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Berserk (2016) – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Berserk (2016)

 

Related: Berserk (1997 – original prequel)

Berserk: The Golden Age

Similar: Claymore

Vision of Escaflowne

Hellsing Ultimate

 

Watched in: Japanese

Genre: Dark Action Fantasy Horror

Length: 12 episodes

 

Positives:

  • The monsters and world.
  • Exploration of repressed lust.

Negatives:

  • Glosses over details.
  • Some truly atrocious CG.
  • Shounen humour with poor timing.
  • The crushing disappointment.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Berserk (2016) covers the Black Swordsman Arc of the franchise, following The Golden Age Arc movies, and when announced, many including myself were excited to see more Berserk. Perhaps the end was in sight at last. What no one predicted was the lack of care such a revered series would receive. An early preview showed but a glimpse of the CG atrocities that awaited us.

Before I get to the story, I must address the glaring art. This still looks like Berserk’s rich world filled with terrifying monsters, but this can’t make up for the awful CG that no amount shaders can mask. It reminds me of Valkyria Chronicles’ cutscenes, which is fine for a game, not anime. The first rule of CG in anime is never use it on organics close to the camera. The modelling at its core hinders all visual elements, while the floaty animation isn’t even fluid, for it chugs more than once. One could do better in modded Skyrim. The abrupt use of 2D on occasion, while better quality, looks out of place in this CG-fest. Furthermore, if insistent on CG, why not use Studio 4C like the Golden Age movies?

Beyond art, the story oozes lack of effort and care. I said this continues off the Golden Age Arc, but it doesn’t really. This seems to skip half of the Black Swordsman Arc in the manga. When we last left our characters, Guts had rescued Casca, yet here, his quest is to find her once again while he’s hunted by demons because of the brand on his neck – demon GPS, essentially. Where’s the bit with her disappearance? All we get is a brief scene that gives a whole lot of nothing. A few too many elements don’t receive exploration or explanation, forcing us to guess their significance.

All right, we’re in the story, we’ve accepted the skipped chapters, what else could go wrong? What bothered me most about Berserk 2016, more even than the CG, is the inclusion of shounen humour centred around a naked fairy called Puck (think Zelda’s Navi without the endearing qualities to make up for the annoying) and some sidekick kid, who reminds of Raki from Claymore, just nowhere near as bad (now that would be some feat). He talks too much. They don’t do much beyond deliver gags from generic battle anime. I know they come from the source material, but the timing is poor regardless. Whom did they think they were appealing to with this juvenile humour? Berserk is far too violent and explicit for the target audience of such humour. It feels more Eragon than Game of Thrones – never a good thing.

Berserk 2016 has positive qualities. The main conflict is against a band of Holy Knights charged with protecting a Holy Inquisitor (read: torturer) and capturing Guts, for he leaves a bloody trail in his wake, including once innocent people possessed by demons. When dead, the possessed and innocent look alike. Most interesting is the Holy Knight Commander Farnese, who reached her position through birth, nepotism, and devotion rather than skill. Her zealous life is ripe for exploration in regards to sex. The story is unrestrained about her lust in the face of religious celibacy and devotion, going into the depravity and secret desires of the human denied intimacy for life. The way she lashes out to being attracted to someone is excellent and shows great depth of character. I wish we got more of her.

One can see greatness in the story when it slows down to develop a moment, but before it truly settles, we’re off again, galloping into the next action scene. The editing is also choppy at times. Almost every episode has a moment where it cuts to a different location, shows us the start of a scene for ten seconds, and then cuts elsewhere. Why show us this other scene if you aren’t going to give it time? It’s jarring.

The story here is good, more so during latter episodes, in the same deep world, characters, and themes, but the missing details would elevate it to the highest tier. The final shot announces a new season in the works. Let us hope they improve significantly before then.

Art – Very Low

Atrocious CG can be enough to ruin the experience for some. As a side note, the TV broadcast has heavy censorship (there’s lots of nudity and brutality in Berserk), so some aspects look weird, such as a woman with no nipples and shots have a black shadow across half the screen.

Sound – Low

Though Berserk uses the same composer as previous iterations, track misplacement is an issue. The OST is weak compared to the greatness that is Forces – Guts’s theme has the same artist, but is the least prominent song of the series. Some odd sound effects: Guts’s sword resonates with a loud clang when cutting demon flesh, as if striking metal to metal. Now, I haven’t killed any demons in real life, but I’m certain metal against demon flesh doesn’t clang.

