“In this world… is the destiny of mankind controlled by some transcendental entity or law? Is it like the hand of god hovering above? At least it is true that man has no control… even over his own will…”
So began each episode of the 1997 anime series Berserk, the first adaptation of Kentaro Miura’s over 25 years strong “dark medieval fantasy” manga series, and when they say “dark fantasy”, they mean it. I used to tell people that I’d recommend Berserk to (usually people that would never watch anime or read manga under regular circumstances) that Berserk was like a cross between Lord of the Rings and Hellraiser, but nowadays I’d of course liken it more to Game of Thrones. Only instead of the threat of a supernatural army of ice zombies looming large over all the plotlines, here our heroes are endlessly besieged by unspeakably demonic hordes straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The slimy, multi limbed menace currently ravaging the countryside is led by a group that brings us back to Clive Barker’s indelible “demons to some, angels to others” (with some H.R. Giger influence thrown in, naturally) called the God Hand, whose newest member just happens to be main protagonist Guts’ old military commander, having sacrificed the lives of the rest of their comrades to obtain his newfound hellish immortality. Yeah, it’s pretty deep.
After the 90’s series, Miura continued to plug away at the manga while Berserk as an animated property lay dormant, despite a couple of decent videogame adaptations, with fans all the while clamoring for a “second season”. In 2012 their prayers were finally answered, though not exactly in the way they’d hoped, as a film trilogy retelling much of the events of the 1997 series was released, forgoing the earthy, rustic, hand drawn aesthetic of the original series for a somewhat misguided, almost too clean CGI cel-shaded look. Reaction to the trilogy was fair to mixed from both mainstream and more niche outlets but the budget videogame level visuals weren’t at the heart of most criticism, the majority of gripes were with the repetitive storytelling retreading the well-trod storytelling ground of the far from perfect but far superior ’97 series. Though a near pointless slog for those in the know, the films have come prove their worth in what’s finally here. July 1st saw the debut of a brand new episodic Berserk television series, at last adapting the aftermath of the God Hand massacre that closed both previous animated adaptations, offering a continuation nearly 20 years in the making to animation fans, and letting manga stalwarts finally see Guts’ most bloody and disturbing adventures come to life.
Lip service is paid to the eclipse ceremony, where Guts was branded and forced to continue life hounded by demons, alongside the state of the world post that tragedy and glimpses of young witch Schierke, and the Knights of the Holy Iron Chain in pursuit of the “Black Swordsman”, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, this episode really fuctions as a brief but blunt introduction to Muira’s dark ages hellscape and Guts as its most capable and reluctant avenger. The CGI of the film trilogy returns here but is given an extra bit of grit and shading similar to Miura’s signature linework. It still looks like a videogame but at least now it looks like a good one.The biggest story here for longtime fans is having comic relief fairy Puck integrated into an animated adaptation. Puck here is represented faithfully though nowhere near as goofily as say, in the Dreamcast game. Tonally his presence makes a lot more sense and it won’t completely take viewers (especially those previously unfamiliar with the character) out of the experience.
The CGI is nowhere near as awkward and misplaced as in the prior film trilogy, and actually really shines during the fast paced fight scenes.
Guts runs afoul of a mean spirited group of mercenaries in a tavern, the encounter crossing his path with both Puck and fellow manga favorite Ishidro, before he’s back on the road and in the company of an elderly traveler and his young daughter. Guts tells them of the “evil spirits” at his back but they fail to heed his warning, and before you know it the young daughter is run through with the spear of a vengeful skeleton soldier, before being possessed by the spirits herself and murdering her father for good measure. Guts’ dream sequence prior to the eruption of violence adheres to the hand drawn style of the prior series and it’s a welcome sight, but all gripes about the new animation melt away in the heat of warfare like so many broken bodies in the dragonslayer’s (that’s Guts’ giant sword, BTW) wake. Gut’s toothy in battle and the effects of his massive blade in action are again direct nods to Miura’s venerated art style and look absolutely beautiful in motion. The “clang” of Guts’ weapon against the bodies of the skeleton soldiers as well as the cacophony of his arm cannon at the business end of an unlucky tree demon are incredibly satisfying. Probably my most pleasant surprise here was the music, though not from previous series and game composer extraordinaire Susumu Hirasawa himself it adheres nicely to his “Trent Reznor meets Danny Elfman” aesthetic and is miles ahead of the generic orchestral stuff in the film trilogy, but the less said about the completely stock J-pop opening and ending themes the better, though we do get a brand new Hirasawa track to accompany the next episode teaser.
In the end Guts and Puck turn their backs to the carnage of the night before, Guts not blaming himself for the fate of the travelers that found their way into the crosshairs of the demons out for his blood, they were weak, and their failure to defend themselves sealed their fate in this new world. Guts and Puck then find themselves in the custody of the Knights of the Holy Iron Chain. This opening episode is a great primer for both old fans and new and shows a bright future for this IP in a geek landscape currently dominated by pitch black tales of the brutal middle ages in phenomena like the aforementioned Game of Thrones as well as the hugely popular Dark Souls games, whose director Hidetaka Miyazaki has no problem admitting that a huge influence on their blood strewn dark ages nightmare aesthetic, as well as that of sister series Bloodborne, was none other than Berserk. The mythos of Guts’ world will be a welcome addition to the pop culture landscape of sword and sorcery fans looking for something just a bit darker, and his nihilism continues to be a breath of fresh air in the world of your typical happy go lucky anime goofball protagonist, and we wouldn’t have him any other way. Welcome back, Guts.