Berserk (1997) covers the beloved Golden Age arc from the original manga of the same name and condenses it down to 25 animated episodes. At the risk of ticking off diehard Berserk fans, I’m taking a stance here and saying I much prefer the anime to the manga. There are great things about the manga, mostly the fantastic black and white art by Kentaro Miura (RIP), but the manga indulges in tangents and volume long fights that bog down the core story. The anime does a much better job of hitting the same dramatic beats without indulging in fights than can take over 100 pages to resolve.
Before diverging, let’s start with the commonality: both cover the story of Guts (Nobutoshi Canna), a mercenary for hire in a fictional medieval era land. Guts crosses paths with Griffith (Toshiyuki Morikawa), the leader of Band of the Hawks, a striking man of vision with great charisma. Guts joins the Hawks, butting heads with female commander Casca (Yûko Miyamura), one of the leaders of the group who believes Griffith’s affection for Guts puts both Griffith and the Band of Hawks at risk.
Both stories work because of the strong personalities and a world that eases you into the fantasy elements. By the end of this story, the nature of who is being fought and what the stakes are is on a whole different plane of understanding and existence than the opening episodes. The deeper you go into Berserk the more you realize that this world is working on so many levels beyond the perspective of any one character.
It’s also compelling because Guts is, to a large extent, fascinating in spite of what initially appear to be stereotypical traits of male bravado. He’s prone to outburst of anger, he’s often needlessly cruel towards people close to him, he has a complete disregard for his own safety and time and again breaks rank and custom on a whim. And yet there’s a fierce loyalty to him, like a mad dog who only is loyal to one man, that makes Guts fascinating to watch. But he doesn’t stay in that place. By the time the arc ends, Guts has evolved.
Griffith is equally compelling, although for entirely different reasons given that he’s the soft-spoken, emotionless, and calculated of the two. He leads with an air of control, sometimes of seeming indifference, but always with a pinpoint sense of purpose and control. He’s that guy who doesn’t even have to try to be cool but is also so single-mindedly driven to one thing that he honestly does not care about the many distractions that would waylay a less focused person. His dream and vision provides direction and purpose to people who otherwise feel lost in a world that makes little sense.
Rounding out the leads is Casca and this is the character that gets into the nasty parts of Berserk. There’s no beating around the bush here: Berserk is a manga and anime written by a man and made for men. While Miura did an admirable job at making Casca a compelling character in her own right, probably the most complex of the three leads as she is constantly at odds with her love of Griffth, disdain for Guts, sense of professionalism towards being a commander, and general anger at being slighted as both a soldier and a woman, she’s ultimately reduced to being a woman first and foremost in all the places where it matters.
One key plot point that drives a multi-episode arc of the show is the fact she is too weak to fight because she gets her period. And the final treatment of her character in the last episode is just downright heinous, although I will say that I think the manga is worse on both of these fronts, especially because the anime severely tones down the length it spends on depicting women getting raped.
Whether or not you feel like you can stomach that will probably be a good gauge as to whether or not Berserk is something for you. I’m conflicted because there’s a lot to love here but I just for the life of me wish that Miura had found a way to not pull a classic woman in the refrigerator move for a character I had come to like as much as Casca. It might legitimately be the only thing holding me back from calling Berserk great.
This is not to say that there aren’t other flaws. While I generally like the style and palette of the animation, some might find the colorized version of this sacreligious given Miura’s strong black and white work. The show occasionally tries to mimic the style with these freeze frames it uses to intensify moments of action but they come across as tonally jarring.
Also, like a lot of anime, when it comes to certain sequences of scale or scope the frames are either panned stills or generic shots that find lazy ways to animate as little as possible. I understand that animation is an expensive process and that especially in the 90s cranking out tons of shows like this meant that you had to employ time-saving techniques, but there are more and more moments as the show goes on where it feels like the quality of the animation takes a hit.
That being said, they do pull out all the stops for the final two episodes which honestly make for a fantastic set of some of the most deliciously hellish and bizarre stuff committed to celluloid. It was bonkers when Miura drew it and I think this rendition might even be more effective. It’s an iconic conclusion to this arc and one that pretty solidified Berserk as a story people will be talking about for years to come.
And as much as I hate to circle back to it, I think the tough question becomes, is Berserk something I can recommend to people in spite of how it horrifically exploits its female lead character by the end of the story? I wish I had an easy answer for this. I think the anime version is much more palatable than the manga for a number of reasons, one of which is that Miura seems to spend way too much time drawing in detail far more than what he needs to show to convey the point.
It’s complicated because I don’t think at any point the show is trying to condone the behavior and I understand that to a large extent the moment is more about Griffith and Guts than it is about Casca, which is exactly the problem. Casca goes from a character of great agency to essentially a plot device to further the story of men and there are so many shows out there where I don’t have to dedicate multiple paragraphs working out whether or not I can recommend a show because of that.
With that in mind I think I will leave it at this. I’d recommend this show if you are interested in either the history of anime or Berserk as a cultural artifact. If you want to watch a compelling fantasy epic, I think you need to seek stories that do better by women. I honestly haven’t watched a lot of fantasy anime so I’m not sure what those are but there are plenty of female led fantasy books out there that I think are much more worthy of your time and also much better than Berserk (The Mistborn trilogy is an easy pick that comes to mind).
It’s frustrating because I understand why people love Berserk. I want to be one of those people. I can see Berserk’s influences on Dark Souls which I love, but the regressive treatment of women is something that drags down and undercuts the story by the finale. There are better, more edifying worlds than don’t marginalize women in order to craft compelling stories and those are the ones I’m going to recommend people watch instead.
© James Blake Ewing 2021