Berserk: The Golden Age Trilogy Review

Though hampered by its insufficient length and lacking build up in many areas, Studio 4C’s efforts on this adaptation of the Berserk Golden Age arc showcase many instances of tight directing, strong emotional execution and the forbidding atmosphere and tragic undertones to even the lighter moments that made its source material so great.

Plot Synopsis: Guts was a man who was rescued from the womb of his mother, who had inconveniently been hung to a tree, by a group of mercenaries. After his adopters tried to kill him, he went from mercenary group to mercenary group, using his superhuman strength to win fame, though never having any great ambitions beyond that. However, upon losing to silver tongued philosopher Griffith, he joins the Band of the Hawk and discovers more about himself amid the backdrop of a 100 year war. But the hand of fate rears its head, and catastrophe only edges closer.

In terms of pacing and development, the first Berserk movie is average at best. It starts out on a fairly strong note, with Guts lighting up the screen with his animalistic ferocity and powerful sword skills. It also does a great job with Casca, showing her rank, attitude and alluding to her history quite well, introduced the dynamics between the central cast and, most importantly, it sets the tone very well. Griffith is as simultaneously likable and threatening as he should be, and the first fight between him and Guts is nothing short of stunning in both visual and emotional presentation.

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However, this powerful introduction is squandered by an out of place time skip that, though justifiable as a method of dashing to the Zodd fight, prevents the audience from developing deeper connections with the band of the hawk. Everyone feels the same, and even the characters themselves seem aware how wasteful this skip was, as they nearly break the 4th wall in stating their disbelief that such time has passed so quickly. To make matters worse, when Casca and Guts get into a disagreement about the responsibility of the latter, the viewer has no frame of reference to agree or disagree with either of them, and consequently their argument carries little weight. It seemed as though the writers wanted Guts’s familiarity with the Band of the Hawk to be greater, but keep everything else the same. However, this is a considerable misfire from a structural standpoint, particularly given how we aren’t shown what the Band can do, but instead just told, a far less effective way of expressing information.

The remainder of the movie, namely the Zodd fight and Griffith’s assassination attempts, are handled quite well. The former is a spectacle both in production and characterisation, adding more layers to Griffith and foreshadowing future events very well. Though said foreshadowing is a tad blatant, Zodd was such a commanding presence and the whole event was played out so well that hiccups may be excused. The finale does an especially good job with Guts, showing he hasn’t sold his soul and implying horrible things about his childhood that bring forth a tormented and lost boy that was never allowed a safe haven. It’s depiction of Griffith’s distaste to the royalty born into power is palpable, as are his megalomaniac inclinations and lack of interest in viewing anyone as his equal; within a matter of 20 minutes, both Griffith and Guts are better realised, three dimensional characters. Thus the first movie ends on a poignant note, much to the Battle for Doldrey’s advantage.

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Structurally, the second movie is much tighter, with its narrative being divided into three easily noticeable acts. The first of these focuses on the growth of Guts and Casca, both individually and in their relationship. The scenes pretaining to Casca’s childhood and even Guts’ adds a lot to their characters, even going so far as to make them sympathetic despite their horrific actions. Sadly, the trilogy’s most obvious fault in presentation becomes more prevalent (which will be addressed later), greatly diminishing the immersion in what are supposed to be ground-breaking battles. However, the use of CGI allow a number of great angles, and the amount of movement and even weight to the action makes the first third of the film end in the strongest action scene in the series. The middle of the movie, however, is quite meager in comparison, with the most important plot-related scenes being cut out of the movie. Sure, Casca and Guts both win major victories, but in comparison to earlier fights these seem comparatively underwhelming. Griffith is great, his strong strategic skills and cold obsession with power are even more potent here, as he steps over ever the strongest and noblest of men with ease, his glowing aura (and armour) engulfing the battlefield more then even Guts borderline demonic presence. Outside of that, the execution of what should be a huge battle is disappointing to say the least, with the plan succeeding with few hiccups and the what should have been an epic battle feeling like an epic cop out (heavily due to the lack of a very important scene from the original anime).

However, despite its considerable narrative shortcuts and even the removal of vital scenes for characterisation, the final third of Battle of Doldrey was executed brilliantly. It perfectly follows up the battle by having Guts (unknowingly) take away everything that Griffith built himself of, freeing himself from his ownership and having a woman who would not choose Griffith over everyone else. Griffith’s subsequent character degradation is heart-breaking, and the earlier parts gave him more than enough depth for these events to carry their intended impact. Like many good stories, it positions the lowest lows right after the highest highs, with the Band losing their status as heroes and becoming outlaws and their leader being detained by some of the most foul creatures to walk Midland.

