An adaptation such as the recent Golden Age trilogy prompts questions about the nature of what is and isn’t a “remake.” Do we treat these three films as a fresh adaptation of the long-running dark fantasy manga, or as a reinterpretation of the 1997 anime series closely inspired by that text? When we evaluate the artistic merits of this trilogy, do we compare it to the anime, the manga or on its own terms? Such questions further complicated by the voice cast involved – the Japanese cast is a fresh team of actors, but the English dub re-uses the same voices as the anime.
I don’t think that there’s a “correct” answer to this question – I’m not convinced, for example, that it’s realistic to approach the Golden Age trilogy as its own thing, especially for a piece primarily directed at a non-Japanese audience, who are unlikely to stumble upon these films without some familiarity with either of its inspirations. I’m personally familiar with both the Berserk manga and anime, but my comparison will focus on the film as a remake of the anime, given that this trilogy covers the same period of time as the series.
If we see these films as a remake, then, what is their purpose? There’s a fresh perspective – with a new director in charge of the project and entirely new animation – but it’s not a complete revision. The larger narrative remains essentially unchanged – don’t expect an Evangelion-esque swerve into uncharted territory in the third film, for example – but it is, necessarily, refocused due to its shorter runtime. Some characters arcs are reduced or entirely excised and their absence lends greater emphasis to the moments that remain.
Let’s be specific. At the centre of Berserk stands Guts (Hiroaki Iwanaga/Marc Diraison), who – as is so often the case in fantasy narratives – a profoundly uninteresting protagonist. He fits perfectly into the barbarian archetype: loyal, noble (up to a point), a little thick but, mostly, capable of inflicting severe violence with a gigantic sword. The appeal of Berserk – in any of its formats – stems not from Guts but the colourful characters he interacts with. In the Golden Age arc, these characters are the members of the Band of the Hawk: led by Griffith (Takahiro Sakurai/Kevin T. Collins), they include Casca (Toa Yukinari/Carrie Keranen), Judeau, Pippin, Corkus, Rickert, Gaston and others.
Without the narrative scope granted by a long-running manga or twenty-six episode anime series, the ancillary characters are mostly left to fall by the wayside, given brief moments and lines but little else. This recalibrates the narrative to revolve around the “love” triangle of Guts, Griffith and Casca for better and for worse. For better – there’s a clearer sense of Griffith’s perspective, which emphasises his role as a tragic anti-hero, best seen in the conclusion of The Battle for Doldrey (the second film) where we observe Griffith’s torture firsthand. For worse – Casca is too often reduced to a damsel-in-distress, rescued in battle because it’s her “time of the month.” Admittedly, my disappointment with this characterisation might simply be due to my watching from a more “mature” perspective than when I saw the original anime as a teenager.
If Berserk: The Golden Age Arc was simply about reshuffling the emphasis of the narrative, I’m not sure that it would justify its existence. There’s a secondary reason, though: to take advantage of the animation opportunities afforded by a larger budget and computer animation unavailable in 1997. In this regard, I’m sad to say, the trilogy (mostly) fails. Computer-generated 3D animation allows director Toshiyuki Kubooka to stage medieval battles of an epic scale – but the opportunities afforded by a computer don’t make for great visuals. 3D character models look awkward and ungainly, and once you notice that the characters’ faces are frozen, it’s impossible to stop paying attention to it (this is somewhat improved after The Egg of the King, where Kubooka does his best to obscure mouths with helmets/framing).
The issues with the animation aren’t entirely technical ones, as demonstrated by how well that same computer animation works in the third film in the trilogy, The Advent. Berserk is a dark fantasy in every sense of the word, and the thick lines and deep shadows of the anime and manga alike evoked that darkness. The brightness and cleanness of Kubooka’s animation is ill-suited to an allegory for the terrible violence and sacrifice demanded by unquestioning ambition, and it isn’t until the sun disappears and the totality of the Eclipse’s devastation arrives that the films live up to the source material in a inky-purple haze, thick with death. Creatures tumble forth from a Lovecraftian portal, a twisted combination of Miyazaki’s wrongest creations and the viscerality of ‘80s creature features.
Thanks to this, the third film is far and away the best of the trilogy, a realisation of the abundant potential of the adaptation, and it leaves me optimistic for the (rumoured) continuation of the storyline. Thank God for that, then, because the first film is pretty terrible, its narrative distracted by underwhelming action sequences (showcasing the aforementioned average animation), defined by clumsy expository dialogue (“Yes, it’s been three years since our duel.”) and failing to cohere into an engaging three act narrative. It finds some pathos in its closing moments but ends too soon, with too little to say. The Battle for Doldrey is better, with a compelling sense of mounting dread throughout, but still suffers from an over-emphasis on action that doesn’t look as good as the filmmakers assume.
The question remains – does Berserk: The Golden Age Arc justify itself as a remake? Does it supersede the original anime – that is, would I recommend the film trilogy to one unfamiliar with the series? I’m not sure; the power of The Advent is on par with the anime, and the bifurcated length is a great selling point, but I’m not sure many people would value my recommendation highly enough to continue with the trilogy after the disappointment of the first film. Berserk: The Golden Age Arc, then, is perhaps best left for fans like myself – those already familiar with the source material – but there are some real rewards to be found if you’re a member of that group.