[Synopsis]: Picking up around 2 years after the events of the original 1997 series, Berserk (2016) follows the story of Guts on his quest for vengeance after being betrayed and branded as a sacrifice. Haunted by spirits everywhere he goes and driven nearly mad by his rage and pain, he seeks out the demonic Apostles of the God Hand in order to find the man who took everything from him. In his travels he encounters an elf named Puck who accompanies him despite his protests. Guts’ journey of revenge is interrupted when he learns that the only person left that he cares about may be in danger.
As a story, Berserk is absolutely loaded with a prodigious number of themes and parallels about dreams, evil, free will, and fate. While the world and grim dark setting of the story is integral in its appeal and presentation, many would argue that its most important aspect is its cast of exceedingly complicated, human characters. Their personalities and experiences are the vehicles for all of the incredible, thematic details the narrative has to offer and the impeccable writing surrounding them is one of the major elements that makes Berserk so endlessly engaging.
Where Berserk (2016) missteps in this regard is in how simplistically it portrays its characters. The cast of the show falls into the very same trap as its story which lacks sufficient context for the adventure being told to be truly compelling. Guts himself should appear quite familiar. Clad in a black suit of armor and wielding his iconic Dragonslayer, his characterization touches upon how the eclipse has changed him and how he’s far more bitter and contemptuous than he once was. But that’s about as far as it goes. What’s lacking is a sense of emotion – all the madness, hurt, and misery that made Guts so compelling, callous, and different from the man you once knew are reduced to their most basic traits. You get a sense that Guts has changed for the worse but the scope of it all is greatly diminished and what the viewer is left with is a man who allegedly hunts down Apostles with a giant sword and a fatigued wit.
This is the issue with the cast as a whole. We are introduced to a handful of moderately interesting characters with their own unique personalities and motivations however the intricacy and subtext that made them all so impossibly intriguing and complex has been neglected. You can clearly sense that Farnese possesses a set of questionable morals and undergoes a crisis of faith and you can discern Serpico’s cunning but both are presented very straightforwardly and those attributes are all the characters are made out to be. What’s more, the scenes that speak directly to the more complicated traits of the characters then seem awkward because you can’t tell what purpose there is behind them. What remains are the character’s most rudimentary attributes which leave them feeling stiff and even bland in many instances.
The show’s production, art, and animation are by far the most discussed and criticized elements of Berserk (2016) and for good reason. The heavy reliance on CG is the most relevant and obvious of the qualms surrounding the show’s visuals however I don’t think that it is in itself the most problematic part of the show’s presentation. The quality of the character models starts off at a horrific low in the first episode and gradually over the course of the entire show improves by a moderate amount. At least by the latter half of the show the characters generally look like themselves with less frequent exceptions. The real damage done by the CG is not just in how off-model a lot of the characters look but in how their rigid and choppy animation cycles and movement drain would-be dramatic scenes of their intensity and seriousness. The juxtaposition of the CG characters against other two-dimensional supporting cast members that share the screen with them further accentuates their outlandish appearance.
The most pervasive visual problem with Berserk (2016) is in its directing and camera movement. The cinematography shifts between being relatively smooth and even reasonably inventive at times to being uninspired and obnoxious at the drop of a hat. The ‘camera’ has to do extra work and be over-active to compensate for the low quality of a lot of the scenes but what results is a presentation that feels overly busy and needlessly restless. The camera jolts and darts around to create a sense of action and combat however there is very little cohesion between the different shots so the whole composition falls apart. The directing shows signs of improvement near the tail-end of the show but fails to become anything entirely redemptive. There are some decent key-frames thrown into the mix and occasionally the rather lengthy action shots develop in an interesting way however for the greater part, the whole look of the show is unfortunately pretty disastrous.
Given the other rather immense shortcomings of Berserk (2016) it comes as some surprise that the show follows its source material fairly closely once it gets rolling. Even within the show the first episode stands out as both visually and narratively different. While the second episode and onward tell a reasonably coherent story, the first episode tries to compensate for an immense amount of content missing from the adaptation – attempting to catch the viewer up with who Guts has become since last seeing him in the eclipse. The show throws together a few characters and concepts to do so but its poor visual design and subject matter predictably aren’t able to fully capture Guts’ missing characterization. This lack of context is what most damages the story.
A lot of Berserk’s appeal is grounded in its ability to snowball intricate backstories, character development, and themes into a grand interweaving narrative and the show completely fails to follow through on this. The show neglects prefacing a lot of its scenes and characters, not just in regards to Guts’ shift in personality over the years. The show follows the story rather closely but it gives no weight to what happens. There is no significance or united meaning behind each scene as it transpires and what results are moments with very little build up and little to no payoff. Everything just happens without hardly any justification. Not only does it undermine one of the key elements of what makes Berserk good but its a lackluster example of storytelling in its own right.
Berserk (2016) does arrive at moments of importance and is able to execute them with some degree of emphasis and the storytelling like the show’s visuals and sound design improve towards the end of the show. Though the story lacks the implications it originally had, the plot as it unfolds still has interesting developments and characters. This is all to say that, the show is not without its standalone moments but they aren’t impressive enough to fully outweigh the negative elements it possesses elsewhere.
Somewhat unexpectedly, it’s the show’s music and sound mixing which is its second biggest shortcoming after its shoddy directing. The sound that Guts’ Dragonslayer makes when it swings through something was comical to the point of becoming a joke. Whether he was hacking through wood, armor, stone, or bones, his sword would emit the same absurd ‘clang’ which felt progressively more and more out of place until it was changed sometime in the show’s latter half. Though the sword example is the most obvious one, this issue of mismatched audio and even poorly timed effects was highly pervasive in the show and led to a lot of scenes feeling very awkward and poorly put together. Things would frequently make inappropriate sounds out of time with the visual presentation. In short, the show couldn’t sell a punch. The audio undermined believably and made the action scenes feel uncomfortable on most occasions instead of impressive or exciting.
The music is the other half of this issue. The soundtrack itself is actually quite good. It fits the tone of the show well enough and features an impressive, memorable track from Susumu Hirasawa. The problem that arises is in how the soundtrack is executed within the scene. These otherwise impressive tracks chime in at the weirdest times, starting and stopping at a moments notice and in complete disregard to what is happening on screen. It’s a case of wasted potential. Each track presses up against the next unceremoniously and the manner in which they come to an abrupt halt before the next starts in is downright disconcerting.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
I’ve done my best not to review this show as a fan of Berserk but as a fan of anime. Berserk (2016) didn’t just fail at being a Berserk adaptation, it failed on its own merits as a show. The story being told wasn’t uncompelling and the show captures fleeting instances of Berserk’s narrative charm however its lack of context and the shoddiness of its audiovisual design greatly hampers what could have been a decent anime.
I gave Berserk (2016) a 4 primarily because of its incredibly awkward production. While the CG and audio mixing improved slightly towards the end of the series, it was still of pretty poor quality all throughout. The groundwork that is Berserk and the show’s faithfulness in adapting the actual narrative and bits of dialogue is what spares the show from a lower score and for all of its issues its still reasonably entertaining to watch.
It’s hard to recommend this show for any reason but if there was one it would be for people that can look past an unattractive visual presentation and still enjoy the story being told. If poor CG or bad visuals are typically a turn off for you then I would stay away from this show but if you are intensely curious as to where Berserk’s story goes after the golden age and don’t mind how the show looks or sounds, then you may very well enjoy it. In all seriousness, read the manga – that’s the best recommendation I can give.