As a *massive* fan of the Demon's Souls and Dark Souls video games, I've always been interested in Berserk. The ‘Souls series creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, has always stated that the manga and anime has been a huge influence on the aesthetic, themes and some of the monster, character and weapon designs of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and has always suggested series fans should check it out. It took me a long time, but last year when Dark Souls II was released, I discovered Berserk in a big way and, regardless of the 'Souls connection, it's become one of my favourite pieces of Japanese animation in a long time. Not only that, but the unique conditions by which you have to experience the story of Berserk in order to actually get it all has lead me to pick up the manga - something that very rarely happens with me, as I'm not usually a fan of comic books or graphic novels. In this article I'm going to try and explain why Berserk has captivated me so much and hopefully make you want to check it out yourself. This month is my “Month of ‘Souls” as well as the topic for the Band of Bloggers here on Destructoid, and I can think of no better time to discuss one of the most fascinating influences on the ‘Souls series.
Like a lot of people in the West, my first introduction to Berserk was through the 1996 anime television series, which is a full 26 episodes and basically covers the "Golden Age Arc" of the story with a smattering of "The Black Swordsman" at the beginning. Speaking of beginnings, Berserk has a particularly bad one unfortunately, as while I was lead to believe that this was a classic and amazing series (it is!), the first impression that I got was of a dude-bro throwback to 80's anime like Fist of the North Star. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it just wasn't what I was expecting from all the hype. It turns out that this first episode is a bit of an aberration, as it quickly changes gear and goes back to an earlier time period, which not only looks visually different but tonally is much more welcoming as an entry point for the series; lots of fans advise to skip the pilot and start on episode two and I totally agree.
From here on out we are quickly introduced to the main characters of the story, namely the central protagonist Guts with his gigantic sword, Casca a beautiful and exotic female warrior and Griffith, an effeminate but heroic leader. There are many other fantastic ancillary characters that make up 'The Band of the Hawk' but the main beats of the story concern these three central characters, their emotional past, and the epic journey that they embark on together. You see, they're all pulled together by Griffith's dream - that a man who started life in the gutter but who wants to inherit everything can do so as long as he believes in it wholeheartedly. 'The Band of the Hawk' is Griffith's own personal army that he intends to use to carve out a piece of the kingdom for himself, and when we initially meet him his plan is missing one important element, Guts, who is Griffith's equal in almost every way except for the drive and ambition - something that becomes a point of contention later on. The central themes of Berserk are unavoidable fate and living inside another person's dream. Early on, Guts is given a prophecy that "when [Griffith's] ambition crumbles it will be [Guts'] doom" and this dark premonition hangs over all the events that follow right up to its crushing nihilistic conclusion.
To say that the ending of "The Golden Age" story arc is tragic and dark is to do it a great disservice; it makes something like Game of Thrones looks like uplifting family entertainment. Aside from the story, the Berserk anime series is also infamous for having a VERY unfinished ending - while it is very true to the manga, it also makes no attempt to wrap anything up in its 26 episodes, and in fact ends DURING one of the most pivotal scenes in the story!! I really can't stress enough how disappointing you will be with where it all ends, as they basically just got to episode 26 and stopped, with no second series to carry the story onward. It’s testament to the strength of this anime series then, that despite this appalling ending, the series is still regarded as one of the best of all time. A product of its time, the animation from 1996 is not the best, especially nowadays where it really looks quite rough, but the artwork characters designs and style of the anime is fantastic. The sound design also needs a mention as, aside from truly awful opening and closing themes, the music used in the series is haunting and atmospheric to the extreme. But really, it is the characters and story that drive Berserk into the top ten lists for most people, there really isn't anything as complex and finely woven as this.
