Hello good people, and welcome to another of my popular (by some standards) FAQs! A note of caution: This contains spoilers, sort of but not really.
Q: Hooray! I’m back! So, what piece of fantasy fiction is being looked at today?
A: In honour of the movie series that is starting this year, I’m reviewing Berserk, a 25 episode dark fantasy anime based on a manga that-
Q: HOLD ON! Anime? Manga? What the hell? You review fantasy stuff, not giant robots fighting teenage girls in short skirts! What is the meaning of this?
A: Oh, my poor, deluded friend. There are Japanese comics and animated television shows of all genres, from crime drama to relationship comedies to sci-fi, horror, and yes, fantasy. Anime and manga are so diverse that it’s just plain ignorant to pretend that it’s just a handful of things. It would be like pretending that all live action American movies are Michael Bay-style action flicks or porn.
Q: Oh fine, I guess an anime fantasy story could be decent. So tell me about Berserk.
A: This is a show that is really, really dark and violent. Like, legitimately dark. A low fantasy epic for fans of Conan the Cimmerian who feel those stories aren’t gritty enough. It stars a big, sword wielding anti-hero named Guts, who-
Q: Wait, hold on…Guts? What the fuck is with that name?
A: It’s actually based on a real dude named Götz von Berlichingen, who, much like Guts, was a legendary warrior who had an advanced iron prosthetic hand…and a name that sounded like Guts. To be fair, manga-ka Miura Kentaro said he didn’t know about von Berlichingen before beginning the manga, but I’d say it’s far too big a coincidence to be a coincidence.
Q: Oh. OK then…continue.
A: Thank you. Anyway, Guts is a mercenary who lives in a country called Midland, loves fighting and risking his life above all things, and carries a gigantic sword. Morally, he’s actually kind of a type IV or maybe type V anti-hero. As a character, he’s similar to Conan, except somewhat less charismatic and a lot less lustful due to a childhood trauma.
Q: Oh great…childhood rape?
A: Yes and no. The manga tells us that Guts got molested, but the anime says nothing about that, while keeping Guts’ resultant hate of physical contact and other emotional issues. It sort of makes the aversion to physical contact nonsensical, though it doesn’t dismiss manga’s explanation of this either. But at least they explained why he has a sword that’s bigger than he is (he trained with adult swords as a child and as a result, he only felt comfortable with swords that are too big for him). Anyway, despite Guts’ nasty and anti-social disposition, his sheer bad-assery (including killing over 100 men in a single battle, while injured, while having no backup) and the morality that he does show makes him quite a likable character.
Q: OK, tell us about the other characters. Are they worth caring about?
A: Oh, definitely. Early on, Guts joins the mercenary Band of the Hawk. The group includes the least annoying child in animation (Ricket) a charming knife throwing teenager who used to be an actor (Judeau) a cynical bastard who I love to death (Corkus) and a quiet giant with a hobbit’s name (Pippin). It also includes a mighty warrior woman named Casca, who often straddles the line between excellent female role model and a weak woman with a sword. She’s my second favourite character in the series, despite her moments of weakness, which are mostly justified given her background. In fact, despite embarrassingly failing in combat due to her menstrual cycle, I’d say she’s one of the better female warriors, both in combat skill and characterization, in any media.
The Band of the Hawk is led by Griffith, who in many ways is the opposite of Guts: refined, cultured, handsome, completely unscarred, fleet-footed, small, slender, feminine…but like Guts, very strong willed and determined to succeed in fulfilling his dreams. Also, while Guts is a good guy under his thick layer of assholishness, Griffith is very evil, and uses his gentle nature to hide it rather convincingly.
The other characters are also fairly memorable, especially the hilarious ineffectual villain Adon, the mighty and oddly-named demon Nosferatu Zodd, and the transparently sleazy, obviously scheming Minister Foss. The series is great at making us care for the right characters and hate the right characters. So, the cast isn’t a problem.
Q: Is there a problem with the series?
A: Well, the story is pretty compelling, and the voice acting is top notch. And the soundtrack is plain awesome aside from the irksome “Engrish” of the opening and closing theme songs. However, the animation is spotty at times, and the tone makes this hard to handle for those with weak stomachs, what with the violence and sex (not always consensual). But the main issues are with the way the story is told.
Q: You like the story but dislike how it’s told?
A: Yes, in fact, this is a great example of how not to tell an otherwise excellent story.