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The final third of the second film sets the tone for the finale, which is by far the most stirring cinematic experience in recent anime film memory. Like the second movie, it has a clearly defined structure, though it commits entirely to making each third stand out as much as possible. It far exceeds the earlier movies thematically, viscerally and emotionally, and utilised the feature length format to depict the horrifying events in a way that the 1997 series and even the manga couldn’t match. Unlike the former movies, Descent (or Advent, which has slightly more censorship) takes every scene and executes it in a way that progresses both the characters and plot at a natural pace. The first third of the movie is quite excellent, drenched in atmosphere and showing one of the trilogy’s few completely 2D fight scenes, followed up with a very intimate confrontation between Guts and Casca and ending with foreboding foreshadowing. The second third focused more on the plot, and though things move quickly, they don’t feel too rushed, and the emotional impact regarding Griffith is still retained. In the build up to the climax, some particularly fine character building is done, and the lack of conflict in spite of the horrific circumstances both reflects character development and lulls the audience into a false sense of security.

The climax of Descent is what the entire trilogy had built towards, and despite the considerable structural problems leading up to it, the character motivations and development were competent, even excellent, enough that when the eclipse rolls around, it is every bit as horrifying as it should be. Not only is the editing tight and the larger-than-life events presented in a way that both their scope and humanity are palpable, and not only does it conclude the journey of most characters in a satisfying way, but it reveals layers of depth and harshness to Griffith that truly solidifies him as one of the greatest villains in all of anime. The physical, psychological and sexual massacre that ensues is not a mindless bloodbath, but rather a pay-off that was earned, and by no means inevitable, and subsequently is much more than just shock factor; every blood filled frame carries with it meaning and weight, making the eclipse scene a tour de force of execution and self-restraint.

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By the time the credits roll around, and the signature “Blood and Guts” song plays before a short clip alluding to the future and a statement that ‘This is only the beginning’, the series has likely successfully sold itself to any viewer to have finished the trilogy. All in all, the movies are a mix of outstanding, good and lackluster. The outstanding comes in the form of the central cast’s strong personalities, the (slightly insufficient) dialogue and the finale, while what’s simply good comes in the form of the visual and audio presentation, supporting cast and villains. Even though the pacing, politics, world building and some battles paled in comparison to that of the source material, the movies were very successful at retaining the atmosphere and emotionally charged thematic core of the Berserk manga, and that’s what’s most important in the end.

One of the main reasons these movies work is the main trio, both in their internal and interpersonal conflicts. Guts carries himself like a force of nature, ready to mow down anything that comes his way, though lacks the imagination or wisdom to pursue anything beyond battle with the toughest foes he can find. Casca is a woman respected by her subordinates for her strength and experience, though still feels shackled to her body and love for Griffith and maddened by how everyone around her evaluates her the Smurfette Principle. Griffith is a man who rose from humble beginnings, obsessing over his dream to rule over Midland and doing whatever it takes to do so, regardless of the harm he does to himself or others under him. They’re each flawed and complex individuals, though Griffith comes off the best in this trilogy.

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The trilogy exhibits considerable depth in Griffith, mostly through subtle implications and his deductions; he deduces that the King lusts over his own daughter, he deduces Guts’s lack of ambition and he deduces that Casca will follow him no matter what, and the trilogy paints these deductions in such a way that the audience can easily come to the same conclusions that he does. Much of his history is only hinted at, making him feel even more untouchable, though his implied prostitution to a king and the scars on his arms only serve to add intrigue. He’s not a psychopath, either, as he does show strong emotions, particularly in the second half of the trilogy. He values Guts, he values Casca, and he values all the members of the Band of the Hawk, though more as prized, precious possessions than human beings or equals. There are specific roles he wants them to fulfill, and knows that no amount of resources taken to help Guts can surpass what the brute may do in return. He views Casca as a woman, albeit one with outstanding combative prowess, though has charmed her so much that, though she knows and resents how she’s defined, she could never leave him. He does grow to view Guts as something more than a common mercenary, as is evidenced by how he asks, not orders, him to kill a nobleman, despite having soldiers like Judeau who are far stealthier. Griffith is a complex and conceited individual, and at his core deserving of loathing beyond measure, yet still retains some sympathetic characteristics that makes him engaging to follow, if not worth rooting for.

