The most important thing about Advent is that it finally puts us in a position to begin seeing animated adaptations of the parts of Berserk we never did see before. It is the end of the beginning, and when seen in that light it is no less impressive — maybe even more so — than if we look at it as just a way to take the previous adaptation of Berserk and bring it up to date with better graphics and hardware. I had my objections to the way the new Berserk worked in contrast to the old — seeing this hasn't changed my opinion that the original TV series is one of the finest anime out there — but the new Berserk has done everything it must to become a worthy re-examination of the same source material.
This has been a tough series to be critical of, in part because it gets so many things right that complaining about the things it gets wrong — or at least does in a consciously different way from its predecessor TV series — seems unfair. But the differences do matter. They don't make the new Berserk less worthy than the original, but they do make it tough for anyone weaned on the original to watch the new one uncritically. I know full well some of this borne of my own attachment to the original, but at the same time there's no question some remakes far outstrip the original in many respects, both inside and outside of anime. What I've seen so far is more than enough for me to recommend, but always with the caveat: "And don't forget there's a TV series, too."
A love triangle in hell
Berserk's story, as told in the preceding two films, was at its core a love triangle of sorts, one set in a world that makes Game of Thrones look sunny and optimistic by contrast. Lone-wolf wandering swordsman Guts finds himself involved with the mercenary army the Band of the Hawk, commanded by the charismatic Griffith. Guts's headstrong ways make him both a valuable and controversial addition to the team: Griffith banks on the man's devil-may-care battle lust to get them through some tough spaces. This all comes much to the chagrin of Casca, the only female member of the Hawks, who finds her sympathies for and attractions to each man tested in different ways.
The second film ended with Griffith overstepping his newly-won adoration and seducing the king's daughter. For this he has been punished with unthinkable severity, reduced to little more than a living corpse. His allies rescue him, but they are too stupefied by what they find to figure out how to proceed: without Griffith, are they much of anything at all? Casca, for all her fire and steel, is still only so much the leader he was, but they look up to her all the same — and she, in turn, now finds herself turning to Guts for solace.
It's the supernatural turn of events in the second half of the film that will leave many people dazed, even if it's something that's been hinted at and built up to all throughout. Griffith has in his possession an artifact that allows him to become a godlike being, if he will only choose to sacrifice his comrades to a diabolical cadre of monsters. And when Griffith does in fact do this, we see that he is only being honest with himself: hasn't his whole life been paved across the backs of the uncountable dead? And so the second half of the film is one long, horrible endurance test — both for Guts and the audience — as all but a few are destroyed in a colossal intradimensional black sabbath, Guts is left maimed in body, and Casca mutilated in spirit. But somehow, through all of this, Guts's sheer will to live remains, and the last few moments of the film show him suiting up to do battle with fate and destiny themselves.
The beginning of the end, and the end of the beginning
In my previous essay about the old Berserk vs. the new, I cited a few specific things I thought the old one did better despite its relative crudeness. If anything, I thought, its crudeness actually worked in its favor: it doesn't make sense to tell a story this grim and emotionally merciless with too polished a set of visuals. The new Berserk is more than willing to wade hip-deep in blood, and to its credit Advent doesn't prettify such things, either intentionally or not. That said, Studio 4°C's animation is outstanding — it's still clearly a mixture of computer-assisted and hand-drawn work, but the mixture is by now seamless and undistracting enough that I wasn't spending my time mentally tallying which things were what.The films are also far more explicit than their TV counterparts; they show several sex scenes which were only implied before, although whether or not that's to the benefit of the whole is debatable.
But other things are still missing. The original Berserk touched on, if only in a bowdlerized way, Guts's brutal relationship with his childhood mentor Gambino. Here, that entire storyline is missing, despite it being a key part of Guts's personality (and, it has to be said, his ambivalent feelings about sexuality and violence, which are not touched on here at all). And the lack of Susumu Hirasawa's throbbing, primal, and most of all memorable score is another big minus: it's been replaced here with music that suits the material but somehow lacks its predecessor's commanding power. (Imagine Star Wars without its trademark fanfares; it's about as hollow.)
What the three films together do accomplish, though, is something I can't deny is hugely important. They pave the way towards a full and proper retelling of one of manga's — and now anime's — most ambitious creative projects. The ambition here isn't merely in the scope or length of the storytelling, but in its emotional resonance and even in its philosophical implications. Kentarō Miura has not merely been writing a "dark fantasy"; he's been asking the same kinds of questions about the silence of God and the redemptive power of love that Ingmar Bergman has throughout his own career. Not in remotely the same way, of course. But that's part of what's made Berserk so magnetic in whatever incarnation it's come to us in — this one included, artistic quibbles and all.