Born beneath the gallows tree from which his dead mother hung, Guts has always existed on the boundary between life and death. After enduring a terrible childhood, he spends his adulthood in brutal combat, pitting his strength against others in order to build his own. Life is simple enough for Guts until he meets Griffith, the inspirational, ambitious, and beautiful leader of the mercenaries, the Band of the Hawks. When Guts loses to Griffith in a duel, he is forced to join the group, and, despite himself, finds a sense of camaraderie and belonging amongst them. However, as Griffith leads his soldiers from victory to victory, the bloody wars and underhanded politics reveal a side to him that nobody quite expected. Can Guts, a simple warrior, defend those who have come to mean the most to him, all the while struggling not to lose to the darkness he has carried with him his entire life?
StoryWhile I would have liked to begin with a witty, intellectual line about how great Berserk is, I just couldn't find the right words to do it. For some reason, Berserk defies any attempts at clever analysis, meaning that I'm left with no option but to say it how I feel: Berserk is hands down one of the best anime around. It may not turn out to be one of your top favourites; it may put you off with its dated appearance; and heck, its final episode is likely to leave you royally pissed. Regardless, I'll bet you any amount you name that it will still knock your socks off. As unfair as it seems in hindsight, Berserk's opening scenario of innocent tavern girls getting bullied and monsters terrorising villages reminded me too much of some of the demon hentai I've come across. Needless to say, my expectations of Berserk thereafter hit rock bottom; by the end of the first episode, however, I had changed my mind all over again. What I discovered was that while the setting looked like a shit idea, the character and plot developments were something else altogether. Gatts' encounter with the demon lord in the first episode instantly raises the question of how a man could be so remorseless, and the subsequent flashback begins the epic story that provides the answer. What is surprising about Berserk's plot is how well its various elements come together: take the story of a man who wants greatness at all cost; add a corresponding tale of a man who thinks of nothing but fighting his next battle; stir vigorously with demons and gore; sprinkle some ingenious military-political manoeuvres on top, and what you get is a potent blend of fantasy action. Moreover, Berserk has a knack for pacing and structure; just when I think the messianic plot themes and cataclysmic battles couldn't be more melodramatic, Berserk presents a touching flashback during which the characters reveal something interesting about their pasts. I'm not usually a fan of flashbacks since they interrupt the flow of a story, but in Berserk's case, they feel more like a vital part of the experience than a convenient plot device. For example, the story of Caska's first encounter with Griffith had me glued to the screen as intently as any of the scenes of clashing armies and monster fights. In fact, Berserk had me so engrossed that every episode felt like it ended ten minutes too early. This only leaves one glaring problem, namely the fact that it doesn't end. I can't emphasise this strongly enough, but Berserk comes to the kind of screeching halt that could feed a rant for pages and pages. The anime covers perhaps a quarter of the manga's plot, and to make things worse, it stops halfway through an arc! Even pre-warned I still wasn't prepared for just how abrupt the ending turned out to be. For many, the disappointment will be acute; and for that kind of pain, I can only recommend the manga as a cure, which continues with the same (if not better) level of quality.AnimationApart from the extravagant monster designs, Berserk's concept looks lifted straight out of some generic high fantasy novel; with knights in full armour, moats and castles, shining fairies, and swords aplenty, there is really nothing too exceptional about Berserk's European universe. At its worst, Berserk suffers from an impoverished budget, which is evident considering the frequent use of still shots and the low number of frames in some of the action scenes. I have never been particularly bothered by either of these flaws if the story is good enough, and in that regard, Berserk more than compensates. Problems aside, some of the character concepts are pleasantly surprising; Griffith's icy appearance, Caska's unusually dark skin, and Gatts' rippling build and oversized sword are instantly eye-catching. Also, while the action sequences may not be much more than adequate when compared to more recent anime, I do like their gritty approach to violence.SoundBerserk's soundtrack is not particularly varied; almost all of the intense scenes with a score use only a slight variation of the same theme. However, the little there is makes for a pleasant listening experience and never gets old despite the repetition. Besides, the lack of variety is probably due to the fact that Berserk relies far more on natural background noise to create tension. Although faced with a script that is occasionally laden with cheese, Berserk's Japanese voice actors still manage to deliver some truly emotional dialogue. For instance, the villains issue macho threats and chuckle with nefarious delight, but the protagonists tend to have serious tones which are full of subtle nuances. Notably, Griffith has a softer voice than I expected, although it fits his cool, intelligent demeanour like a glove and even makes him seem doubly sinister on occasion. Predictably, the American cast are only half as good; I could only stomach a few episodes of their daytime drama acting. If possible, avoid them at all cost.CharactersWhat is impressive about Berserk is that it has no weak cast members to speak of; not one of them falls short of delivering a convincing performance. Granted, the stock characters such as Princess Charlotte remain far less developed than the protagonists, but they