Nearly twenty years since the start of the original tv series, Berserk has thundered back onto the small screen, finally granting us an animated version of medieval mercenary Guts’s post-Golden Age manga struggle to destroy the demons of God Hand, avenge the Band of the Hawk and take his own revenge on former friend, Griffith.
Picking up from roughly where the recent Golden Age movie trilogy left off, the new series begins with Guts alone again after the brutal events of the Eclipse, wandering the ravaged land in a bloody search for God Hand’s apostles, while railing against his apparent destiny to be consumed by the demons who wiped out his comrades. His signature sword has been reforged, but being now blind in one eye and missing the lower part of his left arm, Guts has his work cut out for him. To top it all off, the Eclipse has left him with a demonic brand that continually calls evil spirits to destroy him, and this has clearly begun to eat away at whatever remains of his sanity.
From the moment the first trailers appeared, Berserk fans let out a loud, collective groan of despair over the new series use of what appears to be some very… modestly budgeted CGI for its animation. Rightly enough, the series follows the movies’ approach by relying mainly on CGI, with additional hand-drawn elements mixed in for key scenes. Technology has moved on since the beginning of the movie trilogy in 2012, but without the feature film funding behind it, the animation is definitely this series’s weakest link.
In the series defence, it seems unlikely that a Berserk anime would ever have achieved sufficient funding to faithfully preserve the hyper-detailed artwork and also cope with the vigorous action scenes without using CGI. Despite some oddly garish colour choices, the character models are very faithful to the look of the manga, and the action is also remarkably well directed, to the point where I actually felt much less aware of the CGI than I was during the quieter moments. Unfortunately, the series seems to be struggling with lifelike movement for its larger monsters in particular and I did find that their janky vibration really broke my immersion in certain scenes.
Thankfully, time has not dulled the apocalyptic power of Berserk‘s story. After a slightly muddled first episode that tries to account for the material this adaptation is skipping over, and shoehorn in an introduction for characters who won’t become important for a while yet, it finds its feet the minute it falls back in line with the manga. It’s been at least a couple of years since I read this part, but the second episode seems pretty faithful to the original introduction of the inquisitor-style Holy Chain Knights and their complicated commander, Lady Farnese. The third episode is partly made up from original content again, but apparently overseen by Berserk‘s creator, Kentarou Miura, it feels like a worthy addition to the story that does much to make up for the missing Black Swordsman story arc.
One question in my own mind was how much censorship the series might have to deal with. While the more extreme moments are partially obscured in that ‘uncut on future home release’ way that has now become the norm, this adaptation certainly hasn’t shied away from the series explicit gore or the sadomasochistic sexual themes of this part.
In case it wasn’t already apparent, Berserk is not a series for the feint of heart, and is far more convincingly like a work of horror, than a gory action series like Tokyo Ghoul. There is some concession to those unfamiliar with the story, in the form of a few additional flashback scenes and a curious, sanitised version of the Eclipse glimpsed in the series opening crawl, but nevertheless, I don’t feel this is a particularly good place to start, if you’ve never seen or read any of Berserk before. Even some folk familiar with the older anime seem to have been surprised by the weird imagery on show in the third episode, although I would say it’s more horrific by implication than through anything explicitly shown.
Thus far, your enjoyment of Berserk 2016 will depend largely on how forgiving you can be of that CGI. It’s done a good job of adapting the story for the small screen and its handling of the trademark sword-swinging, head-flying action scenes is commendable, but when it falters, suddenly you realise you’re stuck watching a rather sorry looking PS2-era game cutscene. If you can live with that, there is much to enjoy here. If you can’t, best just to go back and read the manga, if you haven’t already done so.
Berserk is currently available to stream on Crunchyroll.