Berserk (1997) anime review

Rated: 3.5 / 5

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the show before and intend to watch it, SKIP THE FIRST EPISODE!!!  That first episode should be the last episode, because it acts as a sort of epilogue to the entire fucking season (seriously, fuck them for putting that episode first and spoiling much of what is to come).  That aside, there will be spoilers in this review, which may make that warning pointless.

So I’ve been curious to see this anime ever since, well, the late 90s.  In the same way Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and The Wolf Brigade are considered the 3 gateway anime films to see, this is one of those gateway anime series that is considered mandatory for anime lovers to see; alongside the likes of Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, and Outlaw Star (among others I’m sure).  This particular show, however, had a reputation of being particularly dark, gritty, violent, and also contains the other dreaded words parents of teenagers dread to hear: nudity and rape.  After watching it, I’m not gonna lie, it does contain all that stuff and does live up to its reputation.  But that must be taken into context.  It’s that dark and brutal for a gateway anime.  There are other anime shows out there that can get more extreme than this (though I think a good portion of them are just fucked up hentai, the kind that I’ll never know how people can get off on).  And to be honest, when it comes to choosing something like this over the more extreme graphic shows out there, I would choose this.  Because this one at least has some solid themes and characters and storytelling to them, while the others tend to be extreme/violent/sexualized more for shock value than for narrative/thematic purposes.

So what prevented me from watching the show back in the day?  Simple.  It’s not because my mother was overly protective (she didn’t have the means to prevent me completely from watching something that I really wanted to see; you mine as well as see what the success rate is for parents trying to prevent their kids from seeing porn until they reach the age of 18; 0% success rate in my opinion).  It’s not because it didn’t look intriguing to me.  No.  It’s because I knew the show didn’t have a real ending.  And if there’s anything I hate besides censorship, it’s unfinished work.  The anime doesn’t end conclusively.  It doesn’t wrap everything up at the end.  And more importantly, neither does the manga the show is based on.  In fact, the manga has been ongoing since the late 80s, and from what I understand there’s no end in sight for it.  That’s right.  The manga has been ongoing for nearly 30 years, and it’s still not finished.  I mean, fuck.  Just how long can the writer keep that writing going for?  Is he going to croak before finishing it?  Is this going to be one of those anime/manga series destined to go unfinished like High School of the Dead?  Or one of those destined to have a shitty ending like Evangelion (and reboots that don’t pan out, just like the aforementioned show)?

In any case, I usually stay away from anime shows that don’t have an actual ending.  I’ve been emotionally scarred too many times in the past to subject myself to that over and over again.  But a friend of mine finally pushed me into giving this a watch, convincing me that while the show isn’t concluded per-se, it does have an overall arc that gets resolved.  Well, that is basically true.  Plus the pain gets dulled a bit when I’m braced for a non-ending.  So I went for it and watched the whole thing.  Was it worthwhile?  Yes.  Completely satisfying?  No.

The show’s central protagonist is a mercenary for hire named Guts (I honestly thought the name was Gus, but no, it’s Guts; like the dozens he spills as the series goes on).  A very powerful and skilled swordfighter who has a sword that is considerably larger than average.  His talent is noticed by another skilled swordsman named Griffith, who bests Guts in combat and basically forces him to pledge himself to follow Griffith and his mercenary group “The Band of the Hawk,” who go about the land fighting their own battles.  Griffith intends to use them to gain fame and reknown in the kingdom, so that he himself will gain a high position of power.  There’s another skilled swordswoman named Casca, who up until Guts came along was the next best swordfighter next to Griffith, who also acted as second-in-command.  But as the years go on, Guts’ position rises to basically becoming second in command of the group.

That’s the general gist of a good portion of the show.  But the theme adds a bit more complications to things.  And it’s a theme that I was a bit confused by early on, until it become more apparent during the last couple episodes as to why these lines of dialogue are said at the beginning of each episode:

“In this world, is the destiny of mankind controlled by some transcendental entity or law…? Is it like the hand of God hovering above? At least it is true that man has no control, even over his own will.”

