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Anime-Breakdown: Berserk (1997) Series Review

Fantasy, for me, is the least accessible genre. Be it books, movies, anime, or anything fantasy has rarely been an interesting genre to me. Sometime breaking its own establish rules when in a corner or the fantastic ideas far outweigh the actual quality of the story. However, I’ve managed to get into fantasy stories like “The Once and Future King”, “The Hobbit”, “The Alchemist”, and “Gormenghast” which I like allot. I like a good story and great characters regardless what genre it belongs too. Berserk writing leaves a far greater impression than it’s violent, bloody content.

Good: An Absorbing, Fantastically Told Story

This is the kind anime that is deliberately slow paced, progressing leisurely to make everything in the story flow naturally. While you might not always have confidence in Berserk methods when telling a story. The anime is always confident in the direction it’s headed in. Never does Berserk wander off to tell a single side story that has no relevance. It’s singled minded in its goal, ensuring every event serves a purpose. Whether it’s either to display the change in a character with a simple expression or allow viewers to ponder about the cost of ambition, the value of living, and many other topics.

One of the best aspect about the writing is how it uses small details to full use. Character development is also done in similar fashion. Providing an initial impression of a character, then through the course of the series witnessing a gradual change to a character. For example, it’s not until episode 4 where Guts finally receives some backstory providing insight on what turned him into the stoic, tough, simple minded fighter he has become. In later episodes, how he interacts with other characters says allot about Guts progressing as a character.

From a story perspective, seeing the first episode drives home the “man having no control over his own will” theme. Seeing the end results first and solely focusing the road that led to it. It’s because of the first episode that it becomes difficult to know when the breaking point for Guts will be shown. Despite the first episode introducing some fantasy elements, for a majority of its run it characters treat stuff like magic and mystical creatures as myths. The story sparsely uses fantasy element for a more realistic feel. This one element makes the world more relatable. Whenever a mythical creature or object of the sort is shown there’s a new emphasis on mystery and horror behind it. Seeing a creature that shares a quality of a demon becomes as or more threatening than menacing general on a battlefield.

The one fatal flaw that can’t be overlooked is the ending of the anime. It’s a non-ending that will leave some questions unanswered. However, those unanswered questions are not important to the story it is telling. It completes the story it was telling while at the same time leaving it open for another season that never came. It will leave viewers with mixed feelings when face with the closing credits when it reaches the finale, but the post credit sequence that’s seemingly insignificant by itself will guide your feelings towards the anime.

Good: Simple Characters With Plenty of Depths

Berserk second biggest strength are the characters. Guts, the protagonist of the series, is simpleminded when we first meet him. Guts, like the story, is simple to grasp and comprehend. He’s a stoic, battle-hardened fighter wandering aimlessly through everyday existence. As he progresses on his journey the more complex he becomes as a character. Suddenly there’s layers of depths to Guts simple words about his only pleasure in life being swinging his sword in battles. In some ways he speaks the truth about himself, but also when spoken we know there’s more to them than he’s leading on. How he views the world, how he become to value his life, and fuels him in his fight become clear. Best of all, every change he goes through is seen.

In contrast to the seemingly invincible like appearance of Guts is the more angelic presented Griffith. By only his appearance with his long white hair, armor the shines brightly on the battlefield, and a welcoming personality in such cruel time makes Griffith character immediately appealing. He’s smart, slick, and a natural leader without a doubt of hesitation in his action.

Another stand out in the series is Casca. She’s the only prominent female character in the anime and also one of the most interesting characters. What makes her outstanding is due to the setting of the story she has to overcome more than soldiers on the battlefield. Casca has to stand against the role society believes she should have and prove gender doesn’t define greatness. There’s more to Casca than just going against the label given to her by her time, but also what defines her as a person. Her struggle to follow her own path is explored in several episodes making her more than a woman going against expectations of her time.

With three well developed characters it becomes more interesting when the web of relationship becomes more complex. Seeing the characters interact with each other becomes as engaging as seeing a battle unfold. Characters have varied personalities preventing the anime from being serious all the time. No matter the position of a character the anime will give them a motivation that does more simply make them a straightforward villain or hero. Berserk knows when there’s more shades to a character the more they can get tackle, but also knows the proper usage of characters that are simply meant to be good or evil.

Good: Production values overcome budget limitations

In the animation department Berserk is impressive. For a series entirely hand drawn the raw appearances of movement further helps Berserk. During the action the scenes the raw appearance adds to its depiction showing the ugliness and raw nature of war. Characters come in all shapes and sizes offering distinct looks. Sharp lines are given to armor emphasizing the weight and thickness. This also applies to weapons every time a sword pierces through a piece of armor of flesh it can be felt.

