“In this world, is the destiny of mankind controlled by some transcendental entity or law? Is it like the hand of God hovering above? At least it is true that man has no control, even over his own will.”
This opening monologue before every episode of Berserk may sound preachy, pessimistic and pretentious, but after experiencing one of the most iconic, brutal, and damn good animes of the 90’s, you’ll understand why you should be watching Berserk.
Originally created as a manga (which is still running), by Kentaro Miura in the late 80’s, Berserk is set in a fictional medieval Europe, and although the manga contains more magical elements, the anime is a bit more grounded. Well, relatively grounded; by the end of the anime some truly otherworld stuff will– well, you’ll understand when you watch it. The story focuses on Guts, a traveling mercenary who’s seemingly not afraid to die, and will take on nearly any task asked of him as long as It involves fighting. His backstory is rife with a troubled childhood, dark, mysterious demons haunting him, and utter dread. I know that sounds as cliché as anime can get, but Miura has amped up Guts’ story to a level likely unlike you’ve ever seen before. I won’t spoil it here, but there may be a few moments during the series that may be hard to watch for some. This is a seinen (young man) manga, so it’s a bit more mature and graphic than most manga or anime you’ve already seen.
People will die, blood will be shed, horses will be decapitated, blood will fill the screen, armies will be annihilated, blood will literally be an ocean by the end. Did I mention the amount of blood found in Berserk? When I first watched Berserk so many years ago, my jaw was on the floor at how much blood was displayed onscreen. It’s rare to see what Berserk holds within when compared to what’s a newly heavily censored anime industry. Yeah, it’s brutal; dark, brooding, and brutal! Don’t let that deter you though, Guts’ journey from a wandering mercenary to a high ranking military leader, is a terrific tale and shouldn’t be missed. The bulk of this anime covers the ‘Golden Age’ arc wherein we learn of Guts’ lead up to the ‘Black Swordsman’ arc which is then continued in the long-running manga. Berserk’s first anime is such a satisfying tease to lead in to checking out the manga. You’re left with a bevy of questions as to what the God Hand is, who’s Femto, and how the hell can Guts recover from the utter annihilation he’s subjected to?
Recently the manga was adapted a second time as part of three animated films by Studio 4°C, and while I love the updated animation and touches, I’m partial to the original OLM version for a number of reasons. First, the animation in the Studio 4°C films are newer and look good, but the CG really contrasts more than it should, and helps make the film look rather half-assed. The animation is smooth, mind you, but the traditionally hand-draw OLM version from the 90’s still looks terrific, even at this point. It helps it was remastered on Blu-Ray, but still hand-drawn animation will always be my preference. Secondly, and most importantly, Berserk was the breakthrough series that expanded my anime palette past Dragonball Z and whatever else Toonami were broadcasting. I remember distinctly, when I had a job at a movie theater, every Sunday night, while running projection, another projectionist and I would sit down and watch a variety of anime the entire night. Berserk just happened to be one of those anime, and after witnessing the brilliance that it held, I vowed to go outside of my comfort zone way more often and discover new anime as much as I could.
Recently, a new anime that could easily be a good introductory anime like Berserk has been making the rounds and several people who wouldn’t normally check out anime have done so: Shingeki no Kyojin, or Attack on Titan. I’ve reviewed Attack on Titan here in the past, so I won’t dwell on it for too long, but I do need to say this: If you like even a microcosm of what AoT holds in its grandiose story, you will love Berserk! In the same vein of dreary, almost unbelievable world and odds, Berserk captured all that AoT has done, but does it a lot better in my opinion. Sure, Berserk’s not a perfect series, and there a few more deus ex machina moments that are used to progress the story forward than I would like, but it’s forgivable giving the setting and world found within. Wherein AoT presents an otherwise always gloomy pretense, Berserk has a slow spiral of doom and gloom unlike anything I’ve really seen. It’s not gloomy for the sake of being gloomy; there’s justification behind nearly every aspect, situation, and choice. It’s a tale about fate and free-will after all. Guts is not a one-dimensional character, and this anime shows how a character can grow, get broken down, grow again, and change and learn with a competent, believable story.
On the auditory side however, I do advise you watch it subbed. The English dubs isn’t the worst thing ever, it’s not ‘Big Green’ bad, but it was recorded at a time when English dubbing wasn’t at its peak. A lot of flat deliveries and non-emphatic lines are found within the dubbing. An ongoing trend I noticed during my re-watch, was the characters would often spell out scenes too an almost too-detailed degree. For example, one such scene has a troop of soldiers indiscreetly describing the same passage at least three times, three different slightly alternate ways. It essentially boils down to all three of them saying “that’s the famous mercenary, Guts. He’s quickly ranked up in the Band of the Hawks.” Only now you have two other soldiers repeating it somewhat varied. It’s not ‘bad’, just rather lazy and funny. I immediately had to stop the scene and show my roommate.
Eh, bad dubbing aside, where the audio portion of Berserk really shines is with Susumu Hirasawa’s incredible soundtrack. It’s subtly and builds for some of the songs are just ridiculously poignant and fitting. Not to take away from the work Shiro Sagisu did for the Berserk films, but the first anime’s soundtrack is just too much of a pinnacle, nothing can replicate it or come close. The tracks “Earth”, “Behelit”, and “Guts” are tracks that when they start you know not only are they fitting and helping the series, but they’re some of the best produced music in an anime ever. Susumu Hirasawa’s music may often sound bizarre and awkward out of context, but when you hear it as intended, you realize the genius behind his creations.
Berserk is hands-down a show you should be watching, and although the DVD sets can be a bit pricy, I highly recommend them over the new movies. That’s a personal preference, but I feel the characters are more fleshed out and treated with more respect than their six-combined hour counterparts. That being said, regardless of which option you choose, Berserk is a series worthy of your time and has absolutely withstood the test of time and will forever be a personal recommendation.