If you’re looking for amazing storytelling, some deep philosophical moments and a ton of butt-kicking action then you’re in luck because Berserk has all this and a little bit more…
So this show is based on the manga of the same name written by Kentaro Miura and mainly falls in the action/ adventure/ dark fantasy genre. The manga itself has been running since 1989 (!) and although it isn’t released on a regular basis now, intermittent updates to the story are released hence its “ongoing” status and the fact that there have been at least 38 volumes released so far. The manga has been adapted into 2 animes – one released in 1997 (that will serve as the point of discussion for this review) and one released in 2016 – and a series of 3 OVAs/movies that cover the events of the 1997 anime, i.e. the Golden Age Arc. And another season is set for release this year (2017). The original anime was done by Oriental Light & Magic Inc., who has also brought us shows like Pokemon, Guyver: The Bioboosted Armour, Utawarerumono, Inazuma Eleven and Future Card Buddyfight.
The plot of the original anime places us in what we assume to be the “present day” (it should be noted that the story is set around the 15th century in what should be England, considering the inclusion of the well-known Tudor kingdom and the events of the Hundred Year War), where a man named Gatsu (pronounced Guts) walks into a bar, raises a little hell (relatively speaking) and leaves a message with some lackeys of a powerful man, telling them to tell their master that he is looking for him. After this little revelation which doesn’t tell us a whole lot, the story jumps to a great battle that is being waged between Gatsu and this powerful man… We aren’t told much about the circumstances before we are taken back to the past where we follow the life of this man named Gatsu and all that he’s experienced, leading up to that present moment we just witnessed.
We see what Gatsu’s childhood was like having been raised by a mercenary who served as his father figure and had him fighting from the time he could walk. We see the events that transpire between them and how Gatsu ends up becoming a wanderer without a place to really call home. Because of his fighting ability, he finds work easily in mercenary bands and earns his keep this way. One day, after an intense battle where he slays the best fighter of the opposing army, Gatsu takes his pay and is on his way when he a small group of thieves decides that they want his earnings. Not one to be messed with, a small tousle ensues and Gatsu even manages to take down the best fighter… that is until the leader of these “thieves” shows up to break up the fight. This moment is one that will change the course of Gatsu’s life forever because in one swift move he’s taken down by the leader, who later asks him to join his band… not of thieves, but of mercenaries: Band of the Hawk, led by a man named Griffith.
Once Gatsu joins this band of mercenaries we see how this band rises to power under the leadership of Griffith who is pursuing his dream of owning a kingdom and will do whatever it takes to achieve this. Griffith is common by birth, but through his exploits with his mercenaries he slowly gains recognition, all of which leads him closer to realising his dream. And so the story goes along as we see the different battles they fight and the political moves Griffith makes, taking his band along with him and keeping Gatsu close to his side as his go-to, his right hand, his confidant and probably his 2nd in command. The events that transpire all eventually lead to that initial scene, but what a ride to get there…
From rags to riches with the Band of the Hawk.
I usually like to savour the good animes I watch, but sometimes there are those that demand that you watch as many as you possibly can before you have to wake up and get to school/uni/work the next day. Berserk is one of these and I never even saw it coming! There is a lot to be said for this anime, so how about we do this methodically?
First off, the story itself is very well told. The use of the initial scene to set things up is a real advantage in that it allows the story to move toward a specific goal in those 25 episodes and keeps it somewhat focussed. It also gives the story a good grounding and creates an even pace at which events slowly unfold. The story does an excellent job of balancing out the full out battle scenes where there isn’t much else but bloodshed and heads flying versus the political moves and manipulation that is going on in the background. And the thing about it is that although there is a lot to cover and years go by in the space of a couple of frames, you don’t feel like the story has been rushed in the slightest. This is because of the next great point: the characters.
They are a critical part of this anime because they are essentially the driving force here. Our 3 main characters are Gatsu, Griffith and his trusted follower, Casca (the only woman but she’s already in a leadership position). The interaction triangle between these three makes for fascinating viewing and is what makes the story feel like it isn’t moving too fast. Because these interactions are explored properly and not just glossed over, the story has depth to it as the characters develop and change over time. For example, when Gatsu meets Griffith he is a loner that has no need for others but as time goes on, Gatsu finds himself wanting to be in Griffith’s favour and to be someone almost special to him – a friend – something that Griffith does not have since he is a leader. He wants to be the one that Griffith turns to because it pleases him to know that he’s in with Griffith like that… You know the feeling… There are plenty of developments, some disillusionment, arguments and fights between the characters – both main and supporting and it’s all covered here in good detail.
