My Review of Berserk(1997)

As far back as anyone can remember, the land of Midland has never been peaceful. It’s unclear how long the Hundred Year war lasted, with kings waging war against each other for territory, and a number of uniquely named mercenary bands fighting on their behalf, but the casualties have been many, and the conflict has only recently appeared to be resolved. You would think that the end of this war would bring piece to midland, but you’d be sadly mistaken, as the rise of a cruel demon king has led to the earth being invaded by terrifying monsters, the likes of which not even the darkest imagination could comprehend, and whom hunger for the blood of men, women and children. It’s a dark time for the human race, one where death waits around every corner, and any given person can become the dripping dinner of a demon at any given moment. We live at their whim. We are their cattle. Among us, there is only one human the demon scourge fears. One they’ll try to kill at any cost, as they know full well he’ll do the same thing to them.

That man is named Guts, and the demons are right to fear him. Towering over other men, covered with battle scars and always ready for a fight, he is almost literally a killing machine. With one eye, a prosthetic arm chock full of demon-killing weapons, and a giant 400 pound sword resting on his shoulder, he travels midland looking for demons to slay. Sadly, he’s not motivated by the survival of the human race… He’s killed more than enough humans to be considered a demon himself. It’s revenge that he thirsts for, and his target is the herald of the apocalypse himself, the Demon King Griffith. See, this isn’t a story about the demon-infested world, but of how that world came about… And these two have a history spanning several years. Once upon a time, Guts was just a wandering soldier, bouncing aimlessly from battle to battle, sort of like a mideval Ronin Warrior. It was his chance meeting with a young Griffith, still just a brilliant, strategic genius leading a fledgling mercenary group, that would entangle his destiny with what he could not have possibly predicted would be the end of the world as we knew it.

It’s been around twenty years since this series came out, and in that time, there’s been an ever-present demand for a new adaptation to be released. There have been a few reasons for this, and I’ll get to one of them later, but the other one… and perhaps the more persistent one… Has to deal with the animation quality of this initial adaptation, and just how dated it looks due to the technical and financial limitations of the time. The truth is, however, the animation in Berserk was bad even back when it came out, and it had it’s pedigree to blame for it’s disaster. It was animated by a company called Oriental Lights and Magic, yes that’s an obvious Star Wars pun, and not only was Berserk their fourth series, but their only other major claim to fame was… You’re not going to believe this unless you already know about it… The Pokemon anime. Yup. They had just gotten started animating the Pokemon anime about six months prior when they decided to try their hands at one of the most infamously mature and intensely beloved manga properties of all time, and God help me, they tried.

I’ve talked in the past about how low-budget anime productions can use a lot of tricks to hide the weaknesses that such a restraint holds over their productivity, and how more experienced observers can pick out these techniques. With Berserk, however, even the greenest of viewers can spot the corners being cut. Right in the first episode, the onslaught of a struggling human settlement is portrayed by static images being either panned across or zoned in and out of while the music plays. The static images look good, like high qualities paintings depicting the horrors of war, so it’s not like any of it comes off as an eyesore, but it does sort of defeat the purpose of animation, which is a word that’s defined as movement. The speed lines are even worse, as they really do drag down the action of a series that’s mostly famous for it’s action. Dialogue scenes are often reduced to a series of talking heads, and when they don’t have any shadows to play around with, these issues are embarrassingly exposed.

So of course, new adaptations came. People got what they wanted, and in a weird sort of twist, they’ve only served to make the original series look better. Yeah, an anime whose visuals were already on the low end of the scale back in the late nineties looks better now than it did when it was new. Thanks to the new adaptations, it’s aged miraculously well. Part of this is due to the new adaptations looking like complete ass… The movies in particular employ extravagant CG, and while it obviously had a lot of money poured into it, they just look ugly and clumsy as a result, with a serious case of Uncanny Valley plaguing all of it’s characters. I haven’t seen the new series, but from what I’ve heard, it’s not that different. A quick comparison between movies that spend a lot of money haphazardly, and a series without much money that had to be responsible to make ends meet, Berserk has actually managed to develop a certain kind of nostalgic charm and respectable sincerity to it’s plethora of visual issues. I won’t go as far as saying that it looks good, but it’s hard to look at the amount of effort and artistry they put into it without cutting it some serious slack.