Story – Medium

Branded with a demon mark that keeps demons on his trail, Guts searches for Casca amidst the madness of a holy zealot army. More action than story, Berserk still has aspects of greatness, particularly in its exploration of repressed lust through the commander of the holy knights.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Try it. If you haven’t read the manga, story omissions won’t bother you as much, thus leaving your enjoyment up to the CG. If you can get used to the CG, Berserk: Black Swordsman Arc has enough to engage until the end. But truly, the CG is a challenge.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Holy S***

Negative:

DissapointingUgly Artistic Design

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Berserk: The Golden Age Arc – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Berserk: Ougon Jidai Hen

 

Related: Berserk (original version)

Similar: Gungrave

Claymore

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Dark Fantasy Action Horror

Length: 3 movies

 

Positives:

  • More Berserk, finally.
  • Disturbing horror.
  • Grand scale.

Negatives:

  • Poor sound mixing.
  • Distracting CG during action sequences.
  • Art is too bright for the dark tone.
  • Lacks the small character moments.

In my Berserk review, I said no incomplete series deserved a conclusion more than Berserk did, for it ended on a cliffhanger amid a great story in a rarely explored genre for anime. And at last, fourteen (!) years after the series, they release Berserk: The Golden Age Arc, a remake of the series. However, starting anew had me disappointed; with only three films, they couldn’t get further than the original twenty-six episodes, which meant another wait for a conclusion. But of course, that is selfish of me (“Get to the part I want or you suck!”), and I understand Berserk looks aged these days and it would be better to have a unified style. So, we go back to the beginning. How is it? Not all great, I’m afraid.

The visuals struck me as odd from the outset. The Golden Age is so shiny, so colourful – if I didn’t know better, I would take The Golden Age for a shounen anime, until Guts cleaves a knight in two. Then there was the CG during action scenes. It had the hallmarks of anime game cutscenes; that floaty movement of the arms, the fish-mouth lip-sync, the lack of impact down the body. Certainly, it is great to see battles on a grand scale, but I cannot unsee the CG. It’s made stranger when non-action scenes use 2D art. Not a great start.

Next, the rushed pacing. Movie one covers ten episodes, movie two the next ten, and movie three the final six plus new events. Reading my opening paragraph, one would think I’d advocate for the rush; however, above all else, I consider quality the most important goal. If you can’t do a story justice, adapt something else – the last thing I want is Game of Thrones crammed into a single Hollywood cash-in. Of course, The Golden Age isn’t that poor and twenty-six episodes adapted to three movies is feasible. No, the issue stems from what they axed – the character development.

Every main event is present: Guts recruited into Griffith’s mercenaries, The Band of the Hawk, the rise to notoriety, Griffith’s ambition, the wars, and the tests of loyalty – a single Game of Thrones plot thread, in short. It’s the ‘in-between’ that’s gone. We no longer get to know the mercenaries. Griffith and Casca have one scene each to establish backstory. The downtime between wars doesn’t build the relationships among mercenaries, most importantly, Griffith and Guts. Speaking of the two leads, this reduction in small moments flattens their personalities. In Berserk, I praised Guts for being more than the typical meathead with a sword, but here, while not down to meathead levels, he is rather average until the third movie (more on that later). The same applies to Griffith. He was a leader everyone followed for his charisma, intellect, and skill. Now, we see just his skill. I no longer buy into his band’s unshakable loyalty.

But then, the third film began, and hope was restored (ironic, considering how everything goes to hell in the narrative). I got the impression the team wanted to rush to new parts as much as the fans, hence the lower plot compression for movie three. When all goes dark and brutal, and man, do things get brutal – makes the original adaptation look tame – The Golden Age feels back on form. The visuals lose the shine, the sound mixing shows effort, the development has its space, and best of all, the new scenes (~2 episodes’ worth) are excellent. Movie three saves this production.

Movie three is on form enough to make earlier faults worth sitting through – remember, at its worst, The Golden Age is never awful. The unadulterated brutalities, the effect of war and death on the mind are as engaging as they are unsettling. Dark high fantasy is an under-represented genre in anime, which makes it even more pleasing to have Berserk back to carry the torch. I hope future films improve on the quality set by movie three.

Art – Medium

The Golden Age is a reverse of Berserk in the art department. Instead of gritty fantasy art, The Golden Age uses shiny, colourful visuals suited to a Ghibli production. Instead of action lines and blurs, The Golden Age can afford full animation for large battles; however, this extensive animation is all CG during action, looking like in-engine cutscenes from an anime game. Does get better with each film.

Sound – Medium

The acting is much improved from the original with a new Japanese cast and returning English actors – Griffith isn’t so weak anymore. The music was a problem the first time around, and isn’t much better now. Where the original had little music, for some reason, The Golden Age plays tracks without thought to timing or tempo – music doesn’t enhance most scenes. And the volume is too low; it sounds like Guts is carrying a phone in his pocket to play the music on speakers. The script is average until movie three.

