The recent remake of Berserk’s “Golden Age Arc” into a fairly disappointing movie trilogy had me wondering if my pubescent fondness for the anime series – adapting the same manga storyline – had been misplaced. Thankfully, Madman’s recent Blu-Ray release of the original series clarified that the failings of the trilogy were inherent to the films, not the story itself. While the Berserk series isn’t perfect, suffering from some narrative flab in its midsection, it nonetheless remains vital nearly two decades after it premiered.
The “Golden Age Arc” makes for perhaps the bleakest tale told across a season of television. The first episode, “The Black Swordsman”, offers a disorienting glimpse into the awaiting darkness before flinging the audience into the past, where protagonist Guts (Nobutoshi Hayashi/Marc Diraison) is a young, headstrong swordsman-for-hire. After an encounter with the Band of the Hawk – at the time a ramshackle group of roving bandits and mercenaries – he joins their company and becomes the devoted right hand man to the Hawks’ enigmatic yet charismatic leader, Griffith (Toshiyuki Morikawa/Kevin T. Collins).
If you forget about the grim prologue, it’s possible to be lulled into believing that you’re watching another conventional Hero’s Journey. Guts grows – literally – into one of the land’s most formidable warriors, wielding a blade longer than he is tall, while gradually overcoming the scepticism of Griffith’s most celebrated lieutenants – like the talented Casca (Yūko Miyamura/Carrie Keranen), whose antipathy towards Guts softens into a romance of sorts. Griffith, meanwhile, leads the Hawks to a series of successes on the battlefield that seem to pave a way towards wider recognition and broader ambitions.
However, Guts’ heroism is peculiarly empty; as an abused orphan, he latches onto Griffith as a twisted kind of father figure – someone to please without thought for the bodies left in his wake. With Casca, they form a love triangle of sorts – the implicitly gay Griffith’s feelings for Guts presumably go beyond his battlefield prowess, while Casca nurses an unmistakable crush for her commander. These aren’t robust characters with human wants and needs – they’re warriors, hollowed out by combat and stumbling towards an ambition they neither share nor truly understand.
That ambition is realised is the final episodes in a maelstrom of black magic, with Griffith sacrificing his friends and soldiers to ancient gods and asserting his dominion over a now-corrupted kingdom. Viewed with this in mind, Berserk reads as a tragedy of the highest order. Tragedies are defined by their inevitability, something every episode’s introduction feints towards with an ominous monologue: “In this world, is the destiny of mankind controlled by some transcendental entity or law? Is it like the hand of God hovering above? At least it is true that man has no control even over his own will.”
This inevitability is helped along by Guts, Casca and their fellow soldiers, who become unquestioning pawns in enabling Griffith’s dark desires. Guts, in particular, spends the majority of the season following Griffith’s commands without question, even if that includes killing innocent children. At one point he snaps, “You should just order me to do your bidding, without all that other crap.” While the series’ second act sees Guts leave the Hawks, it’s less out of any moral compunctions than the feeling of not being valued by Griffith – a sense of abandonment mirrored by Guts’ childhood ordeals.
There’s an archetypal simplicity to this story; it’s not without complexities or nuance, but Berserk is at its core a story of good intentions corrupted by evil ambition, a fable of how devotion can be twisted into dark servitude. The crudely expressive animation is, then, perfectly suited to the subject matter, particularly when contrasted with the CGI-augmented, brightly-lit movies. Watching the series in HD, it’s hard to fathom complaints about its animation: it’s ugly, perhaps, but aesthetically attuned to the story and its characters.
Madman’s Blu-Ray release is not only notable for its impressive remastering – not absent specks and visual noise, but gorgeous nonetheless – but for its sumptuous packaging. Australian releases, particularly of niche releases like anime, tend to look flimsy and underwhelming compared with the international counterparts. But Berserk’s handsome packaging – complete with art cards – is on par with most international labels, and is hopefully indicative of a shift towards more boutique releases from Australian home entertainment distributors. Hopefully the new Berserk series will get picked up by Madman and warrant an equally impressive boxset