"Berserk: The Golden Age" Arc Trilogy - Anime Film Review
In 2012, a project was conceived to translate the entirety of the long-running Berserk storyline to animation. In 1997, a twenty-five episode anime was produced that covered the earliest arc of the Berserk timeline, but for the films, they've decided to return to the very beginning and start anew. Those who have already read the manga and watched the anime will find that the first three films of the new project, which make up the Golden Age Arc, tread on a lot of familiar ground. These people will probably appreciate the films for what they are at face value: more Berserk. For everyone else, the films will serve as a fine introduction to the hard-hitting franchise. Do be aware, that the films fully embrace the fact that they do not have to conform to cable television standards. They contain a great deal of mature subject matter, not limited to violence, gore, torture, and even rape. Berserk shows little discretion, following the adage of "showing and not telling" in a very literal manner. If this hasn't been enough to sicken you into clicking the back button, then do read on -- because I have a lot to say about this trilogy.
Part I - Egg of the Supreme Ruler
The first film of the three is also the shortest, clocking in at a mere 76 minutes. This turns out to be just enough time to introduce most of the important characters of the arc, to begin to flesh out a select few of them, and to establish the setting and mood of series. Remaining minutes are used to cram in as much violence and bloodshed as is possible -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The most important introductions made in the film are those for Guts, and the mercenaries who make up the Band of the Hawk. Guts is the main protagonist of Berserk, and for a rather long time, he comes across as a testosterone-driven parody of the idea of masculinity. He is a brutal swordsman, with about thirty rippling abs, who has a seemingly complete lack of empathy for others. We find, as we watch, that he is not as cold-hearted as we were initially led to believe. As the story progresses, Guts goes from being a likable two-dimensional character, to being a three-dimensional one that we can relate to.
The two notable characters of the Band of the Hawk are Griffith and Casca. Casca is the only female commander of the band. Early in the film, when Guts is ambushed by a number of soldiers whom he easily slaughters, Casca, herself, mounts as a horse to engage him. She is also defeated, but before Guts can kill her, he is stopped by Griffith, the androgynous and cryptic leader of the band. Acknowledging Gut's skill, Griffith attempts to recruit him to the band but fails to do so. It is not until Griffith bests Guts in a one-on-one duel, that Guts reluctantly consents to joining . A three-year time lapse occurs, and Guts is, himself, of the rank of commander. This is where the story truly begins.
The relationships among the three characters, Guts, Casca, and Griffith, are often the point of focus in the Berserk films. Themes of love, comradery, loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and friendship are all explored. The first film, specifically, concludes with both Guts and Casca being forced to reflect on their roles. It seems to end somewhat prematurely, but when one accepts that Egg of the Supreme Ruler is only meant as the introduction of the trilogy, and that the three films will make up one cohesive unit -- that is, they are not episodic -- one can appreciate the movie for what it contains, instead of what it lacks.
Part II - The Battle for Doldrey
The structure of the second film in the trilogy, the Battle for Doldrey, is somewhat perplexing. It feels very much like two separate stories, told one after the other. While the transition between the two episodes is mildly jarring, both contribute a lot towards characterization and the building of inter-character relationships -- the first for Guts and Casca, and the second for all three of the main characters.
In the first segment, Casca is wounded in battle, and falls off the edge of a cliff. Guts, in trying to catch her, is pulled from his horse. He too takes the fall, attempting to shield Casca's head from a blunt impact. At the bottom, Guts is forced to treat the unconscious Casca's wounds. While she sleeps, we are shown a tragic flashback of her life, showing how she came to be a member of Griffith's band. When she awakes, and after she is done spewing vitriolic comments at Guts, we begin to see the development of a friendship between the two. It takes the massacre of over one-hundred enemy soldiers to drive the point home to Casca, but it does happen. And as a viewer, this was a feel-good moment for me, even with the backdrop of a field of corpses.
The second, and larger portion of the film focuses on the titular Battle for Doldrey and its aftermath. This is a time in the Berserk storyline where many things unfold very quickly. We see bloodshed and military conquest, of course, but we also see the more humane-side of many characters. We see see heroes raised up and lauded, and granted noble. And we see heroes fall, stripped of rank, and branded traitors. The first film of the trilogy could not reasonably be labeled light-hearted entertainment. However, the second film ends on a much darker note, and with the implication that the third will be darker, still.
Part III - Descent
Descent, indeed. In the third, and longest film of the trilogy, we see everything that's good in the world spiral downward into an abyss. This is both a blessing, and a curse. While Descent is about as emotionally moving as any animated movie I've ever seen, it also left me feeling somewhat dirty about the human race.
Early in the film, we are shown the results of an entire year of torture on the human body, and it's enough to move Guts, the paragon of stoicism, to the point of tears.Following this scene of torture, is an exaggerated scene of revenge. It is a bloodbath, but it's one that feels right. As a viewer, we desire to see despicable acts punished. However, as the darkest film of the trilogy continues, and things get even worse, we are left hoping for justice or vengeance that never comes. We are affronted by another theme of the series: the utter selfishness of man.
The Golden Age ends with the arrival of the Age of Darkness, and it goes out with a bang. "Genocide", "dismemberment", "rape", and "death" are all words that accurately summarize the final hour or so of Descent. It is powerfully moving, but difficult to watch -- and for this purpose, I consider it a success of the film medium. There isn't much closure, but somehow that feels appropriate. It leaves us with a sense of anger, and feeling beaten down and weak -- but not entirely without hope. We want things desperately to get better, but we know how slim the prospects for that are. There is no fairy tale ending here, and that's something I am able to appreciate.
The CGI Elephant in the Corner
In many areas, I have nothing but good things to say about the Golden Age Arc films. I applaud the characters and the story, and I respect Berserk for having the courage to go all-out with its subject matter. I like that it embraces its own violence and sexual themes. I like the structure and setting of its world, which is inspired by medieval Europe, but has been tainted with elements of the fantastic and the demonic. And I, personally, am a fan of the films' soundtracks and voice acting, even if they don't quite measure up to the high standards set by the 1997 anime. However, the three films that make up this trilogy have an absolute love-affair with CGI -- and it's not always good CGI either.
At the best of times, frames of Berserk have been polished over with a fresh coat of CGI-paint that makes armor shiny, and grants texture to objects. This, I haven't a problem with. However, more commonly, the artists cut corners by creating as many objects as they can with CGI. Frequently, we see pillars, walls, or siege weapons that look uncomfortably out of place with the rest of a scene. We even see entire battles illustrated this way, which is an absolute shame for many reasons. Most pathetically, the frame rate actually appears to drop during the CGI scenes -- as if this were a video game pushing its polygon-limit. This lag-effect would be bothersome enough, if we weren't also keenly aware that every soldier that isn't a key character is copied and pasted. That is, they all look exactly the same. Not helping anything, either, is that the CGI horses never seem to be actually coming in contact with the CGI ground. And I'd rather not even discuss how poorly-rendered animal fur is. This is one area where the animation team should have used discretion, and simply animated things by hand.
Despite the overabundance of atrociously poor CGI, I am very glad to have watched these films. While they are imperfect, the good far outweighs the bad, and anime fans seeking out a grittier film to watch would do well to check them out.
Final Rating: 8.0 out of 10.0