Story – High

A dark fantasy of loyalty and ambition. Despite rushed movies one and two, the third film is worthy of the Berserk name – brutal and twisted.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for fans of dark fantasy that doesn’t shy away from the realities of battle and horror. Though more troublesome, I would watch the series until episode twenty, then start movie three. The story is worth suffering the art and sound flaws. Absolutely not for children.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Holy S***Riveting Action

Negative: None

Berserk – Review

Japanese Title: Kenpuu Denki Berserk

 

Related: Berserk: The Golden Age (remake)

Similar: Claymore

Gungrave

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Action Horror Fantasy

Length: 25 episodes

 

Positives:

  • Good animation, especially considering the show’s age.
  • Guts is a great lead character that portrays a more believable muscle-bound character than most other anime.
  • English voice track is well done for the most part.
  • Properly used horror in an interesting plot.
  • ‘Forces’ music track fills one with epicness.

Negatives:

  • Incomplete, cliffhanger ending.
  • First episode is deceptive due to the incomplete ending, and the next few episodes are slow to start.
  • Opening and closing sequences will leave you horror-struck with lacklustre quality.
  • Poor use of what little music there is.

Berserk came out during a time when anime in the West was marketed towards a broader audience, even going so far as to censor elements or tone down language to reach the young demographic. Outside of films like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, you had to search high and low for mature anime that wasn’t terrible. Then Berserk came along with its dark themes, unadulterated horror and violence to show us just how adult anime could be.

Berserk centres on Guts, the orphan swordsman, and Griffith, leader of a mercenary band, as they fight for their country of Midland. However, Griffith has ambitions beyond just fighting for a king; he wants to be king. Griffith’s plans test the loyalties of Guts and his mercenaries to the limit. Berserk focuses on themes of loyalty, isolation, and the fundamentals of humanity, the nature of good and evil innate with us. Be forewarned, this anime gets dark, very dark, contains nudity, plenty of violence, and gore everywhere. These aspects are not thrown in at random. No violence for the sake of violence. Gore for the sake of gore. Each use is relevant, an uncensored view of the scene.

Guts is a fantastic protagonist, a badass anti-hero, who wields a giant sword that can cut horses in half. Normally, wielding a giant sword is indicative of a terrible character, one that the creators put no thought into, especially when it comes to physics. With Guts however, he has the look and ferocity of a man who can wield such a weapon. The animators made the effort to show the heft of swinging such a heavy weapon; Guts doesn’t twirl it around like a baton as seen in other anime and games. As a character, Guts goes through a range of emotional and physical trials, exemplifying his depth. When designing a brawny character, look to Guts for the archetype done right.

Griffith too is a suitably complex character with his own strengths and weaknesses, exploring the price of ambition, but to elaborate further would constitute spoilers, so I shall stop there. The supporting cast of mercenaries is a mixed bag of quality, but they are good when it counts, Casca in particular who struggles with her identity as a women in a band of men. Villains, ranging from generals to nobles, are despicably evil, sick and twisted, some with magic elements thrown in.

There are two major narrative faults. The first episode can confuse viewers, being a flash-forward that we never return to because of the second fault, the finale. Berserk is incomplete; after an awesome adventure that keeps getting better and a horrifying finale, the series ends on a cliffhanger. It is clear they intended to have a sequel series, but never got around to it. (They did go back to the beginning again with the recent release of Berserk: The Golden Age; however, that’s a new take on the manga, so you won’t get closure on this version.)

Berserk comes highly recommended. Just don’t watch it if you can’t handle the thought of an incomplete anime. You could read the manga afterwards, however. Also, not for children – can’t stress this enough.

Art – High

You will find higher quality anime these days, of course, but Berserk’s gritty medieval style doesn’t feel dated beyond the use of action lines and slow motion to hide the occasional low frame rate.

Sound – Medium

Has one of the best tracks in anime: ‘Forces.’ Even so, the soundtrack is limited and hardly used. Many battles have no music for some reason, not for added effect. The opening and ending themes are awful, sung in terrible English and don’t fit the series – just…awful. The acting is good in either language, though I found the English suited the characters better, except for Griffith; his English actor can’t command the scene as Griffith should.

Story – High

An excellent fantasy tale of corruption and loyalty with a good cast of characters brought to a halt by a cliffhanger ending and no continuation.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A must for fans of dark fantasy that doesn’t shy away from the realities of battle and horror. No incomplete anime deserved a conclusion more than Berserk.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Extensive Character DevelopmentHoly S***Riveting ActionStrong Lead Characters

Negative: None