First impressions are a bitch, aren’t they? You can spend forever and a day planning out every detail of how you present a product, an idea or shit, even yourself, only for it to blow up in your face because of that one patch of dirt you missed on your lapel, or that one glitch in the machine you didn’t iron out, or maybe the chef working at that new restaurant got some slightly-expired onions or even something as subtle as that one corpse stinking up the back of your car as you drive your hot little date to the movie theater and suddenly she’s all like “Hey, what’s that smell?” and before you know it you’re cleaning chunks of sternum out of your back seat because some people just like asking too many questions RIGHT, AGATHA?
Tangents aside, our first exposure to anything, person or media, can irreparably color how we perceive it from that moment forward. Even if it goes on to prove itself a thousand fold, we still find ourselves leery because of the festering taint of negativity that was birthed from that botched first impression. But if we’re strong, really strong, and can work past our initial revulsion, then sometimes, when the stars align and the wind is right, we might be rewarded for our open-mindedness. And in this authors opinion, that is exactly what happens if one is to delve in to Berserk 2016: a stumbling, drunken monstrosity of a show at first blush that almost dares you to love it, before exposing its golden core to those who resisted the urge to turn away in discomfort or disgust.
Author’s Note: This will be less a “review” and more a “stream of consciousness rambling about the virtues and failings of Berserk 2016,” so bear with me if this gets a little long winded at points. Also, let it be noted that I have been a fan of the series for over ten years now, having read the manga (so far as it exists), owning the anime and the Golden Age movies, and even having beat the Dreamcast game, despite the fact that it has aged like corpse tits. So I have a pretty solid base from which to discuss the series proper. That said, on with the show!
I’m going to assume that you have at least a functional knowledge of the universe and established lore of the Berserkverse, yeah? Who Guts is, who Casca is, who Griffith is, what the Eclipse is, what the Band of the Hawk was, what an Apostle is, what the God Hand are? The bits and bobs that you get from exposure to any of the previous media? Because if you don’t, then you are deep-fucked, my friend. Berserk 2016 gives only the barest minimum of implicit information about what happened in the past, and although you can piece together the major points from the OP and various statements by the characters, most of the details and scene-setting will be totally lost on you. At best this can make you feel adrift, hopelessly confused as characters toss around terminology and refer to places and people that mean jack shit to you. At worst, it can make the show difficult or uncomfortable to watch. Not knowing what happened to Casca and why she is the way she is changes her situation with Guts from “Man troubled by how he is supposed to relate to and protect the traumatized shell of the woman he loves” to “Violent man obsesses over mentally retarded woman who is constantly being assaulted and raped by a world of terrible people.” The events of the Golden Age establishes, in sharp relief, the sheer level of grimdark and despair that is common to the setting, not to mention essential plot and character beats, and without those your experience will be diminished. Not ruined, but lessened.
That established, let’s address the elephant in the room: Berserk 2016 is, with shocking frequency, a distressingly awkward looking show. It utilizes a visual style that gimps it out of the gate, but with that said I still feel that a little context is necessary here. For those who don’t know, In the 2010’s the world was gifted with a trilogy of movies that retold the events of the manga’s Golden Age arc, which had itself been previously covered by the 1997 anime. However, this time around, the adaptation was intended to remain more faithful to the tone and aesthetic of the manga (read: horribly violent, bleak and disturbing) and although I could write an entire article on the successes and failings of those things, it is the visuals we must note. The movies used heavy CG in not only their action scenes, but in their story and character scenes as well, while reserving their traditional 2D animation for more pivotal and intimate scenes. This resulted in films that, although sometimes being truly unique and beautiful, would often just look…off. And not in the way Berserk is supposed to look “off.”
But what happens when you attempt such a style without the budget of a theatrical film series? Well, to put it bluntly, Berserk 2016 (from here on out to be referred to simply as “Berserk” for brevity’s sake) assaults you from the word go with a visual style not dissimilar to the CG shows of the 90’s; because when I’m watching angry rape demons, I want to be thinking of Max Steel or Beast Wars. Actually, if I had to narrow it down to a very specific example, I’d say it strongly resembles the graphics of the first Dragon Ball Z: Budokai game. Don’t believe me? Here’s Guts from the first episode of recent series:
And here’s a shot of Goku from the PS3 port of Budokai:
Gold-filter and HD fidelity aside, it is SCARY how often I felt like I was looking at a PS2 game in those early episodes, and not just texturally. Although action scenes were, thankfully, always rendered with a sort of stylish fluidity and strong camera work, normal dialogue scenes and interaction-heavy episodes resulted in jerky mannequin-people gesticulating and blank-facing in ways I haven’t seen since the original Resident Evil. Mouth flaps were weirdly timed at best, and puppet-like at worst, and even the traditional artwork wouldn’t escape unscathed. Casca was rendered with an oddly pale skintone in the opener which, considering that Golden Age arc Casca is one of the champion-tier dark skinned waifus of all time, was kind of an uncomfortable change. And said entire opening was startlingly janky and poorly animated, despite its strong theme song and good color work. Which stands out all the more when you consider that the Berserk manga has some of the most beautiful artwork in the medium, with expert use of shading, panel framing and an almost painterly attention to detail. Granted, said detail is in service of nightmares, but you get the point.
Let’s also discuss the adaptation in terms of cuts. Despite being the first animated adaptation of material beyond the Golden Age, the series noticeably skips the Black Swordsman arc (in which a post-Eclipse Guts fights his first few apostles while travelling the land) or the Lost Children arc (in which Guts runs afoul of a very unhinged little girl who was turned into a demon and subsequently warped a forest into a demented mockery fairy kingdom). Of course, the fan in me recoils at the thought of cutting out anything, let alone entire arcs, but the pragmatist sees why they had to, both from a position of flow and in terms of content.
