Berserk (2016): “The Branded Swordsman”

A legend of anime and manga returns, but has he gotten soft around the edges?

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Season 1, Episode 1
Grade: B

“The incubus is born of dead bodies. This must have been a battlefield…”

The original Berserk anime famously ended on one of the most infuriating cliffhangers in television history, where we realize that all these dramas and heartbreaks were setup to the actual story. Fifteen years later, we saw this setup repeated in the second anime bout. Read the manga, kids!

Even the staunchest, anime-only anime fan would be hard-pressed to wait. That Griffith has got to go. But for those who waited, and for those who simply want more Berserk in anime form, the expectations are running high.

Berserk (2016) comes in at a time when I’ve heard Attack on Titan held in the same continuum as Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead – it’s all entertainment. Like those three, Berserk is dark and violent, something with easy appeal to veterans of American drama in our age-old crusade to normalize anime. Indeed, Berserk is directly comparable to Game of Thrones as a dark medieval fantasy. So with the HBO series in the back of our minds, we expect a level of storytelling sophistication from the latest addition to the long-running saga. Does Shin Itagaki’s Shin-Berserk meet the mountain of compounding expectations?

One of the foremost concerns going in was animation quality, a bit of a run-off from the reaction to the Golden Age Arc trilogy. By the third film, the creators struck a solid balance, cel shading the bodies of characters and hand-drawing facial expressions, a tactic that would’ve helped Appleseed Ex Machina before Aramaki went full photo-realism anyway. The Advent looked great, where the models were allowed an unusual amount of detail and smoothness of movement, just in time for Berserk at its grisliest.

This new anime continues the CG cel shading trend, using 3D models and styling them such that they approximate 2D traditional characters. The budget isn’t quite as high, lending to a more claustrophobic frame, and an interesting addition is made: cross-hatching. This is something deployed to tremendous effect in a surreal and unsettling show like Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Berserk however has a more tactile feel, and so the shifting patterns of lines on each character furthers the unreality.

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I’m not against CG anime in principle. I imagine it might have a positive impact on the anime industry, which has always had trouble paying Japanese animators, and frequently outsources to cheaper labor in Korea. At the same time, it’s simply another tool in the animator’s toolkit, and has been blended into movies (Ghost in the Shell 2) just as other animation forms join that toolkit (rotoscoping in Jin-Roh, The End of Evangelion). However, the downside I didn’t predict is that there’s nary a held frame in Berserk.

For me, anime is so often marked by beautiful compositions, these moments in a sequence being quite literally paintings. But if animation is accomplished by rigging, as opposed to in-betweening, there’s a significantly lessened barrier to motion, and in Berserk, this sometimes becomes locomotion. Guts is upside down in one shot in the bar, and we jump between micro details in the environment at high speed, which themselves are always swirling in motion.

Any visual shortcomings – more so misfires of creative decision – are in turn complemented and made up for by the sound. With the absence of Susumu Hirasawa, the Berserk soundscape feels affected, with peppy electric guitars in place of booming, emotive vocals. The anachronism isn’t so appreciated, and with the snappy editing of action scenes and non-action scenes both, there’s an artificial energy and an undercutting of potential badassness.

Make no mistake – Guts is still plenty badass. Indeed, it’s the sound design that counterbalances the perhaps traditional music, and adding that much weight to the swing of the Dragonslayer is pure catharsis. Even if, for now, it’s only skeletons and trees being decimated. The heavy metal-lite however, instantly made me yearn for silence in places, and an overall more contemplative approach to the violence. As much as Berserk is 100% an action story, the solemnity of violence is equally important, something occasionally on display in Game of Thrones.

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Berserk (2016) is very much the continuation of an existing story, and one disappointing consequence is the anti-gravity of Guts’s introduction. Of course, we know who he is, and if we don’t, we understand he’s some kind of badass. That’s fine in itself, but things have been so much more dramatic elsewhere. In the manga, we’re introduced to Guts as he’s having sex with a woman, before that women transforms into a horrific demon. We get a glimpse of this terrifying and very R-rated world, and of Guts, who’s not only in complete charge of the situation, but willing to go this far to kill.

In the original anime, an entire episode is devoted to his introduction. It begins with a violent intercession on mercenaries in a bar, with the eye-popping reveal of the Dragonslayer, and ends with his sadism on the Snake Apostle. The Golden Age Arc trilogy opens with a lovingly rendered Guts vs. Bazuso, which similarly demonstrates his attitude on mercy, and ups the gruesome factor.