So the visuals are a mixed bag, but you know what definitely isn’t? The soundtrack. The music in Berserk is almost as famous as the show itself, and with a composer like Susumu Hirasawa behind the wheel, it’s not hard to see why. In addition to Berserk, Susumu has also done the scores for several Satoshi Kon projects… And that alone is a high praise. While his contributions to The Berserk franchise may not be as deep or cerebral as those, they are some of the most epic, powerful orchestrations you’ve ever heard from the medium. The over-all aesthetic of the soundtrack is something akin to what you’d hear in a really inspired opera about King Arthur… Fantasy, destiny, war, the rising tension of a battle that’s about to start, the inner conflict of deceptively complex characters, and none of it sounds like it was just picked for the sake of sounding good. for a few examples, a tune like Behelit is subtle but bone-chilling, while Guts’ theme song, which you’d expect to be some sort of roaring metal anthem, instead sounds like you just entered a fairy sanctuary, and it’s used in scenes where’s he’s most at peace, and we get to see who he is behind the carnage.

The most famous track from this show is without a doubt Forces… Okay, well, the God Hand Remix is the one people seem to hear the most often, but the original track is still the most popular from that release. While there are other tracks that feature vocals, I’m pretty sure forces is the only one outside of the OP and ED to feature actual lyrics. The most famous part is the chorus, which awesomely belts out the phrase HAI EEE YAI FORCES a few time before lapsing into instrumentals, but the interesting this about that is that you never hear this during the series. The song plays once in one of the early episodes, but cuts off right before the chorus can hit. I’m not sure what the history behind this song’s usage must be, but it is weird that the most famous 16 seconds of Berserk’s soundtrack don’t actually make it into the show. To give the opening and ending themes a quick mention, they’re okay. I initially didn’t like Tell Me Why by Penpals, I felt it was too light and upbeat for the material, but it’s grown on me recently. The ending, Waiting So Long by Silver fins, I’ve always been cool with. It’s a cool ending.

The English dub is… Good. It’s not particularly remarkable, as almost everyone across the board does their job competently, with only one or two performances standing out in one way or another. Mark Diraison does a perfectly fine Guts, and while his acting is never bad, the best thing you can say about him is that he has the right voice for the part, as he plays the character with a low, gravely tone that makes him sound appropriately tough. He used pretty much the same voice in his other major role… Oh good lord. He played Zoro in the 4Kids One Piece dub. Moving on, as you damn well should after learning something like that, Carrie Keranen is amazing as the Hawk’s sole female warrior Casca, whose interactions with the other main cast walk a tight rope between her strengths and weaknesses, as she speaks forcefully and proudly as a leader, yet still insecure and full of longing for her unfulfilled ambitions and desires. They’re both better than Kevin T Collins, who plays Griffith in a very hit-or-miss fashion. He has his moments of brilliance, and can be downright chilling even at his charismatic best, but can also sound stiff as a board inbetween.

Those three make up the majority of the show’s dialogue, but there are also a lot of memorable performances in the supporting cast, as well. Rachel Lillis plays a charming, naive young princess who catches Griffith’s eye. Veronica Taylor plays the child version of Griffith, who shows up once in a surreal scene towards the end. I was a huge fan of Mike Pollock in this show, as he plays a recurring antagonist General named Adon, who’s just an arrogant loudmouth over-all, but still manages to become a fitting arch-rival for Casca. It’s very likely he was typecast, as he also played Eggman in a lot of Sonic properties. Famed Goku actor Sean Schemmel takes on several roles, including a low-level hawk member, and if I’m being honest, most of his best lines are bloopers. Actually, speaking of bloopers, those are totally a thing, and while you can find a ton of them on each individual disk, you can find the entire set on Youtube. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Guts do a Shwarzenegger impression, Casca rant in a lisp or Griffith bust out in all his showtunes glory, I highly recommend checking them out.

