What is this?
The lone mercenary Guts travels a land where a century-old war is raging. His ferocity and skill in battle attract the attention of Griffith, the leader of a group of mercenaries called the Band of the Hawk. Guts becomes Griffith’s closest ally and confidant, but despite all their victories, Guts begins to question why he fights for another man’s dream of ruling his own kingdom. Unknown to Guts, Griffith’s unyielding ambition is about to bestow a horrible fate on them both.
Berserk: The Golden Age Arc – Memorial Edition is a TV cut of Studio 4°C‘s Berserk: The Golden Age Arc films with new scenes included. The anime is based on the late Kentarou Miura‘s manga, Berserk. The series is streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu.
How was the first episode?
Writing about this show is…intimidating. Partly because even a year later, Kentaro Miura’s death – which this “memorial edition” broadcast is meant to honor – still stings pretty badly. Partially it’s because I’m kind of at a loss of what to say. This is a TV recut of the “Golden Age” movies from 2012-13, and will mark the third time I’ve seen this particular version of this portion of Berserk alongside two viewings of the 90’s TV anime and three full read-throughs of the manga. My brain has been bathed in this world, these characters, and this slice of the narrative enough times to count as a medical condition. I expect most others coming to this re-cut are in a similar position, and don’t need me to tell you if it’s worth watching. So you know what? Let’s have some fun. Let’s pretend you and I are both total Berserk neophytes, analyze this episode as if it’s somebody’s actual first impression of the franchise, and see how it stands up.
In that context, this premiere is…interesting. Flawed, a bit dated, but definitely interesting. Mostly that comes from the sheer scale of it all. While the CG here isn’t amazing by modern standards, it’s utilized excellently to sell the size and brutality of the opening battle. This kind of enormous medieval siege is an incredibly ambitious thing to animate, and the direction here perfectly captures the sense of bloody, disorganized insanity you want from this type of spectacle. It doesn’t mix perfectly with the traditional 2D animation, but it’s a fair trade-off for the impact it affords for the story. The smaller scale action also looks great, and translates the razor’s edge, life-or-death energy of a samurai film to the European setting perfectly. There’s real tension to every sword swing, and the show’s willingness to show limbs flying, bones shattering, and viscera spilling out of sloppy cuts gives it all a palpable weight.
As for the actual narrative…well that’s harder to say. Mostly because our main character, Guts (is that…really his name?) spends most of the episode violently opposed to getting involved in it. He’s only interested in money, and food to buy with that money, and any attempts to get him involved in anything else are met with the edge of a broadsword. It certainly gives him personality, but doesn’t exactly make him likable as leading man – especially not when his interactions to the sole female character so far are “what, a woman fighter?” and getting punched in his sword wound. Really, it’s his interactions with the enigmatic mercenary leader Griffith that make Guts tolerable – his gruff and simple nature acts as a very amusing foil to the refined, unknowable deportment of his new boss. Plus, I mean, they’re pressing the homoeroticism button about as hard as they can, yeah?
Still, while Guts isn’t the most engaging or sympathetic lead, he does fit well for the sort of gristly low-fantasy story he’s in, and I’m definitely curious to see more of it. It’s brutal and more than a bit edgy, but manages to mostly back that up with some real atmosphere rather than feeling cheap or tawdry. If you can stomach violence – and aren’t opposed to said violence having a lot of CGI – then this seems like a solid pick.
Here’s what I remember about the 2012 Berserk movie trilogy: they had a graphic (enough) sex scene,
which is when my mother walked into the room and began a running commentary. It’s the sort of
experience that lives on in your nightmares. Oh, and I also seem to recall that it had pretty terrible
animation, something that this reworking of those same films has not overcome; I am particularly struck
by the fact that what is clearly supposed to be Guts’ insouciant swagger looks rather more like he’s
walking while constipated. But terrible as it is, at least the horses don’t look as bad as the one in I’m the Villainess, So I’m Taming the Final Boss. We must be grateful for the small things.
All flippancy aside, while this is a more faithful adaptation of the source manga than previous animated
attempts, it also isn’t especially captivating. The story opens on standard fantasy medieval warfare, with
siege towers, pikemen, mercenaries, and everything except the boiling oil. Guts immediately sets
himself apart in his impressive takedown of Bazuso, the man with a giant ego and a codpiece to match.
Whether Guts’ triumph is skill or luck is called into question when he runs into Griffith, the
preternaturally beautiful leader of the Band of the Hawk; Guts is, unquestionably, skilled, but he’s also
clearly young and not quite as hardened as he thinks he is. He’s also apparently allergic to being told
what to do, which is the set up for his relationship with Griffith and Casca, because as we see from
Griffith’s sexist ordering of Casca to sleep naked next to a healing Guts, he’s a man who enjoys ordering
around other people.
Most of what this episode has to offer is the start of a fraught relationship between the three named
characters, a grounding in its fantasy medieval setting, and lots of gore. While it’s certainly more
historically accurate than your average pseudo-Medieval fantasy tale, the draw here appears to be the
battle scenes (and Casca naked, complete with the usually elusive pubic hair). I admit that I’ve lost my
tolerance for a lot of gore since my mother’s accident last year, but if that’s not an issue for you and
you’re interested in seeing a closer-to-the-manga TV series, this is probably worth giving a few episodes.
