Review: Berserk

[Synopsis]: Berserk is the story of Guts (Canna, Nobutoshi), a mercenary warrior possessing immense strength, who joins the Band of the Hawk under the leadership of Griffith (Morikawa, Toshiyuki), a charistmatic tactician and deadly warrior in his own right. Together along with Casca (Miyamura, Yuko) and the rest of the Band of the Hawk, the two men set out to make a name for their company and pursue Griffith’s ambitions by aiding the kingdom of Midland in the 100-year war against their enemy Chuder.

[Characters]:

While the majority of the cast’s intrigue is centered around Berserk’s main three characters of Guts, Griffith, and Casca, there are a few other characters of some note hailing from Griffith’s Band of the Hawk and the kingdoms of Midland and Chuder. Though these characters work well within the plot of the show they don’t receive much in the way of development or intricate character traits and this works well for the show as its protagonists are more than interesting enough for the show to operate in this way.

To speak firstly of the shows foremost protagonist, Guts – at first glance he might appear brutish due to his iconic weapon, character design, and rugged background though the show quickly makes a point of showing that Guts has far more to him than his colossal strength and swordsmanship. He is seen to be rather introspective at times and continuously shows a strong sense of himself throughout the series especially in how he interacts with Griffith. Because of his rough nature and initial displeasure at being roped into the Band of the Hawk he receives a great deal of well executed character development as the show progresses, changing internally while never losing the ferocity and power that make him who he is.

Griffith is similarly complex if not more straightforwardly so – the show does an excellent job of portraying someone who conducts themselves affably yet has something stirring beneath the surface constantly, manifesting as a cold distance between Griffith and those he encounters. This can also be seen in his scheming and intelligent nature coupled with his fierce ambition all of which are thoroughly illuminated in order to balance him out as a highly compelling character. His befriending of Guts and their amusing exchanges serve as some of the earliest instances of Guts’ shift in personality.

Lastly, Casca I think is a great character for numerous reasons but one before all others – she is one of the best examples of a strong female character that truly exhibits strength as opposed to the story simply telling us that she is strong and leaving it at that. She possesses few to none of the typical tropes associated with the ‘strong female lead’ though is inevitably compelling because of her brash personality and important development throughout the show. Though she may at first come off as abrasive and even irritating I do not feel that she remains so and her attachment to Griffith serves as an interesting thematic parallel to the show’s motifs of dreams and ambitions.

[Art/Animation]:

Given that Berserk originally aired in the mid 1990’s it is understandable that the animation is dated by today’s standards though it doesn’t affect the show to the extent i originally feared it might. Though it is no excuse for the lackluster frame rate and occasionally crude character designs, I felt myself quickly growing used to the aesthetic and design of the show despite its archaic nature because of how immersive its story was.

This is not to claim that the show doesn’t have its own artistic successes to speak of. The show has a great, dark medieval aesthetic that is consistently upheld all throughout on top of a great number of highly detailed key frames which help convey some of the character’s most pivotal emotions and scenes. Somewhat conveniently, I found that the low frame rate actually worked well with Guts’ slow, weighty, fighting-style – the action sequences, while very blow by blow in their execution, were surprisingly exciting and enjoyable with their slow pacing giving greater gravity to the strength and skill exhibited by the characters participating. You can really see the brutality and vigor behind each of Guts’ strikes and in this way the show does well in making him feel nearly supernatural in these scenes.

Berserk has its artistic areas where it falters and moreover feels dated more than anything yet despite this I feel that because of the areas in which is succeeds its perfectly watchable despite these things.

[Story]:

Before launching into what might be Berserk’s most important attribute, I think its worth mentioning the dilemma presented by the first episode. To give context, the first episode of the show starts in media res a decent while after the events of the show and therein both outright eludes to and foreshadows the events to come. The dilemma then is whether or not to watch this first episode whose primary purpose is to introduce the viewer to Guts and the aesthetic of Berserk while additionally raising questions as to how things progressed to where they were. I myself opted to skip the first episode and returned to it after the conclusion of the series and would highly suggest that prospective viewers do the same. While the subject matter of the first episode can be interesting and compelling as a hook into the show, I think that what the episode foreshadows considerably weakens certain developments and revelations later on in the show that I think are better experienced unprefaced and as they organically transpire. Normally I would downplay this decision as ultimately meaningless however due to just how much information can be garnered from watching the first episode I think it is actually quite important that the show be started from episode 2 which begins entirely coherently and leaves nothing out.