The protagonist, Guts, exudes a strong cinematic presence that few protagonists in anime are able to do, and this is while still being a very well developed and sympathetic. From the way in which he carries out risky, yet decisive moves, it’s clear that from a young age he must have been raised in environment where weakness of body or hesitation could cost one their life. Every ounce of his exorbitant physicality feels earned, and his nature as a man who can think  on his feet, though lacks Griffith’s contemplative depth, is brought into great light through the deliberate juxtaposition of the two men. At it’s core, the Berserk Golden Age Arc is the story of the rivalry between a brutish, yet ultimately good man against a silver tongued ambitious philosopher whose desires exceed his humanity. The former’s harshness and honesty compliments that latter’s deceptive charm and manipulativeness very effectively, and though the depth cannot be explored to its full potential in the time span of these three movies, which clock in at less than a cumulative 5 hours (not including credits), they are at the forefront of all the plot lines, where they belong. All that exists around them partially serves to contribute to this central thematic conflict, and whether in an action scene or dialogue, this rarely secondary. In some ways, by shedding the multitude of side-plots from the manga the focus on these two cinematic behemoths seemed even greater.

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The supporting characters all have their opportunity to shine as well. Zodd thunders over every opponent before him, palpable evil emanating from every pore of his skin. Judeau, Corkus and Ricket all feel like fully realised soldiers in spite of their short screen time, characterised in every action-packed or pathos-filed scene they appeared in from beginning to end. From Judeau’s level-headed sharpness and (heavily implied) love for Casca, Corkus’s bitterness to Guts and soulful weakness, Ricket’s feelings of inferiority and even Pippin’s few lines and expressions, the Band of the Hawk feel like a group of real people. The villains are also engaging, with the hilarious Coborlwitz and self-conscious yet forbidding royalty representing the worst of humanity. However, the elusive main antagonist is the most dubious of them all, casting a shadow over many major events so as to constantly remind the audience of its presence, though never overstaying its welcome in any given scene.

In spite of the horrific end that the Band were spiraling to from the beginning, there were several instances of genuine, tonally appropriate, banter between the characters. From Guts responding to the threat of forced oral sex with “She might bite something off.” to Casca’s glares at him for referring to her as a woman, the movies communicate a real sense of eventual trust between these two. This further helps to communicate the development of the comradery, and eventual love, between Casca and Guts, as the movies overcome the obstacle of length to create what very much looks and feels like a believable couple. The subtle character character development for Casca is also a nice touch, as she eventually acts against her realisation that she’s simply a willing pawn in Griffith’s game and that, even if she becomes a leader, there is no way that he will ever truly love her, not when he only needs to dangle the carrot so far and she’d do whatever he said. Consequently, this also serves to make the climax even worse for her than anyone else, as she loses everything she ever fought for.

Guts and Griffith develope in opposite directions, the former learning more about himself and desiring something greater than just war, and the latter not quite turning out to be the definitive alpha male that he always painted himself to be. The former’s is quite powerful, mostly coming to fruition in the second film, though the latter’s fall is downright heartbreaking, both in terms of how it affects him immediately and how it damages everyone around him. This central dichotomy is executed majestically, and only improves over time as more layers are added to the characters and more travesties unfold. However, there are some notable missed opportunities in this regard, as Guts’ decisions aren’t always entirely justified, with the information presented sometimes being so scant that it’s difficult to really imply anything. He repeatedly does things at exactly the worst/best moment, and consequently this does mean that some suspension of disbelief is required, though given that Berserk is a dark fantasy, this isn’t too unusual.

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The visual style of Berserk’s Golden Age Trilogy is both one of its most visible strengths and perhaps, outside of the dark and heavy thematic content, its biggest turn off. The character designs are very well done, with the androgynous, charming, threatening, calculating and contemplative philosopher Griffith in particular having a pitch perfect facial structure and body type. Guts also feels like he popped out of the manga, though he isn’t quite framed with the overwhelming bestiality that he was in the original series. Casca’s skin tone seems oddly inconsistent, changing a little too much in differently lit environments to be entirely believable, though her toned physique and deft motions in combat paint her as every inch the warrior she’s claimed to be.The armour is consistently detailed, in large part due to the series’s use of CGI, as are the weapons and set pieces. Backgrounds have above-average detail and the various demons and enemies are all have peculiar designs, with Skull Knight being the most outstanding in that regard.

