Review/discussion about: Berserk (2016)
Berserk (2016) (or just Berserk for short) has this “soup” that one of the characters tries to eat. A soup filled with sludge, unidentifiable remnants, and a finger or two.
It looked downright nasty; just thinking about it makes me want to puke. It reminds me of the cough medicine my mother used to give me when I was kid. She would fill the cap with the purple, foul-smelling liquid, hoping that I would down the grape-flavored concoction.
I hated the taste. To the point that I would put the medicine in my mouth, shake my head at her, and spit it all back out into her cupped hands. Unsurprisingly, I got sick quite a lot.
Berserk does not provide a cure for anything, and it doesn’t exactly “taste” horrible. But it certainly is not the easiest anime to digest – in more ways than one.
Berserk follows Guts, the infamous Black Swordsman, a mysterious man who wanders the world alone. As he hunts demons, and the demons hunt him, Guts embarks on a journey to see through his personal vendetta against the man who wronged him – all while protecting the only person he holds dear.
What cannot be understated is how violent the anime is. While today the depiction of killing and the like is normal, Berserk scoffs at such pleasantries. Rape is common. Torture is expected. Gore is inescapable. The more the audience watches the anime, the more they become desensitized to the burning bodies, the hanging entrails, and the nonconsenting advances.
This presentation of a variety of vile behavior is not something that the show does just for shock value or just for entertainment. True, it is eye opening when the flesh of a person melts away when they are consumed by a jelly monster. And, sure, Guts smashing in half a handful of knights with one swing of his sword is hard not to appreciate. But a more important point exists beyond the immediate reactions one may have.
One of Berserk’s major motifs is the notion of sin. As can be gleaned from these couple of paragraphs, a lot of that is constantly going on. However, it’s not only the sins themselves that matter but how they affect the world and its people.
It gets at this direction through its religious incorporations. Farnese and her Holy Knights. Father Mozgus and his purging inquisition. The monks, the prayers, and the scriptures. Throughout almost the entire season, religion and sin fight against one another as readily as Guts fights his enemies.
In this world, though, religion is painted in a very negative light. They keep food from the poor, they wrongly accuse people of crimes, and they believe that their grotesque actions are justified by God’s words.
On the opposite end, sin is by no means deified. But it certainly looks more appealing or, if nothing else, relatable. Doing something for one’s self versus for others. Taking part in instinctual desires like casual sex and simple survival. Fighting against conformity.
The pseudo-subplot of Nina “versus” Luca also serves Berserk’s and these intentions. Nina, a very average person, does her best in this messed-up world. But, sometimes, she has thoughts of selfishness like wanting to abandon “Elaine” or willing to let go of Luca. Luca, by contrast, is purely good, supporting the other women through body shielding and word-filled comfort. Where Nina represents the normalcy of sin in everyday people, Luca represents the notion that goodness, no matter how horrible it all may seem, will never truly die out.
While the action and the plot arguably take precedence over these ideas, it’s reassuring to see Berserk challenge the more conventional take on religion by saying, no, it’s not as hunky-dory as one is led to believe.
Unfortunately, the show’s questionable and weak writing choices mire much of the narrative, quelling this message to a degree that the anime never intended.
For example, the anime includes instances of comedy. Puck using his “abilities” or Isidro hiding his erection are the show’s attempts to, however slightly, offset the despair and the debauchery with laughter. But, since Berserk swings so far in the other direction, these moments are unnecessary at worst and jarring at best.
The plot itself also has problems. The first few episodes are there to establish the setting (a disease-ridden world swarmed with monsters) and introduce some of the main players (Guts, Farnese, etc.) Afterwards, though, the show doesn’t know what to do. Guts’s self-proclaimed mission to take out all the Apostles gets pushed aside, and the whole second half of the anime can be boiled down to “save Casca for the four hundredth time.”
This second point is interesting. Part of Berserk’s goal is to depict Guts suffering. Not just on a physical level but on a mental one as well. So, when the anime depicts him losing Casca again. And again. And again. It starts to tax on the audience, too. So, while the plot is unsatisfying, it’s purposefully done to relate to the main protagonist. Still, there are only so many times that Casca barely slipping through Guts’s grasp can be considered a valid plot point.
Other plot points are likewise not as sound.
