Strange how one of anime's most troubling failures is also, with no contradiction, one of anime's most stimulating successes. Berserk, the TV series, is only a failure in that it is incomplete logistically: it covers only a fraction of the story laid down by its source material, and it ends with the infuriating abruptness only possible to a show that still had so much more territory to cover. But within that space it accomplishes so much, and in such a powerful way, that I'm prepared to forgive most anything. The largest reason why Berserk works so well is because does the one thing I almost never see in epic fantasy: It takes seriously the full, and ghastly, implications of its setting and story.
Even The Lord of the Rings, for all of its scope and careful detail, feels too much like a fairy-tale for the darker elements of the story to have any gravity. Berserk is as blood-spattered, violent, and grim as a tale deserves to be when it is set in an era of feudal warfare. It knows that life in such a time is, to quote Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short; that men will do anything in their power to live a little longer than the opposition; that history is written by victors and studied by everyone else; and that our world is built thanks to the millions of dead who came before. Unlike the thematically-similar Game of Thrones, though, Berserk tells a far tighter, more focused story, and one where we're not made to feel foolish for having emotional investments in a given character.
It’s also an incredibly exhilarating show, even when it's telling us a story that should inspire grim reflection, not exhilaration. Granted, it’s hard to make any movie about war — whether it’s the Vietnam War or a wholly fantastic conflict — without making it entertaining, and thereby making war itself seem like fun. François Truffaut pointed this out time and again, which was probably a big part of the reason the anti-war Johnny Got his Gun was one of his favorite films. Berserk makes war seem exciting, but also never shies from the fact that (as Barrows Dunham put it) in war one’s lands are devastated, one’s friends get killed, ones family gets killed, and you get killed yourself. So what kind of man would possibly want to make a living out of it?
The business and pleasure of war
Rings had Middle-earth; Thrones had its Seven Kingdoms. Berserk gives us “Midland,” patterned vaguely after the Europe of the Thirty Years’ War. The armies of the King of Midland are locked in a difficult, grueling and fruitless war that has gone on for over a century with their neighboring country Chuder. The one thing that may tip the war’s balance is Midland’s employ of a group of mercenaries known as the Band of the Hawks — the “heroes” of the story, for lack of anyone more appropriate to put into that category. They do the closest thing to the right things most of the time, but we never lose sight of the fact that they are, essentially, killers for hire.
Key members of the Hawks come into view immediately. Chief among them is Guts (or “Gatsu”, as his name is sometimes translated), a giant wall of a man who wields a sword almost twice as tall as he is, was an orphan originally adopted into another mercenary band. Gambino, the leader of that group, was the only father he had ever known: abusive, tempestuous, resenting the boy’s need for attention. Readers of Richard Rhodes’s Why They Kill will recognize the “process of violentization” at work here: the young Guts is educated into violence as a way of life, as the only way of life, and the young man responds in kind. He slaughters his own adoptive father — even if only by accident — and wanders out into the world to sell his sword to whoever will have him. The younger members of the Hawks are also barely more than children, but deal out violence as adeptly as any adult, a nod to the notion that it was post-industrial society that probably created the whole idea of adolescence.
Guts wanders. He encounters another young man, Griffith, the leader of the then-fledgling Hawks, who with his flowing fair hair and effeminate features would hardly seem to pose much of a challenge. Griffith is an even better swordsman than Guts, matching the larger man’s brawn and raw power with elegance and cunning. These attributes inform more than just his own combat skills: Even at that early time the Hawks have a reputation for being virtually invincible, thanks to Griffith’s remarkable sense of tactics. Once Guts becomes part of his crew, Griffith uses him — sometimes subtly, sometimes not — to further hone the edge they have over their opponents. It is one of the story’s great ironies that for all of his keen insight into other people’s strategies, the one thing Griffith cannot see is the consequences of his own actions.
A third member of the Hawks becomes pivotal to the story: Casca, the only female soldier in the crew, whose heart becomes increasingly divided between her charismatic commander and this brooding new addition to the band. Her story parallels Guts in some ways. She was almost raped by a nobleman when she was a young girl, and Griffith saved her — not by killing the rapist, but by allowing her to do so, and then offering her the choice to come with him. Guts is distinctly uncomfortable around her, and not simply because she’s female (that would be too easy) but because he knows under the skin they are quite alike, and there is nothing more disorienting for a compulsive loner than to discover that he’s not that alone anymore.
In time, the Hawks help Midland win their war, and then the real ambitions of the story come into view: how all of this is simply a means to an end. It is not enough for Griffith to simply win in one part of his life; he must conquer everything. He and the Hawks are granted the status of noblemen, and with that he begins to engineer plans to displace the powers that be and replace them on his own. The other Hawks — especially Casca — are of mixed feelings about the whole thing, particularly since they are most familiar and comfortable with fighting, not politics. Then Griffith overplays his hand by attempting to seduce a princess, and the group is plunged into sufferings they could never have imagined.
Three hearts beat as one
The relationship between Guts, Griffith, and Casca dominates Berserk, and is depicted with great clarity and grace. There’s never a time when we don’t understand or empathize with everyone involved, and that is, I think, the key to the story’s success. We are not simply witnessing what happens; we are emotional participants in it, and there is something in each of the major characters for almost everyone watching to connect with. Griffith is by far my favorite, a genuinely philosophical figure who knows exactly what he wants from life and completely understands the implications of his desires. Born a commoner, his one great ambition is to create a kingdom for himself and his people — the Hawks, who are a people not because of blood or soil, but common ideals and shared suffering.
