In the past month, I have experienced the events of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk’s most widely-adapted arc, “The Golden Age,” no less than four separate times through three entirely different adaptations of the series. You might ask, “hey Tofu, what the hell?”, to which I would also say, “yeah, I know, what the hell?” When it comes to media consumption, I’m not exactly a person who frequently revisits series that I love, and I don’t really fixate on thinking about them once I have finished them. I’ve watched what might arguably be my favorite anime, Yu Yu Hakusho, in its 112-episode entirety about three times, though each watchthrough was separated by a few years. I’ve done the same for Psycho-Pass, as well – many watches, but it’s a series that I come back to every now and then. For these and some of my other favorite series, I have watched them, loved them, and been satisfied with simply the experience of doing so. But, for some reason, Berserk is different. Ever since watching the 1997 anime adaptation a month ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and frankly, I doubt I will be able to any time soon.
Let’s just skip the preamble and get to the bottom line – Berserk is a masterpiece, and you owe it to yourself to experience the series for yourself.
To go back to my point above about having gone through The Golden Age four separate times, let me go ahead and quantify that real quick. The original manga, which ran in Monthly Animal House beginning in August of 1989, actually started with an entirely different storyline – the Black Swordsman arc. The Golden Age arc did not begin until August of 1991, two whole years after the manga began publication. Interestingly enough, the 1997 anime adaptation of Berserk, aside from the first episode in its 25-episode run, exclusively tells the story of “The Golden Age” arc. From 2012 through 2013, a trilogy of films called, aptly enough, Berserk: The Golden Age Arc, re-adapted the Golden Age arc of the series, as well. It wasn’t until 2016 that an adaptation of Berserk showed anything beyond the Golden Age arc, and, well…folks don’t really like to talk about Berserk 2016/2017 (we did get “Hai Yo” out of it, though, and it fucking slaps, so, silver linings!). With regards to my Golden Age arc watching, I watched the 1997 anime in about four days. Two days later, I went through it again with my partner in about three days’ time, and we then watched the entire film trilogy the day we finished watching the anime. And THEN, I proceeded to order all seven of the deluxe volumes of the manga that Dark Horse has published as of writing this and read through them voraciously.
So, uh, yeah. You could say that it kind of gripped me.
I could honestly talk about all of the adaptations for basically as long as you would want, but that would be a much, much longer post than this, and given that Backlog Busters are supposed to be a bit more on the brief and recommend-y side of things, I have to pare this down a bit. If you are at all interested in Berserk, then the best point of entry is going to be the 1997 anime. If you like what you see, then the films and the manga are pretty safe recommendations, as well. As such, that’s what we’ll be focusing on here.
The manga is really, really good, though, so you should definitely read it.
So, what is Berserk (1997), actually? If you ask the internet, much of it will probably tell you something along the lines of “haha big swordsman go brrrrr,” “ultra-violence,” or “pain,” and, to be fair, none of those would be an unfair assessment of the series. Berserk tells the story of Guts, a young orphan in a dark medieval-European-based world raised by mercenaries, who eventually becomes a mercenary himself. After becoming involved with the Band of the Hawk mercenaries, headed by their charismatic, ambitious young leader, Griffith, Guts comes to love, lose, and seek revenge for his found family, the man he called his friend, and his one great love. If that sounds pretty rough to you, it is – Berserk is not a series that you should expect good things to consistently happen in, and the 1997 anime adaptation is no different. (On that note, if things like sexual assault/violence, graphic gore, or other things of that nature trigger you, this is probably a series you are going to want to steer clear of.)
But with a premise like that, what makes it something that I want to dive back into, time and again? How is that not a grueling, painful experience to throw oneself against, seemingly for fun? The beauty of Berserk is ultimately how, even though it is primarily known for its gruesome violence and its reputation for being an extraordinarily rough watch, it tells such a hopeful, nuanced, and deeply human story, even in the midst of the deep despair it dives into.
