The idea of kicking off a series by showing a messed-up, badass antihero laying waste to his enemies in an all-out action fest isn’t a new one. It’s a bit misleading though when the episodes that follow offer so much more in getting into the troubled mind of the central character: Gungrave is a good example of this but an earlier show that took a similar route was Berserk.
The hero of Berserk, if you can call him that, is the appropriately named Guts. He’s indeed messed-up, badass and not particularly endearing: a fearsome reputation precedes him as he dishes out his cold-hearted revenge on those who, for whatever reason, have wronged him. He’s armed with a bad attitude, a semi-automatic crossbow and a sword that would make Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife look under-equipped in comparison…and he’s nigh-on unstoppable. In the first few minutes he succeeds in disposing of a group of good-for-nothing soldiers and a snakelike demon, before demanding to know the whereabouts of someone named Griffith.
As opening episodes go, this is swords-and-sorcery fantasy at its most brutal and bloodthirsty; had I not seen past the first episode I would have judged Berserk very differently. After this however, the story takes a jump back in time to a more reserved and less irate Guts, who is a wandering soldier-for-hire who falls in with a band of fellow mercenaries. We soon learn that the charismatic leader is a dashing young warrior named Griffith: it doesn’t take much guesswork to realise that this new comrade is the man who will later be Guts’ nemesis. The rest of the volume explores the orphaned Guts’ tragic childhood, his first encounter with Griffith and his Band of the Hawk, and how the bond between the two men results in Guts becoming Griffith’s right hand man.
Make no mistake, Berserk is a violent show that doesn’t pull its punches. Instead of being violent for violence’s sake though, it is merely painting a realistic picture of an era akin to Europe in the Middle Ages: the land is ruled over by rival kings and their armies so life for ordinary people is hard, painful and depressingly short. For sure, the sight of demons and a central character who possesses superhuman strength and stamina requires suspension of disbelief at times. As fantasy epics go though, it’s pretty realistic: the battles are suitably brutal for the setting, the weaponry and attire look authentic and the politics are convincing too.
For all the blood and gore on show initially, it’s surprising perhaps that the characters are brought to the fore from there on in: the Band of the Hawk for instance is comprised of memorable individuals, each with their own motives and personalities. Griffith is ambitious, charming, ruthless and equally comfortable using his sword or his brain to achieve his aims; Caska, the tough gal of the piece, is initially mistrustful of Guts and clearly jealous of how Griffith values his skills but her loyalty to Griffith is beyond question; Guts himself is the straightforward sort who drifts aimlessly, seeking meaning in the harsh realities of the world in which he lives. It’s made even more compelling because before we see their friendships forged we already know that things will eventually go horribly wrong for them all.
For an eight year old show that was made on a limited budget, Berserk isn’t the prettiest on offer but then, the worldview is harsh and rough to begin with. There’s not much in the way of repeated footage but still frames, in the form of paintings used in a way similar to Dezaki’s Blackjack OAV, add something of an historical feel to the proceedings. The soundtrack is nevertheless a highlight: penned by Susumu Hirasawa (of Paranoia Agent and Detonator Orgun fame), it adds much to the energetic and distinctive feel of the show. Synthesised music often ages badly but fortunately Berserk’s score does not suffer from this too much; my only complaint being the over-use of the same repertoire of tunes. The opening and ending themes are also noteworthy, starting the episodes with an upbeat rock number but ending on a sombre and brooding piece drenched in droning strings and gloomy atmospherics.
If you look past the mindless brutality of the opening episode, Berserk soon proves to be an uncompromising yet gripping tale of broken loyalties, colliding fates and destructive ambitions. Its distinctly Western-looking character designs and medieval worldview are a refreshing change but so is the shift in focus from bloodthirsty action to characterisation: for those who can stomach its more disturbing moments, Berserk promises to be an outstanding series of remarkable depth and power.