1997-1998 anime adaptation of this beast of a manga, I need to get some things perfectly clear first. Firstly, I do not believe any of the adaptations of Berserk which have been made thus far (which include this series, the Golden Age Arc films, and the 2016-2017 show) have come close to equaling their source material. And, in some cases, they can be outright abysmal. However, why I believe this to be the case is different for each incarnation. Just don't ask me about the games. I've only played Berserk and the Band of the Hawk, which I just recently received for the holidays, and it largely follows the story I'm about to cover, just flavored with Dynasty Warriors. It's fun, and it's cool to see all these characters and settings come to life in unusual ways, but if you don't like the Warriors franchise, the experience will be too easy and samey (even on harder difficulties), and the levels are considerably less open than previous installments because of how tight to the story the gameplay is kept, which can feel a bit boring. This is compounded by a lot of the narrative ground not being fresh to fans of the existing anime, especially since they use segments from the Golden Age Arc films as the game's cutscenes. And because of the overwhelming amount of enemies murdered in any given battle, it makes moments such as when Guts takes on 100 soldiers single-handedly considerably less effective. It's just an excuse to play a game as Guts, Griffith, Casca, or other Hawks like Judeau.
Also, just because I hold this opinion that all of the current adaptations aren't quite up to snuff, doesn't mean that I don't find moments throughout each of these versions where I feel that they completely nailed it (yes, even in the pencil-shaded polygonal hell version). The largest issues that I end up having with these takes on Guts' trials and tribulations aren't always the creative or technical liberties which were taken by the various adapters, whether intentionally or due to circumstance. The issue is Kentaro Miura's Berserk.
Reportedly inspired (in a large part) by European folklore and Dark Age politics and warfare, Berserk is a high fantasy adventure series which takes many notes from Michael Moorcock's Elric Saga novels, and the 1979 and 1982 feature films, Mad Max and Conan the Barbarian. Miura's tragic death in 2021 left Berserk forever unfinished (and yes, while his heartbreaking final chapter does do a lot to wrap up some story beats, it really isn't designed to be an end to the narrative). Even in its unfinished state, this manga is probably one of the most intricate, unnerving, sprawling epics ever told in the history of literature, going on to inspire multiple generations of creators the world over. Not only this, but Miura's artistry is so utterly singular, only a handful of people could even possibly come close to mirroring his style in order to effectively adapt it to animation. Therein lies the problem -- I don't think we'll ever get an animated adaptation of Berserk which is on par.
Now, I am not oblivious or ignorant to the major leaps and bounds many animators have made worldwide, especially in recent years (just look at Arcane. No really, go watch Arcane right now. My wife is starting to question our marriage because I won't shut up about it). And of course a carbon copy of the manga wouldn't translate well to screen, because that isn't how adaptations work – each artform isn't absorbed and processed in the same manner, and different techniques are needed to get equivalent effects, depending on the material. This is another reason why I believe the adaptations of Junji Ito have never been successful either.
But, even if we get the technical aspects down, because the ground we walk with Guts is so traumatizing and depraved, in its uncompromised form, Berserk would be banned outright in numerous countries. So, to reiterate, the main issue is Kentaro Miura's Berserk.
I know this all may sound like I am laying it on fairly thick, but I will die on this hill without a shred of hesitation. As a result, this breakdown of the 97-98 series will not be whether or not I believe it does the manga justice. This anime covers volumes 1, 4 through 10, 12 and 13 of the manga, mostly adapting the Golden Age arc, with elements taken from a few other chapters to flesh out the narrative. And for the most part, it can be seen as a near 1:1 replication of the major story beats. Though I will say that the omission of Puck is an outright shame. I get why they cut them, given the limited time they gave to the first chapter, setting up the narrative's framing device. We never go back to the Black Swordsman arc except in a post-credit scene at the end of Episode 25, but I still feel Puck's absence. He's a necessary tonic to the absolute brutality which hallmarks the rest of the journey, but that might just be me.
Finally, I am not going to spend any time going over whether or not I think that Griffith did everything right or wrong. Besides my own opinions on the matter, all I'll say is that SuperEyepatchWolf broke down this argument far better than I ever could, so I will bow to his video and you should check it out if you haven't yet. Nevertheless…
This Berserk anime was directed by Naohito Takahashi, and was penned pretty evenly by five different screenwriters, the most notable being Yukiyoshi Ohashi, the head writer for Yū Yū Hakusho. The series was produced by OLM, INC, a company who has defined their oeuvre by licensing franchises. In fact, Berserk premiered six months after the company's only other television release for that year – a little show called Pokémon. And if you parse the cast and crew of Berserk, you'll find that a significant amount of them were also involved with making Pokémon at the same time, which could explain many of the creative and technical choices made throughout the series.
What you will notice, almost instantly, is that the animation of the series can be somewhat lacking. Or considerably lacking, depending on what you're used to (Seriously, look how Guts walks. What is he, a train?).