Another plus from the animation are the subtractive colors blending together. There are certain scenes in Berserk, where the darken effects of subtractive coloring make certain scenes visually powerful. In particular, episode 6 which mostly takes place inside of a castle where the only source of light are from torches. When Guts faces a against the rumored Zodd the Immortal his appearance is demon like and is painted in the same color as blood. In the few instances where Zodd gets blood on him the contrast between Zodd imposing figure the blood of the soldiers he killed is distinct. Giving Zodd appearance an appropriately unearthly presence.

There are visible examples throughout the series when you can tell Berserk is on a limited budget. No other method than still images are used more frequently. The still images are detailed and vividly drawn. Sometime use as an effect to get across the true power behind an attack or the emotion between two characters. There usage makes for some powerful imagery when required, but are also used in some battle sequences since the amount of soldiers on a field are generally in large numbers. The bigger the scope of a battle the more likely still images will be used. For dialogue scenes it’s usage is more frequent, though sometime the slow movement goes hand in hand with the anime pacing.

Voice acting is a bit trickier to discuss. In Japanese, the cast of voice actors is filled with great actors, but some miscast roles. One strong point the Japanese voice cast has over the English cast is, Toshiyuki Morikawa, is a perfect realization of Griffith whereas Kevin T Collins is some time off with some monotone delivery. Kevin T Collins is still great in the role of Griffith nonetheless. In comparison with the English cast is just as good being emotionally driven and having good comedic delivery in the few instances where comedy is present, but is clunky in some line delivery which in turn makes it feel more natural. An advantage the English dub has is casting is better done with each actor better fitting their roles.

If you have to choose, I will recommend the English dub for two reasons aside from the fantastic voice cast. One is the story is set during the middle ages. Hearing characters speak in English is more fitting than hearing Japanese which can be distracting. Visually you can see the characters, clothing, armor, and the environment is not reflected towards Japanese culture. Second reason is the cast members from the English dub do reprise their roles for Berserk: The Golden Age Arc theatrical films. This guarantees the voice actors you like or hate will appear in the films as well. Being a welcome reunion as oppose to the Japanese voice cast, which are entirely different from the anime series and the theatrical films. If you’re planning to see everything in the Berserk franchise go for the dub, but if you’re only planning to see the anime then pick what better suit your preferences

The soundtrack of Berserk is composed by Susumu Hirasawa and the series frequently reuses great tracks. It’s favorite of choice is “Gatsu” used in the anime most important moments and “Behelit” for any occasion it feels like. Hirasawa score is a mixture of pounding medieval instrument and passionate folk singing are powerful in a collection of well orchestrated music. Perfectly fitting the anime setting, while great, there isn’t variety as it reuses tracks frequently. Prepare to hear “Behelit” and “Gatsu” for over ten episodes. The English J-rock opening theme of the anime, “Tell Me Why” by Penpals feels out of place with the anime. While the lyrics do reflect the central conflict of Guts it doesn’t fit due to its more modern feel compared to the other pieces of music that sound like they belong with the period Berserk is set in. The closing theme “Waiting So Long” by Silver Fins is a more proper fit with the series more in line with the rest of the other tracks.

Personal Enjoyment: It became so engaging time flew by fast

Berserk is not a series I can say I enjoyed. For it’s rare moments of humor there’s a dozen dismembered bodies and dark themes that overshadow those laughs. Instead, I’ll say Berserk was engaging from beginning to end. To the point it rivaled my favorite anime (Death Note) in absorbing me into its story. It introduced me to a fantastic cast of characters and fully realized world that served as a gateway to read the manga. While the ending did leave me wanting more what I got was far more satisfactory than I expected it to be.

Possible Complaints (If you just skip the entire review to vote):
Music reused frequently
Deliberately slow pacing
Supporting cast not receiving much development
The ending, but a post credit sequence prevents it from being as bad as it could have been
Hand drawn animation looks dated compared to digital animation

Calculating Points:

Story: 3/3

Characters: 3/3

Technical (music, voice acting, animation, etc.): 3/3

Personal Enjoyment: 1/1

Final Thoughts:

Berserk is supplied with plenty blood and gore, but the true strength of the anime is it writing. Providing an engrossing story and engaging characters that remain strong from beginning to end. Leaving a far greater impression from the story it told over the violent and dark content it has. What more can you ask for from an anime that’ll leave you wanting more.