still manage to fit the story to a tee. As for the central characters, they are unexpectedly complex and emotionally engaging on every level: Gatts is a traditional tortured hero type who carries the burdens of a dubious origin and a disturbed past. What makes him a great lead character despite being a stereotype on the surface is that he embodies, in the bluntest way, what makes a person likeable; he has a raw, honest personality which, despite his reticence, still comes across as touchingly vulnerable. Besides, he may not be people-friendly, but he kicks a lot of arse and he saves people, and he does it all with a sword twice his size. Griffith, as far as the anime is concerned, is probably Berserk's strongest standalone element (in the manga, Gatts is definitely more interesting). He is beautiful like an angel and radiates the kind of charisma that moves armies and topples kingdoms; what's more, he is inhumanly cunning and generally the kind of character you can fall for over and over again. However, the guy is also undeniably fucked up. As Griffith leads the Band of the Hawk to glory and wins hearts as well as minds, there is always an element of doubt concerning his true intentions; of course, this only serves to make him all the more engaging. As the only female to have a significant role, Caska exceeded my initial expectations; she doesn't have big tits or bare long legs, and she has both common sense and superb fighting skills. Intelligent, a leader within the Hawks, and harbouring an intense loyalty to Griffith, she is a character with a distinct purpose. Caska's only downfall is that, as the series progresses, she gets forced back into a predictably misogynistic role. With regards to the supporting cast, the members of the Band of the Hawk are easily the most memorable, with Judeau ranking as my favourite; whilst he may be young and have relatively little screen time, his wisdom and perceptiveness when it comes to his comrades is refreshing. Corkus, on the other hand, is another great character whose relentless dislike of Gatts provides for some much-needed comedy; I also like the fact that he adds a more pessimistic nuance to the Band of the Hawk dynamic. All in all, these are the kinds of characters for which I harbour deep nostalgic feelings; their strong personalities and intricate development makes them difficult to forget.OverallThe villains can be cheesy; almost every scene involves someone getting gutted or having their limbs chopped off; and the demons tend to eat people just for the heck of it. All of this would usually result in an anime that is mediocre at best and probably doomed to obscurity. However, Berserk's superb character development and uniquely messianic plot makes it not just an accomplished piece of fiction that somehow survives its terrible ending, but an undeniable masterpiece at that.
I like epic fantasy, dragons, wizards, and knights and stuff. If there is good action and interesting characters, I like it a lot more. And then this baby pops up, with a really dark, violent and erotic take, instantly hooking me with its aesthetics. It had medieval kingdoms, big swords, frenzied warriors, gore, nude, sex, intrigue, betrayal, demons, a quest for vengeance, and an ending that was screaming for a sequel. Why shouldn’t I like it? It remains to this day as the top Dark Fantasy anime and the main inspiration for Dark Souls. Here is the rundown of all the things I liked.1) The pilot episode. It ain’t shitting around with a slow build up. It begins at a point in the future (a flash forward) where the lead character is already somehow betrayed and mutilated by his best friend, and he is on a quest to kill the sucker. The very first episode tells you with a scene from the future how the world became a dark and morbid place, where the people live in fear and demons have crawled in powerful positions of authority, toying sadistically with innocents. It is an extremely powerful plot device to hook you for what is to come (but didn’t). Many later anime used the fast forward gimmick; from Gungrave and Gai-Rei Zero all the way to Boruto. It may not feel so special today but back then it was the first time I got to experience it and I loved it.The second episode is the story told from the start, as we gradually see how the protagonist grows up in the battlefield, gets more powerful, wields bigger swords (I mean, REALLY bigger swords), how he makes allies, friends, lovers, and enemies. You already know how all that will have a bad outcome because of the pilot episode so you are interested to see how it happened. It was an amazing way to attract the viewer with this sort of glimpse to the future for two reasons. First, if the lead and his enemies were so powerful from the start, chances are you would be bored with the series fast. There wouldn’t be room for improvement or change in general. Showing how strong he will eventually become and then flashbacking to the past, means you have all the reason to expect something good in the end despite how weak he appears to be at first. Second, one would be fooled to think the show doesn’t have major battles or much of a grim story if the pilot episode didn’t offer a glimpse to the future, and it was starting straight from the beginning.2) Gore, splatter, nude and sex. This almost goes without needing an explanation. Sex and violence always sell and this anime has buckets of it. Sounds like brain-dead superficial entertainment, but unlike most shows Berserk is only using them as attraction and not as definition. Such elements become part of the themes and the plot instead of being there as edgy nonsense. There is also close to no silly comedy for deflating the grim atmosphere as most anime tend to do (Akame ga Kill, Goblin Slayer, Hell’s Paradise). Plus, it uses a form of violence that is quite appealing to me; sword-to-sword battles between frenzied armoured warriors. Using magic or lasers just doesn’t look raw enough, because it’s long-ranged and comes off as special effects and CGI.3) Interesting characters. You gradually see them revealing all their inner thoughts to