A lone-wolf warrior, Guts, sells his sword—and, eventually, his soul—to Griffith, the charismatic leader of a freelance militia. Soon they clash over a fellow soldier, the beautiful and spirited Casca, and their struggle threatens to unleash a very literal hell on earth.
Kentaro Miura’s manga Berserk was published to great worldwide acclaim, but the TV series produced from it only adapts a small part of the story. This is the first in a projected series of theatrically-released anime productions designed to fix that problem, and while it doesn’t displace the original show it more than follows through on its promises.
- Spectacular animation courtesy of STUDIO 4°C.
- A powerful and compelling story, as per the manga that inspired it.
- Brutally violent, although not gratuitously so.
- Lacks Susumu Hirasawa's magnificent music that made the original series all the better.
- Director: Toshiyuki Kubooka
- Animation Studio: STUDIO 4°C
- Released By: Warner Brothers Japan
- Released Domestically By: VIZ Media
- Audio: English / Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-MA (violence, blood, thematic material)
- List Price: $24.98 (Blu-ray), $19.98 (DVD)
An epic makeover for an epic story
When the original animated series of Berserk appeared in 1998, it sent two shock waves through its audience. The first was the general level of praise and appreciation for the show, which did an excellent job of translating Kentaro Miura’s violent, unforgiving, but also magnetic and fascinating story to the screen.
The second shock wave was over the show’s ending, which stops abruptly after a major plot point in the original story and leaves things hanging, to put it mildly. It was a clear invitation to create a second season of the show, but a good decade or more passed with no word about a possible follow-up.
Then in 2009, word began to circulate about a new animation project, based on a series of screenshots allegedly leaked from within animation company Studio 4°C. A year later the rumors were made official: a new animation project was on the way—not a TV series, but a series of theatrical films designed to retell the entire story of the manga from the beginning. Fans of the show were at least as excited as Evangelion fans had been about Rebuild of Evangelion.
Now the first of these films, Berserk: The Golden Age Arc 1: The Egg of the King, has finally been released for English-speaking audiences. It’s hard to say it will eclipse or displace the original animated series, which for all its shortcomings (relatively crude animation, abrupt ending, etc.) was still incredibly compelling. But so far, for what it is, the new Berserk is deeply impressive. Think of it as a parallel product, not a replacement—the way Rebuild was meant to flank the original Evangelion rather than bump it off the stage.
A violent story in violent times
What’s most crucial is how the one part of Berserk that remains the most vital, its story, has been left unchanged and kept respected. It’s set in “Midland”, a war-torn place reminiscent of Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, where Midland’s king and armies struggle to repel invasions by the neighboring Chuder (“Tudor” in some translations, which hints all the more at Miura’s close readings of history for inspiration).
Midland would be all but lost if it weren’t for their use of mercenary armies to turn the tide of battle—specifically, the Band of the Hawks, a mercenary band of such ferocity that just the mention of their name is a deterrent. Their leader, the ambitious (and deceptively effeminate) Griffith, has dreams of using his prestige to climb out of the ghetto of commoner-hood and to become the ruler of his own land.
During the battle that opens the film—the battle sequences, by the way, are phenomenally well-staged and animated—his attention is drawn to a young brute of a fighter, another solo mercenary not in their party. His name is Guts (possibly Götz, if you go by the setting’s vaguely Germanic flavor), and he has no interest in joining a mercenary band. He’s both bullheaded and hotheaded, and we intuit that his loner’s streak is a way to keep other people away so he doesn’t develop an excuse to kill them and thus create more problems than he already has.
Unlikely heroes, unlikelier comrades
Griffith is fascinated by this blunt young man, and after defeating him in a duel (another magnificently-staged sequence), takes him under his wing. To his own surprise, Guts becomes a very capable member of the Hawks, but his presence inspires no end of tensions behind the scenes. Most of that tension comes courtesy of Casca, the only female member of the Hawks, and one more than capable of holding her own against any of them. She follows Griffith’s orders without question, even when they include things like stripping naked to keep Guts warm when he’s chilled by blood loss. Guts is livid when he finds out about this; Casca’s response is to punch him right in his freshly-bandaged wound.
At first Casca’s attitude for Guts is easy: she hates him. But over time her anger slowly mutates from simple distaste into dismay: even after years in their company, she tells him, he’s still running off like a hothead and putting them all at risk. This is pushed to the surface during a battle with a legendarily fearsome enemy, the gargantuan Nosferatu Zodd, during which both Guts and Griffith are almost killed … and where Guts receives his first hints of something truly awful lurking under the skin of his friend.
Some hints of this have already surfaced. Griffith carries with him a mystical artifact, “The Egg of the King”, receptacle of powers so unholy that it even scares Zodd off. Neither Griffith nor Guts know what the Egg truly is, but plenty of evidence exists Griffith hardly needs anything that unclean to be just as diabolical as Zodd in his own way. When targeted for assassination by a jealous court official, he sends Guts in to return the favor—not as a warrior, but as an assassin—only to have that unleash a chain of events unforeseen by all of them.