Q: Do tell…
A: Certainly. The first major problem is the first episode. It follows the manga fairly accurately, except the adult content is toned down, if you can imagine that. However, the first episode and the end of the 25th are in the “present” and episodes 2-25 are a flashback. During that flashback, Griffith [spoiler alert but not really] turns evil and betrays all his friends. This is actually well done. He’s shown as a gracious and kind man, and the more we get to know him, the more we see how his ambition, and possibly the demonic behelit he wears innocently enough, has changed him. We get stories of how he saved a stranger from rape, how he tortured himself over the death of a young comrade, how he sacrificed himself to an old pervert to fund his army in order to minimize his soldiers’ deaths. Over the course of the war that he wages against the kingdom of Chudah on behalf of Midland, he grows more and more distant from the Band of the Hawk and closer to the Midland Royal Family, and eventually makes Guts as his own personal assassin…twice. Both of those could be considered going “too far” especially since he succeeds by kidnapping Minister Foss’ daughter to force him to betray his co-conspirators. However, that could also be called self defense since all targets conspired to do the same to Griffith. When Griffith is finally defeated, when he finally gives into despair and sacrifices his morality and betrays his friends for his dream, it is shocking yet believable. Shocking because up until then, he was still quite the sympathetic villain, believable because we were shown real villainous qualities and an overpowering ambition and dedication to the dream.
The problem is, within the first three minutes of the first episode, a character remarks how the whole country went to shit when Griffith became king, and at the end of the episode, Guts (now known as the Black Swordsman, to contrast Griffith’s title of the White Hawk) has a dream where he swears he’ll kill Griffith while cursing his name. In other words, they went through the trouble of constructing a gradual, believable betrayal that was a legitimately well-done twist, and then tacked on a big ol’ spoiler right at the front, destroying a lot of the surprise at Griffith’s heel turn. If they just took out the references to Griffith in the first episode, or made several more episodes of Guts’ adventures in the world where Griffith is king and demons regularly devour innocent people, to make the Golden Age arc a more legitimate prequel, this could have worked. As it is, the surprise is totally ruined by the first episode.
Q: OK, so that’s one. What are your other complaints?
A: The ending, or specifically, where in the story it ended. See, the manga continued on with the story after the end of the anime, and not only does it explain how our heroes survived the hopeless situation they were in (or so I’m told, I’ve not gotten that far in the manga yet) but Guts is able to get some level of revenge. And that’s what I wanted to see! That’s what I’m sure most of us wanted to see. But we were denied that in lieu of having the story leave off on the biggest downer note possible: the betrayal of nearly all the characters we’ve come to know and love right after a spot of hope, and then having the bad guys get away with it.
Q: …why did they do that?
A: That’s the third issue I had with the series. It was less a TV show than a 25 episode, 11-12 hour long advertisement for the manga. It adapted the most popular story arc, quit at the lowest point of the overall storyline with a bit of ending dialogue that suggests further adventures. They might as well have ended with Guts turning to the camera and saying “if you like what you’ve seen so far, buy our comics!” If you’re only telling the story primarily to sell another version of the story, then you really shouldn’t do it.
A: Yeah. It’s one thing to hope or expect that your book sales will increase as a result of a TV series, video game or movie, it’s another thing to only do that project to increase sales of the book, which I’m fairly certain is what happened. To be fair, that might be, and probably is, a cultural difference, but it still gets to me.
Q: OK, so you’re opposed to the purpose of the show, but do you recommend it?
A: Yes. Despite its issues, it is an excellent series because the good really does outweigh the bad by a lot. Fans of low fantasy, dark fantasy and medieval fiction in general should find this quite appealing. It should hold an especial appeal for Conan fans due to the many direct homages to the franchise.* I do feel, however, that it would be irresponsible to recommend this without a trigger warning.
Q: A what?
A: Some things in fiction can “trigger” peoples’ memories or urges. There are two such triggers in this series. There is one scene where Griffith tears his own flesh out of remorse for a dead comrade, which could trigger self injury in people who have that issue. More importantly, while the implied rape, attempted rape and the one on-screen (but mostly non-graphic) rape does help set the tone of the series and establish the scope of the evil that the villains are capable of, anyone who’s been a victim of sexual abuse should probably steer clear of this series, especially the end.
However, if you feel you’re capable of handling that, this is a mostly solid, well-told story. I give it 8 giant buster swords out of 10.
*For example: 1982’s Conan the Barbarian and the Berserk anime both begin with a legendary sword being forged, Conan’s Atlantean sword and Guts’ Dragonslayer, respectively. The 1982 movie has a scene where young Conan is chased by a pack of wolves right after leaving his surrogate father, young Guts similarly is chased by wolves after being forced to kill his surrogate father. In the Howard stories, Conan was born on a battlefield to a dying woman, Guts was born to a hanged woman at the site of a mass execution that followed a battle. The manga of Berserk begins with Guts shagging, then killing, a demon woman, a scene that was in the 1982 Conan movie and in at least one older Conan story. Also, Guts’ many scars, massive size and short black hair means he resembles Howard’s Conan much more than Arnold Swarzenegger or even Boris Vallejo’s paintings.