Country of Origin - Japan
Start of Run - 10/7/1997
End of Run - 3/31/1998
Produced by Oriental Light and Magic
Cast - Marc Diraison, Kevin T. Collins, Carrie Keranen, Michelle Newman, Christopher Kromer, Jeff Ward, Mark Sebastian, Sean Schemmel, and J. David Brimmer
If you think about Japanese comics and anime there’s a lot of titles that are both well known by both the Japanese and international market and are usually long running series. And I do mean long running series. Dragon Ball started in the mid eighties and while it did technically end in 1995 it’s continued to keep going due to popularity and new entries. One Piece began publication in the late nineties and is still going on. Heck even Golgo 13, a series which started in 1968 is STILL running, making it the longest running series in Japan. The list can go on of these titles which are well known and have been going on for a long time.
But sometimes a series can go on for years and while it can be known it doesn’t quite reach the levels of a Dragon Ball or a Yu-Gi-Oh!. Perhaps the best example of this is Kentaro Miura’s medieval inspired title Berserk (ベルセルク). The story started off as a prototype in 1988 before actually beginning serialization in 1989 and continues to go on to this day. This is mostly because Kentaro Miura is a lazy teasing jerk. But I digress. Since its release Berserk has seen countless droves of fans and forms of release. From video games, soundtracks, merchandise, to the anime we’ll be discussing today, three movies (which simply re-tell the story of this anime), and new show which just began its run. So with so much material out there why does it seem like the show isn’t as well known?
I can only speculate as to why, but I’d say that it may have not helped that Berserk didn’t have a showing on television here in the States. Now while throughout the 90s and early to mid 2000s there were anime that became known if they were only released on VHS, Berserk really never had exposure or any sort of word of mouth for quite a while. After all the show aired in Japan in 1997 and while titles were being ported over more steadily at that point, it usually was the bigger names or schlock that could sell on pure violence or sexual content. Berserk really probably didn’t become more known until after its 2002 US release date due to the internet or maybe some people spreading the word. Even then though I’d say that it didn’t really get popular and a bit more known until the 2009 movie trilogy as not only were these being ported and on a bigger scale, but by this point in time sharing/streaming websites were more frequent for anime as well as sites that allowed people to read comics online.
Whatever the reason it’s pretty sad because Berserk is actually a very, very good title. Yeah, spoiling the end to a degree but this show is one of the best anime I have ever seen. Well I’ll get to that. I must state though that this will be a difficult show to talk about. Not because of content or anything of that sort but because a lot of the show’s ability to suck the viewer in and make them love the show hinges on some pretty important plot points and character moments, not to mention the fact that ending while effective is made much so when you have no knowledge going in. Because of this I can’t really go too in depth with the show. I think most people who have an interest in the franchise by this point knows all about the plot and where it goes, but for those who haven’t and are curious I’ll try to keep the spoilers down to a bare minimum. With all of this said let’s begin our look at Berserk.
Since he was a young child all Guts has known how to do is fight and kill. On his own he makes a name for himself as being such a young and effective soldier. After attacking a group of equally young mercenaries and losing a duel to their leader Griffith, Guts becomes a member of their group; the Band of the Hawk.
Taking command of the raiding team of the band, Guts, Griffith, and Griffiths' second in command Casca and company make a name for themselves over the years, eventually earning a spot in the army of Midland and joining a war that has been waged for 100 years to free the country. Rising through the ranks and with aspirations of their own, the Hawks begin to get the job done, slowly bringing Midland closer to peace. Eventually bringing an end to the war the group is celebrated as heroes. But with their place set and their name famous, what comes next for the Band of the Hawk?
Speaking about Berserk and trying to convey what makes it so great can be a bit of challenge. One is because like I said a lot of this hinges on the viewer not knowing what happens beforehand (which leads to a bit of a misstep on the anime’s part). Second is because while I can write out and say what makes it good I can’t show you, as a lot of does get showcased by scenes. I don’t mean this in a spoilery way but in an “I could make it super clear if I could show you a scene” way. So do bear with me as I evaluate the show.