Another area in which the trilogy excels is fluid and realistic animation in the more emotional moments. The sex scenes showcase some exceptionally intimate character animation, and the various expressions on Guts in moments of great importance are always seemingly given priority. In the final movie in particular, when 2D animation is more prevalent, the battles have more character, with the Guts and Silat fight standing out as one of the better animated fights of its year. However, in this odd, yet commendable, choice to prioritise the character driven moments over the action, many moments in the first two movies are subject to bland, lifeless and even ugly CGI during moments of high intensity. The 3D has some distinct advantages, mainly in allowing  smooth changes to the angle in any given shot. However, the jarring mix of beautiful 2D and turgid 3D breaks the immersion in what are, despite rather than as a result of the animation, tense moments. The second movie is particularly bad in this regard, with CGI making up the majority of the war scenes and the ball scene, which was supposed to show the Band at the peak of their careers, is one of the most outright ugly scenes of its kind in anime.

To the trilogy’s credit, it does improve the mixing as it goes along, with the second movie separating the 3D from the 2D and the third one, for the most part, perfecting the balance. Opting to use 2D animation for human faces and 3D when multiple bodies are needed, many great action sequences are created, though the less action-packed nature of the finale may have also been a factor. In fact, the 3D only added another unsettling layer to the demons, combining with the sickly purple lighting and very good effects work to produce a unique and effective backdrop for the trilogy’s greatest sequence.

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The OST for Berserk is much like the visuals as an experiment that mostly works, though on several occasions feels awkward and out of place. However, in contrast to the visual presentation, the handling of the music seemed to grow less potent as the trilogy went along. The high point would certainly have to be opening for each of the movies, “Aria”, composed by the esteemed Hirosawa Susumu (who composed many of Satoshi Kon’s movies and the original Berserk TV anime), displaying strong vocals bursting with character to powerful synthesised beats mixed with choirs chanting from the depths of the underworld. The first movie opts for a cloudy, yet forbidding tune during the earlier dialogue scenes, giving what seem like standard character interactions undertones of dread, adding a layer of meaning to them. It’s stellar composing in the subtle moments, however, isn’t quite replicated in the often melodramatic battles sequence scores. Regardless, the OST is certainly distinct, reminiscent of some of Star Wars and even Howard Shore’s work on several occasions, though the structure of the tracks doesn’t quite allow for a natural build up. Despite these hiccups, the soundtrack between the movies in nonetheless visceral and memorable, capturing both the “dark” and “fantasy” aspects of Berserk. In moments of calm, violins and flutes have a downward inflection, as though the strings and sound waves themselves are edging closer to the abyss. The most impressive track in this regard is “Des Liens Solides“, slipping in between mythical in a threatening and inviting way effortlessly.

However, the subtly powerful soft strings of Egg of the King were largely lost on favour of more bombastic, yet less distinctive war cries in Battle for Doldrey. Like the narrative, it does pick up in the final third, though it never quite hits the high notes of the first installment. Descent‘s OST does a good job in showcasing despair and raw drama, though lacks the sophistication to feel as effective in the emotionally hefty moments, with a couple of tracks in the climax bordering on dissonant. These aren’t really major faults, given how great everything else is, though they are enough to prevent this from rising to the level of its 1997 counterpart in the audio department.

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The sound design is superb in the quieter moments, with Griffith drawing his sword to a sharp ching and arrows penetrating the skin to a whistle, to the heavy blow of swords on armour and monsters. Descent shows off the widest range in sound effects, with Silat’s unique and deadly weapons making the most unorthodox, yet effectively intimidating, sounds in the trilogy. The eerie atmosphere of the eclipse is helped greatly by this, with flesh being torn and bones being crushed in close to every scene, though it did tend to undercut the (mixed) score. The audio aspect of Berserk may not be outstanding, though it’s certainly more than serviceable.

The English main cast from the original Berserk all returned, and have improved considerably on their delivery in comparison to the TV anime. Carrie Keranen was arguably the strongest in the original series performance-wise, and she’s just as good, if not slightly better, here. Marc Diraison continues to own the role of Guts, bringing to it a level of grit and violence that relative newcomer Japanese voice actor, Hiroaki Iwanaga, just was not able to compare to. The most improved voice actor, however, was Kevin Collins as Griffith, whose performance here catches ever emotional beat, turning from the weakest of the cast to maybe its most shining actor. The various supporting characters all serve their roles very well, thanks (presumably) in large part to fantastic ADR directing from Michael Sinterniklaas (who held the same position for the original series) and a story that warrants such powerhouse acting.

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The Berserk Movies may be rented or bought from Itunes, Google Play and Madman’s Youtube Page. All three installments have been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Madman.

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