Here I am, all set to write a first-impressions piece on the new animated adaptation of Berserk, when I come across an article that forces me to take a new tack. The article, "The New Berserk Anime Already Outshines The '90s Original", gets a couple of basic things right — the new show is indeed excellent, and is headed in the right overall direction. But the idea that it "outshines" the original is founded on a misunderstanding of what the original tried to do and why. The two shows come from different eras, with different expectations, different levels of technology, different everything. What's great about the new series doesn't come at the expense of any former greatness, or even because of the limitations of the original. And for all the things the new one does well, there are things the original still seems to do better.

First, the original and its limitations. The original animated adaptation of Kentarō Miura's mammoth and still-ongoing fantasy manga, about a lone-wolf swordsman facing off against nothing less than the force of evil in his world, appeared in 1997. There's nothing about that iteration of the property that still doesn't work for me. The fact that it look and sounds twenty years old is actually not what most fans find fault with. It's that the show only adapts a small sliver of the original story — one of the best slivers of that story, but it ends with such unpalatable abruptness that the most common thing people say once they finish watching is "What do you mean, there's no second season!?" The most profound flaw of the original series was the logistics, not the actual execution.

Then came the movie trilogy that retold the same story as the TV series with modern animation techniques and a more polished presentation overall. I liked it, but once it finished going over the same ground as the original TV series, I realized its very slickness had worked against it. What had been appropriately cruel and grim the first time around had lost some of its bite. Worse, the movie versions elected to throw out certain details, less for the sake of running time or storytelling economy than because it seemed to be trying to make the results more palatable to a general audience.

And now we have the new TV series, which picks up more or less where both the old series and the recent movie cycle leave off. This means the new show is well-suited to answering the single biggest criticism about the old one, that it only delivered a small fraction of the potential goods. For those familiar with the material it starts up right around the time Guts acquires the sprite Puck as a sidekick (not Guts's idea, of course) and runs into Farnese, the leader of a witch-hunting troupe of knights with their sights set on Guts, no thanks to that brand of his that attracts demons.

What seems wrong is to suggest that the new show obviates the old one. It doesn't, and it can't.

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For one, the new show isn't even trying to tell the same story. It's designed to pick up where the previous one left off, and that means it's more a complement than a replacement. One of the beauties of the way the new series picks up from both the '97 series and the movie trilogy is that it provides you with the freedom to pick either one, if you so choose, as a way to introduce yourself to the material. If you have the time and the devotion to spare, you can watch both and compare approaches yourself. That said, I suspect the majority of current viewers are going to opt for the movie trilogy, if only because it's just that much easier to come by. The '97 series is no longer in print in the U.S. — or at least is only available at ghastly high prices on the aftermarket — and isn't available on any streaming service.

Another line of argument is that the new show puts the old one away because it's the product of far superior storytelling technology. This, I reject as well: it's not like the modern look-and-feel of the new series makes the previous one irrelevant. Every work of art (and every work of entertainment is also a work of art) is a product of its moment in time and space. In this case, all the things that should have caused the original Berserk to date badly, mainly its look and feel, have actually become all of a piece with it.

I wrote in my original discussion of the show that the relative crudeness of the visuals — the hand-painted cels, the muddy colors (the whole thing was shot on 16mm to save money), the limited animation — actually work in the show's favor over time. For a story this grim and confrontational, you don't want it to be too good-looking. Ditto Susumu Hirasawa's throbbing score, produced on what today would be laughably primitive equipment — proof once again that compositional genius matters more than technological superiority. You didn't complain about Casablanca being in black and white (well, Ted Turner did, but that didn't last long), because a black and white movie is not "missing" anything.

None of this ought to imply the new show is no good because it's so good-looking and -sounding. To my mind, the problem is a matter of fitness to purpose: It would be a net minus if the new Berserk traded looking good and sounding good for looking and sounding right — for sacrificing grit to be that much more accessible.

The movies made this mistake, by omitting some ugly but vital character-building details. When we learned that mercenary leader Griffith had prostituted himself to a wealthy patron to fund his war efforts, it was part of an overall picture: this man will do literally anything to further his dream, whatever the cost to himself or those around him. It wasn't even as if these details were omitted for the sake of pacing; the movies had enough slack in their runtimes that details like this could have been slotted back in without throwing anything off.

This, then, is my main concern with the new series. Not that it will displace the original, because nothing can do that, but that the new series will not learn the most valuable lessons of the original one. It isn't the quality of the animation that made the '97 series a classic, but the storytelling, the characterization, the themes — all the stuff behind and underneath the pages of the original manga, too. The 2016 Berserk owes it to us, and its predecessors, to get that part at least as right, too.



About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@genjipress) () is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.
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