Akira IshidaNobutoshi HayashiBerserkAkiko Yajima
Berserk (1997 anime)
Medium: TV, series
Year: 1997
Director: Naohito Takahashi
Writer: Yasuhiro Imagawa
Original creator: Kentarou Miura
Keywords: Berserk, anime, fantasy
Actor: Nobutoshi Hayashi, Toshiyuki Morikawa, Yuko Miyamura, Akiko Yajima, Akira Ishida, Masuo Amada, Tomohiro Nishimura
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Format: 25 episodes
Url: https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=328
Website category: Anime 1990s
Review date: 11 September 2017
That was gruelling. On reaching the final disc in my DVD boxed set, I was delighted to find that the show only had 25 episodes rather than 26, because this meant I only had four episodes left to endure, not five. It's not a bad show at all. It's famous. It's strong stuff. However it took me four months to get through, mostly because it's the opposite of fun. There's lots of dark anime, but this is the kind of darkness that crushes all hope. It never occurred to me from the beginning that this story might have a happy ending. I expected betrayal. I expected all things good to die. I assumed that the saga wouldn't end in happiness, but only despair.
It's adapting the Golden Age arc of a long-running manga (1989 to date, currently 39 volumes). Its protagonist is Guts. I won't call him the hero, because he lives only to kill people with his exceptionally large sword and doesn't have a problem with killing children for the crime of wandering past. (We see him do this.) However the baddies are worse than him, so... yeah, dark.
The world is dark fantasy. There are demons if you go looking for them (and you're tired of living), but for the most part it's just medieval pseudo-historical. You can even identify specific centuries and armour designs, with different armies being from different cultures. Warriors kill. Life is so cheap that it would be an exaggeration to suggest that it had a price in the first place. There's rape of women and children. This show is notoriously one of the more brutal, unforgiving anime out there... but it also has a surprisingly strong female fanbase. The story's aware of the difficulties a woman has fitting into this society and explicitly discusses them, through the character of Casca. Female problems are presented. Sexual violence is never presented salaciously, but instead as horrible. The show doesn't have many female characters (although that's not unrealistic since its main characters spend their lives going from battlefield to battlefield), but the ones it does have are flawed, important and non-stereotypical.
Another thing that's attracted an unexpectedly broad audience, though, is the show's love triangle. The three main characters are Guts, Griffith and Casca. Each relationship in that triangle goes through considerable flux, but the strongest love story is clearly Guts-Griffith. There's room to debate how far each character's feelings go (either consciously or otherwise) and it's clearly stronger on one side than the other, but it's hard not to read this series as a love story. (It's also a tragedy, of course, and in the end a disturbing one.)
Guts is a self-aware barbarian. He had the kind of childhood that creates monsters like him, but on rare occasions he's also capable of discussing his psychology and motivations with Casca. He'll take life-changing decisions on a principle. (That's in no way a moral principle, but it's still an abstract cause that drives his actions.) However he's still the kind of man who'll take on a hundred soldiers at once in single combat because that's the kind of thing his broken psyche drives him to do.
Griffith is the anti-Guts. He's feminine, serene and super-intelligent. He has beliefs (freedom), although these only intersect tangentially with anything you or I would associate with morality. He'd coldly sacrifice anyone, including himself. He's always in supreme control of himself and everyone around him, although horrifying things will happen if that stops being true. His goal is to rule the country and you'd bet money on him succeeding one day, but in this world that implies a serious body count and a willingness to treat entire populations as playing pieces.
Casca was saved by Griffith when she was a girl. She's his second-in-command, with difficult feelings that she's compartmentalised. She also hates Guts, for reasons that have layers, but she's rigid in her principles.
It's memorable. You can't say it's not that. You could stop watching Berserk for a year and still have everything burned into your mind when you started watching again. The last two episodes achieve some genuinely creepy (and gross) nightmare imagery, even though it might have looked silly in a weaker series. Torture can be ten times worse than you're imagining, despite the fact that you've prepared yourself by watching Berserk. I admire this show, but I couldn't recommend it to anyone except a self-selecting minority who know what they're letting themselves in for. It's highly esteemed. It has fans who rightly praise its many strong qualities and I freely admit that it's remarkable. However my notes contain comments like the following:
"So far I have not a shred of affection for this story. Stolidly watching. Not enjoying yet."
"I don't want to watch this next episode. I'm unhappy. Things are about to go bad."
(That's "even worse than Berserk-usual", obviously.)
This isn't the only Berserk anime. There's also a 2012-2013 film trilogy and a 2016-2017 TV series. Apparently the films also adapt The Golden Age, which seems redundant but would let you experience this storyline without a 25-episode time investment. The 2016 TV episodes, though, are a sequel. I'll be approaching them with trepidation.