Griffith will also do absolutely anything to fulfill these dreams, and there are several startling episodes in the middle of the story where we see just how unflinching his dedication is to himself. At one point the group needs supplies. He prostitutes himself to a rich nobleman to procure the needed money, and we see a glimpse of real vulnerability in him when he washes himself off in the river the next morning. Yes, this hurt him, but it will hurt him even more to know there was something he could have done to further his dream, and did not. At another point he enlists Guts as an assassin, and is startled by the other man’s willingness to go along with the plan — not simply that Guts is so willing to be used, but that for all of the things he could see clearly about Guts (many of which he implemented in battle), he didn’t see this.
Casca is every bit as complex. Late in the story, Griffith is betrayed and imprisoned, and tortured mercilessly until he is reduced to nothing more than a living corpse. Casca assumes command of the Hawks in Griffith’s absence, and proves herself to be magnificently capable of the task. There is never a doubt in her mind that their ultimate mission is to bring Griffith back — no, not even when what they find is in no way capable of ever leading the group again, not even when Guts makes it clear to her that he wants nothing more in the world than to just leave all this behind, take her with him, and create something all of his own. It's not as if she isn't tempted.
And then there is Guts himself, so contradictory and troubled, and it's to Berserk's credit that it is capable of making such a potentially unlikable character into the center of gravity for this story. He's never before wanted to belong to something, but being under Griffith's metaphorical wing has awakened within him some sense of how important belonging actually is. Likewise, being near Casca awakens within him something else he's not felt: compassion, even if the whole way he goes about expressing it is uninformed and clumsy. But he believes a little too strongly that the only thing in the world he's good for is dealing out violence, something Griffith is only too happy to exploit to his own end, and something Casca laments to no end.
On being perfectly imperfect
People talk about "gratuitous violence" as being a turn-off, although I've found that with violence, most everyone's threshold of sensibility — what they're willing to stomach for the sake of a piece of work proving its point — varies widely. I resent it when a piece of work uses violence to make points that are ultimately trivial and uninsightful. It opens no one's eyes to be told that life is brutal and that one should resign one's self to such truth; for that level of insight, we need only consult a newspaper. Berserk may be about violent people in violent times, but it doesn't stop there; it's genuinely curious about who they are and what they want, and so it avoids being an exercise in grimy Darwinist tedium while never shying away from showing them doing awful things.
And yet there are also a great many moments of tenderness and joy, as when the Hawks return to Midland as heroes and feel awkwardly pleased at being so celebrated. The story also earns every single one of its high emotional moments: when Guts and Casca kiss, it’s for real; it’s not something they’ve been pushed into by the screenplay. Much has been made of late about how episodic TV is better suited to elaborate, character-driven stories than theatrical films, and Berserk fits that bill, especially given the source material — one portion of Kentarō Miura's epic, still-ongoing manga.
With the need to stretch out often comes the temptation to self-indulge, but there's no part of Berserk that feels wasted or redundant. Every facet of the story reflects its underlying themes — fate vs. personal choice, or whether or not it’s possible for human will, singly or collectively, to change the shape of things for the better. The ambition of such a notion is also echoed in each of the characters, all of whom are fighting against everything from circumstance to their own inner natures to do something better. If the deck is indeed stacked, the story argues, it is not stacked so thoroughly that men cannot try. That they try at all is in some ways more than enough, and we see how their choices cause them to change and grow, not simply to react statically to everything that happens.
Where the show is flawed, it is only because it is unable to tell the whole story it drew on for its source. To that end, the last four episodes of the series draw terrible ire, as they seem to invalidate everything that came before. It involves a supernatural and downright eschatological turn of events, one which seems more suited to something like Legend of the Overfiend than what Berserk has been promising. That said, if you go back and rewatch the first episode immediately after the last one, and think about many of the things that we have witnessed along the way, it does make sense; it’s an extension of everything the show has been building up to into a whole new realm. The show’s creators even give us an extended set of fantasy sequences to make this clear. Griffith made a lifetime commitment to his dream — maybe not simply this lifetime, but any that might come after as well — and these are the consequences that even he could not see.
The half-broken promise of Berserk has rested uneasily in the hearts of fans ever since the show came and went without a follow-up in sight, with the manga rolling onwards through one stupefying plot ascension after another. Rather than continue the TV series as-is, though, a new team at Production I.G was formed to retell the entire story from the beginning as a series of theatrical films. The last of these films has brought us to the same point where the TV series left off, albeit with a larger budget and more technically-adept animation. But on balance the films seem to be leaving out as much as they are putting back in. Some of the more brutal story points (like Griffith prostituting himself) have been sanded down or left out entirely — something I'd ascribe to there being only so much running time in three films, if it weren't for the lopsided way the films indulged in some semipointless scenes at the expense of other, more useful ones. Irony of ironies: the TV show, with its much longer running time, sported the more concise and pointed storytelling of the two, and ultimately the more satisfying. Even the '90s-era TV-grade animation, shot on grainy and muddy 16mm, only seems to work in the show's favor now, adding a level of primal darkness that the more polished look of the theatrical movies seems unable to capture. And Susumu Hirasawa's throbbing, memorable score, sporting its own variety of early-digital primitivism, is also absent from the remake.
If I sound a little too much like I'm pining for the good old days here, it's only because the original Berserk did so many things so well, even in its incomplete form, that it would have been hard to improve on it save for simply picking up where it left off. But in lieu of that, we still have what the original can give us: a spellbinding story about three unforgettable characters, and evidence for how a work that's flawed by circumstance can transcend those flaws. It may be the most perfectly imperfect anime I've yet seen.