Near the end of the third episode, the anime depicts a large city rampant with troubles, the death of a king, and a young woman (who is calling out for Griffith) who will inherit her father’s role – just as another nation begins their attack. Yet, afterwards, this city and this girl are never shown again, and that attacking nation (presumably it’s them) only shows up twice more. Once as they tail Guts and once more right as Griffith is reborn.
The whole forgotten-man-turned-world-egg seems a bit more out there and a lot more convenient in regards to the narrative. Sure, the anime alluded to this weird creature in the shadows constantly in the second half of the season, but the explanation behind what he is and what he can do is shoved into a huge exposition scene, creating more confusion than answers.
The reunion between Guts and Casca lost momentum since it got cutoff way too early.
Death plops into the events without much care.
Nina and Joachim have a mishandled romance.
The list of poor plot points goes on and on and on.
Berserk also relies way too much on sexual material. The horse-molestation scene with Farnese, the downright bizarre goat-worshipping fornication ritual, and the pressure-torture of women’s breasts are the more prominent examples. But they quickly illustrate that, sometimes, the anime can go overboard with (consensual or not) sex.
It also has trouble maintaining moral ambiguity. Far too often, the evilness of the situation is overly obvious. Father Mozgus popping multiple arteries in his face or the constancy of men who are nothing more than degenerates leave little to interpret. Granted, insane priests and ugly rapists are nothing but evil, but, when the anime is trying to balance such weighty topics as religion and sin, its inability to use subtlety in delivering in its themes only hurts itself in the long run.
As it is, Berserk has a lot of meaningful ideas to deliver. It’s unfortunate, then, that they are lost among the negatives that plague it for almost the whole way through.
Arguably, where most people have issues with Berserk is in its artistic merit.
The quick spiel is that the anime chooses a three-dimensional approach, especially with its characters, for most of its run. An approach that ultimately falls flat (or rather bounces spherically off the sidewalk and into the street only for a car to then flatten it, but the idea is still the same).
The fairer spiel is that Berserk’s look is not as awful as it may first appear to be.
On their own, the character designs, like that of Guts or Farnese, have a respectable level of detail and thought. Guts’s spiky, black hair. The knives, bombs, and shoulder plates he wears. The billowing cape that hides his behemoth of a sword. Farnese, with her golden locks, dons pink-and-white armor. A figurative shield that protects her sadism with femininity and kindness.
Their designs (as well as those of the others) also take advantage of shadowing. Darker lines often blanket parts of their faces or necks, adding extra detail or depth to their normal looks.
However, the three-dimensional direction falls apart in its repetition, stiffness, and general lack of polish. Enemies or knights are just cloned one right after another. Most of the characters move in an animatronic style rather than with fluid, believable motions. And a lot of the designs that aren’t the main cast tend to look either goofy or overly ridiculous.
Berserk does tease its audience with two-dimensional, highly detailed art very sparingly. A shot of Guts’s grizzled face or an intimate scene between Luca and Jerome demonstrates what the anime could look like had the creators gone such a route. Whether it infuriates or complements the work is up for the viewer to decide, but it’s not a stretch to say that the what-could-be is far better looking than the what-it-is.
Although, even the two-dimensional aspects are worrisome. Choppy sections are hard to watch, and weird still frames try for spookiness but only end up raising eyebrows.
At the minimum, the demonic and religious imagery, such as the skulls and the crosses, as well as the use of duller, darker colors (lots of grays, blacks, browns) create a bleak atmosphere that aligns with the anime’s tone and content.
While Berserk’s story and its art are not in the best of spots come the end of this first season, its characters are in a rather respectable place. Or at least, they are a lot stronger than whatever else the anime offers.
As the main protagonist, Guts stands as one of the most interesting members of the cast. The peculiarity of his character comes from a paradox of sorts: a lot is known about him, but not much is known about him.
That sounds weird, right? But it makes sense. Guts is a person whose past is mired in tragedy. It’s what the anime shows through bits of his flashbacks: the massacre of his friends, the mental loss of his woman, the betrayal of his best friend. It’s also what the anime shows on him: a missing arm, a shut eye, a massive weapon that symbolizes the burdens he carries.
Yet, the audience doesn’t really know him. Those small snippets barely give any detail beyond what must be hypothesized, the non-tragic backstory moments are very few and far between, and his outward characteristics mean almost nothing to him as he wields and wears them all with ease.
So, what gives? What does Guts have going for him currently?
