Episodes: 1-25 (complete)
Genre: Dark Fantasy, War, Horror
(Note: this review was written more than 10 years ago)
For all intents and purposes, Berserk is an excellent and action-packed anime series that I would – under normal circumstances – recommend to anyone who enjoys the medium in the slightest. With the special case of Berserk however, the ending is so excruciatingly painful, so emotionally powerful, so agonizingly incomplete, that I cannot in good conscience do so without some warning.
As with the majority of anime series in Japan, Berserk is based off of a large collection of manga. Anime based on manga tend to go down either one of two routes: supplemental or summary. Supplemental anime will offer side adventures or alternate scenarios featuring established characters and settings. Summary anime on the other hand simply bring the manga story itself to life, offering fans the chance to see their favorite characters in motion. Berserk is a summary anime detailing the adventures of Gatts, the Black Swordsman, through the first half of the manga series penned by the extremely talented Kentarou Miura. Having read all of the currently released manga (albeit only after seeing the series), I can say that Berserk the anime faithfully recreates the manga pretty well, sacrificing only a few scenes and minor characters for the sake of pace (one such character omitted was Puk, a fairy elf that was the only real source of comic relief). Overall, the anime covers volumes 4-13 of the currently 22 volume manga, with more still being released.
The problem with Berserk as a summary anime however, stems from the fact that it does not finish what it begins. The first episode starts by showing us Gatts – the battle-hardened warrior in a black cloak wielding a sword which is almost too big to be believed. Gatts is reserved, yet powerful, and his actions throughout this episode give us a glimpse into what sort of tortured and scarred person he is. It is clear that he is hunting – or perhaps being hunted – by demons and other such supernatural phenomenon, just as it is clear that he is more than experienced in handling himself in battle with such enemies. After this introduction, the plot immediately jumps back 10 years, to a time when the story of Gatts was just beginning. As the story progresses you encounter the personable Band of the Hawk and their charismatic leader, Griffith. The tone stays fairly dark and serious with only isolated incidents of comic relief, and remains intriguing by virtue of the extremely likable characters and gruesome battle scenes. The anime firmly grabs you about halfway through the series and leads you on an emotional ride unseen since Evangelion, and unmatched until Cowboy Bebop.
To your everlasting torment however, the series ends on episode 25. This episode represents the final climax of the entire series and the single biggest incident responsible for making Gatts as he appears in the first episode. While ending the anime in this manner could be viewed as a final “clever” plot twist, it is so poorly handled that I am surprised first-time director Naohito Takahashi allowed it. Between the emotions you feel for the characters by the end of the anime and the extreme situation they face in the last episode, you will obviously be on the very edge of your seat and waiting with bated breath. “How will Gatts get through this?” “What the hell is actually going on?” Your mind will be racing, your pulse will quicken, and your eyes widen as you realize that the final minutes of the episode are quickly approaching, and then… credits. The climax is interrupted in mid completion by the ever grating ending song, and you are left wondering how the story will resolve. The story doesn’t resolve. It can be inferred what happens at the end or what has to happen, but the actual conclusion of the climax lies in the non-existent 26th episode. The fact that Takahashi intentionally allowed this to happen does not bode well for his future career.
Typically, a disjointed ending such as the one offered in Berserk would be enough for me to despise the series altogether and thus refrain from recommending it to anyone. In some ways, that would be worse than what the director did as the quality of Berserk’s characters and themes really need to speak for themselves. Gatts, the series’ protagonist, seems cliché at first – some token anti-hero inserted to move the story along. It does not take long before Gatts truly starts to show off the depth of his character though, from the rudimentary friendships he tries to make against the backdrop of a brutal and senseless war, to the abyss of absolute horror he was forced to crawl out of to survive his past and move forward with his present. Griffith, the leader of the Band of the Hawk, is as alluring as he is cold and calculating. His singular devotion to his dream both inspires one’s envy and incites one’s rage. Caska, the strong female lieutenant, proves to be anything but the typical anime love interest. Her interaction between Gatts, Griffith, and the rest of the secondary characters adds a layer of humanity to the otherwise extremely bloody and impersonal encounters. While primarily an action-oriented anime, the deep and moving character interaction definitely steals the show in quick order. That the Band of the Hawk fought and won another gruesome battle becomes irrelevant as the show progresses; you really just want to know what Griffith’s plan is now, where Caska’s true loyalties lie, and how Gatts is going to react to the next major twist in the plot. This level of attachment to the characters is neither forced nor sudden but rather a gradual eventuality that anyone watching Berserk is going to be experiencing.
The soundtrack which accompanies this attachment to the characters is composed by Susumu Hirasawa, best known for his “against the flow” musical style. This sort of style is very well expressed in his first anime soundtrack, leaving one both surprised by the nice progressions in some of the songs and by terrible composition in others – a duality which sometimes occurs several times in the same song. Gatsu was pumped for the most mileage in the series, playing at least three times in every episode; the song itself is very good but the repetition is what drags it down a few notches. Murder, Earth, and Forces however, are otherwise beautiful pieces that seemed to be played only once or twice throughout the entire series, and could have lightened the load of Gatsu if but given the chance. In a bit of irony, the two vocal pieces which begin and end each episode – Tell Me Why and Waiting So Long – are the absolute worst songs in the entire series and also rank as some of the worst anime music I have ever heard, period. How much of this is due to Hirasawa’s intentionally abrasive musical flare, how much it is due to lack of experience with anime soundtracks, or how much is due the terrible vocalists remains to be seen – or heard, as the case may be.
What does this leave us with then? An anime worth a purchase? Worth a download? Despite the overall good quality of Berserk it nevertheless needs to be known that its success has very little to do with the first-time director Takahashi or first-time anime composer Hirasawa, and everything to do with the immense brilliance of Miura’s manga work from which it is based. The manga has some of the very best artwork, action scenes, and moments of pure, condensed humanity/inhumanity and moral angst I have ever encountered; while the anime may contain only a fraction of the same sort of quality, any fraction of the original is worth experiencing if reading the manga proves impossible. Berserk is unable to surpass Evangelion in emotion or Cowboy Bebop in style, but it remains a stylish emotional ride that is worth downloading or cheap purchase, most likely accompanied by a desperate attempt to read the manga after finishing the last episode.