Berserk is not the only anime in history to be granted a do-over. I feel like this is kind of obvious, but one of the most notable examples is Fullmetal Alchemist, which carried a lot of the same complaints that Berserk did… Mainly, though, it was too different from the source material, and people wanted to see a more faithful adaptation. As we all know, Brotherhood came out to monstrous fame and adoration, while surprisingly, Berserk seems to have had the opposite effect. The movies, as much as people praised the first one, and the 2016 remake, which I’ve pissed people off by calling Berserk Brotherhood, is popularly considered an actual dumpster fire. I have not seen it, but I’ll take their word for it until I finally do. But all of this does raise a very interesting question: If the original 1997 series had so many shortcomings that people demanded a do-over, why are there so many people who still consider it the best version? I mentioned earlier how it’s animation has aged better than anyone thought, but I think there’s more to it.

One of the first problems you’ll hear from people with grievances over the original series is how incomplete it is. Now I’ll be blunt, I’ve only read the first seven volumes of the manga… Give me a break, I’m not a huge manga reader, and there’s like hundreds of volumes… But it’s not hard to see their point, especially since the prologue in the manga was way longer than the one we got for the series before it went back in time for Guts’s origin story. There are other things that were cut, and other changes that were made for the sake of streamlining the story, and while this may be considered a mild spoiler, they cut a part of Guts’s childhood where his guardian sold him for a night with a grown man, who raped him. I don’t think this is a particularly bad cut, though. The story works just fine without it, although it does sorta rob him of a connection he shared with Griffith and Casca. The more obvious change, however, is that the story doesn’t properly end. After a huge climax, it leaves off on a massive cliffhanger, wrapping around to the prologue that we’d seen in episode 1. I don’t personally mind this, but we’ll get to why in a moment.

And if you think the removal of Guts’s pedophilic abuse scene means the series was toned down in any way, you’re fairly well mistaken. I haven’t read much of the manga, so it’s hard to say how far the story truly went with it’s content, but Berserk rests firmly as one of the most R rated mainstream anime in existence. It has just about everything you could want in a mature title, such as blood, gore, sex, nudity, uncompromising violence… It’s oddly light on foul language, I noticed… And it presents all of it with no shame or hesitation. Now, some of you may be asking, so what? The movies did this too. Well, yeah, but here’s where I’m going to be a bit prudish… No matter how far the 1997 Berserk’s content went, it was always, well, tasteful, which is quite a bit more important than you might realize. A long time ago, I ranted hard on Blood C over it’s violence and depravity, and it wasn’t because I have a problem with gore or anything, but because I had a problem with how it was used, and how the series was basically just a vehicle for gore porn.

But leaving the blood splatters behind for a moment, let’s talk about what’s possibly the most controversial and divisive element in any media, nudity. This has always been a weird element in anime, as producers will happily use it to titillate audiences, but they have to bend over backwards to avoid showing certain things… So you get weird compromises like convenient censorship and straight up nipple-free Barbie-doll bodies. You get situations like Sankarea, where it’s okay on some characters but not others. Berserk has nudity, but it never goes too far in either direction. It doesn’t bother censoring anything(unless it had to legally), and it also doesn’t create situations like endless showering and bathing scenes just to push out more flesh coverage. If it’s in the story, it happens, and not one single fuck is given as to how you feel about it. If you’re offended, you know where the fast forward button is. If you’re turned on, you know where the pause button is. It’s not there to please or shock you, it’s part of the story… And that’s how Berserk is about everything, really.