you, their pasts, their goals, their desires and hopes. You see them getting beaten, learning from their mistakes, maturing, becoming broken by betrayal and coming out more crazy than what they already were. Shows which do that in such a degree AIN’T that many. Plus, the aforementioned violence is used to bring out their weak side and inner thoughts, something which other anime like Hellsing or Devil May Cry don’t and have their leads in a permanently frozen state of brainless battle-frenzied euphoria, flat as pancakes and with no room for change.What is also very interesting is how each one, despite his prowess in battle, is still limited to a certain role, even if he or she would rather be something entirely different. Basically, they can’t use violence to fix their issues, an antithesis to the logic of Dragonball. Guts never manages to live a peaceful life, as he is constantly thrown in battles he can’t escape from and is addicted to mayhem. Griffith never manages to fulfil his quest to gain his own kingdom, without constantly having to sacrifice more and more of his humanity, to the point he stops being humane just to get an impersonal piece of land. And Caska, no matter how much she tries to be an independent woman, who can fend off herself and protect Griffith, eventually her own body limits her to the role of support and a target of lust by many horny men. All that are rarely seen in other shows, which follow the very simplistic view of “You can be anyone you want and achieve anything you want if you really believe in it and work hard.” There is no limitation there and as such those characters are never defined by what they can never be. Some things are simply not as easy for some as they are for others, purely because of body restrictions or lack of charisma and/or talent. Sounds depressing but it is true and this anime had the guts (bad pun) to admit it, creating a wonderful set of main leads in the process.4) Political power struggles. The show is not centered on a team of warriors, strolling a generic kingdom and doing stand-alone missions. The world they live in has affected them and is affected back by them, all part of Griffith’s goal to leave his mark on the world by getting his own kingdom. Along the way many aristocrats get annoyed by his continual successes and fearing their power getting stolen attempt to assassinate him. And he reacts by plotting his own assassinations. All of which happen in secrecy, while the kingdom is at war with its neighbours. So it is not a story about a few brave warriors protecting their good homeland by invading monsters; it is a war of political agendas between local kings for whom gets to have all the land for himself. And not only that; it is also about the internal double crossing the aristocrats do to one another every time one wants to steal the glory from the other. This double battlefield, the external and the internal, adds a layer that is lacking from most shows. And yes, it was not unique to Berserk, since Rose of Versailles and Legend of Galactic Heroes also had that and it’s why they are top material in their respective genres (period drama and space opera). And I know many are going to mention Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad as series that did the same in a far more elaborate way. They came afterwards, and were not animated. I am talking about the anime at the time it came out, dammit!5) Amoral take on humanity. Religion is a topic usually ignored in anime, or when it’s used it’s just for having one-dimensional bad guys. Berserk takes it a bit further and has the demons being former humans who gave in to their dark desires. Ideals and hopes are mocked as means to control the weak, while ambitious leaders commit all sorts of crimes behind everyone’s back. I really liked how monsters are not treated as generic incarnations of evil or plain misguided mortals; they are shown to be the pure form of ambition liberated by the constraints of morality, emotions and ideals.6) Psychological symbolisms and imagery. Many parts of the show, usually those involving demons, are full of WTF sceneries, all of which have to do with basic carnal desires and fears. Unlike most shows with demonic dimensions, which are nothing but generic depictions of torture of the damned, here all the monsters and their Eclipse world are directly attributed to their personalities having been given in completely to their desires. The characters are not scared of getting crazy because of them. Heck, they are mostly terrified of becoming like that as well. Not because it is bad or wrong, but because it feels inappropriate for any human being to end up like that. Which is again very interesting as a concept.7) Cliffhanger ending. This is a part most hate about the show, as it ends in the most exciting and agonizing way possible. Ιn reality, it was the best trick to make people go read the manga just to see what happens next. So yes, it is a very smart way to promote the manga version, and even making it necessary to read it from the beginning, since many things were taken out or were changed.8) Sound. The music score is blood boiling pieces of grudge rock and orchestrated epic music. The characters have appropriate voice actors with no stupid pitches in voice. Even the sound effects were on point, as simple as they may have been.As for the negatives, most will point out at the artwork and the animation. The budget wasn’t the best, thus they were cutting a lot of corners when it came to battle choreography and background details. There are moments they just slapped a static manga panel with a few rough color overlays and called it a day. It’s still very effective as an image that transmits raw emotions, but not as a motion that is supposed to show things... moving.Anything else? Not really; that is the only real negative and not even that is that bad. Berserk rightfully deserves a place in the hall of fame in its genre. Nothing ever came close to what it achieved in a few dozen episodes. Not even the rather similar and far more polished Vinland Saga (which became some boring farmland drama).
