I think there is one anime for everyone that "converted" them into an anime fan. An anime that is so good that is just takes your preconceptions of what anime is and just crumbles them into dust. An anime that just blows your brain into so many pieces that by the time your finished recovering all of the pieces, you'll feel like a completely different person. An anime that seems to peer into your soul and make you question your own existence. This anime put me through every emotion on the spectrum and then some. Berserk is less of an anime for me and more of a rite of passage, from a lonely angsty teenager who was just mildly interested in anime to a man with a deeper understanding of humanity and a full on anime fanatic. Let me be clear that I am not trying to be sarcastic or funny here, I'm dead serious when I say Berserk is the best anime I have seen and probably the best anime I will ever see. Now enough of my fanboy gushing lets get to the actual review >_>
Story and Characters- The story of Berserk takes place in an alternate version of the 100 years war, between France and England and the time period following it. In this version the two countries at war and Midland and Tudor and in this case Midland represents Denmark more closely and Tudor is France. However... there are crazy evil demons trying to kill, rape and enslave humans. Oh wait thats the manga. The first episode does lightly delve into this (if you defnition of lightly is Guts cutting a giant snake demon in half and then firing arrows into its face). These themes of oppression of humans and Guts being a general badass and slaying demons left in right are more prevelant in the manga, but it is nice that they are presented to us in some way in the anime and hopefully that encourages people to read the manga.
The story of the anime however focuses on the arc of Berserk known as the "Golden Age" and I would have to agree that this is definitely the best part of Berserk, in terms of characters and plot development. The main character of this anime is a lone mercenary named Guts, who was wrung free from the womb of a dead women and pretty much taught nothing but how to kill his fellow man. This changes however when he meets Griffith, the charimatic young leader of a small mercenary group. After certain circumstances Guts is forced to join Griffith's group "The band of the hawk" and the story takes off from there.
One thing I really enjoy about Berserk is that it encompasses many themes. Not only this but it manages to present all these themes in a way that they do not clash or feel out of place. I feel like modern anime try to do this and all too often fail, with no one theme seeming clear or presented properly. All of the themes of Berserk flow seamlessly together right up until the final episode in perhaps one of the most emotional and traumatic endings of any media, be it anime or otherwise. So lets talk about these themes the first one and probably the most apparent is comradarie
Guts starts off as kind of an introvert, he doesn't trust other people and sometimes it feels like he doesn't even trust himself. He was never shown any love while growing up, all he knew was the dark side of humanity. He is very insecure about himself and struggles to find his own identitly. This is not just shown from his actions and dialogue but also his appearence and his weapon (dat compensation). When he joins the band of hawk however, he slowly begins to change. The lone mercenary soon becomes one of the leaders of this small mercenary gang and not only that but a figure who commands respect and garners admiration and inpirtaional from his troops. The transition is slow however and many times Guts is treated with indifference or contempt by his peers, but eventually they all come to respect him. Another indirect effect of this is if your like me and decided to see things from Guts' perspective; as Guts slowly warms up to the Band of Hawk, you too will feel like you are getting to know all of the various characters in the group and this all works perfectly for the final conclusion.
The second major theme of Berserk is fate. This is also a good chance to talk about the second "main" character of this anime Griffith and the only important female character Casca. Grffith is hated by many, including myself, but also an essential part of Berserk. He is the one that recruits Guts into the Band of Hawk and gives purpose to his life. He gives Guts something to actually care about and want to protect. He does have his own agenda though, as he tinkers in politics during the later part of the series. The last character to make up the three "mains" of Berserk is Casca. She is the only female member of the band of the hawk and is fiercely loyal to Griffith. Flashbacks are used effectively to show their pasts and how they were able to escape their percieved "fates" by creating the band of hawk. The theme of fate goes into overdrive during the last episode and continues throughout the manga.
The last theme is betrayal and revenge. Now... its hard to talk about this without going into spoilers. Lets just say that during the later half of the series, not everyone is happy about their lot in life (again linking back to fate) and they take certain steps to change their fates. In a lot of cases this means forsaking their comrades (you see what I mean about the themes flowing together?). There are a lot of minor instances of this, which work effectively to forshadow the finale of the series.
There are many other themes in Berserk that are touched upon shorty such as, love, war, death and politics (and supernatural aspects too... you know because Demons and stuff) However those three are main themes and are what the final episode lead up to. I know a lot of people hate the ending, but you need to understand that even from watching the first episode you can tell that Berserk was never going to have a happy ending and like I mentioned before everything just leads up to that climax and I don't think it would have been anywhere near as moving if it was anything different. This ending literally left me speechless for a good 4-5 hours. I didn't eat or sleep or do anything. I just sat there... and contemplated on my life and my existence. Then I read all of the manga =/
Animation and Sound- The animation is dated... I get it. Its not shiny bright and colorful like modern anime. It also uses a lot of still frames and is perhaps not as fluid as it could have been. However I think this works to Berserk's favor. You see if theres one thing I hate in an anime, its when an anime isn't able to maintain its atmoshpere. Berserk is a dark and gritty show right down to it's core and the art and animation of this show correctly relay this to us. Berserk never feels overly silly (probably because Puck isn't in the anime... srsly fuck Puck) and although there is some very light comedy and some upbeat moments, Berserk always knows that it is a dark and tragic tale and the art and animation reflect this. Bright and shiny visuals do not to this anime any favors and is one of the reasons why I could not enjoy the more recent adaption as much as I wanted to(also the cgi was crap). I'd like to point out that while there are still frames used, the art in the still frames is much more detailed than the regular art and they are used sparingly and often to emphasize certain moments.
So the op and ed theme... yeah can we just pretend they don't exst? They're not the worst I have ever heard, but they're up there. Some really terrible engrishy j-pop and while they are nearing the "its so bad its good" level I don't think they quite make it there. The rest of this OST however is pure genius. Harisawa Susumu is an extremely under-appreciated individual and his work on the Berserk anime OST is a marvel to behold. What is even more impressive though, is the berserk video games OST. Seriously you need to listen to some of these tracks that just capture the essence of this series and can't be described in any way but "epic". "Forces", "Forces II," Sign", "Indra" "Muder", "Fear","Guts" and "Behelit" are by far my favorite tracks and work wonders to bring this anime to life. As for voice acting, the japanese voices are fantastic and even though the engish dub is a little hammy the dub actors still manage to do a great job with the cast. (also the dub has some of the most hilarious outakes ever)
Overall- If I haven't made it mind-numbingly clear by now, go watch Berserk. Especially if you enjoy good characters, plot, interesting setting and just about everything that makes any sort of media good. Seriously though, if you a fan of dark europeon fantasies and tragic stories like me, you will love Beserk. Some other anime to watch once you finished this and have an unsatiable hunger for anything similar to Berserk... "Claymore" is a more "modern" anime viewer friendly version of Beserk. Bastard!! is a comic deconstruction of the fantasy genre and "Record of Loddoss war", is an enjoyable OVA thats dedicated to pure fatansy. As for manga I highly recommend Vinland Saga, Shin Ango Onshi and Ubel Blatt. For western media I think the only thing I can compare to Berserk is Game of thrones. Sorry for the unusually long review, but if it convinced even one person to watch the anime or see it in a different light, I think it served it's purpose.