This quote is stated at the beginning of every episode, so the viewer won’t forget it.  It brings into question the concept of fate, of free will.  How much are we in control of our own actions when we aren’t in control of the world?  If we are not in control, then are we ruled by chaos?  Or by something else?

The questions the intro statement raises accumulate in our protagonist and the major figures that surround him.  He begins the series as a mercenary for hire.  But he doesn’t have any ambition, nor purpose.  He just takes money, kills people in whatever battle/skirmish/raid/assassination he signs up for, then leaves to find the next individual/group that will hire him.  Preferring not to be bound to any particular cause, nor any particular group, all of whom desire his skill on their side.  Throughout the series, even when he is forced to fight for the Band of the Hawk, Gus is questioned as to why he fights; and he himself questions his motives, his purpose.  But he does evolve and get closer to what he actually wants.  He doesn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb.  He doesn’t want to fight for anyone’s cause.  He wants to be his own leader, his own commander.  He wants to fight for himself.  And if nothing else, he knows that he enjoys fighting and killing.

“In truth, I don’t believe that’s any way to live one’s life. I’ve been fighting in battles for as long as I can remember. The mercenary leader who raised me taught me nothing except how to wield a sword. I’ve never had anything, except my sword. I don’t want to die; for me that is the only reason for me I keep fighting. There is nothing to save myself for or give myself to. I fight because I know nothing else. Once I was willing, to do just that, to commit myself to fighting, and let anyone else find a reason for me.”

However, he was raised from an early age to live a fighting style, being taken in by another band of mercenaries, forced to fight, forced to kill to live, and so on.  Eventually he had to kill to survive and escape from this band of mercenaries he used to be with when he was a young teenager.  He had a rough early life.

On a similar note, Casca also had a similar rough life early on.  Sold to a rich nobleman at a young age, who tried to rape her, who she ended up killing with some assistance from Griffith.  Since then, she sticks with Griffith and his Band of the Hawk (if they were called that at the time).

berserk egg

Griffith, however, had a different start compared to those two.  He was given this red beherit from an old fortune-teller in the past.  A trinket that is stated to allow him to rule the world one day, for a price, the price of his flesh and blood.  A random occurrence?  Not exactly.

All three of them have something happen to them early on in their lives that they didn’t have any control over.  Fate put them in various positions, whether it be being forced to fight to survive, forced to fight to maintain sexual innocence, or coming upon a fateful trinket that would affect their destiny.  Either way, they are not in complete control of their destiny.  And while the above quote does state that man has no control over his own will, I find that aspect questionable.  Sure, they can question their own will, why it is they do the things they do, why they hate the things they hate, why they love the things they love.  But ultimately they do make their own choices.  And the show seems to indicate that humans to have the power to make choices that can affect their destiny.

On the other hand, there’s the supernatural element, which (if you skip the first fucking episode and save that for last) is only hinted at early on with the beherit.  The supernatural element becomes more apparent a few episodes in when Guts faces off against a demon.  And it does sort of come out of the blue, though there is some buildup to it.  But this is intentional, as they make it clear that demons are anything but a common occurrence.  They shouldn’t exist, they don’t belong in this world.  This episode (the 6th one) significantly raises the stakes of the show, letting the viewer know this isn’t going to be all regular medieval sword battles and politics.  There are inhuman elements to deal with.

By the time the last 2-3 episodes show up, that’s when the demons make their presence completely known.  And when Griffith reveals just how much of a monster he really is (metaphorically-speaking, but not for long).  We learn that the real reason he came across this beherit is because he was chosen by the demons.  Chosen early on to become their leader to allow hell to reign on Earth.  And we question if Griffith is actually going to go through with it, and he does.  He is willing to sacrifice everyone he’s ever known, everyone who has ever cared for him, anyone who has ever struggled for him.  They become nothing more than a means to an end for him.  His ambition drives him mad.  But it’s that ambition that made the demons choose him, because they knew he would inevitable turn out this way.