Beginning with our plot the anime adapts the Golden Age arc of the comics (volumes 3-14), and as such has become the best known part of the franchise and for good reason. While the first episode of the show is pretty pointless (it basically spoils the entirety of the show) the rest of the episodes all carry a purpose and flow naturally into each other, making it easy to marathon episodes in long stretches. Each episode provides character development for individual and group moments, a good amount of action, drama, comedy, really an episode of Berserk tends to have it all. The fun non plot elements blend in well with the scenes that are plot important and create a flow which, like I said, makes the show easy to just get lost in. It is a world that many have fallen in love with and for good reason because, despite the world of Berserk always having that darkness to it, one can find entertainment and some joy in it. Again I know I’m not saying much but I really don’t want to spoil the show. Though, as somebody who knew what was going to happen going in, the impact the show had was still really strong and gut wrenching and it isn’t hard to imagine what it would do to somebody who knows nothing about it. In the end it all comes down to a great story that immerses the viewer in the world and characters, those characters also being a really really big part of it.
Now that I’ve brought them up, I’ll now discuss those characters, those wonderful, wonderful characters. Beginning with our lead Guts we must first make known that throughout all that happens, the show is virtually the coming of age story of Guts. While the other characters are also shown growing and being developed, as a progression through the years Guts is by the far the one that is the focus of this form of story. Us as the audience watches as Guts learns what it means to be in a team and how to find and go down his own path and gain self esteem. When the viewer first meets Guts (remember we aren’t including the first episode) he is but a 15 year old mercenary who is quick to be the aggressor and has a difficult time working in a team setting and coming to terms that somebody wanted him. Throughout the episodes we see him wrestling with all of this and developing as a character and as an adult. Even as an adult he has a hard time coming to terms with why Griffith not only took him in but spared his life when Guts attempted to kill him (twice). All of this comes to a head after he (Guts) overhears Griffith speaking to Midlands’ princess and explains what he wants a person to be to consider a friend. It is this conversation that gives Guts a burning purpose and a promise to himself and by the end finishes off his development before the finale offers one final bit of extra development. Berserk is the story of Guts journey to find himself and how he grows as a person, and the show does a perfect job of capturing it from small to big moments. Guts is quite arguably one of the most well developed characters in all of anime. Equally well developed are the two other main characters; Griffith and Casca, both almost polar opposites of Guts.
Griffith is a person filled with confidence and ambition. He has his goal and is willing to do anything and everything to make it come true, even if to his comrades it makes no sense. This is shown throughout the majority of the show along with Griffith being showcased as the voice of reason in a group that can sometimes be chaotic save for perhaps Jedeau. To a degree one could say that because Griffith is so determined and set in his ways that he is essentially one note and bland. However as the show progresses the layers begin to unfold and we learn more and more about him from stories from the rest of the Band of the Hawk and even from his own actions. He’s calm, cunning, determined, and a leader with the power to inspire. And by the end of the show it all comes full circle which, like Guts, provides another perfectly developed character. This leaves us with Casca of the main three and much of the same that I described of Guts and Griffith can be echoed here. Casca like Griffith is a determined character, yet whereas Griffith’s ambition comes from wanting to make his desires happen Cascas’ come from wanting to help make those dreams happen to the point of belittling any Hawk member who questions Griffiths’ actions or could possibly harm the plans. Along with this she’s strong, strong headed, and quick to be annoyed and show aggression, with part of her development slowly showing us why this is and how she starts to become a more calm person. And as you may have just been able to tell, Casca is the only female member of the Band of the Hawk and one of only three female characters that are regularly shown and developed, she being the best developed of the three women. Again I can’t speak too much on Casca due to the risk of spoiling certain events, but take my word for it when like most of our cast you will be in love with Casca by the end of the series and have a great understanding of who she is and why she is like that. I wouldn’t call her development as perfect as Guts and Griffiths’, but boy does it come close. Now sadly we have to stop somewhere as I could sit here all day and talk about the characters in this show, and to the credit of Berserk it does a fantastic job of giving clear motivations and development for even the side characters. Every member of the Hawk is showcased, those in the court of Midland are showcased, and even the enemies get a good chunk of development. And all of it is enhanced by the fantastic voice work done. I can’t stress enough how perfect the characters in this show are, and when combined with the story and everything that unfolds Berserk creates one of the most engrossing, immersive, and best shows to ever air.