Look. I love Berserk. I’ve been reading it religiously for over half of my life at this point. I’ve watched
every anime adaptation and played every game—even those on the PS2 and Dreamcast. As far as I am
concerned, it is the defining dark fantasy of my generation. So when a Berserk anime is on TV, I’ll
check it out—even if it is an edited for TV version of the 2012 film series. But while this is supposedly
a remaster, it doesn’t look it. This TV edit still has all the problems of the film—namely in the CG
While it can (and often does) look great in the traditionally animated conversations and one-on-one
fights, the big battles look so bad its jarring. The same few CG models are used again and
again—which includes the faces of every soldier on the battlefield outside of named characters. Their
animation is likewise jerky and robotic rather than natural looking. But honestly, the worst bit is the
choppy frame rate in certain scenes which makes it look like it was rendered poorly and no one noticed.
As for the story, well, it’s fantastic. This first episode is a perfect introduction to Guts. It shows his first
battle against a skilled warrior, his first meeting with the Band of the Hawk, and his first big duel with
Griffith. It lets us know what kind of person he is and shows us why Griffith is so interested in this kid
with a comically large sword. It also does a good job of passively introducing us to the numerous
members of the supporting cast who will become more and more important as the story moves on.
So in the end, while I look forward to the posts and articles detailing every change from the theatrical
version over the coming season, as a hardcore fan, I’m not sure that it’s worth a weekly watch based on
what I’ve seen in this episode. And if you’re a Berserk newbie, I’d probably still recommend the 1997
anime to this one—even if this one does stick closer to the original manga’s story.
It’s been a hot minute since I last sat down to read Berserk (as in, Obama was still the President of the United States and the first Frozen film was in the middle of taking over the world), but even though the finer details of Guts and Griffith’s Bogus Journey elude me, you never really forget the raw power of Berserk‘s imagery. Kento Miura was a one-of-a-kind artist, capable of etching the raw brutality and mythic beauty of Berserk‘s world onto the page in a way that gave everything a distinct sense of history, of weight. Artwork like that leaves an impression that lasts beyond even the context of the narrative it was drawn to depict.
All of this is to say that, unfortunately, I don’t know if there was ever going to be a version of Berserk Golden Age Memorial Edition that was truly “good”, per se. It was very much a mixed bag back when it was a brand-new movie in 2012 (which is, funnily enough, the last time I read the manga, since the release of the film inspired me to check it out). A decade later, now that it has been chopped up into bite-sized television morsels, Golden Age remains a mixed bag, and I’d argue that time has not allowed it to age gracefully.
Granted, the guts (haha) of the story are still just as they were, which is to say that they’re quite good, so there’s only so bad that this anime can be, too. Guts and Griffith have an extremely compelling dynamic, Casca is as fiery and magnetic as ever, and the story’s dark and bloody setting will still be just the thing for any Game of Thrones or Witcher die-hards that are looking for a similar fix. The art itself isn’t even particularly terrible looking; sure, it seems awfully bright and flat, given the manga that it is adapting, but it isn’t exactly EX-ARM or anything.
The problem is that, either because of the mismatched aesthetic sensibilities, or because of the clumsy mashup of 2D and 3D art, the anime just feels completely wrong. Outside of a scant few cuts, none of the characters move or bleed or die with the weight and the texture that is a completely integral aspect of Berserk‘s identity. Take the extended battle with the cartoonish-looking helmeted guy at the top of the premiere: No matter how hard he and Guts scream and thrash about, the fight literally looks like a couple of kids just smashing their action figures together in some dirty playground sandbox.
This is one of those instances where the anime is worse than its source material in every conceivable way. I don’t think the anime is entirely worthless, but whatever merits it has have been stolen from its superior source material. If you’re curious at all about Berserk—and you absolutely should be—just read the manga instead.
Apparently I got some things mixed up going into this premiere, because I was fully expecting Berserk: The Golden Age Arc – Memorial Edition to be entirely clunky, ugly CG like that one famously hideous adaptation from 2016. I was pleasantly surprised that the episode is only about, oh, 50% clunky, ugly CG, while the other half has some very nice hand-drawn character animation. However, it did mostly make me wish I was watching the 1997 adaptation instead.
But most people don’t have access to that one, do they? This is most people’s best shot to see the Golden Age arc of Berserk in animated form, and it’s certainly not a bad way to go about it as far as I can tell. Sure, the opening battle scene goes on way too long and it’s clearly paced to be the first half hour of a movie instead of the first episode of a TV series, but the writing is still there. The most important thing for the episode to convey was Griffith’s charisma and his power to create a devoted ally out of nearly anyone. Considering my friend, a Berserk newbie, described him as a “mercurial femboy,” I’d say it succeeded.
Guts and Casca, the other two main characters introduced here, are considerably less enigmatic; Guts is your typical gruff loner mercenary out for himself, and Casca is devoted to Griffith but also pissed off at, well, pretty much everything. Considering the treatment she gets as the sole female member of the Band of the Hawks, ordered to do things like sleep with Guts because that’s her role as a woman, I can hardly blame her. Plus, Guts mutilated her horse and left the poor thing to suffer! That’s unacceptable and it was strangely vindicating that she not only recognized it, but smacked him and yelled at him for it. But then again, her butt just happens to land in front of the camera a lot.
It’s just that visually, it’s not much of a stunner. Oh, sure, the original’s animation was very limited, but it was well-storyboarded and choreographed, and pretty much every other aspect of the production made up for what it lacked. This is a stark reminder of just how much CG animation has come in the last decade, provided it’s in the hands of competent people. Guts handles his huge sword like it’s made of balsa wood, and it has a similar level of impact when it hits things. The hand-drawn animation is good, though I feel like certain shots would have had more impact on a movie screen, and there’s something off about the color palette.
This is not the optimal way to experience Berserk. Not even close. But it’s something, and until the old TV series is released from licensing hell, I don’t have any other suggestions beyond shelling out for the manga volumes.