“Among thousands of comrades and ten thousand enemies, only you… only you made me forget my dream. I see it!”

However, there was the one element that almost prevented it, that almost potentially ruined the demon’s plans; thus hinting at the idea that they themselves, who claim to have control over destiny, are not completely in control.  Guts himself.  Griffith admits that for most of his life he was sure that this is what he wanted, that he had no reason to hesitate or be deterred from this destiny.  Until he became friends with Guts over the years, and how they shared a bond.  However, this friendship is a bit deceptive.  Griffith only really enjoyed Guts’ company when he knew he was in control over him, when he believed Guts belonged to him (because he bested him in a duel and forced him to become a member of the Band of the Hawk).  Yet for a time he believed there was more to it than that.  But he didn’t count on Guts’ evolution, his undying will to become independent again, to live his own life, of his own accord, of his own free will.  To not take orders all the time.  Because up until Guts separated from Griffith’s group, he had just been following Griffith’s orders, though he came not to mind this because he came to view Griffith as a friend.  The problem is that Griffith only considered Guts his best friend because of what he wanted him to be, not because of what he is.  Because no man wants to live according to the behest of others in the long-run.  Griffith eventually became jealous of Guts, seeing how he began gaining leadership traits similar to that of him and Casca, seeing how he became so helpless while Guts became the opposite.  So a combination of desire for power, control, and running the world his own way prompted Griffith to take the demon’s path.  To not only gain back a similar position of power and strength he once had, but to achieve what he considers his destiny.

Isn’t this imagery of Hell supposed to represent mankind at its worst, at its  lowest, at its most terrifying, at its most hopeless, and its most monstrous?

So you could say man isn’t in control of his own will because of how the demons selected Griffith, because of how the other central characters came to be where they are.  Or because man doesn’t really even know himself or his will as well as they may think.  Or you could say that the will of man is easily read, even if not by man himself.  Or woman for that matter.  Which is how they can be influenced by outside factors, because they can know you more than you know yourself.

On that note, this anime has a couple episodes that hammer home a point that would get it hammered (heheh) in today’s society.  But today’s PC society can suck it, so…  This anime tackles the issue of being a woman compared to being a man.

“Women. You’re entirely too weak, I mean just look at you; You have no endurance, you anger too easily, and you’ve got women troubles. Just more proof that women don’t belong in a man’s war.”

“You know nothing about women!”

“Of course not, I’m a man. How would I know? But what I do know is that we can’t afford to be held up by your female problems, or anything else for that matter, understand? The enemy doesn’t care what condition you’re in, and they don’t care that you’re a woman. Actually, on second thought, they might be happy about that.”

It goes beyond just that exchange between Guts and Casca.  Casca, throughout most of the series, tries to fit into the world by being like a man, by acting like a man, and fighting like a man.  She shuns any trace of femininity within her.  And as a result most of the men around her, who know her, view her more as a leader, as a brother in arms, than as a woman.  Yet as the show goes on, she finds herself more and more emotionally, and sometimes physically, compromised.  She despises anyone who makes her feel like a woman, and despises herself to some extent when that happens.  She argues at one point that she can’t help that she is one, and doesn’t want to be treated as such.  And yet the only time she ever seems truly happy on the show is when she puts down these emotional barriers she’s built up for much of her life, stops denying these feminine traits of hers, and spends a night making love, no longer trying to deny what she is.  But it is of her own free will that she does this; that she finds it in herself to make love to another man.  It’s quite relevant in this day and age where it’s not only becoming prevalent, but promoted, that one shouldn’t have to learn to accept their identity, but can opt to change it when they please.  Another way of denying who they are, or even what they are, with potential severe emotional consequences.

At another point in the show, Casca almost gets raped, but manages to fight her way out to avoid that outcome.  At an earlier point, she is saved from such a fate by Griffith.  But then near the end of the show, she ends up violated against her will.  And she is nowhere near strong enough to prevent it from happening.  There was nothing she could do.  She had no control.  Just as Guts, no matter how hard he tried, was unable to help her, because he wasn’t in any better of a position.

