Among the upcoming movies I'm most anticipating (including Joon-ho Bong's English language debut Snow Piercer, the adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Filth, and, dahoy, The Hobbit), none has me quite as anxious as the new trilogy of animated films based on Kentaro Miura's manga Berserk. I suspect fans of both my work and his will see the obvious impact Berserk has had on my writing, and if you enjoy my stuff but haven't checked out Miura's opus than it's high time you did. These new movies may be the perfect gateway to a world of horrific fantasy unlike any other, but in the unlikely event they stink the biscuit you're spoiled for choice where quality Berserkness is concerned. The series is hardly obscure, having been ongoing in comic format since the late eighties, as well as spawning two video games and an anime series in the mid-nineties, but with this new incarnation dropping next week in Japanese theatres I thought this would be the perfect time to discuss my enduring affection for this brilliant, brutal, and deeply flawed epic.
(There's a full length trailer, as well as sundry clips and extended sneak peaks floating around, but I've always been a teaser guy myself)
I came to Berserk maybe a decade ago, and in the way most people in the states do, I suspect: via the original anime series. I was a little skeptical of the first episode, but it quickly grabbed me and became one of my favorite anime of all time. I marathoned through all 25 episodes, in a state of euphoria--Berserk was and is unlike just about anything else out there, and comparisons are much more easily drawn between it and sundry gritty western fantasies rather than other manga or anime; way more Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie, or Robert E. Howard than Hakkenden, Ninja Scroll, or Escaflowne. Even with a limited budget it looks great, and boasts an awesomely weird soundtrack, including some great Susumu Hirasawa tracks and this indie rock opening :
At the time Berserk seemed like the best kept secret in fantasy--pitch black, ultra-violent, batshit insane, and unlike so much anime, progressing toward some kind of end rather than spinning its wheels indefinitely. When I hit the last several episodes of the series, I was destroyed--and not in a good way. The conclusion to the series is as brutal and devastating as anything I've ever watched, and in my experience in talking about it with other people, something that retroactively poisons the show for many viewers.
The root of the problem is this--the anime series concludes at the end of the first major plot arc from the comic series ("The Golden Age"), and that's it. No resolution, no catharsis, no nuthin--just a vicious cliffhanger and a fade to black, with the assumption being that the story is complete, albeit in a bitter, unsatisfactory fashion. Being totally taken with the series, as soon as I recovered from the shock of the anime's conclusion I started digging around online for info and quickly determined the root of the problem. In those bleak times Dark Horse had yet to license and translate the manga, so I was left scouring for fan-translated scans of the original comic, and after finding an extensive database, went so far as consulting with a local printer about having the scans printed and bound. The cost was prohibitive, but shortly thereafter I caught wind of Dark Horse's impending release of the fist volume of the manga, and I've been on board ever since.
And by on board, I mean slowly but increasingly dissatisfied. I would say for the first twenty or so graphic novels I was pretty uncritical: enchanted by Miura's world, thrilled to be reliving the events of the anime series but with the increased detail that the manga medium allows for, admiring Miura's steadily improving art and story-telling technique, and just straight up digging the shit out of it. I tracked down a Dreamcast in order to play the video game Sword of the Berserk: Guts' Rage, which proved every bit as awesome as I could have hoped--fun, challenging, and with a soundtrack by Susumu Hirasawa, who also scored the anime. At the point where the manga moved past the story arc of the anime, I couldn't have been happier. Finally, we were moving forward, and at first everything was beautiful and ugly and perfect and heartbreaking in all the right ways. After the "Golden Age" I vowed not to trust Miura with my emotions again, given what he'd done with them the first time around, but despite my caution he carefully drew me back in, making me care about the characters but also genuinely worry for their safety in a way that I rarely do in fiction...
After a while, however, I noticed two rather disturbing developments:
The first is perhaps inevitable when you have a comic series, or, really, any series, that continues with a linear, consistent story for over twenty years, especially when you have a single creator at the helm. Basically, the manga has become somewhat repetitious and almost stagnant, as if Miura, approaching the end of his life's work, isn't sure how to conclude everything and so he just keeps putting it off. Like I said, this is a common complaint for any long-running series, but what drew me to the series in the first place was that it seemed to have a destination it was barreling toward, and while it hasn't devolved to an episodic format, it certainly feels in danger of stalling out. Tangentially related, Miura's also caught flak in the same way George R.R. Martin has in the states for being too slow to release each new volume, with certain fans flipping their shit when he cops in interviews to playing video games or otherwise living a life that doesn't involve working on Berserk 24/7.
Much more frustrating than a slowing of the general pace is that Miura has been giving the female characters an increasingly short shrift in more recent volumes. Not one but two women who started off as strong, complex, compelling characters have been undermined by Miura's plot to the point of obnoxiousness--what started off as awful but interesting circumstances for them have, as with the overall plot, failed to resolve in any satisfactory manner, instead leaving them various degrees of helpless limbo. One hopes that, as with the greater storyline, these setbacks will eventually be overcome to grand result, making the resolution all the more satisfying, but at this point the continued protraction of their helplessness is frustrating to the point of despair...
Nevertheless, I have hope for Miura's manga, and hope for these new films. Many longtime Berserk fans are disappointed, as the new trilogy will allegedly cover the same "Golden Age" story arc as the original anime rather than picking up the plot where the anime left off. As I mentioned on a recent Twitch article, while I understand this frustration, there was realistically no way that could have happened in terms of securing a budget. The anime has a cult following, to be sure, but convincing investors/a good studio to pony up an insane amount of cash for a new project that relies entirely on audiences being intimately familiar with a 15 year old anime series or its manga source material was never going to happen. The only issue was how heavily they were going to condense the "Golden Age" in order to get new audiences on board, as well as existing Berserk fans--personally, I'd rather see them take three movies to do it, which will still involve a lot of cutting, rather than have them try to pack everything into a ten minute prologue sequence or even a single movie.
Of course, with nobody having seen the trilogy yet it's possible that the third or even the second film will take the story further than the original anime, but even failing that, if these do well than perhaps another series of films will get the greenlight to tackle the next storyline. And even if not, Studio 4C does great work, and assuming they're at least as faithful to the source material as the original anime new and old Berserk fans alike should find a lot to love. At a glance, the trailer implies certain key elements from the manga that were missing from the old anime are present, so here's hoping for greatness, and a new golden age for one of the most compelling fantasies of our time.
[Cross-posted to my website]
Ride the Tiger
You can see his stripes but you know he's clean
- Things I Love #201201: BERSERK!