Sometimes you just want to watch a grimdark drama where everything is a disaster and you can’t do anything about it so why bother? This year’s election coverage should sate that thirst.
But if it doesn’t, there’s Berserk.
Note: I’m about to spoil a whole TV series and three movies and several volumes of the Berserk manga, so if you haven’t experienced any of these yet, consider this your SPOILER WARNING. Also might as well throw in every TRIGGER WARNING ever because if Berserk hasn’t made it to one yet, chances are it will eventually.
Berserk is basically “Everything sucks and then you die” given anime form. The series’ Golden Age arc, covered in a 1997 TV series, the 2012-2013 movies, and the manga (duh) is a medieval epic of warring nations, charismatic mercenary leaders, and badass swordsmen (and one swordswoman), but it ends with the infamous Eclipse Ceremony, wherein said leader sacrifices his whole mercenary band to become a god and everyone is eaten by grotesque hellish demons – except the main character, who loses one arm and one eye and has to use the other to watch his former-BFF-now-hella-enemy rape his girl until she literally goes insane.
Welcome to the Conviction Arc.
This year’s bright and cheery series picks up where the Golden Age arc left off (*in the anime. In the manga, the Black Swordsman arc bridges the two). Protagonist Guts has left former-awesome-woman-soldier-now-witless-girlfriend Casca under the watch of the blacksmith Godo and is off to find and kill the Apostles of the evil God Hand. (Also Griffith because there’s no way a man can watch another man do that do his woman and not kill the heck out of him). Before he can accomplish this, though, he has to chop through all the evil spirits attracted by the cursed brand on his neck – and on Casca’s, once she inadvertently escapes from the safety of an enchanted cave. His search for her leads him to a refugee settlement surrounding the Tower of Conviction, where he is frequently thwarted by Mozgus, the Chief Inquisitor of the Holy See, and not really thwarted by Farnese de Vandimion of the Holy Iron Chain Knights, though she tries, bless her heart.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Berserk is absolutely an adult anime. There’s blood and gore galore, grotesque and disturbing situations, and thoroughly creepy character designs, though the much-needed comic relief of the fairy Puck serves to alleviate some of this.
However, it’s also a fantastic medieval horror fantasy based upon what is possibly the best dark fantasy manga out there, and the strength of its characters and story is what keeps it from descending into torture porn.
Content aside, the first thing you should know about this Berserk series is that it seems to be made for existing Berserk fans, more so than newbies. Though the plot will make sense with minimal context, you absolutely need to have read the Golden Age arc in the manga or watched the 1997 TV series to appreciate the emotional baggage behind what goes on, especially regarding former-bro-now-evil-god Griffith, who is a likable, even admirable character in the Golden Age (until he’s not), and Casca, who is one of the best female characters in anime (until she loses her mind). I leave the movies out because, though they cover the same material, and though they’re entertaining, they aren’t so good at establishing the necessary emotional connections.
Once you know what you’re starting, you’re in for a pretty solid series. The pacing is good, and though some features of the story are exaggerated – pretty much every scene with Guts and that person-sized metal bludgeon he calls a sword; Mozgus; the horror elements in general – the story itself stays grounded with relatable side characters, in particular a group of prostitutes who take in the lost Casca:
Luca is a motherly figure who just wants to keep her girls safe; Nina is well-meaning but also abundantly terrified by their situation, enough that she frequently flip-flops between loyalty to her friends and a sense of sheer panicked self-preservation (so, the most realistic character in this series). Outside of that group, Farnese is a flagellant who punishes herself for not living up to her position as leader of the Holy Iron Chain Knights, even as she struggles with the perceived rightness of the Holy See’s actions; and Jerome is a soldier who’s just tired of this sh*t but can’t say anything because really who’s going to challenge this guy?
Still, if there weren’t characters like Guts to make this face back at Mozgus every once in a while, Berserk wouldn’t have a story – just pages and pages of carnage:
Arguably, Guts is the weakest character in terms of development. He literally has about three expressions, which are angry, Resting Badass Face, and the iconic Berserk Grin above. It’s not that he isn’t a complex character. He is. It’s just that all his development happened in the previous arc, and with that out of the way – not to mention all the trauma he met at the hands of Griffith – all his personality has room to do is care for Casca and kill demons.
Likewise, the series’ antagonist is not very complex, either. Mozgus thinks he’s a good guy but he also keeps a lavish, bloody torture chamber and carries portable breaking wheels on his carriage in case he has to whip them out on the road. (You never know when you’ll have to do an impromptu holy scourging!) There are moments where he seems merciful, but nah, it’s a trap.
Nothing in this series is good without 1) being a trap or 2) dying fast.
So far so good, but if anything in this series has been a point of contention for fans, it’s the animation. The movies’ blend of 2D and cel-shaded 3D was controversial when they released, and this series’ blend was no less so, largely because Berserk has a rough art style that suits its content, and you can’t achieve the same effect with CG (or at least the movies didn’t). Though the CG in the movies wasn’t necessarily bad, it was still robotic and clean enough to be distracting.
This is still true of the 2016 series. However, it’s not quite as bad here, the reasons being that the series does a vastly better job of capturing the roughness of the manga’s art, and also that most of the series is CG, as opposed to the movies, which were roughly equal parts both. In fact, in this case, the hand drawn parts are the ones that stand out as inconsistent and strange.
Could the animation have been better? Yes. I’d have loved to see a fully hand-drawn Berserk series rendered with today’s animation technology. But given the complexity of the armor designs and the comparatively narrower audience to which a series as mature as Berserk appeals, hand drawn – i.e. more expensive – animation would likely not have been an economical choice.
Plus, the animation in the original Berserk anime was awful and it still made fans of us.
At this point we anime fans have just grown spoiled on a glut of really awesome animation, and frankly I’m so glad that the series even exists that the animation is only a minor bummer for me.
All in all, this year’s Berserk series is worthy of fans’ anticipation. If you can get past the animation (for fans), know the preceding story, and if you can stomach all the grotesquerie (for new watchers), it’s twelve episodes of time well spent.
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