Our last stop brings us to the technical side of the show, and this is when sadly Berserk takes a few hits in terms of cons. Let’s start with the animation since after all this is an anime. Looking at Berserk immediately tells you that it is a product of the late 1990s. Warm and sometimes muted/dark colors with crisp outlines. It’s just plain eye candy to us olden folk. I would be lying however if I said that everything was great in animation land. The show can show both its age and budget restrictions at times in drops of quality as well as the frequent use of still water color/portrait shots. Now while those shots look gorgeous, the frequency used and their use of them to capture larger moments without movement can be seen as cheap and a bad move. I don’t know the budget of the show, but it is easy to understand why these had to be done, as I’d imagine trying to animate a large scale battle with a good deal of movement to be a very hard thing to down with hand drawn work (but hey, still looks better than Gundam Wing). Finally we have our music and any dip in points the show had with the animation is immediately brought back up with the music. The musical score was composed by renowned composer Susumu Hirasawa and it is quite frankly one of if not the best musical scores to ever be produced for an anime. Every piece of music is inserted into scenes when it is needed and is cut and edited in multiple ways throughout the run of the series to fit different situations. Not only this but every single track is memorable and will stay lodged in your brain long after your viewing of the show has finished. Yet an anime is not complete without its opening and ending themes. For our opening we have Tell Me Why by PENPALS and it is a great track. It’s a soft rock deal that still manages to get the viewer pumped and ready for the episode. The Engrish is indeed hilarious at parts, but the lyrics fit the themes of the show rather well. Our ending track is Waiting So Long by Silver Fins and is by far the superior track between it and the opening. Quiet, ominous, mystifying, hypnotic, and dream like, it makes for the perfect song to close out the episodes of a series such as Berserk. It is by far one of the best endings anime has ever had. As you might figure out by this point, the technical side of Berserk is great. While the animation does lower in quality and can show both its budget restrictions and age at times it still manages to be good and stand out with its medieval designs (though again I am always one who prefers the more warm look 90s anime had). And the music, by god the music is perfection incarnate. I don’t much else needs to be said.
With that here we are, at the end of our journey. I think if you’ve stuck with the review at this point you will already know how this is going to end. To put it in simple terms, Berserk is an amazing show. It manages to weave a story that envelops the audience and keep them on the edge of their seats as the plot thickens and unfolds. The characters are magnificent and feature development a plenty, the main three providing some of the best characters the medium has ever seen. We have a soundtrack which is leagues above most and animation but helps create an atmosphere and sets the scene for the story and characters to move about. But like I have mentioned, there are some negatives. The animation can lower in quality to some pretty noticeable places and the use of paintings to represent larger scale scenes can be perceived as cheap. Perhaps the biggest con of the show is the utter misstep is the first episode spoiling the majority of the show. These are without a doubt problems.
However they’re more than made up for with the main story, the characters, the music, and the snug feeling of the animation when it is working at good capacity. Part of the reason the show (and comic and movies) stick with people and resonate so many is because of how great most of the show is and handled. It is a product that can help a person watching discover things about themselves and find their own resolve much in the same way Guts does. It can give somebody the courage and confidence to pursue their dreams and do anything for them like Griffith and Casca do. Yes the animation can be bad and the first episode doesn’t need to exist, but the rest of the production is handled so masterfully that these issues can be overlooked.
So while Berserk does so much in a masterful and perfect fashion is it one hundred percent perfect? No. But it comes close, so very, very, very close. To be honest the animation is very forgivable to me as even modern animation can look cheap and drop in quality. If it wasn’t for the first episode this would be a completely perfect show. Yet even with that blemish Berserk showcases why it has staying power to those who dive into it and why many consider it to be a favorite. This is a case where critically I can’t call it a masterpiece. But on a personal, viewer point of view, and speaking as a fan, Berserk is one of the few animes I would call a masterpiece.