Discussed earlier, Berserk focuses a large deal on religion and sin. To this end, and biblically speaking, Guts is a walking antichrist. He views demons as “miracles.” He mocks the church and their teachings. He cares very little for his own life and the lives of others.
Expanding on this last point, Guts truly only cares about one person: Casca. The comparison is striking. Where Jesus would sacrifice himself to save all, Guts would murder everyone to save just one.
He has a similar revelation after visiting with the blacksmith. He chastises himself for going off on his own (presumably again) and leaving Casca alone when, in reality, she’s all that matters to him. The first three episodes did not establish this motivation of his, so his thoughts and turnaround are not the most impactful. Still, he steels himself, ready to take out anyone and everyone that may stray onto his path.
Yet Guts’s most important contribution as the antithesis to Christ is how he influences the people around him.
Isidro follows Guts in the hopes of becoming his apprentice. Or, at the very least, doing his best to learn from him. So, naturally, he follows the Black Swordsman wherever he goes.
Puck, the blue and floating spirit, tags along, too. But, rather than learning from Guts, Puck chooses to oversee Guts and his exploits – while also seeing the truth behind him and the situation. He annoys Guts, but Puck occasionally helps the weathered warrior (albeit in comedic fashion).
Serpico appears rather reserved at first glance. But, once Guts treats Farnese a bit too harshly for his (Serpico’s) own liking, he takes it upon himself to strike at Guts. Another way to put it, Serpico and Guts are rivals, a brains-versus-brawn dichotomy that won’t give either way.
Casca, the addled woman that Guts sacrifices himself for, doesn’t pay him any mind. Despite his feelings and his obvious actions to save her, she looks at him the same way as everybody else (save for Griffith, given her reaction upon his rebirth). She shows the audience that even Guts, despite his special powers and aura, cannot fully influence everyone around him.
But by far the most interesting is his relationship with Farnese who is very much the best character of the season.
Their initial meeting starts with swords raised, and, already, Farnese demonstrates she is no match for Guts, beating him only due to fatigue on his part. When she unfairly holds him in her tent, his lambasting of God and her own mindset sends her into a furious rage. She lashes Guts with a whip, and, as atonement later in the night, she lashes herself. Thus, Farnese starts as a seemingly pious woman who shows weakness of both body and mind.
Guts soon kidnaps her to keep himself protected, and an interesting detail surfaces: She cannot see Puck due to her narrowmindedness. The subsequent set of events she goes through – the rabid dogs, the cannibalistic man-servant, the ghost that possesses her – begin to warp her worldview. Not enough to change it completely but enough to make her despise Guts for who he is and what he has shown her.
The two don’t interact for a while. Guts runs to save Casca, and Farnese, alongside Father Mozgus, deals with the “questioning” of the refugees. During this time, Farnese’s leadership and sanity are questioned in return. She failed to capture the Black Swordsman, and she cannot seem to control or direct the Holy Knights properly. And she acts strangely content as people burn alive before her. Her faith renewed due to Father Mozgus’s own devout prostration before Him.
Yet the sights of unjust acts, like a mother forced into torture or a bully wrongly accused, haunt her. Though her mind does it most. A nightmare from her childhood, where adults cheered her on for taking part in the burning of heretics, does not just make her orgasm. It makes her question herself.
Guts’s eventual arrival angers Farnese. Both because of her embarrassment at failing in her mission and at having to potentially run into the man that has challenged what she thinks. In retaliation, and in bit of karmic retribution, she kidnaps Casca, taking her back to the nearby tower. There, she learns that she will be removed from this current mission soon, angering her further. But only until she witnesses the summoning of a malformed monster. For then fright overtakes her once more.
She inevitably “runs into” Guts – their first interaction since parting ways at the mansion – and he forces her to come with him despite her extreme apprehension. There, in the torture room, she finally sees Puck, indicating that her mindset has indeed begun to shift.
During Guts battle with Father Mozgus and his “angels,” the situation continues to terrify Farnese, causing her more and more to wonder what’s really right and what’s really, really wrong. She hardly participates, simply watching as Guts shatters everything before her (both literally and figuratively).
The final fight on the wall, where everyone uses flames to stop the monster’s encroachment, pushes Farnese hard enough to change her completely. Guts’s steadfastness – despite the doom, the malignancies, and the evil that surrounds them – awes Farnese. She no longer sees Guts as this cruel, despicable man but rather as a beacon of hope. A shining light amidst the unfathomable darkness. In her own words, “He still stands and refuses to back down in this overwhelming nightmare. In all of this, he is the only certainty!”