Part of what makes this such a human story is the emotional core of Berserk – emotions and heartfelt feelings are paramount to the world, story, and characters in Berserk, which, again, is not something that you would likely get from just reading general discussion about the series on the net. This is, of course, intentional. There’s this interview from back in 2000 where Miura states that Berserk, “…has aspects to it that can be downright shojo mangaesque,” in that shojo series operate primarily on the idea that emotions come first, and logic comes second. Berserk is a story about chasing one’s dreams, finding and fighting for those you love, and looking and struggling for hope, even in the darkest of times. It is, in that sense, one of the most deeply human and emotion-forward shows I have watched in quite some time, and this can be seen with incredible clarity through Guts as the story’s protagonist. Were you to simply glance at Guts, you’d likely get the feeling that he’s a prototype for the anime boy with a big sword that so many series want their protagonists to be, and stylistically speaking, you may be right. He’s a big, strong dude with an even bigger sword that kicks ass. However, he’s also a character that experiences an incredible amount of growth. As a person whose childhood was rife with trauma of all kinds, the show sees Guts become a man that deeply cares for and loves his found family, the Band of the Hawk, and he is never afraid to openly express these feelings. He’s the definition of wearing your heart on your sleeve, and it makes everything that Guts does in his struggle for survival all the more raw and real.
Get yourself a boy who can look like a monster and be a big ‘ol sweetie.
That’s all well and good, but the human, emotional core of Berserk is still a product of the manga – what makes the 1997 anime adaptation, specifically, so great? For me, it comes down to three specific elements: the animation, the soundtrack, and the dub cast.
Let’s talk animation really quick. Berserk 1997 is not exactly the most, shall we say, animated anime, especially for its time. Wild shows like Revolutionary Girl Utena came out in 1997, and Cowboy Bebop came out a year after, both of which are flowing, fluid pieces of animation. Berserk, by comparison, is not so much. The most obvious things one might see from that are the show’s fairly consistent use of still frames and its fairly simplistic fight choreography. Despite all of that, however, Berserk really manages to use these to its advantage. Like Miura’s own work in the Berserk manga, the anime consistently features these gorgeous fore and background illustrations, which range from incredibly detailed landscapes to gorgeous, dreamlike views that almost feel as though the cast is walking through a watercolor painting. When you couple these backgrounds with pared-down character animation and some of the more heartfelt moments of the series, it makes for some genuinely breathtaking, “I’ll-never-forget-this” kind of moments in watching it.
Those sorts of scenes, however, would not be anywhere close to as powerful as they are without the musical genius of Susumu Hirasawa to back them. Hirasawa provides a soundtrack for the show that is, in a word, iconic. They range from blood-pumping electronic pieces like “Forces” to the dreamlike, hit-you-where-it-hurts “Gatsu,” and when you layer these on top of essentially any scene in the show, it makes an already compelling and moving story even more so.
This last bit is just personal preference, but I just would not feel right in recommending this show without recommending watching the dub. The dub cast really nails the feel of each and every character in the show, and, really, the feel of Berserk, itself. The way that Marc Diraison can deliver Guts’ small, quiet musings with the same intensity and energy as his blood-curdling screams; how Kevin Collins is able to bring out both the childlike and the deeply malicious aspects of Griffith; and how Carrie Keranen is able to communicate Casca’s strength as a leader and her own resentment and self-doubt; all of these characters and more are brought to an incredible realization through the dub cast, and I genuinely can’t imagine watching the show any other way.
One of these two did everything wrong, and by the end of the series, you’ll know who!
I think that, if anything, the biggest takeaway here is that the 1997 Berserk (and, really, Berserk as a whole) was not at all what I expected it to be, and I am delighted for that. Even as I write this, I still imagine some of the highest and lowest moments, the emotional cores of this show, and I find myself wanting to throw myself back into its world yet again. I love these characters. I ache for them as they grow, and love, and suffer, and struggle, and hope. And if any of this at all has sounded even remotely interesting to you, I urge you to take the plunge.