Fairly stilted animation, which is rife with compositing and layering flubs, as well as blatant continuity errors, makes the visuals of this anime a jumbled m ess from the word “go” (that isn't to say there aren't moments of sheer awesomeness, but I'll get to that). The visual inconsistency is compounded by Berserk's consistent lack of depth. No, I don't mean the characters are overtly shallow. In fact, I find that the majority of characters (besides the obvious episodic redshirts who die in battle) are handled pretty evenly. We're often given fairly clear motivations, and their evolution throughout each minor arc and major turning-point feel like a natural progression. What I mean is that visually, far too many scenes lack actual, physical depth. The character models and the background art have this inherent disconnect, with the settings appearing mostly as blotchy paintings which do little to highlight small details, even when the moment requires this kind of focus (Guts looking at camp when talking to Casca). When it's a single image being used to emphasize a singular action or moment, a lot more attention to detail is paid. But when we've got some less grandiose moments, the art direction and animation production take distracting nosedives.
Sure, it isn't that horrible splatter background art that shows like Digimon would come to constantly use, but the Berserk staff even forget parallax on the regular. Remember, this came out between 1997 and 1998. For comparison, other fantasy anime like Slayers, The Vision of Escaflowne and Record of Lodoss War were released before or during this time. While there exists plenty of jank within the series I've just listed, none of these properties (at the time) were as equally lauded and popular as the Berserk manga, so it again comes down to a lack of resources and priorities.
What offsets these production limitations, just as I mentioned in my previous video on Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, is the fantastic direction. Takahashi relies heavily on creating kinetic illusions with static images and manages to make nearly every reused animation loop, still frame impact shot, and awkward action sequence work largely to the narrative's benefit, often relying on the same techniques that any mangaka would use to showcase movement and weight. While this approach rarely works in anime (because it's less an animation and more an audio drama with a storyboard), and there are definitely moments in Berserk where it falls flat, the focus on the grit and grime of the world, as well as creating comprehensive redesigns of Miura's famous monsters do worlds of good for the series. Moments between Guts and the Band of the Hawk, and especially Griffith and Casca, are given such poignant weight just by how the scenes are paced and how the shots are constructed.
I'm affected more profoundly by Griffith's wordless stare, full of contempt and self-pity, during the onset of the Eclipse, than any emotional speech given by any character in Death Note or Hellsing. And, for further comparison, I feel that most of the Eclipse is handled better in this version than the Golden Age films, mostly due to this economical approach – every moment feels more important and crucial, with each second laying emphasis on how people will live or die. Whereas in the films, the technical spectacle seems to take a front seat to tight and concise storytelling. While the final film of the trilogy is certainly the strongest of the three, there just seems to be a lot more time taken between each beat than necessary, which makes the sequence feel a bit overwrought - ironic, considering it manages to do less than the '97 variant with a whole lot more.
The taut directorial choices of this anime are buttressed by the absolutely inseparable musical score by Susumu Hirasawa, which punches considerably higher than its weight class. Tracks such as “Behelit,” “Ghosts” and “Gatsu” are impressive just on their own, but when taken in context of the scenes they score, they provide a whole new level of ethereal beauty and horror. How often can you say something is as lovely as it is terrifying? While not every moment of music is flawlessly incorporated into the series, with a few moments certainly showcasing the age of the anime, Hirasawa elevates the experience of watching this show from just a well-paced but highly limited final product, to something as equally timeless as it is quintessentially 90s – that's an achievement in itself.
Though, I have to admit, and I know people will eat me alive for saying it, I am not really a fan of the opening sequence – the actual animation, or the track by the Japanese band, PENPALS. Yeah, I know, all y'all love it to death, and no matter how I'd critique it, it wouldn't be good enough. And considering how many times I tried pushing myself to like it, the harder I pushed, the further from appreciation I got – it just never jived with me, and I don't think it ever will. On the flip side, the ending song, "Waiting So Long" by SILVER FINS, I consider to be a perfect ending track for this anime. While the visuals are nothing special, the track feels like melancholic punctuation to what we just experienced in the previous episode. Even if the episode ended optimistically, it still sets you back on edge for the next stage of the journey to be an absolute mess of bad decisions and misread signs.
Speaking of bad decisions…
As I said before, the Japanese voice cast for Berserk is phenomenal. Nobutoshi Canna as Guts, Yūko Miyamura as Casca, and Toshiyuki Morikawa as Griffith are probably some of my favorite performances in anime, and should be a reason to watch the series alone. The supporting cast sound just as convicted, and give a lot of emotional resonance to the rise and fall of the Band of the Hawk – by the end of the series, every fresh loss compounds the last, and the full painful tragedy of their lives comes full circle. However, the English voice dubbing for this series is just as hit and miss as the animation quality. I would say that the principal three (voiced by Marc Diraison, Carrie Keranen, and Kevin T. Collins respectfully) all do fairly bang up jobs. They are consistent with their depictions, and understand what makes their characters tick. However, they lack that raw edge that the Japanese cast manage – I feel as if there isn't the same level of conviction. Though this can be said about most anime dubbed into English during the late 90s and early 2000s, which in Berserk's case, isn't helped by the consistently shoddy dubbing which hallmark the English version. Line deliveries are always off in some way, and while they can sometimes nail the comedic scenes, especially involving Adon Coborlwitz and his entourage, the more serious sequences do not feel as weighty or as destructive as they do in the original version, especially throughout the Eclipse.
