Anger is not exactly what most of us experience when we watch a great film or television series. Oh, we get angry at media all the time; many shows are poorly-plotted, incoherent, and deeply annoying. But it's another thing entirely when a show is skillfully made and, to some, emotionally powerful. I still remember the day I left the movie A. I. weeping while my wife muttered, "That was the worst movie I've ever seen!" When a film or television program is intentionally tragic or disturbing by design, the final result on the audience can be surprising, to say the least.
Which leads me into my review of Berserk, which ranks as the single most requested title during the fifteen-year history of this website. Many folks who wrote asking me to watch it back in the day have moved out of the hobby entirely. But now, a decade and a half after its run on late-late-night Japanese television, people are still interested in this series. I think it may be because Berserk creates a huge range of emotions in the audience, many rarely found in other anime.
Berserk is also unique in that it dares the viewer not to like it. It has a strange first couple of episodes and an ending that ranks up there with Evangelion in terms of "didn't see that coming." I came out of Berserk questioning why the show has gotten so deeply under my skin. Most of my readers who feel the same way aren't looking for a simple affirmation of their enjoyment, like a pre-teen Naruto fan might. I think they want someone else to help them put their feelings about this show into words. Hopefully I can help, though I daresay after nearly two weeks haunted by this program, I am still not completely sure why it is so powerful myself. All I can do is vent my own spleen.
Berserk begins by introducing a harsh medieval world where strength means everything and cruelty is common. Into the mix is thrown a swordsman named Guts who carries a blade the size of Detroit and wields his sharpened two-by-four expertly, slicing through those who oppose him. After he defeats a villainous creature, his mind turns to the past, to a simpler time of glory...
As a young man, Guts was simply a wandering mercenary with an attitude -- genuinely a berserker whose strength in battle was matched by his heroism bordering on insanity or stupidity. But through a series of circumstances, Guts meets Griffith, the leader of a crew of ragamuffin soldiers called the Band of the Hawk. Despite being the world's most perfect bishie, Griffith is able to defeat Guts in battle, something Guts has never experienced. But Guts' respect for Griffith goes beyond his ability to wield a sword. Griffith dreams of ruling a kingdom, and his optimistic leadership is charismatic in the extreme. His soldiers don't just like him; they revere him, willing to die for him and his dream. Against the wishes of his skilled female commander Casca, Griffith almost immediately puts Guts in charge of a regiment, and he succeeds brilliantly.
Guts spends three years with Griffith, fighting by his side under Casca's watchful eye. Griffith gets noticed and becomes more than just a mercenary leader but a knight, which makes him the devil to all the nobility of the land. They're more than willing to see him dead to stop a commoner's rise to power as the Hawks gain ever more fame and fortune. Yet in the midst of it all, Guts wavers on his loyalty to the Hawks as he begins to question a life made up of nothing but wielding death on the behalf of others.
There's also something else that bothers Guts...in the band's travels, they once came across a being that can only be described (to Tolkein fans, anyway) as a less fiery balrog. Griffith is knocked unconscious during the battle, and when the demon-beast notices a unique protective amulet around his neck, he prophecies that Griffith will doom Guts once they become equals. Guts isn't sure what that means, but he's not convinced he wants to stick around to find out...
Berserk may be many things, but it ain't pretty by any description. While the producer claims that Berserk was given close to double the funding that most shows in its time slot received, he also said that the other shows that had aired then (at 3:30am) could barely be called animated at all. Surprisingly, the animation gets better as the run progresses. However, in long shots with lots of horses or huge armies, it often looks just this side of passable. (Mercifully, the character art in close-up is just fine.) At times, I thought I was watching something made in 1987, not 1997.
But it's not just the animation that's rough...simply put, if you don't like blood, don't watch Berserk. Guts rarely swings his sword without slicing through something, and at times there are geysers of the red stuff. It's everywhere. It may very well be the bloodiest TV anime ever. But before you immediately dismiss it, know that the show is not in love with gore. Unlike the original manga, which is known for its detailed depictions of decapitations and disembowelment, the bloodshed here is in my estimation necessary. The job is brutal, Guts is brutal, and killing people isn't a clean enterprise. The anime presents it as a fact of Guts' existence.