In the latest incarnation, Guts is also cleaving through mercenaries in a bar, but it’s done as a matter of course. This makes sense, as the scene is also our introduction to Puck and Isidro. Because this is an adaptation of a non-linear manga, and isn’t interested in covering old ground, things need to move quickly, and often, be moved around. Luckily, there’s a bit of repetition in this area of the Berserk manga, so mercenary groups are shuffled, demons go tag-team.

This first episode feels constructed on a checklist, for setting up characters, themes, and backstory. To its credit, the establishment is appreciably economic. An incubus attacks Guts as he sleeps aboard the merry monk’s covered wagon, providing flashes of the Eclipse, and an enunciation of Griffith’s name. Of course, the OP had this covered already, although I don’t know who on God’s green figured the Eclipse for something we want to see repeated before the start of every episode.

The incubus is one giant eyeball with writhing tentacles, our early indication that Berserk demons are a bit freakier than red dudes with horns. Guts’s observation that it breeds in corpses is evocative, particularly if memories of Doldrey and the 100-man slaughter stick in our minds: this is when world-building is at its most effective. Not with a text scroll in the beginning, telling us demons have descended from the sky, but citing the violence among humankind as facility to the demons’ spread, making that analogy concrete. Theme and world in one; further storytelling economy.

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With this scene also, we touch on crucial expository elements, though it is a light touch. Even still, the encounter in the woods is a perfect entryway, where the ride with the Monk and his daughter Collette provides an opportunity for Guts to characteristically wax philosophical on the nature of violence, and the fate of these two guest characters rounds that out. Puck, the literal bright spot in all of Berserk’s darkness, is audience to Guts’s rejection of the Monk and Collette’s weakness. They couldn’t survive the night, it’s their own damn fault.

This is the first time we’ve seen an animated depiction of one of Miura’s signatures, the pointy-fanged, unhinged smile. For now, it’s Guts’s, and the ultimate duty of this episode, with regards to the checklist, is to hint at enough shades of the character, so that when we come to this moment of nihilistic philosophy, we sense it might be a defense mechanism.

Guts is one of the most compelling characters in anime and fantasy, who suggests with outward appearance a worship of masculinity, but internally, is a complete deconstruction. Wondering about the purpose of fighting in battles, and searching for his own destiny, he’s locked into a lifelong struggle. The bleeding mark on his neck attracts demons, and he’s dead set on a road to revenge. Every step he takes is tragic, because it’s farther and farther away from his true dreams.

Where other anime are content to establish a badass and let go of the reins, leaving him or her to a tournament or to nothing at all, Berserk applies Hurricane Guts to an increasingly complex war whose beginnings stretch back to mythic times.

“The Branded Swordsman” might be a slow start to what becomes more involved, but it’s straight out of the manga. Kentaro Miura is not always content to forward the plot, nailing in the final comparison of Berserk to Game of Thrones. The source material is unfinished, and the author’s been at it for decades.

The potential success of this series might spur a renewed interest in the franchise, beyond what the Golden Age Arc films did, and the greatest hope is that Miura is inspired to complete his epic in service of all his new, petulant, international fans. Of course, there’s something depressing about continuing to see new Berserk material as the stepping stone to the next Berserk material – this new anime is entertaining, and for all the objections I take to the show, I’ll still be watching every Friday.

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We open slowly on a small town in a green valley, and smash cut to a screaming woman being dragged into the darkness of what’s likely a tavern of drunken mercenaries. I love Guts partly because he’s such a hardcore dude, but the hardcore world he must then exist in isn’t always so graceful. The entire narrative hinges on a rape scene, and violence against women is a constant. Berserk is at its best when it’s either distracting from or working against these tiring tendencies, and so foibles in animation and music are minimized in the face of Itagaki’s directorial choices.

So long as the show maintains a relative faithfulness to the source material, it’s possible it will never be bad, but it may test the limits of that tolerance throughout. In one way, it’s almost a cruel joke that this long-awaited adaptation of a beloved manga is intervened on by its animation, the very thing bringing it to life, and in another way, perhaps we should be happy.

You’d imagine the Berserk anime would be inevitable, but it’s been a long time. This is what we have now, and I’m hopeful.

Next Episode: “The Holy Iron Chain Knights

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