So, what happens after episode 26!? That is the first question any fan of the Berserk anime asks after watching the series for the first time as you simply need to know what happens. Of course, you can find out by picking up the manga, and that's exactly what I did - or more precisely I picked up volume 13 of the manga, which is where the series ends (in the middle). Lots of Berserk fans would probably frown at this and tell you to start at the very beginning, but I really had no interest in reading past the "Golden Age" and just wanted to know what happens in the end. I had no idea how hooked I would get. Now, it’s worth mentioning that after watching Attack on Titan I was in a similar frame of mind, and only read far enough into the manga to get some much needed answers, and then felt satisfied. However, I'm actually still reading through Berserk and I'm loving every minute of it!
In a similar vein to the television series, the next arc of the story (after "The Golden Age") gets off to a bit of a ropey start, and I really wasn't expecting some of the goofball comedy from characters like Puck after the blacker-than-black events that had just transpired. Once you're past this small interlude though, the story starts to pick up again, oozing the dark fantasy and ultra-violent vibe of the series once more. Not being too much of a comic book fan, I've been continually blown away by the art style of Berserk, I just think the way that the panels are presented is often very dynamic and also the artwork itself (as hopefully these couple of screens demonstrate) is excellent; very dark and visceral. The story is going from strength to strength and hopefully there is loads more still to go – as of writing this all Berserk fans are still waiting for the author to come off hiatus and write more episodes. It's hard reviewing what is still an ongoing thing, and maybe at some point I will return and offer a final verdict, but as for now I can say that Berserk is a rival to grand fantasy epics like A Song of Ice and Fire. I love it.
There is however another way to experience the full Berserk "Golden Age" story arc, besides watching the television series and reading the manga, (which you should still do) and that is to instead watch the new trilogy of films released over the last couple of years. The aim here was to completely reboot the story of Berserk in anime, starting with a trilogy of films to quickly cover already familiar material (to anyone who watched the original series) and then follow up with a new series to continue the story in line with the manga. Interestingly, the last film The Advent also offers a good replacement end for the anime television series all by itself - but my recommended way to absorb this story would be to watch the original series first, then watch all three films back-to-back afterwards, and I'll try and explain why.
Basically the first two films, Egg of the King and Battle for Doldrey, cover the same storyline as the original anime series but much more abridged from the original manga, with lots of ancillary characters missing, and superfluous scenes removed. Of course, this means that in terms of story and character development, it is the weakest incarnation of Berserk, which is why most people recommend the series first. But, the films give Berserk something that it's never really had before - a truly *epic* scale. Right from the get-go, Egg of the King is massive in scope, as thousands of armoured knights assault a castle with siege engines, leading into the scene with Guts fighting Bazuso. This sense of grandeur is echoed across all three films, with perhaps its pinnacle being the Battle for Doldrey itself, and really gives the world and the military struggles that provide the background framework for the story a much needed boost in terms of production values and richness of vision. Action packed sequences that were always roughly handled in the television series are given new visceral life here, with some astounding high definition cell-shaded graphics, and lashings of gore!
For the first time in an anime form, Berserk is finally given a full and proper ending treatment, and an absolute adaptation of the infamous "eclipse" sequence from manga volumes 13 and 14; as promised it is hellish and uncomfortable to watch and utterly unforgettable. While some of the emotional punch is diluted from the original series, due to the characters not being fleshed out a much, the pure horror onscreen is handled masterfully and really hammers home the benefits of a full film budget and modern technology. Music in all three films is also very epic and grandiose, with huge sweeping orchestral scores permeating throughout and some odd uncomfortable pieces of music for the supernatural elements towards the end. While I don't consider the films to be as good as the television series (if you had to pick one then see that instead), I do consider them to be a very worthwhile and almost-essential accompaniment that fleshes out many battle and action scenes. Just be warned, that the films do not pull any punches where nudity, sex and violence are concerned.
To conclude then, I think that Berserk is very unique in many ways, not only in terms of subject matter, characters and storyline, but also in how it is consumed as a piece of media. To get the full rich tapestry on offer, you effectively need to watch a television series, three films and then read a massive series of comic books! Is it worth it? At this point, I consider Berserk to be one of the very best stories I've ever experienced, especially the "Golden Age" arc, which is what most of this article is based upon. If you want to know more about how this wonderful series has influenced the ‘Souls series I suggest you watch this YouTube video.