On that note, whether or not you want to journey into this realm depends on how much you can take of the show's tone. The gold standard for fantasy anime was, for many years, the original Lodoss Wars OVAs. Tonally if not in story, they are anime's Lord of the Rings. Berserk is anime's Game of Thrones. There is political intrigue, there is barbarity, even the heroes are of questionable morals, and no one escapes unscathed. While there's little true fan service, sexuality plays a part in the show. As often as not, it's on the borders of consensual, and that goes for men and women alike. Berserk is not just violent, it can be unpleasant when you understand its ramifications. Again, though, it doesn't revel in its cruelty; it simply is a part of the landscape. Be warned.
Moving on...the show uses music as effectively as any anime I've seen. While the OP/ED are rock songs done totally in "Engrish" that a vocal contingent absolutely despise, I got hooked on both very quickly. But that said, the OP/ED aren't the real draw. The musical themes found in Berserk proper are repeated often; there are only a handful. Yet they perfectly capture the raw emotions of the show. There's one for battles; another for contemplative moments; a third for scary or shocking situations. Variety? No. But watch the show over a week's time, and the music will enter your dreams, guaranteed.
But beyond the artwork, the music, even the overall atmostphere, Berserk succeeds because it knows its characters and gives them a great deal of attention. The plot is at times secondary, and frankly, the enemies are almost universally pathetic. (In fact, one of the only reasons I can't give Berserk a perfect rating is because it's hard to get past the incompetence of everyone outside the Band of the Hawk.) But that doesn't matter too much because we feel like we know Guts, Griffith, and Casca well before the midway point of the series. Even many of the secondary Hawks are given ample screen time. Now don't get me wrong; Berserk is an action show, and a very good one at that. It is never once boring even in its slowest moments. But while there's more than enough action to satisfy even the most jaded viewer, Berserk has a very deep, emotional core.
That core is complimented by the show's viewpoint. In most anime, Griffith would be the hero and Guts would be the loyal bodyguard. Not here. Berserk gives us Griffith through Guts' eyes, making Griffith's personality far more enigmatic. Casca, too, has her own perspective on Griffith, one which gives us a more well-rounded picture of the man who would be king. Ultimately, the story is theirs, not his, but praise is deserved when an anime breaks the expected molds. In that vein, it's also so refreshing that while there are young players in Berserk, many (including the leads) are adults, at least in their early 20s. There's plenty of angst, but at least it's not teenage angst.
It's for these reasons (among others) that the ending of Berserk is so devastating. It's been said that the program just ends, and in a sense that's true; the manga continues beyond the anime's conclusion. But even if that's the case, the show finishes during an immense tragedy that's still in the written work. The show's opening and conclusion (found in the slot normally reserved for the "next episode" teaser) provide a complete and total loop, even if a few pivotal events must be filled in by the viewer's mind.
Even a casual search of the Internet will find you an immense outpouring of vitriol onto Berserk's finale. Rather than being a poor ending, however, I found it daring, even brave. The show's creators knew this wrap-up would anger many, but a "happy" ending would in many ways betray the narrative. I don't want to spoil it, but it is crushing. Not since Macross have I been so surprised and unnerved by the final episode of a series. And yet Macross ranks among my favorite series...and I believe Berserk has made nearly it into that stratosphere. Should Berserk be dinged because it turns into a genuine, unreserved, and deeply unsettling tragedy? I don't think so. Because in reality, the more you think about the nature of what Guts and the Hawks do as mercenaries, there are only two possible endings -- utter glory or utter catastrophe. It says something about us, at least in the West, that we're only able to handle the first any more in our storytelling.
A couple final notes...I watched the dub of the series, which while imperfect certainly works for me, and I'm not a dub person by nature. The DVDs include interviews with both the original mangaka and the producer of the series, and these help explain a few things. Last but not least are the dub outtakes. You may find this sort of thing annoying; voice actors flubbing their lines isn't terribly amusing. But here, there are some typical mistakes, but there are also some absolutely brilliant lines (and even songs) that the actors ad-libbed during the show. Considering the dark nature of the series, I found the outtakes refreshing after completing each disc.
I still feel as if I'm only just getting to the core of Berserk, and yet saying more requires spoiling the experience. So let me simply say this...if you enjoy fantasy and haven't been scared away by anything I've said, then you owe it to yourself to give the show a try. Give yourself at least the first five episodes, since that moves you past the strawy opener into the core of the series. Be prepared for the show to go to darker places than you might imagine. Then start counting the days until the Berserk movie series starts up in early 2012...because the one thing I know is, I can't wait for more. And if worse comes to worst and you hate it, at least it's given you an emotional reaction worth your time to experience.