If there’s one series that people come to me with questions more than Umineko no Naku Koro ni, that’d have to be the Berserk series.
Kentaro Miura’s legendary dark fantasy series is one of the most influential manga ever written, and still holds up today as an intricately woven story about fate, betrayal and cutting several men in half at once with a huge sword. Both in Japan and the west it’s celebrated widely as such, and has spawned several adaptations of the original manga.
None of them are perfect – I’ll be clear and say that right from the start. However, some are worse than others. And it’s my job, as someone who was stupid enough to consume everything this series has produced – well, everything apart from the games, unfortunately – to tell you what the best adaptation of the series is, and how well they all stack up against each other.
For the sake of my sanity and also time, I’ve decided this time just to focus on the Golden Age arc. I’ll be talking about all three Golden Age arc movies and the 1997 TV series, but that doesn’t mean to say that I won’t be getting around to talking about the post-Golden Age adaptations one day – but to try and squeeze that conversation into this post would be doing that critique a severe disservice.
What’s essential for the Golden Age arc in conception is it’s existence as an answer to the questions posed during the manga’s first Black Swordsman arc. Originally, the manga opened with three volumes of a dark, tormented Guts, who firmly sat on the border between hero and villain. It was this grimdark approach that set the tone of the entire series as it would go on to continue for years to come, and firmly underpins the Golden Age arc as a concept.
We want to see what made Guts that much of a tortured soul, how he got his giant sword, mechanical hand, his right eye blinded, and how he got that Brand. Furthermore, we want to know the story behind his and Griffith’s relationship – how does Guts have such a strong relationship with a bad guy? Did something happen between them? It’s these questions that lead us into the Golden Age arc and make us excited to experience it, at least initially before the merits of the arc itself come to the fore.
Unfortunately, none of the adaptations get this aspect of the Golden Age arc quite right. The movies forgo the Black Swordsman arc entirely, which removes a significant part of the initial appeal of the Golden Age arc. The TV series does include an episode based on the Black Swordsman arc, but only one episode isn’t enough to pique the audience’s curiosity to the extent that the manga does. It does, however, provide us some context to the character development of Guts, as we see him both as a tortured soul and a lost young man. Since the movies don’t have this, we can only judge Guts’ character development on it’s own merits during the arc.
Even so, it’s not as if the TV series is perfect in providing the context for the Golden Age which makes it so compelling in the original manga. Several elements were changed for the TV series, such as the decision to omit Puck and the God Hand, and stating that Griffith is the ‘king’ instead of a demon lord. The overall thesis to provide context for the Golden Age is still present, but the differing elements mean that the exact same effect isn’t achieved. More concretely, the omission of the God Hand and most of the other high fantasy elements means that when the series shifts into higher fantasy towards the end of the Golden Age, an anime-only viewer could be confused as there was no prior warning that the series had the potential to become such, apart from arguably the subplot concerning Nosferatu Zodd.
Yet, an adaptation must adapt to be successful, so I can’t nit-pick for too long. The inherent differences between the mediums of manga and film/TV do necessitate that the story be changed somewhat, but it is still important to retain the ‘heart’ of the original, and both adaptations tackle this conundrum in different ways.
The movies choose to condense the Golden Age down into just three movies of no more than six hours all together. In the first movie, this decision becomes obvious as it tears through the initial events of the story, skipping many of Guts’ first battles with the Band of the Hawk. This means that Guts’ acceptance of his own position in the Band of the Hawk comes a lot quicker than in the manga and especially than in the TV series, which takes around 10 episodes to adapt the whole of Guts’ initial skirmishes with the Band of the Hawk. Even so, the movies are still able to accurately represent Guts’ development during these initial events, since they choose the most important scenes to do so. Meanwhile, the TV series uses it’s extended time to stretch out the source material far beyond the length it was supposed to be, making the first 10 episodes terribly boring, and hardly giving a good first impression.
Much the same can be said in examining how the two adaptations handle the characters of the Golden Age. Whereas the movies are able to effectively show the development of the main characters of Guts, Griffith and Casca, it can hardly compete with the TV series in terms of the side characters. Members of the Band of the Hawk such as Rickert, Corkus and Judeau are much more fully-rounded and explored, making them much more memorable in the TV series. Plus, the relationship between Guts and Casca from bitter hatred to love is much better signposted and developed in the TV series due to the longer period of time – we get to see Casca grow her hair out gradually as she accepts her femininity through her love for Guts, as well as Guts’ own growing affection for her through conversations with other characters. Several minor antagonists also feature that were cut from the movies, such as Samson, which gives more character to the otherwise abstract ‘enemy’ that the Band of the Hawk are fighting against. Therefore, although the movies do effectively represent the development of the key characters, ultimately the TV series allows the side characters to shine, creating a much more fully-rounded set of characters.
An oft-touted point when fans discuss Berserk adaptations is the production itself. Firstly, in terms of visuals, Miura’s artwork has always been some of the best the medium has to offer in terms of sheer artistry and detail, so naturally the bar for any adaptation’s visuals is always very high because of this.
This is somewhat of an unfair standard. The nature of TV animation means that the TV series would never be able to capture the same level of detail as Miura can. Rushed schedules and a low bar for quality means that the TV series employs some of the most tried and tested tricks in the industry, such as still shots and limited animation. Even the movies, which arguably have more time to perfect their visuals in order to better honour the manga’s, still only get halfway. The first movie is full of bad CG visuals, not just in terms of their janky movements but also in terms of bad, bland character designs that immediately take you out of the experience. The second movie improves, utilising a lot more 2D animation, and then the third movie contains virtually no CG – a wise choice to make, since the events of the third movie are arguably some of the most important in the entire series.
