Let me start off with a major caveat — a caveat that will probably annoy some people: my last exposure to the Berserk series was when I watched the first anime adaptation a really, really long time ago. Think early 2000s. Yeah, it’s been more than a decade since I last revisited this universe. Lots of people typically think you’re supposed to do your “homework” before you dive back into these treasured series. In some people’s minds, I’m supposed to have watched The Golden Age films to refamiliarized myself with Berserk. No, I didn’t do that. Judging by the very first episode of this 2016 adaptation, I don’t believe it was necessary anyway. Berserk is not a complicated story even if I don’t remember much about it anymore. I still remember Guts, of course… I still remember Griffith, and I still remember that some fucked up shit happened at the end of the first anime adaptation. As a kid in high school, that was definitely a jarring way to conclude a story, ’cause it wasn’t really a resolution that you expected to see at that age. Well, there was no resolution in the traditional sense of the word. The hero’s friends all died, the hero’s girl got raped, and, well, the hero couldn’t do a damn thing about any of it. And then the series was over. What an ugly, brutish end to a story set in an ugly, brutish world. And what have we got to hang our hat on? Revenge. That’s all I really need to know for now, and that’s what the first episode of this 2016 sets out to accomplish.
It is still an ugly, brutish world! Even without Griffith and his hellish army, this is not a place for the soft-hearted. Villages are beset by brutes and thugs. Women are dragged into dark dens where they are more than likely mercilessly raped. The strong bully the weak, and had Guts not entered the room, some kid probably would’ve lost his life at the start of the series. But justice here comes in the form of teeth raining from the sky. Guts punches a couple mercenaries in a tavern and blood splatters everywhere, but no one really cares. This is just how it is. This is your ugly, brutish world. It’s a wonder why anyone even steps foot outside of their homes. Well, I suppose you’ve got to eat, but it’s somehow worse outside of the towns. Forests are filled with evil spirits, reanimated skeletons, and murderous trees. Dude, why even bother? If you’re Guts with your broad, 3-foot-across shoulders and the 200 lbs. hulking piece of metal that you call a sword, I suppose you can make it in this universe. And even then, he still needed his prosthetic arm to fight his way free from the tree that so desperately wanted his soul. But where does that leave the rest of us? There are stories that depict the beauty of the human struggle — that no matter how dark and hopeless it gets, we must still endeavor to carry the fire (see: The Road). It’s hard to see that light in Berserk.
In this introductory episode, Guts crosses paths with an old man and his daughter, and I can’t help but wonder what these two were even doing in the woods. No, really, what the hell are you two doing out here? Oh, I’m sure they have their reasons to get from point A to point B. We all have our reasons. Every morning, I have to get to work, so I truly understand that burning human desire to get from point A to point B. At the same time, I’m not stupid enough to cut through San Francisco’s Tenderloin on foot in order to do so. And yet, the very worst that San Francisco has to offer is child’s play to a world like Berserk. So imagine an old man and his beautiful daughter traveling through a dark, scary forest with nothing with which to defend themselves. It boggles the mind! What sensible souls would do such a thing? But they’re not here to be sensible. They’re here to die. They’re fodder for the story. Their deaths serve to remind us that we’re watching Berserk. Ironically, it’s the old man offers to lend Guts some assistance, because it’s dark and raining outside. Obviously, the elements are the least of anybody’s concerns here, and Guts tries to refuse their help. Like most fictional lone wolves, he knows all too well that he’ll bring them nothing but disaster. But a quick glance at their surroundings is enough to convince him that it’s too late. The old man and his daughter are going to die 100%. Those are the odds. With Guts traveling with them, maybe it goes down to 99%. Maybe.
But Berserk reminds you not to get your hopes up. The universe reminds you not to get too attached to any of these characters. There’s a darkly funny moment where Guts entreats the girl to get back into the carriage, but before she can even give him a proper reply, a spear guts her through the abdomen (no pun intended), then the title of the anime flashes across the screen in red, capital letters as if to say, “You’re watching Berserk, bitch!” And inevitably, the old man dies too. Those brutes that followed our hero into the forest don’t even manage to catch up to him. They also meet their horrible, miserable demise in the dark forest. If you’re weak, you will die, and this is a painful fact that Guts repeats to himself at the end of the episode. He looks demented as he treats himself with these cold rationalizations, as if it was all a game. He stuck by the old man and the girl as a gamble. He wasn’t going to go down himself. He can’t go down. Not until he gets his revenge on Griffith. But in the meantime, he may as well play this miserable game where he’ll see if he can try and help these hopeless souls cheat death. Then when Guts inevitably fails to save their lives, another small part of his soul — whatever remains of it — dies with them, and he can only comfort himself with that ghastly philosophy that only the strong will survive. Puck, bearing witness to everything, can’t help but murmur, “This is the world Guts inhabits.”
Guts is pretty badass, isn’t he? And boy, there sure is a lot of blood and gore in this anime. It’s been so long since I’ve watched the first adaptation that I’ve almost forgotten how violent this story is. But I’m not a kid anymore, so I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react when Guts smashes a man’s face with his iron fist, and a heavy metal guitar starts thrashing in the background. The violence isn’t really cool anymore. It’s all just kind of sad. I grimaced when I saw that lady being dragged into the darkness. I grimaced when Colette was killed. I only sighed when zombie Colette flashed a grin after murdering the old man. Yeah, I guess if I’m anyone in this story, I’m probably that old man. I’d be the pathetic old codger telling the badass “black swordsman” that I don’t approve of violence, so the universe rubs it in my face by killing me in the very first episode. What am I getting at? Well, while watching this episode, I was somewhat reminded of Garo, and like Berserk, Garo’s universe is beset with misery and death. Evil spirits and the powerful constantly prey upon the weak. But Garo also celebrated human relationships. The love and bond between a father and son. The determination of a young prince to save his mother. The sacrifices of a family to help a stranger back on his feet. There’s hope in Garo.
I don’t know how much hope I expect to find in Berserk. Probably not much. This is a an ugly, brutish world, and the prophecies at the very start of the episode reminds us that it’s about to get much worse. The fifth angel will descend upon the world, and he’s going to fuck some shit up. This episode is nothing more than a teaser, an hor d’oeurve, a taste of things to come. After all, most of you didn’t tune in to watch Guts to fight some generic 3-D skeletons straight out of some opening level of an ARPG. Nevertheless, a part of me doesn’t really want to sit back and just “enjoy the ride.” I don’t want to celebrate human misery to a thumping metal track, and watch human lives fall in waves each episode. Guts may have been badass to my teenage self, but as an adult, I can’t help but shrug. Basically, I want something more than just a revenge story. And yet, I find my reaction to the first episode oddly funny. As a kid, I wanted to see that revenge. I hated Griffith, and I hated what happened to Guts and Casca. I wanted to see what happened next. What happened next was nothing. I didn’t follow the manga, and at the time, I didn’t really know how to. Now that more of the story is finally being adapted, I feel like I’ve already moved on. The part of me that desired revenge had long died, and now, there’s just a grumpy adult trying to get himself back into the mindset of experiencing the world of Berserk all over again.
As a minor aside, I don’t really care for the 3-D look. At times, it makes the characters look like cheap marionette dolls.