Oh there are plenty of flaws that can be found within the king of dark fantasy anime. The animation is far from awe-inspiring even when it isn't using cheap tricks to stretch out the budget. The sound is mediocre on the whole. The ending has a strong claim to being the worst cliffhanger in anime history. But the journey there still manages to be enjoyable for those who need a regular fix of swords, blood, and monsters (like me).STORY Ignoring the elephant in the room- the ultimate 'read the manga' ending- the story manages to be entertaining if fairly straightforward. The Hawks face a challenge, secondary characters explain just how difficult it will be to succeed, Griffith pulls some billiant plan out of nowhere, the Hawks gain glory and move on to the next even more impossible challenge. This unbroken string of wins should get boring, especially considering how none of Griffith's plans will seem particularly original to well-travelled fantasy fans, but is permissable here. The focus here is on how the rest of the Band of the Hawk views Griffith and his abilty to succeed seemingly without even breaking a sweat. But what happens when the man you worship as a hero finds himself defeated for the first time in his life, and is forced to choose between his ambitions and his friends, and proves just how mortal he is? 'Berserk' establishes the central conflict excellently... if only it had been able to take that conflict to some form of conclusion. ANIMATION Now I love the look of older animation- the colors, the designs, the less polished feel compared to modern digital animation- but it's not without its downsides, which could be glaring if the anime had a less than top-tier budget. There's very little actual motion in 'Berserk', still images are badly overused and even scenes with motion often have very few moving parts. The animation has aged badly, but I still feel I should cut it a bit of slack due to that age. We can't all have 'Akira' budgets. SOUND The sound is fairly minimal as well, although this manages to work in 'Berserk's favor at points. The OP should be annoying but has a way of growing on you. The ED is grungy and brooding, which fits the overall tone of the series better, but I wouldn't call it a masterpiece. During the individual episodes little music is used in favor of ambient sounds- the only only trick that will really stick out is 'Gut's Theme', which plays when the show wants to make completely sure you realize "THIS IS AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT!!!" Before I give my opinion of the English dub, I should inform you I'm generally very forgiving of English dubs and will almost always watch that version so long as it's passable. So without further ado: I find the English version passable. There are certainly some misses- Ricket's high pitched shrill gets on my nerves, Princess Charolette could get annoying as well though I found her voice still fit her character decently, some background actors were clearly overused, and I will never be able to hear a character voiced by Beau Billingslea without hearing Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop. But Guts, Griffith are strong performances with the rest being decent to pretty good. So the voices are good in the critical parts with the most lines.CHARACTERS This is what made the difference for Berserk, the critical aspect that catapulted it from low budget fantasy schlock to memorable. (Well, that and the boobs and gore) Guts, a skillful lone mercenary who finds himself willfully following another person for the first time in his life only to experience the deepest depths of betrayal. Griffith, a seemingly invincible leader who finds himself fascinated by the one man he cannot truly control. Casca, who finds her own dreams being destroyed by a man with no ambition beyond swinging his sword. Judeau, the insightful one who knows and accepts that he's been caught up in someone else's dreams and one of the most genuinely likable characters in anime. Corcus, the cynical one, perhaps trying to keep himself from realizing that's he's blindly following the man whose ambitions effortlessly swallowed up and ended his own. Now there are still misses here- many antagonists are one-dimensional and some of the protagonists like Ricket and Pippin are practically non-entities as far as the plot is concerned. But where it's good it's good.OVERALL If I had to compile a list of flawed masterpieces, this would be one of the most flawed. 'Berserk' is undeniably weak in many areas, but manages to excel in a couple critical ones. That's enough to make this series a must-watch for fantasy fans and recommended viewing for those looking to get a broader view of anime through the decades.
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