Warning: This review contains spoilers for the Berserk Golden Age OVAs
Set in the medieval kingdom of Midland, Berserk follows a young mercenary named Guts, who is just as tough as he sounds. Traveling from conflict to conflict, collecting handfuls of silver coin for his prowess and strength, Guts eventually finds a home with the mercenary group known as the “Band of the Hawk”, led by the charismatic and beautiful Griffith, who recruits Guts by defeating him in combat. Though their relationship starts out strained due to the nature of Guts’ “recruitment”, the two eventually form a strong bond, as Griffith sees Guts as the only one in the band capable of being his equal. Complementing the mercenary group are other talented fighters, including the fierce and independent Casca, also known as the “woman who leads 1,000 men”, an expert knife thrower named Pippin, a towering juggernaut of a warrior named Judeau and many more. Together, Guts, Griffith and the Band of the Hawk seek fame and glory in a brutal medieval world embroiled in a war that’s lasted nearly 100 years.
Berserk is messed up. No, really. It is a messed up show. That being said, it’s also a well-recognized franchise that has helped set the standard in dark fantasy series over the last 20 years or so. My familiarity with the series began about 15 years ago or so, around 2000 or 2001 when I was just starting to familiarize myself with more mainstream titles like Dragonball Z, Gundam and other shows I would catch on Cartoon Network during the Toonami block. The series first came out in 1997, and since my first (and only) viewing of the show then, I had stored it away in my mental database of shows, but didn’t really think to re-visit it due to the nature of the show being something you really only need to experience once. Rape, gruesome murders of adults (and children), torture…these are all elements that you encounter as you traverse through the hell-scape that is the Berserk story, but its intensely dark material also helps it to stand out from other fantasy series, and the characters that are born as a result are more memorable than your run of the mill fantasy protagonists.
Nearly 15 years after the original series took place, a re-telling of the “Golden Age” arc was planned in the form of a 3-part series: Part I: The Egg Of The King, Part II: The Battle for Doldrey and Part III: The Descent. While my official review above is of the collected series, it’s important to note the strengths and weaknesses of the episodes individually as well.
Part I: The Egg Of the King
Part I does what all good introductions should: sets the stage and presents the major players. We meet the young and skillful Guts on the battlefield as he challenges the enemy champion for a few extra pieces of silver. After his narrow victory, he catches the eye of Griffith, who leads a band of highly skilled mercenaries known as the Band of the Hawk. While leaving the battlefield, Guts is attacked by a few members of the mercenary band as a means of testing his strength. After overwhelming even their most skilled captains, including Casca, the sole female in the company, Griffith finally intervenes and easily dispatches Guts with his superior swordsmanship. After a brief period of recovery, Guts awakens and is asked by Griffith to join their group. Guts instead challenges Griffith to another duel, and offers his life as the reward if he wins. “My sword, or my ass.” as he so politely phrases it. The 2nd battle is a bit longer and more hard-won, but Griffith still emerges the victor and as such recruits Guts as the newest member of their group. 3 years pass and now Guts is a prominent captain of the mercenary group, leading his band of raiders in the pursuit of Griffith’s dream of one day having his own kingdom. They are soon employed by the King of Midlandin a long-standing feud against the Chuder empire, and their skill and fearlessness in battle, as well as Griffith’s strategic genius, puts them on a path to fame and glory. Griffith also catches the eye of young Princess Charlotte, daughter of the King of Midland, and ultimately the catalyst for his downfall.
Fans of the classic series may be thrown off by the animation, which is admittedly disorienting as it utilizes a lot of 3D rendering as opposed to the classic 2D animation style. Once you adjust to it, however, you can begin to appreciate the narrative framing. The opening battle scene gives you a brief taste of the violence you can expect going forward, as heads go flying and bodies are dismembered left and right within the first few minutes.
Fans of the original series will likely notice some pacing issues, which is to be expected when you boil down 4-5 hours of content to just over an hour. Still, as I mentioned earlier, it’s a great introduction to the Berserk universe, and sets a good foundation for the next two episodes.
Part II: The Battle For Doldrey
In Part II, the Band of the Hawk is given the opportunity to earn favor with the King of Midland and strike a decisive blow in the 100-year war against the Chuder empire by re-capturing Doldrey castle; a high-value strategic military target that could help Midland end the war. Previous attempts to capture the castle have been thwarted by its stalwart defenses, including the powerful Purple Rhino knights led by Lord Boscogn. Griffith, however, is unimpressed. He commits that his band of 5,000 men will take on the 30,000 strong force occupying Doldrey and recapture the fortress for the glory of Midland. While the band is ultimately successful, elevating them to heights never thought possible for a group of commoners, Guts ultimately decides that he must part ways with Griffith to pursue his dream. After besting Griffith with a single stroke, Guts departs, leaving Griffith dismayed, and furious. He later sneaks into Princess Charlotte’s bedroom and, forces himself upon her, taking her virginity. They are discovered, Griffith is placed under arrest, and his band of hawks attacked and scattered.