Just as it seemed that some element of free will seemed to get them to rise to the top, battling through thick and thin; so too does fate and decisions made outside of their control cause them to fall to the bottom.  Whether man is in control of his own will or not (control of the emotions one feels whether they be man or woman), whether it is his will or not, things can happen to where it doesn’t matter what their will or emotions are.  Whether they accept what is about to happen, or whether they fight it, the fated outcome will happen either way.

How delightful. I feel it all over again. Love, hate, ultimate pleasure, ultimate pain, life, death, all here to enjoy, right before our very eyes! The true nature of man and the devil is here and now.

So this was the main aspect of the show that got me to think.  Of free will and fate.  How much of what happens in our lives can be considered as a consequence of our own actions?  What of the actions of others that affect our lives?  What if we just act as a predictable response to someone or something else?  What if our beliefs and motivations are built up more from outside influence than from within ourselves?  After all, did we have control when we were given life and born into this world?  Did other have control when they were killed while still in the womb?  What of those who were eventually killed outside the womb (whether they lived a full life, a brief one, or somewhere in-between)?

Ultimately the main thing that drove me to consider these questions is looking back on the events that eventually led up to that insane 2-3 episode finale.  I thought about what actions certain characters could have taken to prevent this.  Was it preventable?  Or was this outcome always inevitable?  Those intro lines about man not being in control of his own will seem to indicate inevitability.  And yet it seems to be hinted at a few points in the lead-up to the finale that there may have been a chance for the outcome to change.  And it had to do with Guts and Griffiths relationship to one another.  Griffith said he would only respect one who is his equal in all respects, yet he shunned Guts when he proved to be superior, reversing their positions compared to the beginning of the show.  Griffith may have had redeemable values, but his pride and lust for power (as he got closer to power) made those aspects become more and more fleeting.  There are indications that he didn’t just view Guts as a tool to be used as a means to an end, but one could wonder if he was only deceiving himself by thinking that.

“I feel no responsibility to comrades who’ve lost lives under my command. Because they chose to fight in each battle. Just as I chose this. But if there is something that I can do for them. Something I can do for the dead… Then it is to win! I must keep winning to attain my dream. The same one they clung to, and risked their lives for! To realize my dream, I will perch on top of their corpses.. It is a blood-smeared dream, after all. I don’t regret or feel guilty about it. But to risk thousands of lives while never getting myself dirty. It’s not a dream that can be so easily realized!”

The anime leaves much to ponder, but in a good way.  Guts and Griffith provide fascinating character studies, and Casca is a decent character in her own regard.  There were moments where I was pissed at some of the stuff she does, yet she provides explanations which made me sympathetic to her position and way of thinking soon afterwards.  The entire show revolves around those three and their interactions with one another, and to some extent those around them.  They are what made the show worth sticking around for.

“People who perish in other’s battles are worms… If one can’t live their life the way they want, they might as well die.”

 

“Providence may guide a man to meet one specific person, even if such guidance eventually leads him to darkness. Man simply cannot forsake the beauty of his own chosen path. When will man learn a way to control his soul?”

 

“If you desire one thing for so long, it’s a given that you’ll miss other things along the way. That’s how it is… that’s life.”

 

“If fate is a principle beyond Human comprehension which capriciously torments man, then it is karma that man confront fate by embracing sorcery.”

 

“Hate is a place, where a man who can’t stand sadness, goes.”

 

“The reward for ambition too great… is self destruction.”

 

PS: Oh, right.  Yes, I am aware they made a film trilogy with that shitty computer animation which is basically a glorified remake of this season.  I’ve seen the first of the 3 films, and am only somewhat interested in seeing the other two.  But what’s the point?  It’s no more conclusive than this one.  It’s visually inferior.  And so is the sequel anime show that came afterwards that I’ve nothing but complaints about.  So I’m just going to wait it out for the next several years until I’ve heard that the manga is finished, or that it’s never going to be finished.  We’ll see what fate has in store for that.

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