Every single second of this anime is important in some way. Every conversation, every fight, every death(even those involving nameless soldiers and mercenaries), every second of sex and inch of flesh, every single second of material has a direct purpose, such as establishing mood, developing characters and their relationships, communicating details to us, furthering the story and even foreshadowing later events. This is in stark contrast to the Golden Age movies, who valued spectacle over story, and would often gloss over important events in order to, presumably, ‘get to the good parts.’ Like, there’s a moment where Griffith, depressed, making a huge mistake by sleeping with someone he should have stayed away from. The series made no bones about what was happening, but only showed you what you needed to see in order to follow what was happening and appropriately fear the outcome. The movies straight-up presented it as a hot, sexy porn scene, completely missing the point to a confusing degree, and to make matters worse, the same thing happened regarding a rape at the end of the third movie.

I don’t know which version was more true to the books, and frankly, I don’t care. I’m worried for these characters, so why are you trying so hard to make me jerk off? You don’t need to destroy the tone of the story to keep my attention, and the series knew that. And that’s when mature content becomes a problem… When it’s manipulative. If you write something into your story as fan service, with the effect it might have on the audience as even one of your main intentions, all it will be is fan service. The original Berserk doesn’t give a shit about it’s audience, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. It never tries to shock you, or titillate you, or coddle you, or excite you, it’s focus is squarely on it’s own damn story, which is where it should be. If you need boobs and catgirls to get invested, fuck you. If the material goes too far for you, fuck you. Berserk is the story it wants to be, and while that’s not always the best thing to say about an anime… Garbage that wants to be garbage is still garbage… Berserk legitimately is a great story.

And yeah, i know, Berserk doesn’t really have the kind of story I’d normally praise in a review. I’ve made it kind of a theme to talk about metaphors, social commentary, allegories, real symbolic stuff, and as far as I can tell, Berserk doesn’t really feature any of that. It’s a fairly straight-forward story, with everything that’s happening being right there on the surface, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have depth. Whether it was intentional or not, Berserk(at least the parts that made it into this anime) has managed to become something very few anime can actually claim… A Greek tragedy. This ancient style of storytelling takes flawed characters from all walks of life, gives them some lofty ambition to pursue, and then follows them as they put everything they had before on the line, make heavy sacrifices to get within inches of their dream, and then ultimately lose everything when they fail, due in major part to those flaws they just couldn’t overcome. There are countless ways that Berserk stands as the perfect example of this, and it’s unflinching look at pain, suffering and despair only serve to cement it as possibly the greatest Greek Tragedy Anime of all time.

There’s also the dynamic between Guts and Griffith in general, which is probably one of the most important elements of the story, but getting into that would be going WAY too heavy into spoilers, so check out Bennet the Sage’s review if you want to know more about that..

Berserk was originally available from Animeworks, with individual DVDs way back in the early to mid 2000s, and a thinpack that was released back in 2009, all of which are currently out of print, but the thin pack isn’t too expensive online, if you’re bent on owning it.. The follow-up movies are also fairly cheap on DVD, but the 2016 remake, which has just started hitting the shelves about a year ago, is still worth a pretty penny. The original manga is available from Dark horse, and yes, i know it’s just 39 volumes, I was kidding earlier. There are also a few video games, including titles for the Sega Dreamcast and the PS4.

It’s frustrating to see just how close Berserk came to perfection. Much like the hero of any Greek tragedy, it came so close, only to fall to it’s own undisguised, insurmountable shortcomings. Like I said before, I don’t personally mind the cheap animation, but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem, and it was a driving force behind the demand for a reboot. The same could be said for it’s crippling lack of an ending, and while I think the way it wraps around to the prologue ultimately justifies it, I still completely understand how cheated some people feel over it(Unless the ending of the third Golden Age movie is manga accurate, in which case I can firmly say that I’m GLAD it cut off before reaching that shit). On it’s own, Berserk is still such a thrilling and engaging story that I sometimes have difficulty remember which episode I’m watching, as the story flows so naturally from moment to moment that my mind barely registers the episode breaks. I can’t call it perfect, but I can call it one of my favorites of all time. I give Berserk a 9/10.

  1. Berserk is probably never gonna get a good adaptation at this point, unfortunately.

    I do hope I’m wrong.

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