Berserk (1997)

5 out of 5

Directed by: Naohito Takahashi

Viewed on a recommendation, my initial response to the suggestion to watch ‘Berserk’ was “I dunno, I’ve tried a sampling of anime and I haven’t been able to get into it.”  The same has held true for a lot of manga.  And while I consider my tastes fairly open, there were enough similarities in what I’d tried to suggest that there was a cultural divide there I might not be able to get over.  It was less noticeable / less of an issue in feature films, but that’s because those are specifically boiled down to get their point across, and part of the problem I was having with serialization (in print or visual) was that things didn’t seem to get to a point in any direct fashion, and so the generally soap-operay presentation of things would inevitably become a larger focus than I preferred.  It’s been a shame with all of the “you gotta check this out!”s flying around, because I believed if I could get past my judgements and just _get into it_, I’d probably enjoy myself.

My initial criticisms of Berserk were similar, although, thankfully, it was significantly less cheesy than a lot of these things come across, so I allowed myself to be bolstered by the recommender’s confirmation that things would get better.

They did.  Quickly.  Later, a full convert, in searching for shows similar to ‘Berserk,’ I’ve read the same kind of statement on several boards: There’s no show quite like Berserk.  So while I think I’ve learned to have a little bit of patience, time will tell if my overall opinion will change, because it sounds like I took the plunge with a pretty highly regarded example of the genre; akin to introducing people to comics via Watchmen: there are _plenty_ of awesome books out there, but with that as your comparison point, it’s hard to sell people on, like, Superman.  Not higher standards, just different.

Good?  All of this preamble is horrible Review, but the intention is to tell you to give it the same chance this non-believer did.

Berserk primarily concerns Guts (or Gatsu), ripped badass extraordinaire, unkillable, wielder of a gigantic sword with which he chop-choppa many people into twos and threes.  Yes, the unbeatable warrior trope, we’ve been there before.  Guts gets somewhat unwillingly conscripted into the ‘Band of The Hawk,’ commanded by the white-haired, prophetic Griffith, all feminine sinewy gloss.  Metrosexual, manipulative, godlike leaders?  I mean, not exactly a _trope_, but still, we’re not out of the “been there” woods yet.  Guts’ excelling through the Hawks’ ranks wrankles Griffith’s second-in-command, Casca, a tough-as-nails female who’s willing to beat down anyone who dares to fling gender judgments her way.  Right right, this we _know_ we’ve seen, along with the love/hate triangle that begins to develop amongst these three.  And for 25 episodes, we witness this ball kicked around, as Guts comes to accept his role, his forming friendships, his…

…His realization that everyone in the band _lives_ for Griffith, while he lives for no one.  His sword.  To fight.  And not to any end, but not to any end he can identify.  _Here_ is where Berserk becomes something much, much more than the (initial seeming) sum of its pieces: Guts isn’t really unkillable; Casca doesn’t pout and swoon; Griffith doesn’t secretly plot.  While there are twists down the road, the series actually plays it fairly straight with its drama, and even _better_, lets us into its character’s heads.  We hear Guts’ thoughts – which is already a miracle, as his exterior is that of the silent warrior – and though the music may suggest melodrama at times, the script and actors deliver remarkably potent material, worthy of contemplation beyond a bloody actioner.  This makes the eventual formed relationships feel _very_ earned, and lets us see Guts as a tragic figure, lost without a core, as opposed to a hero.  That sense of loss is important to the show, and percolates through its various themes: Why do we do what we do?  And who are we if that ‘why’ is taken away?  Who are we when we _know_ that why is forfeit?  It’s heady stuff, and yet the show knows to keep moving and to smile every now and then: while Guts is churning through these thoughts, a larger (and theme-supporting) plotline has Griffith navigating the Hawks from a band of brigands to knights of the court, a position which certainly requires plenty of thrilling, cliff-hangery battles to secure, and Guts isn’t above shrugging off his own seriousness with a ‘whatever, let my just swing my sword’ shirk.  By the time the series starts to go even _deeper_ with its relationships, you’re fully invested in everyone’s plight – not just Guts’ – and so when that rug starts to get tugged from beneath you for some 11th hour Holy Shit moments, you _will_ tumble.

Something else that normally irks me with anime was interestingly worked around in Berserk: fast and cheap production that requires re-used stock shots or boring “flashy lines replace the backgrounds” maneuvers were replaced with, essentially, stills for Berserk.  But the camera direction, art direction, and dialogue delivery work with this approach very well.  So when we pan around an unaminated scene (just mouths or one foreground detail, like a candle, moving), you “eye” might not actually be tracking with who’s speaking, but the dialogue is compelling so you’re listening, _plus_ the other details the camera is taking in are adding to your understanding of the scene’s context – who’s there, their body language, the lighting, etc.  In many of the action sequences, the trick is to cut away to a fully painted, detailed shot.  Yeah, it’s a budget move, but the painted shots are effective, and they work with the generally moody pacing of the series.

As a last note: I watched this dubbed.  I should be a big boy and watch this subbed to comment on the Japanese voice actors, but reasons interfered and dubbed it was.  But I must say: the readings were perfect.  The story is a rather heavy one, so you can’t avoid some dramaturgy, but otherwise the pacing and presentations just felt spot on for how I came to feel about / for the characters.  And because the animation doesn’t sync with the voices (in the original language), it doesn’t feel like a horrible lost in translation event to have watched it this way.  Noting it all the same.

So there you have it.  My journey from meh-anime guy to freaking Berserk fanboy, with a list of 25 or so other shows I’m now ready and willing to dive in to.  But I do so carrying that caveat I already believe to be true: There is no show quite like Berserk.