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Anime Reviews: Berserk
Though it contains one of the most infamous endings in anime, Berserk more than deserves its rightful place as a classic of 90s action anime.
Series Length: 25 episodes
Air Dates: 10/8/1997 to 4/1/1998
(well, that explains the ending...)
Age Rating: 17+ (strong graphic violence, mild language, brief but extremely disturbing sexual content)
Summary: Guts has always lived a harsh life, from his childhood as a struggling mercenary to his adolescence as a struggling mercenary, now approaching adulthood as...a struggling mercenary. He was born into the role, so to speak, from the corpse of his mother before being found by mercenary leader Gambino, who taught Guts the way of the sellsword. After slaughtering an enemy champion, Guts encounters members of the Band of the Hawk, an infamous undefeated mercenary group often referred to as "Death on the Battlefield." He attracts the attention of their leader, the charismatic Griffith, who (first subdues and then) attempts to recruit him, to lend his strength and join the Hawks, to realize Griffith's ambition, and to change the country of Midland forever.
The Good: Dark and gritty fantasy setting; Classical-style characters and story arc; low-budget music and animation capture the spirit of the manga flawlessly; the English dub outtakes are mandatory viewing
The Bad: Low-budget is still low-budget; the ending will make you punch walls
The Ugly: The ending will make you punch babies and kittens also
The year: 2004. The occasion: Christmas. The gift: the 6-disc collector's edition of the entire Berserk anime series. The price: $49.99. The end result: one of the best manga adaptations with one of the worst endings imaginable. I'd know about the series for a few years, unable to find a decent copy of it, but when that Christmas rolled around, I was so pumped to finally see it. This was a landmark--the pinnacle of 90s action anime, and it has found a home in the Top 10 Anime lists of many. And before long, it would sneak its way onto mine. Why is that, you may ask? Let's dive right in, shall we?
Right from the very first episode, the mood is set: gritty medieval settings, violent action, dark shadows in all facets of life, rain pouring down, a hooded man with a crossbow arm wielding a 9-foot-long sword--you know, the usual stuff around town if your town was the scariest town ever. And while the first episode is mainly a flash-forward, we still see much of the same bleakness and violence throughout the series.
The anime focuses mainly on the "Golden Age" arc of the manga, so, uhh...that should immediately send up some red flags. If the so-called Golden Age is a crapsack world where mercenaries and soldiers kill wantonly, then it's safe to say you're in for a ride. Do keep your arms and legs inside at all times. If you were looking for the perfect dark fantasy anime, you're in the right place, my friend!
Easily the greatest thing about Berserk, alongside its surprisingly-unique setting (seriously, why don't we have more of this stuff?!), is its characters. And alongside that, the storyline. There are some pretty unusual characters in the lineup, including tough-guy anti-hero Guts and the darkly manipulative yet compassionate Griffith. While other characters like Caska, Judeau, Corkus, and Pippin are interesting and unique in their own right, it's the core duo of Guts and Griffith that lift the series from "solid" to "HOLY CRAP HOW DID THEY DO THAT MY MIND HAS BEEN BLOWN" quality. Both characters take a page from Classical epics, with Guts representing the powerful soldier who fights to carve his own fate and Griffith representing the hero who rose from nothing and became a beloved icon to his people.
The story, too, follows the Classical traditions of the hero's trials to greatness, the rise and fall of a powerful man, the threads of fate that tie us to our destiny, and the allure of changing one's own fate. Berserk takes cues from Greek and Roman legends, crafting a story that tells more than just a story, giving us food for thought in between its intense sequences (and sometimes during!), while many artists and authors seem content with just having a series of interesting events that lead to feel-good conclusions. How does Berserk accomplish this? By giving us two directly opposing viewpoints! Guts' path in life involves telling destiny to take a hike and making your own way in the world, while Griffith's path involves following the signs destiny has left behind for you to become the person you were meant to be. Which one is right? Are either of them right? Or are they both right? You decide!
With that said, destiny is but one of the main themes explored in the series. It just happens to be the one that's most central to the plot.
Of course, a lot of the epic sensibilities and thematic exploration would be hard to notice if Berserk had had a humongous budget like most big-name manga adaptations tend to have. If you have a lot of style and flair and sparkles and oohs and ahhs, the point you're trying to make could go unnoticed entirely or could be completely neglected in favor of adding more shiny (Akira, anyone?). This is why, in a stunning reversal of expectation, the series' relatively low budget actually works in its favor; it's forced to be up-front and direct with its pacing and atmosphere. Instead of making action scenes highly choreographed and stylish, they have to be quick and brutal and ugly, thus allowing for more convincing and more dangerous battles for our heroes to fight. Instead of putting tons of money into a sweeping symphonic score, they have one guy with his keyboard. Luckily, that one guy is Susumu Hirasawa, and he is awesome, and the soundtrack he wrote is awesome. And they did it on a shoestring budget! All in all, the series is a lot like Clerks, in a way: throwing more money at it would have been detrimental instead of helpful, as the low-budget aesthetic is far more fitting than a glossy, polished one. (Also, my love for you is like a truck.)
Unfortunately, low budget is still low budget, and while it does help the series in some ways, it's also harmful in others. Some of the brutal battles begin to lose their edge when the animation can't properly portray the quick movements of battle or when scenes are reused to save money, and the artwork can sometimes be unpleasant to look at, though it's pretty rare. The low budget also affects the music, giving us a hilarious yet awesome opening theme (put your grasses on, and nothing will be wrong!) and a horrendously tone-deaf ending theme. But minor animation and music quibbles are nothing compared to the true horror that lies in wait...
Ladies and gentlemen, Berserk may very well have the worst ending in anime history. The key word in that previous sentence is "may," because there really is no ending. It just stops. The last two episodes throw us into a situation that is horrifying beyond all imagination, everything we've known up to this point is thrown out the window, and our heroes find themselves in the worst possible scenario with no escape, no hope, and no chance of survival. With things going as they are, our heroes are going to die and they can't do anything about it. You hold your breath, waiting to see what will happen, hoping that Guts and the others can make it through, and then EPISODE'S OVER THE END HOPE YOU HAD FUN EVERYBODY.
If there are any walls in your house that are not peppered with holes upon finishing this series, you have the self-control of a legion of Shaolin monks.
With an ending that horrendous, can I still recommend this series? Well, yeah! There are just way too many good things about Berserk to let a little thing like its rage-aneurysm-inducing ending prevent you from seeing it. And hey, with the magic of the internet, you can then follow the manga to see what happens next! Now there is no excuse!
Final Score: 9 out of 10. Berserk is rightfully considered to be one of the best action anime of the 90s, despite its relatively low budget and infuriating ending.