To adapt both of those would make the series at least twice as long, and while one could possibly, POSSIBLY, trim down the horrors of The Count enough to make Black Swordsman showable on TV, Lost Children is disturbing, unleaded nightmare fuel from front to back. There is no way to make “Girl believes herself to be fairy to escape horrors of life, gets tricked into demonhood, kidnaps children and turns them into slavering, twisted fae creatures who sodomize and mutilate each other for fun” into anything resembling broadcast acceptability. Shit, considering the “justice” the third movie did to the sheer horror of the Eclipse, I don’t even know if I’d WANT to watch such a thing.
So why stay? What about those first few episodes would convince a longtime devotee like myself to stick around? Was it the starvation of not having had a proper TV presence for the series in almost two decades? Was it denial of the shows flaws, or a simple inability to see them? Well, no. I stayed because even in those early episodes, the show achieved something that is paramount to any functional Berserk adaptation, the one thing that any medium must do when bringing the series to a wider audience: it managed to preserve the tone of the series. The feeling, the mood, the sense of horror and foreboding and perverse wonderment in the depths of despair. It felt like Berserk. The music, again by Shirou Sagisu of the movies and Evangelion fame, was constantly drenched in a low hum of menace and unsettled emotion. The designs, CG overlays aside, conveyed the sheer wrongness of a lot of the supernatural elements while keeping at least faithful to Miura’s designs. The pace of the show was well-set, and the characters showcased the depth of personality so distinct to Miura’s horrible-yet-beautiful universe. I could stand it because, beyond the crusty flesh, the Berserk I love was alive and well inside.
But can you reccomend something based purely on such ephemeral criteria? Well, not really. And if that were all there was to say, I could end the article right here with a “If you like Berserk, go for it!” quasi-recommendation. But at around episode 4, with the arrival of Bishop (Father?) Mozgus and the Tower of Judgment, the show…improves. It improves in almost every conceivable way. The storyline takes on a propulsive momentum that carries it effortlessly through its later two-thirds, with events following each other smoothly and utterly devoid of filler. The visuals, although never perfect, get a little cleaner, a little smoother, and the uncanny valley aspects of the visual design is used to grand effect on the ever-widening carnival of visual horrors that the show brings to bear. The cast, now freed from the understandably morose singularness of Guts has a chance to breathe, with complicated zealot Farnese and kid-samurai wannabe Isidoro (Isidro) bringing needed world layers and levity respectively, while the horrifically fanatical religious force of nature that is Mozgus, with his Rikiya Koyama-provided baritone and unnaturally flat face, provides a strong antagonistic presence as well as a dark reflection of what is considered the “good” of this world, with fucked-up minions, a torture room and everything. Beyond them, side characters like the Skull Knight and the Egg of the New World (no, really) add supernatural flavor to proceedings, reminding us constantly just what kind of universe we are looking at. The music, already rock solid, begins to include more discordant and moody melodies, even as it presents the occasional questionable butt rock battle theme which nonetheless compliments the plot’s mad spiral into total batshit, horror-soaked chaos quite nicely. And some truly standout action scenes during the manic, viciously paced and brutal climax episodes provide the kind of cathartic release only a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence can give you. In short, Berserk gets its shit together nicely.
However, in the interest of personal integrity, I won’t oversell the show. This adaptation’s flaws are as present in the endgame as they were in the opening. The animation may get better, even good at times, but you’ll never stop wishing they had just done traditional animation, especially as more and more scenes with said traditional artwork crop up as the show reaches its end. The lack of in-series building for Casca and Guts can sometimes make them feel more like passengers in the story than actual movers or shakers (although considering the above mentioned previous adaptations, it may be partially intentional. Also, may be a part of Berserk‘s style of storytelling) and some of the side characters, particularly the interesting-yet-sidelined Serpico and the stereotypical “hooker with a heart of gold” Luca, feel kinda underutilized. And even further, some characters are downright annoying or pointless, like Luca’s erstwhile lover in the knights whose name I genuinely can’t remember or, god help me, Nina, a sickly young prostitute whose wishy-washy behavior, constant cowardice and incessant whining was grating two episodes after her introduction. I mean, I get what character she was supposed to be; that of the young, powerless POV character to illustrate how the non-supernatural or heroic among us would react to such insane circumstances. But did she have to be such a fucking drag on, well, everything? And also, it’s worth mentioning that although the central conflict does resolve itself, the series does kind of just end, with an assurance that they will return next Spring for Season 2. One day, we will get a Berserk series that doesn’t end with a nutshot. There’s a lot more to unpack here, both positive and negative, but that would require a very detailed review which, despite my gusto for discussing Miura’s masterpiece, is not in this article’s purview.
So what have we got in the end? We have a deeply flawed, aesthetically troubled adaptation of some very complicated, very deep source material that nonetheless manages to get the intangibles right, while improving in a mechanical sense to eventually emerge as far more than the sum of its parts. It’s messy and weird and dark and compelling. It’s questionably constructed and solidly layered. It’s a shambling mess that eventually graduates to a full dash. It’s hobbled and moody, it’s laughable and scary, it’s interesting and enthralling and varied and complicated and most of all, it’s very, very Berserk. And in the end, that’s all someone like me can ask for.
P.S. Bonus points to the show for its ever-increasing use of original anime composer and living music God Susumu Hirasawa’s excellent insert song, Hai Yo. Also, the ending theme is pretty nice.