Also, side note, Sean Schemmel voices a few characters in Berserk and he uses the same voice regardless of the role, so when we get Goku talking every few episodes, sometimes from different characters within the same scene, it really throws me for a loop.
Berserk isn't a story of good against evil, at least in a black-and-white sense. It is an endurance test. How much can you endure before you break? Whether physically or mentally, this is a world where the good and the bad are paradoxically entwined; where the greatest power, the God-Hand, is the most corrupt and destructive force. And since Miura's inspiration for the God-Hand was from the cenobites in Clive Barker's Hellraiser, you can see how terrifying the universe of Berserk is, down to its very core.
Just as we witness Griffith's heroic ascent in the eyes of his peers and fans, as well as those who despise and undermine him, we also see how utterly tainted his goal was from the very beginning. On the flip side, Guts is not a hero. Let me say that again: Guts is not a hero. Being a protagonist has little to do with the morality or heroics of a character, and whether it's Death Note, Code Geass, 91 Days, or Black Lagoon, we follow characters who are a mess of different hues. If they do things which could be considered heroic, it is almost always a secondary outcome, if not an outright accident. And with Guts, when just looking at this anime with no further context, he's honestly a real sonofabitch. But he's equally emblematic of the era in which these characters live. He revels in the carnage, not necessarily because of the brutality he's inflicting, but because he would rather fight for his life than actually live it. The struggle to survive is almost always his chief goal, regardless of the circumstance. This results in the ultimate adrenaline rush when he skirts death at every turn of his sword. But paradoxically, he also fights to quiet the voices of those he's murdered, to drown his guilt in the blood of his foes.
Conversely, Casca is someone who always lives for others. While this mostly comes in the form of her hero worship of Griffith, she also continually sees the larger picture of what the Band of the Hawk need to continue surviving, which is why she is the clear choice for the Hawks' new leader when Griffith is imprisoned in the final third of the anime. While outwardly she may appear the more faint of the main characters, due to how often she seems to break down, I'd argue that Casca is the strongest out of all of them. These breakdowns occur when everything she has fought for, every day of her life, seems to come crashing down around her. While Guts swings his sword to let out his ever-constant rage and sorrow, Casca internalizes it for the sake of her underlings and friends. She doesn't have the luxury of appearing weak or rash, even when she feels like it. She has to prove herself with the slightest of tasks, whether it's for the Hawks or against her foes. Her being a woman mercenary, especially one of low social standing, forces her to take on far more challenges and crises than any of the other characters. So when the Hawks talk about her with reverence and respect, demanding others do the same, it's because she's moved mountains for them, regardless of what happens to her. This makes her betrayal by Griffith during the Eclipse all the more heart-wrenching – the person who she trusted most was the one who betrayed her the worst.
The final moments of this anime are the utter evisceration of the Band of the Hawk, and the violation of Casca by a newly transformed Femto. While, as aforementioned, there is a post credit scene where we're brought back to the Black Swordsman arc, the series really doesn't have an actual ending. While this moment isn't a bad place to provide a demarcation point for the narrative, that isn't what we're given. We're left with these final revolting moments with no understanding of how Guts escaped and started killing Apostles, or if Casca even survived. Now, considering all of the manga which had been published to that point, Berserk actually covered most of the story as it stood. From all accounts that I've been able to dredge up, this anime was never slated to continue going, acting as a solid introduction to the source material and to spur more people to read the manga. Well, at least for me, that was somewhat the case. If it's true, then it honestly is a good springboard for new fans. And for twelve years, it was considered the definitive adaptation of the story. So, to many who grew up with this version, it still is.
While there are veritable landfills of technical issues and production limitations which may turn many anime fans away, I would still hold that this version of the story is worth investing your time. The original narrative is honored pretty closely (and considering the anime was supervised in some capacity by Miura himself, I would certainly hope so), and there are awe-inspiring moments scattershot throughout the journey. Berserk may be a mess, but it's a brilliant mess.
Thank you to everyone who's watched this video essay to the end, you're the cool kids. I know this wasn't as deep a dive into the themes of an anime as I usually do, I just wanted to revisit one of my favorites in all its roughness, because the passing of Miura got me rereading the manga and rewatching each adaptation. If you enjoyed (or have taken issue) with my take on Berserk, leave a comment down below to let me know. My next video will be on a feature film which I feel has really slid into obscurity, so subscribe to the Anime News Network to keep an eye out for that. We release new content every week, so be sure to ring the bell. Be sure to slide on over to my personal channel Criticlysm for other anime content, and see me talk into the void over on Twitter. I appreciate your support and feedback, and hope y'all will have a happy new year. Until next time.
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