She ditches praying at Guts command and stands her ground with the others. Afterwards, once Griffith is reborn and Guts gives chase (with Casca in tow), Farnese also abandons the Holy Knights. Choosing instead to follow Guts, the man that challenged her. In a way, given what Guts represents, she’s merely swapping one god for another. But such blasphemy highlights just how much she has changed – and just how far she is willing to go.
Farnese directly coincides with the anime’s ideas on religion and sin. How the two are different and, indeed, closely linked. Combined with her solid characterization and tangible development, Farnese proves that Berserk, when it wants to, can provide strong, worthwhile material.
Another major complaint that most have with this season is its sound-effects. More specifically, Guts’s sword hitting his enemies – be they blobs, stone, or armor-wearing humans – overuses a clang upon impact. While it makes sense that it would make this sound, since it is a giant slab of metal, such complaints are valid, for it diminishes the overall execution of the fights when they all start to sound so similar and lack finesse.
The opening track, though, hits the mark. Its heavy-metal composition, through fast drums and wicked guitar playing, give it a (coincidentally enough) heavy and cool feeling. Interspersed throughout the first half of the piece are lighter moments where the guitar is more soothing than frantic – only for the second half to give way to that overbearing metal sound. The effect becomes a small sense of hope in the beginning yet a constricted sense of despair by the end.
The ending track goes the complete opposite direction (as is common with OP and ED combos). It’s a much lighter, more mystical-sounding song with female vocals and acoustic guitar. Most importantly, it adopts a bittersweet feel that reapplies that glimmer of hope. That maybe, just maybe, everything will be all right – or at least better than how it all is now.
The rest of the original soundtrack goes for atmosphere and epic-ness. Grating violins and humming create the darker, scarier tone of the show. And the different choir sections, plus more heavy metal, make the action scenes and tenser moments more awesome than they would be otherwise.
As for the voice-acting performances, none are notable to discuss.
In the past, when people asked, “Which character has suffered the most?” Guts would nearly unanimously be the top reply. I never understood why. Not that I doubted the answer, but I didn’t think it was as bad as people made it out to be.
But I get it now.
He lost the people he considered family. His arm severed, the other parts of his body scarred permanently. The woman he loves more than anybody else in existence was brutally assaulted to the point of insanity. All at the hands of a single man, the person that Guts once considered his best of friends.
I should note that these words are all conjecture since the anime technically never shows any of it in large detail (although I expect them to do so in due time). Not that I need to see it let alone want to, but it’s not hard to understand that, even with just piecing all the information together, Guts has, indeed, suffered more than any other anime character.
This anime is another one where it pulls me along just for the fact that I need to make sure that a specific character is okay. I.e., Casca. I never like seeing a character in danger for long periods, so, if nothing else, the anime got me watching one episode after another just to make sure Casca was safe.
And, I should say, I do want to know what’s coming next. The duality, relationship, and conflict that Guts shares with Griffith is something that intrigues me a lot. Similar thoughts from me on the other characters. But unless the plot picks up in a significant way, the art gets a bit of a boost, and the action is more than just Guts swinging his sword (e.g., more interesting fights like that of Guts and Serpico’s duel on the cliffs), it’ll be a tough go once more – which may not be worth it.
Berserk (2016) is not without strengths. Its themes on the religious and the sinful are noteworthy, Farnese’s character is well thought out, and the OP is a heavy-metal hitter. But so much else – the weird writing, less-than-ideal art and animation, not much focus on most of the cast, improper use of sound-effects – belittle the experience. Hopefully it takes some cough medicine to cure its ailments before that next season arrives.
Story: Bad, while themes on religion and sin provide interesting talking points, much of the narrative is mired in awkward plot decisions, too much focus on sex, and a lack of moral ambiguity
Animation: Bad, nice character designs, more negative than positive artistic direction, and below average actual animation
Characters: Great, Guts’s backstory is kept mostly secret for now, but his influence on the others is tangible, and Farnese’s character, in arc, in substance, and in purpose, stands as the top highlight
Sound: Fine, good OP, okay ED, okay OST, okay VA performances, and bad sound-effects
Enjoyment: Fine, Guts really does suffer more than anybody
Final Score: 5/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3