Summer 2016 First Impressions – Berserk

BerserkCoverGuts, a man who calls himself “The Black Swordsman” looks upon his days serving as a member of a group of mercenaries, the Band of the Hawk, nicknamed “the Grim Reaper of the Battlefield.” Led by an ambitious, ruthless, and intelligent man named Griffith, together they battle their way into the royal court, and are forced into a fate that may change their entire lives. – ANN

Streaming At Crunchyroll

Episodes: TBA

Source: Manga

Summary of Episode 1: Following Griffith’s initiation of the Eclipse and transformation into the demonic God Hand Femto, Guts finds himself on the run from the evil forces that have been unleashed on the world. He’s a branded man – the insignia burned into his neck draws wicked spirits and the restless dead to him in unending waves, and it is with his gigantic sword, really just a crude, gigantic slab of metal, that he fights them off one-by-one. After a bar brawl, a young elf named Puck begins to follow Guts. He becomes a first-hand witness to the horrors that now define Guts’ life as a kindly monk and the young girl accompanying him become victims of the risen dead.

First Impressions: I want to start off by mentioning that the Berserk series in general needs a big giant content warning for violence, gore, war crimes, and rape. This series is the very definition of grim-and-gritty and bad things happen to both good and evil characters.

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The scars from Guts’ past are evident.

It might come as some surprise to those of you who only know me via the internet that I actually really, really enjoy Berserk. I count the original anime series among my favorites, and though I haven’t in any sense of the word caught up on the manga, I really like what I’ve read (part of that is Kentaro Miura’s incredible artwork, obviously). The story is certainly incredibly violent (not something I normally like) and the three main characters of the initial story arc are essentially defined by how non-consensual sexual situations have affected them (and these things are shown rather than suggested in most cases), but the story as a whole just holds a certain appeal to me. Perhaps its unflinching darkness hit me at the right time in my anime fandom to leave a mark. In any case, anyone who’s seen the original anime series knows that it leaves off on what’s basically a cliffhanger. The Eclipse happens, we see Guts obtain his sword, and that’s about it. The show is actually sort of circular – if you watch the first episode directly after the final one, you’ll see what I mean. But there’s so much more story to tell, and fans of the show, myself included, have been waiting a long, long time for more of it to be animated.  When the trilogy of new films that reanimated the “Golden Age” story arc (the one covered by the TV series) were released recently, I think many of us began to suspect that something might be in the works. Soon enough the speculation became reality, and here we are.

I’ll say, I definitely have some mixed feelings about this, and I think those of you who’ve watched the episode already will probably have some idea where I’m going. I really, really am not a fan of the way CG is used to animate the majority of this show. On the one hand, it allows more consistency and detail in the characters and backgrounds, and that in and of itself isn’t bad. One hallmark of Miura’s art is that it’s hopelessly detailed (there’s some speculation that one of the reasons that it takes so long for a new chapter of the manga to get finished is due to the detail in the artwork and the fact that he might not be utilizing the services of any assistants to keep things on pace). The original anime series just didn’t even try to animate to the artwork, and used a lot of still-frames and pans to tell the tale of Guts and company. It got the atmosphere down very well and really captured the grittiness of the story, but there just wasn’t a lot of actual animation to speak of. This episode is fully-animated, and we get a lot of cool camera angles and body parts flying, but the characters look like puppets because of the way their limbs move – it’s both too smooth and overly-clunky at the same time. Anime-style animation is all about dynamic character posing and bursts of energy in between static shots; Even though Guts is doing some cool stuff with his swords, the overall movement is too smooth and restrained. Puck’s chibi form is also so disastrously out-of-place when animated this way… yikes.

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The Black Swordsman lives up to his name.

There are a few moments that are clearly hand-drawn, mostly close-ups of faces and some scenes from the opening theme (especially those that hearken back to the previous series), and those scenes are like reaching an oasis in a desert. It’s in those instances where the fine details really seem to come alive. I realize that hand-animating a series like this would require a lot of person-power and that using CG models allows the animators to maintain a consistent quality level without going overboard on labor, but considering how famous this series is, how much merchandise there is for it (it keeps being produced!), and the fact that it’s pretty much earned a place in the pantheon of anime classics, you’d think that perhaps some more resources and care would have been allotted to make this into a prestige piece. It’s like Sailor Moon Crystal all over again (except with more demons, decapitations and flying human entrails).

That being said, there will always be a certain amount of BS I’m willing to deal with in order to see a great story make its way to one of my favorite forms of media. Despite feeling a tad disappointed in some of the visual choices made, watching the first episode of this new chapter of the story feels a little bit like returning to the person I was in the early 2000’s when I first saw the original Berserk series. That is to say, very in awe of the sheer number of anime available in the world, most of which were still out there for me to discover. There really are not a lot of anime around today that really go all in with violence, gore, horror, or the darkness of human nature they way TV series and OVAs did in the 1990’s. I think part of that is just that tastes have changed and we as anime fans have become more accustomed to embracing life’s cuteness and not giving a damn about what non-weebs think of us for it. It also seems like, since the early 2000’s, the world’s real-life horrors have become so much more pronounced, and our escapism is more aimed at contrasting that with happiness and simplicity. Of course, this is also the age of Game of Thrones, where some of the worst aspects of human nature are put on display from week to week to the delight of millions of viewers (and yes, I’m one of those viewers, too). I suspect there is something in many of us that gets lit up when we feel powerless to help ourselves or to make real change in the world. Sometimes it’s just satisfying to see someone in a bad situation bust out and make heads roll, literally. It’s stories like Berserk that put a voice to that urge for me.

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Guts endures a flashback while asleep.

Content-wise, I don’t feel like there’s much for me to worry about. I don’t really question the strength of Berserk‘s underlying story, though I’m interested to see how well the anime adapts it and what sort of pace it will take (I’m unclear on how many episodes there are supposed to be and how much of the manga storyline they’re planning to tackle in this segment, so I’m not willing to start making any big predictions). One thing that might be frustrating for some people, though, is that this series pretty much picks up where the previous one left off. If you haven’t seen it, you’ll either have to watch the trilogy of recent films (pretty easy to do, but they’re not streaming anywhere that I know of so you’ll have to get a hold of the DVDs or Blu-Rays somehow) or dig up an old dusty copy of the original anime series (it’s waaay out of print at this point, though I hope maybe the remaster will get re-released someday or that Crunchyroll might add it to their back library now that the new show is coming out). It’s certainly worth your time to do so if you can handled the content. As a side note, I was interested in how they were going to account for Puck since he was cut out of the original series, but this episode did a pretty good job of plopping him right on in!

I really like Berserk and I’m still looking forward to watching this show despite the visual missteps. I think the first episode “feels” mostly correct to me, even if I still find it weird that a story that is so much of a certain time and place has dramatically succumbed to the realities of the modern anime industry. I’m looking forward to continuing the story this season.

Pros: I’ve been waiting a LONG time for more of this story to get animated! It’s quite different in tone than a lot of what’s popular in anime right now, which makes it feel fresh (even though it’s a story that’s been in the process of unfolding for a good 25 years at this point, in manga form).

Cons: Ugh, that CG. Someday we’ll get to a point where it looks almost as good as hand-drawn animation. We have not reached that point, yet. The content will also be too intense for some viewers, as it delves into some pretty violent and explicit territory.

Grade: B

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