Even so, the level of detail in the visuals alone is not essential for producing a good Berserk adaptation. What is more important, is how the manga recreates the ‘feeling’ of the manga within the medium it is presented. The TV series uses an interesting method to try and achieve this, utilising a lot of stills and long cuts in order to better portray the meditative side of the series. An interesting video calls it the difference between the kinetic and the picturesque, which seems to fit the difference somewhat. However, it is important to recognise that although Berserk is mostly meditative, the fight scenes are also crucial to the story, since they often represent key turning points in character arcs and the story overall. As the TV series so often relies on stills and long shots, this in turn affects it’s ability to portray the fast pace and brutality of the fight scenes. In fact, it’s fight scenes are often the weakest parts of the show.
It would be nice to say, in order to offer a nice contrast, that the movies excel in their fight scenes (or more ‘kinetic’ elements) and are weak in their meditative moments, but this simply isn’t true. The movies’ meditative moments are about as good as those in the TV series, even if they don’t capture the same ‘picturesque’ feeling as the TV series. Furthermore, it’s fight scenes are much better due to much better usage of music and sound effects, even if they are hampered by some dodgy CGI. In general, this sets it apart in quality from the often silent soundscape of the TV series – which some would argue better reflects the manga, but I would argue that in order to produce a successful adaptation, the full range of capabilities that the cinematic medium has to offer must be used. Whereas the movies use music, voice acting, sound effects and animation together to tell the story and therefore craft a better rounded experience, it often seems at times that the TV series has forgotten the fact it has a soundtrack, instead choosing to keep most of it’s episodes completely silent, save for sound effects. This often bored me to tears, a feeling I couldn’t consider more alien to the original manga – baffling me further as to why many fans prefer the production of the TV series.
Another bafflingly overlooked element of the TV series is the poor direction that the series suffers from. Whereas the movies aren’t particularly inventive with their editing or cinematography, they do feel like a complete vision that mostly make sense as a cohesive whole. Meanwhile, the TV series is marred by strange directorial decisions that make me question the existence of a cohesive vision at all – one glaring example of this is the laughably out-of-place opening song, which gets even more laughably distasteful as the series plunges into darkness later on. Furthermore, cold cuts and strange editing choices are commonplace, which always bring me out of the experience. No doubt it was also a directorial choice to not use music, although such a decision honestly baffles me, especially from such an apparently experienced director as Naohito Takahashi.
The final nail in the coffin for the TV series comes in the form of how it continues into the later arcs of Berserk. I already talked about how the Golden Age is in itself an answer to the Black Swordsman arc, and in the same vein, the Golden Age serves an prologue to the rest of the story of Berserk. Even on it’s own merits, the end of the Golden Age is an irresistible lead-in to the rest of the story, since so many more conflicts and questions are created.
I don’t know who’s fault it is, but I will assume that it was director Takahashi’s decision to – for some reason – end the TV series about an episode early. You are left with an incredible cliff hangar, presuming you haven’t read the manga, and are deprived of an epilogue that occurs in the original manga. Not only will this infuriate any viewer, but also makes jumping straight into the next arc, be it in anime or manga form, virtually impossible. Key plot events take place in the last chapters of the Golden Age, which I won’t spoil, that are absolutely essential for the next twenty-plus years of Berserk. And considering that these later arcs are arguably better than the Golden Age, this infuriates me intensely.
However, it’s not like the movies are perfect in this sense either – but that’s not their fault. The epilogue to the Golden Age is included in the movies, and is done very well. Anyone who watched the movies would most likely be excited to watch the later arcs in the form of Berserk (2016) and Berserk (2017), but therein lies the problem. Originally, Studio 4°C were involved in a ‘Berserk Saga Project’ that aimed to adapt the whole of the manga. Unfortunately, this project was scrapped after the movies had finished production, and the Berserk property was instead handed to Lidenfilms, who would go on to produce two anime series adapting two of the later arcs. As I’m sure you know by now, those adaptations are remarkably worse than any other, for reasons that I’ll go into in a future post. Therefore, because no decent adaptation of the later Berserk arcs exists, that makes it hard to recommend the movies outright. Not only is it a shame that the later arcs don’t get the treatment they deserve, but I think anyone who watches the movies only to go on to watch the newer TV series will be very disappointed. In this sense, the movies will most likely betray your expectations, much like a certain character in Berserk themselves…
As it stands, the TV series exists in stark constrast to the movies in many ways. It presents a more complete, more long-winded narrative as opposed to a streamlined one, which lets it both develop the characters more fully, but leaves it prone to slow pacing. This is further truncated by the bad directorial decisions regarding the lack of music and frequent use of stills. Fight scenes, which make up maybe 40% of the story, are noticeably weaker in the TV series than in the movies, even if the latter suffers from initially bad CG. For all their merits and weaknesses, both series do fail equally in providing the context for the Golden Age arc in properly adapting the Black Swordsman arc, which ultimately undermines the entire concept of the arc.
However, if I had to recommend an adaptation, I would have to say that the movies are the better choice. By watching the movies, you can experience a streamlined version of the arc, which is aided by some above-average filmmaking. Crucially, it provides you with a better foundation on which to experience the rest of the story in anime form with Berserk (2016) and Berserk (2017) if you so choose, since it properly adapts the Golden Age epilogue. It’s by no means a perfect adaptation, but it’s definitely the best of a rotten bunch.
This was my second post in this ‘adaptation review’ style, and I think it’s a lot better than my previous Devilman one. Having seen virtually everything, I had a lot more to talk about this time, although I had to obviously save the post-Golden Age stuff for later. If you’re a new fan, I hope this post helped you decide what to do in delving into this masterpiece of a series. If you’re a long-time fan and have some qualms about my judgement, then let me know in the comments or via Twitter.