Review: Berserk (1997)

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Berserk is not anime for the faint hearted, in more ways than one. Yes, it’s violent, and probably you will have expected that, anticipated eagerly even. After all, what is one supposed to think about a series whose main character is called Guts? One look at that cleaver that passes for a sword he carries is enough to tip off anyone; that is if his scarred, torn and inherently violent demeanour wasn’t already setting off all the alarms within a ten-mile radius.

Huge, impossibly broad shouldered, dark and brooding, this is not a man who is a hero because he likes the warm feeling that a good deed brings. Guts is a driven man with a tortured past to avenge that reaches far beyond current events. This much is evident in his torn, bedraggled appearance in the first five minutes of episode one. However, in order to understand how this story ends, it is necessary to first return to the place where it starts.

It’s an age-old narrative device. Give the audience a taste of the present, encumbered with its dark secrets and violent realities, and then throw them into the past. The pull of mystery, of piecing the puzzle together as events unravel towards the inevitable, is just too strong to resist. To see the contrast between the seemingly doomed Guts and his younger, less world-weary self is hook enough – it almost becomes an imperative to discover what makes him become as he is. But that is not the strongest current in this remarkably sophisticated series. When Guts meets Griffith, is defeated with an equal measure of grace, beauty and steel, and agrees to join the mercenary group, the famed Band of the Hawk there’s only one thing to think.

I have a very, very bad feeling about this.

Why? Well, if I have to tell you the narrative isn’t doing as good a job as I thought. History is populated with individuals whose passions, ambitions change the world, on whom events hinge, whose charisma generates a certain sense of unavoidable gravity. The character of Griffith has been drawn from such a page. His angelic appearance, almost in direct opposition to Guts’ rough edged earthiness, seems to anticipate a fall. He is magnetic in the extreme, reaching even beyond the bounds of the screen and it impossible to ignore the ease with which he seduces those around him. But does his purity of purpose hide something darker, something ominous? It seems so. Yet even sensing this it is still entirely understandable how and why Guts, with his bull-headed, traumatised, narrowly focused personality, falls under Griffith’s spell.

And the deeper Guts falls, the closer it brings him to a fate where only the two of them will stand.

That’s my guess at any rate, not that this series could be labelled predictable of course. Purely by virtue of the questions it raises and the levels at which they are asked there is something unique about this particular sword and sorcery anime epic that will keep you thinking. Guts is not some brainless war- monger but an intelligent, feeling character at odds with his own heart, isolated in his quest not for revenge but self awareness and personal freedom. And neither are the surrounding characters completely stereotyped support. They are, in their own brief way as realistic individuals as Guts and Griffith themselves, from the Princess of Blade Caska and her blind devotion to her leader to the charming innocence of the company assassin Judeau.

With such a cast, and with what looks to be an increasingly complex knot of relationships this is a series that involves, that demands a measure of emotional investment. You might find, as you work your way through this first volume of Berserk, that it’s a measure in generous portion. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

8 Grim, Cleaver-wielding Heroes out of 10.
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