Guts (or Gatsu if you prefer) is a huge, burly guy with a remarkably large sword who joins a mercenary group known as the Band of the Hawk. His exploits with this group mirror their meteoric rise into the ranks of the Midland Army during the endless battles of the war between the Kingdom of Midland and the Chuda Empire. The Band of the Hawk's charismatic leader, Griffith, seems destined for greatness, and over the years, he seems to attract the attention of those who would see him either honored or dead.
Perhaps it may very well be that something is about to go very, very wrong.
(original 1998 review with slight editions)
Dark, brooding, violent. I'd heard that Berserk was a pretty good series, but after the first couple of episodes, I was pretty well turned off. I guess I wasn't in the mood to see people getting slashed by swords, or maybe I was saving up all my daily fantasy angst for Valkyrie Profile. I dunno. But so far, the animation is dark (oh, Darkside Blues dark), the atmosphere thick and heavy even during daylight scenes, and though the fights look rather interesting (I didn't know you could balance on a sword like that!), most of the time, everyone just seems to be sitting around waiting to get killed.
"Yawn, I think I'll just sit here and - Aargh! Avenge me, Gatsu!" Berserk!
That's what was going through my mind when I was watching this. Really.
The dreary, depressing tone of this series just doesn't mesh well with this reviewer, and though I'm quite certain that Berserk actually gets pretty decent later on, I was just unimpressed with what I saw. The dialogue didn't seem to be very important, and the music wasn't particularly memorable. I don't even think the medieval setting seemed quite right. And though the characters seemed rather well developed, seeing as the episodes I saw were all flashback, I had the distinctive feeling that everyone was already dead.
Oh, and the bad guys are so obvious, they make Boris and Natasha look subtle. "Haha, I'm going to kill this innocent bystander!" Berserk!
I guess one has to be in a certain mindset to enjoy this, but I just couldn't get into it. (At least Valkyrie Profile has a hilariously deadpan Valkyrie as a lead) This hardly means that no one should watch this - in fact, I know a few people who would really like it (though none of them live with me). Maybe unless you enjoy feeling Berserk, or don't mind watching X for breakfast, it would probably be a good idea to pass this anime by. Or on second thought, it just might be that the first few episodes just plain suck, and the rest of this series is a magnum opus of anime just waiting to be discovered.
Well, I haven't seen them yet, so I can't exactly figure them into the review.
And oh my, what a difference a few episodes make.
Berserk has the same problem that many other anime have - a lousy beginning that camouflages an exceptionally well-done middle sequence. Once you get past the murky and muddled exposition, you get to actually meet the cast as more than just the standard fantasy archetypes.
Guts (Gatsu), for example, is more than just the stoic, battle-hardened fighter he seems to be at first. He is a truly interesting head case, a product of years of systematic abuse and ill fortune. He is constantly battling demons, both metaphorical and real, and often wonders aloud about his lot in life. Griffith, on the other hand, is a surprisingly gentle soul, with a mind and wit as sharp as his blade. His beauty seems eerily unfitting for a field of death, and yet when Guts and Griffith fight side by side, covered in the blood of their enemies, it is like they are gods of war, kindred spirits with little else to define their lives.
The rest of the Band of the Hawk is made up of very real people, and it's almost a shame to realize that these are men (and in the case of Caska, women) joined together in the cause of bringing death to their enemies. They are killers, takers of lives, even as they pretend to live "normal" lives as mercenaries.
Even the antagonists, the men of Chuda, are portrayed as very human. Guards wonder aloud when they get to go home, or comment on the weather, in the moments before the Band takes their lives. The incompetent, egotistical Sir Adon struts and pontificates on his family's eternally expanding "tradition", while his troops pay the consequences of his folly when the Band of the Hawk takes advantage of it.
It's a good thing that the plot and writing for this series are excellent, because much of the rest of it is not. The opening and ending themes are two of the least appropriate songs I have ever heard for an anime series. Whiny subpar J-rock in less-than-fluent English simply does not cut it for dark fantasy, or any other sort of anime for that matter. They're terrible! On the other hand, Hirasawa Susumu's (Millennium Actress) background tracks are rather memorable, especially the battle song, "Forces", which seems to be an object lesson in how to use a synthesizer and reverb completely wrong, and yet still come up with something interesting and fresh anyway. Hirasawa's music is an acquired taste, to be sure - people either love it or hate it.
Technically, the animation is just this side of serviceable, but it doesn't need to be great. After all, war is ugly. The directorial staff makes judicious use of dramatic pauses and speed lines for effect, often using cinematographic shots in place of animation that would otherwise be substandard. There is a staggering amount of violence, with blood gouting and spraying everywhere like a classic Kurosawa film.
And much like most Kurosawa films, the lesson here is that, beneath all that metal armor, these soldiers are people.
Berserk, at its core, is a tragedy of immense proportions. Eventually, the Band's fortune will run out - even the best soldiers can only last so long in a war that never seems destined to end.
There is a lot more than can probably be said about this title, and certainly as the series continues to progress, I'll get to writing it down. However, let this be known - Berserk is not an easy series to fall in love with, and perhaps it may not be the sort of series that will sit well with many viewers - but it is extremely well-done and deserves to be looked at by those people who want a fantasy that's more realistic than the idealized questing of Lodoss or the antics of Rune Soldier and Dragon Half.
If you want fantasy that really makes you think, then don't let the name fool you. Berserk is not about turning your brain off. Not one bit.