Director: Toshiyuki Kubooka
Writer: Ichiro Okouchi
Studio: Studio 4°C
Release date: February 4, 2012
Warning: Major Spoilers for Berserk
Berserk is one of the most acclaimed manga of all time, from the mind of mangaka Kentaro Miura. It tells the story of Guts, the “Black Swordsman” and his quest for revenge on the man who betrayed him and their comrades and the woman he loves Casca, his former best friend Griffith. It is notoriously violent and dark, but also has some of the best artwork of any manga and the most emotional moments of any fictional story, with each character feeling like a real person with all the complexities and darkness that implies. It has been running since 1989, and has since been heralded as a masterpiece of storytelling, influenced other manga titles, and been adapted to both the big and small screen. The first adaptation aired in 1997 as a 25 episode long anime series, and save for the first episode, covered the manga’s famous Golden Age Arc, which told the origins of Guts and Griffith, their friendship, and falling out. While needing to tone down the graphic violence and sexual content of the manga for TV, having lackluster animation, and ending on a notorious cliffhanger that basically told readers to read the manga to find out what happens, the anime managed to capture the original’s spirit and themes of friendship, fate, and examination of the human spirit and many consider it to still be the best adaptation of Berserk to date and a masterpiece in its own right. Me personally, while I have watched a good deal of it and it holds up in many areas, it’s also shown its age in others. I am one of the people who got into Berserk through the movie trilogy that covers The Golden Age Arc. My hope for this retrospective is to while acknowledge their shortcomings as movies and adaptations, also show they are still worth watching and in fact can be the best gateway into the series for newcomers.
This trilogy has always been controversial amongst fans of Berserk because while boasting higher production values, being movies, many events in the manga that the anime covered either had to be cut entirely or told in another manner for the sake of time. It is certainly a flawed trilogy, as I’ll point out, and the first installment The Egg of the King is easily the weakest one.
Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I: The Egg of the King has the most signs of being a rough first step to establishing a trilogy. The movie’s plot specifically adapts the beginning portions of the Golden Age Arc, ending at the famous scene of Guts hearing Griffith’s speech about friendship and dreams to Princess Charlotte. At only 77 minutes, there are a number of scenes relating to characterization and motivation that had to be cut or skimmed over. Guts’ traumatic childhood for example, is only briefly shown in a dreamy flashback that lasts for at most just over a minute. It even included Guts being molested by the pedophiliac soldier Donovan. In the manga and anime, even this early on into the arc Guts’ past played a powerful motivator for his personality and actions. In skimming it over, Guts loses a sense of depth that sets him apart from other antiheroes. In fact many key characters in general are either cut or their personalities are softened. Griffith, while still retaining his charisma and ruthlessness in court politics comes off as just a little less manipulative and more sincere. His romance with the Princess Charlotte in the manga and anime was clearly shown to be completely one sided on Charlotte’s part, with Griffith just playing along to get closer to his desired throne. Here, it actually comes off as Griffith and Charlotte mutually falling in love with each other. The later movies do nothing to dissuade this idea. To some Griffith being a more overtly likable character might be a plus, but what makes Griffith such a compelling character is the fact that even though his manipulations are borderline sociopathic at times, his charisma is so undeniable, his goal of ruling a kingdom seems so pure and he expresses genuine moments of conscience with Guts so that one can’t help but root for him. Casca also comes off as even more standoffish and antagonistic towards Guts, with scenes that could’ve eased the blow not being present. Other characters, if not softened are cut entirely, such is the case with the devious Minister Foss, a character that played the game of politics against Griffith throughout The Golden Age arc in the manga and anime. The pacing is clearly rushed due to too much being cut and not enough left in. And the movie’s attempts at having both action, supernatural horror, and political intrigue are very clumsy and uneven. Which is all the more disappointing since both the source material does this extremely well and the trilogy’s writer, Ichiro Okouchi, also wrote the script and story of one of my favorite anime of all time, Code Geass, a series that I also consider to be an example of how to juggle multiple themes and genres extremely well.
All that that being said, one thing this movie does cut out that I think was a great idea, was the in media rias beginning of the manga and anime. I won’t spoil anything that is not in this first movie, but it’s always bothered me that Berserk the manga and anime began in the middle of the story and practically give away the conflict between Guts and Griffith. Here, the story just begins with Guts as a mercenary in the middle of a battle, thus making what happens all the more horrifying and tragic.
It’s a movie that is more concerned with world building and establishing characters rather than also exploring the characters. This ends up creating one annoying plot hole later in the film, when after the three year time skip we get the scene where Guts asks Griffith about his Behelit, the supernatural necklace Griffith wears around his neck. Now in the anime and manga, Guts asked Griffith about it much sooner after he was forcibly conscripted into the Band of the Hawk in one of the most subtext laden scenes ever created, which makes a lot more sense plot wise. I mean why would Guts just pop that question after three long years of being aware of the Behelit’s existence?
But being a high budget movie, it should at least have higher production values than the original anime right? Well yes. And no. Make no mistake, when the animation is good, it is spectacular. The 2D character models and backgrounds are simply gorgeous and rival the manga’s equally amazingly detailed artwork. It is undeniably a point the movies have over the 90s anime and the 2D will likely age much better than the original anime’s low budget animation has. Unfortunately the mistake was made of incorporating CGI into the animation. Now CGI is simply a tool that is only as good as the wielder, so CGI itself doesn’t inherently ruin a movie. But the attempts to blend CGI with the 2D animation and fight scenes just takes you right out of the experience. It looks choppy at best and bad at worst. The big battle at the beginning of the movie is easily the worst offender of this. Scenes of great 2D animation are then cut to scenes of clumsy, stiff CGI. It’s “what the hell were they thinking” levels of bad.
One area these movies were always consistently great in was the soundtrack and voice acting. Holy shit. This soundtrack. Is. EPIC! The original anime’s soundtrack was a masterclass in its own right and all three movies stepped up to the plate of delivering a soundtrack worthy of Berserk. The soundtrack was done by the man behind the 90s anime’s Susumu Hirasawa and Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Shiro Sagisu. The opening credits of each movie played to a song that just oozes Berserk while the credits mix movie scenes with artwork from the original manga. It reminds me of how Marvel superhero movies will open with some snippets of artwork from their comics with the logo popping up. The rest of the music range from soft uplifting piano pieces that create a calming atmosphere to bombastic for the action and more intensely emotional scenes that remind the audience that the world of Berserk is a dark and brutal place despite the beauty you can find in it. As for the voice acting, it is well above average here. I watched this and the other two movies in English. Yeah call me a plebian but the English dub for these movies is very good, better than the original anime and reaches great levels in the third one. The main characters of Guts, Griffith and Casca have their original English voice actors Marc Diraison, Kevin T. Collins, and Carrie Keranen (also the English voice actress for Satsuki Kiryuin from Kill la Kill) from the 1997 anime return, and they all show how far they’ve come since then. Collins as Griffith is in my opinion the best of the cast, managing to convey the character’s manipulative nature while also keeping him sympathetic. But if you do want to watch in Japanese with English subtitles the Japanese voices are very good as well.
So how does the first installment of The Golden Age Arc trilogy stand overall? It’s okay. For everything it does wrong it does something right. While definitely having impressive production values, the characters and rushed pacing end up making you feel like there’s a lot you’re missing out on. I can still recommend it, if only because you’d be lost if you skipped it to watch the other two movies instead. That would be an awful idea, in fact flaws and all as I said before this is probably the best way to introduce yourself to Berserk since the ending of the arc is no longer basically given away by the story.