With all of that said,  Berserk’s story is certainly one of its greatest strengths alongside its main characters. The early episodes do very well in establishing the overall tone of the show and from their first interaction we can tell very plainly what kind of characters Guts and Griffith are however it will take the rest of the show to figure out why they are who they are and who they will become. While the show eventually develops its own set of intricacies in both its plot and characters it starts out in a very straightforward and simple manner that I found quite pleasant. There is something refreshingly uncomplicated about a man, a big sword, and a band of mercenaries which Berserk first establishes that leaves it feeling accessible from the get-go before expanding into its ultimately more complicated drama.

Though Berserk may have stumbled in a place or two in terms of pacing I found it ultimately negligible and more importantly I felt that the show made good use of the episodes that it did have. There is hardly any downtime between each battle as the Band of the Hawk moves from front to front at the behest of Griffith and later the King of Midland which keeps the narrative feeling fast-paced and full of action. On top of this, Berserk makes use of a few effective time skips in order to keep the story feeling alive while also providing meaningful time off screen for certain developments to gain deeper significance.

To bookend this section I will summarize by saying that Berserk’s story was, as a whole, incredibly compelling – starting out entertaining and simple and quickly becoming more complicated and interesting as its narrative unfolded and its characters were given greater context and development. The end of the show leaves off with perhaps the most severe cliffhanger I have ever seen and the overall tone by the end of the show is monstrously dark compared to its earlier simplistic establishing tones. Though Berserk is by no means the most interesting or captivating story I have ever encountered, its ending may very well be the most haunting. I caution prospective viewers that aren’t familiar with Berserk’s atmosphere and who generally stay away from extremely dark subject matter to think twice about picking up the show because of its ending. Despite its incomplete ending I believe that the conclusion of the show is both intensely horrifying and gripping.

[Music]:

The soundtrack I would describe as both weird and surprisingly good. On one hand, there are some arrangements that might not feel immedietly at home within Berserk’s medieval aesthetic yet on the other the show finds a way to make them work on top of having a good number of great pieces such as Guts’ theme to hold things over. Something else that surprised me about Berserk’s was that it exhibited a remarkable ability to utilize both music-dominant scenes as well as action/dialogue-centric scenes. Typically I feel that a show does one or the other exclusively however the show maintained a flexible contrast successfully, occasionally letting its more central musical themes rule the scene and at other times mixing them down in order to better articulate dialogue exchanges and action sequences.

[Final Thoughts and Rating]: 

Overall, Berserk was highly enjoyable through and through – it’s action scenes were exciting despite their archaic execution, it’s main characters were conduits of great character development and compelling dialogue exchanges despite their initially simple portrayals, and the ending of the show left me feeling uniquely devastated. Though incomplete in its adaptation, the show offers great insight into why its source material is hailed as one of the greatest manga of all time.

Rating: 8

I gave Berserk an 8 because of its extremely compelling plot and characters coupled with its lesser successes in the areas of art and music. Though there are some nit picky things that could be improved, Berserk is less of a story about how it could have been done better and more of an unfortunate one where there simply wasn’t more of it. In terms of story and characterization of its main cast I think the show likely hits a perfect 10/10 and its perfection is only slightly marred by its dated execution and incomplete ending. Though it has lackluster side-characters the strength of its main cast more than makes up for their lack of intrigue.

[Recommendations]:

I would recommend Berserk to any of those interested in a major staple of the dark fantasy genre but would caution as I did earlier that prospective viewers steel themselves for just how dark the show gets. Those who dislike cliffhanger conclusions vehemently would do best do avoid the show and perhaps opt for the manga instead however this is one of the better instances of an open-ended conclusion that I can think of and the show is worth watching regardless of this element. Lastly, the show is a great action show with a great number of battles constantly transpiring and as long as one can look past its older animation it can be quite enjoyable for this reason.

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