It’s rare to see an older anime get a resurgence. While classics like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun and Neon Genesis Evangelion remain highly regarded by fans, they don’t get often new installments. Much the opposite of American television, Japanese creators are content to tell their stories and move on to the next one.
Kentaro Miura doesn’t work like those creators, though. He’s been the writer and artist of the renowned dark fantasy manga Berserk since it debuted in 1989. Though plagued by long breaks between installments (fans are still miffed about Guts and his traveling party getting on a boat, their fate unknown as the series went on a seven-year hiatus), Berserk’s popularity has proven unyielding. The series proved popular enough to warrant an American localization of the series in tankōbon (think trade paperback) format from Dark Horse starting in 2003, with the 38th volume due out sometime soon. The upcoming monthly chapter, the 347th installment of the series, is breathlessly anticipated by fans.
I didn’t watch or read Berserk until shortly after I finished Dark Souls 3. I’ve been a fan of From Software’s unforgiving fantasy RPG series (by their own admission, an unabashed tribute to Berserk) for years now. Shortly after discovering Dark Souls, I was told by the cousin who got me into the games that I should give it a shot. It wasn’t the first I’d heard of Berserk, though. The series had a previous anime adaptation in 1997, which was well received. A friend kept insisting I should watch it, but this was in the early 2000s. Anime was not as readily accessible as it is now. Given I lived in a small town and still used dial-up Internet, it just wasn’t something I could get my hands on.
After finishing Dark Souls 3, I began poking around for more. Despite my adoration of the franchise, this was the first time I’d played one so close to its original release, let alone finished it. In my digging around for more information, I wound up finding Berserk again, and decided to give it a go.
I admit, I was somewhat taken aback at first. I knew nothing of the franchise, and dove into the anime blind. After the first episode, I expected a few episodes of flashbacks before we got back to the main character, Guts, as he slayed demons. That never came, but I found myself getting lost in the political nature and character building. I was enjoying it, but I wasn’t sure I was hooked. Then, one quiet Sunday morning with the house to myself, I hit the last two episodes and had to know what happened next. I began tracking down copies of the manga so I could find out, but then I found something even better. Berserk was getting a sequel, and it was coming out in just a few months.
Simulcast on CrunchyRoll the day after it aired in Japan, Berserk’s 2016 revival has been rather divisive. Directed by Shin Itagaki (Gurren Lagann Parallel Works, Vanquished Queens), the series creative team had limited experience with CG animation. Though it was used to effect in Berserk: The Golden Age Arc Trilogy (an updated adaptation of the 1997 anime which included previously removed characters and scenes from the manga), here it split the fanbase almost immediately. The CG tends to look rough, with characters sharing little resemblance to their anime depictions and moving on awkward skeletons. Guts in particular is much thinner than usually shown, and Casca’s skin tone closer to white than black, as she is usually depicted.
There are, again, scenes cut from the manga. Entire stories, gone. Though a sequel to The Golden Age Arc Trilogy, the first portion of Conviction, Chapter of the Lost Children, is omitted here. It makes sense considering the brevity of the series, which is only 12 episodes long. But some truly great moments from Chapter of the Lost Children are lost here, as it showed Guts adapting to his new life pursued by demons and human alike.
Still, to expect Berserk to hew close to its intensely detailed manga counterpart is almost madness. Fortunately, it makes up for it with the story. Though the first episode is again an abbreviated take on Berserk’s first story, The Black Swordsman, the series quickly moves on to its’ first post-Golden Age arc, Conviction. Here Guts encounters the Holy Iron Knights, led by Lady Farnese and her companion, Serpico, before he must journey to the Tower of Conviction. Here he must find and Casca, now mentally broken to the point of a child. But standing in the way are religious zealots, and the threat of a returning foe.
Though Golden Age is it’s most well-known and adapted arc, it’s in this realm of dark fantasy that Berserk truly shines. The weird and the dark are fully realized and given weight in this world. Guts, a traditional stoic hero, wandering alone through the world in his quest for vengeance, is a classic archetype done justice by the nature of the story. Though it wouldn’t do justice to call Berserk simple, that’s the closest I can think of. It’s a straightforward story of revenge and loss, and the trappings of a deep, complex world are hung up on this framework. The end result is something unique and engaging.
I’m not like a lot of Berserk fans, I suppose. I’ve only had a brief encounter with the series. Though I’ve caught up, I haven’t put in the time, waiting and watching for new chapters, and wondering if we’d ever get a new Berserk series. Still, even with the 20 year wait between series, Berserk 2016 has lost a lot of it’s core audience. And that’s a shame, really. I found myself enjoying it once the episodes started finding their pace. Admittedly, it started off slow, but once it found itself and got in the thick of the Conviction arc, the series sank its hooks in me and refused to let go.
Though not perfect, there was enough in Berserk’s short first season to have me longing for more. With a second season announced, the manga once again touting a monthly release schedule, and the upcoming Berserk & The Band of the Hawk game from Koei Tecmo, things have never been better for fans of the “strongest dark fantasy”.