The Battle For Doldrey is well-done, though it retains the previous installments jarring animation style. A lot of the major characters make some serious strides in this installment as well. Guts shows promising growth from a berserker with little regard for his own life to a warrior contemplating his own goals and dreams. Casca and Guts’ relationship deepens as well following a near-death experience for the both of them, and Griffith comes to the startling realization that Guts has surpassed him, and has his own dreams that he wishes to pursue.
The pacing is still an issue, particularly when it comes to a certain sub-plot of the Doldrey invasion that lays the groundwork for Griffith’s successful plan. In short, it’s alluded to in the film that Griffith and the enemy commander of the castle, Lord Gennon, were once involved romantically. Upon realizing that it was indeed Griffith who was leading the army, Gennon insists that he be captured alive and unharmed, even killing some of his own soldiers who attempt to disregard his order. Griffith expertly exploits his attachment to him, but the connection is not explicitly made. Just a few more minutes of clarification on this point could have made the invasion and subsequent success of Griffith’s operations just a little sweeter for the viewer.
In short, The Battle For Doldrey improves upon many of the weaknesses of the first episode, as characters develop and the plot-line ramps up, especially in the closing 10 minutes or so, to a riveting finale.
Part III: The Descent
Here it is, the horrifying finale to our three-part immersion in the Berserk universe. Having been imprisoned by the King of Midland for deflowering his precious daughter (whom he lusted after, as is later discovered), Griffith is subjected to a year of crippling and horrendous torture. While we are spared from viewing the torture in detail, a scene involving his torturer and Guts leaves little to the imagination in terms of the horrors that Griffith was subjected to. As a result, the once proud and beautiful Griffith has been rendered mute, hardly more than a skeleton who is unable to walk or swing a sword. Though rescued by his faithful companions, Griffith’s dream of having his own kingdom is reduced to ash, as he can no longer stir his army with his charismatic voice, nor strike down enemies with his expert swordplay. Realizing the shell that he has become, and in the moment of his utter despair, the damned Behelit known as the “Egg of the King” awakens and transports Griffith and his remaining colleagues to a hellish plane where 4 exceedingly powerful demons known as the “God Hand” await the birth of their new kinsman.
I’ll say right off the bat that 95% of the most disturbing content in the series is packed in the last half of this final film. “The Eclipse”, as this pivotal moment in the series is called, is brought to life with nightmarish efficiency. Howling faces make up the grounds and hills in the hell-scape that the Band of the Hawk is transported to, as monsters from the depths of your darkest nightmares surround our unwitting sacrifices and rend them to pieces with their claws and fangs. The screams of the helpless men as they’re torn asunder lingers in your ears long after the movie ends, as the entire film brings you down with it into the darkness from which the new demon lord is to be born.
Perhaps most disturbing is the sexual assault of Casca by Griffith, reborn as the demon lord Femto. Obviously there’s the visceral reaction to the act itself, but while other series, even recent ones like Sword Art Online, use this element as a shallow method of quickly developing hatred for the antagonist in question, when Griffith assaults Casca in front of Guts there’s so much more to it than simply violating the only woman that Guts cares about. He’s establishing dominance, he’s punishing Guts for abandoning him to his year of torture, he’s demonstrating his newfound power over Guts in a heart-wrenching and horrifying manner. While there is a brief reprieve when the mysterious Skull Knight finally bursts onto the scene to retrieve Guts and Casca, quickly you realize that while the pair survived, they lost much of themselves to The Eclipse. Casca is driven mad, reduced to the mental state of a young and fearful child. Guts loses an arm (quite gruesomely) and eye (equally so), and shortly after waking to find the love of his life driven mad by Griffith’s assault, realizes that the brand of sacrifice that was placed on him during the Eclipse will forever draw evil spirits to him, promising a life of pain and never-ending battle.
The animation style returned to a more traditional method in the final film, which many fans appreciated, myself included. As I mentioned before, the world of The Eclipse is brought to life exceedingly well, almost too well. When you’re not busy recoiling with horror, you’ll probably be taking a closer look at the detail of the artwork.
Ultimately, The Descent is the strongest episode of the series and a fitting end to the re-telling of the Berserk story.
Berserk can be really hard to watch. The 3rd movie in particular is a grueling slog for the final 45 minutes or so as you witness characters that you’ve grown attached to over the previous two films die horrible deaths, and (unfortunately) watch the once-proud and fierce Casca reduced to madness following her assault. That being said, if you aren’t familiar with the series and are interested in catching up for the sake of getting into the upcoming new season of Berserk, this is a great way to do so. Many will contend (including myself), that the 1997 series would be a superior route to take, but if you’re like me you have a lot of anime to watch, and investing ~12-13 hours when you could be done in 4 might not be as appealing to you.
I would say have fun, but you don’t have fun when you watch Berserk. Like the battle-hardened members of the Band of the Hawk, you endure.