From enemies to friends to something more…
Apart from the interaction between the characters and their development, the personalities of the characters themselves are rather well defined. We have Gatsu who is the unlikely hero (and he never sees himself as one), Griffith the leader who is both kind/charming and merciless/cutting depending on what the situation calls for, Casca who is an atypical woman on the battlefield but is a typical one off it, and the other members of the Band of the Hawk who each lend their optimism/pessimism/realism to the plot.
In relation to the story and the characters comes the bit where we need to read between the lines and explore some philosophy here. A lot of the characters struggle to define themselves and to determine a clear path – Gatsu especially has an issue with this. He sees Griffith taking strides toward his dream, he sees Casca has chosen to support Griffith as part of her path, but Gatsu is still unclear. This serves as a form of motivation for Gatsu which lead to actions which lead to consequences and repercussions. Each episode ends with a preview and the narration found within deals both with the following episode as well as raising questions/points with regard to what it is to follow a dream, e.g. in following our own dreams, do we crush the dreams of others? Some heavy questions are posed in this manner and if you’re one to reflect on what you saw/will see then you will recall this and perhaps draw your own conclusions as to its meaning. In this way, Berserk has this almost literary approach to things where interpretation is up to the reader, or in this case the viewer. And be warned, there are some feels involved here as you watch how everything unfolds.
These elements (story, characters and philosophy) are what form the heart of the story. If this is the heart, then the arms and legs would have to be the action! If you’re looking for battle strategies and bloodshed then you will not be disappointed because there are sword fights for days (literally, considering these battles would have been fought over a number of days/weeks). Gatsu is the resident bad-ass here because he has got the most enormous sword known to mankind and is able to wield it single-handedly if need be. He trains daily and is ripped (understatement) and is able to take down a hundred guys all on his own. Griffith relies more on skill and speed and is able to hold his own against Gatsu if need be. Casca may be a woman, but she can hold her own in a fight and some of the other guys are highly skilled with knives and crossbows. The armour and weaponry is meant to reflect the times (although may not be entirely 100% historically accurate, but really, I doubt that will affect your viewing) and some of these elements are even said to have inspired the creators/designers of Dark Souls (the game that has made many a man cry and rage quit). The battle strategies aren’t too difficult to grasp and keeping track of the various kingdoms isn’t too complicated either so it’s great fun to watch, especially when you get those “OMG!!” moments.
The animation is as one would expect coming out of the late 90s and I know some might find that the show isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as they would like, but it must be remembered that shows based on manga must keep to the character designs of the mangaka. So yes, it has an old school look about it and some shots/frames are re-used (which can be bit of a detractor factor for sticklers) but overall, it’s well executed and has a certain style to it. Of course, as the years have gone on the OVAs and the newer animes should show an improvement in the animation itself. What I enjoyed about the animation though was that they didn’t censor things too strictly and the expressions were well done, e.g. when Griffith gives you a look with his piercing blue eyes, you know he means business. It’s these small nuances that give animes that little something extra.
Character styles from the 1980/1990s manga to the 1997 anime to the 2012/2013 movies.
And lastly, the music also deserves some special mention since, as you should by now, I always appreciate a good OST and will say so. Berserk joins the ranks of great OSTs that are unusual and different and really emotive. The OST was provided by Susuma Hirasawa and have an almost ethereal quality to it that makes it hard to define. All you know is that you like what you hear and it fits the mood(s) perfectly. My favourites are the tracks “Gatsu” and “Berserk – Forces” and the OP and ED have a pretty expected 90s-esque vibe to them, the OP (“Tell Me Why” by Penpals) being rather catchy.
This anime has some serious clout and it’s no surprise why it’s hailed as one of the must-sees in terms of classic animes that don’t disappoint. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here but I now that I’ve watched it, my only regret is that I didn’t watch this epicness sooner. Putting that aside, this a great watch that has a bit of everything for everyone so if you’re looking for something you can really sink your teeth into (and want to see how everything goes from sunshine and blue skies to hellfire in Hades) then give Berserk a try. It really is one for the ages…
Image credits: OLM, Hakusensha
End: Berserk Anime Review