Bad CG Animation, But Still a Good Story – Review: Berserk (2016) Season 1

Guts grinning with his sword
Sup bro

There may not be an objective best manga of all time, but if I had to pick one then Berserk would be at the top of my list. In many ways, I feel Berserk is underappreciated and flies somewhat under the radar due to its hyper-violent dark fantasy world, long lead times between releases, and just a general lack of promotion. I remember seeing it on shelves at bookstores–it was published under the Dark Horse imprint in the US–and wanting to peek at its glory. That was basically the only way to read the series stateside unless you found an online translation way back then in the 90’s, which is a whole different rodeo in the dark ages of Internet. It’s too bad because the series has excellent artwork and a unique style, plus a gripping story of intense suffering and perseverance.

Berserk is essentially a lifelong project of creator Kentaro Miura, debuting with a 48 page prototype in 1988 while he was still in manga school. It’s 2017 and the manga is still ongoing and seemingly nowhere near a conclusion yet. Yes, that’s about 30 years that this project has been going on for.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

If you want the premise, awesome fighter Guts gets betrayed by his best friend Griffith who rapes his lover/sacrifices all of their friends so Guts is on a quest for ultimate revenge against Griffith while fighting a bunch of demons.

It’s mainly targeted to an adult audience so the potential readership is smaller than more widely appealing young adult series like Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, etc. Imagine my joy when I found out they had released a new anime series for Berserk. I’ll be reviewing season 1 of the Berserk 2016/2017 series, but first a little history lesson.

Guts cutting off some demon heads while some topless girl is in the background
1 of 192381092 scenes where shit gets real.

Running on from the 90’s

Recently, I found out they were starting up an animated series for Berserk again. This isn’t it’s first time in anime form–there was single season series run in 1997 that I should probably watch if I don’t want to look like a jackass talking about things I’m ill informed on. From what I hear on the internet, the series is supposed to be pretty good:

I’m one of those guys who usually read the manga before watching the anime. You can imagine, then, what my sentiments were like when I began watching a 25-episode-anime of which I’d read 300+ chapters of manga. To clarify, I was preparing for a completely unripe anime-draft of a manga praised to the heavens that’d actually been worth it, and then some. To my pleasant surprise I discovered the anime adaptation of Berserk lost to its original version in nothing but length and detail. – Source

From my extensive reading of the Wikipedia page, it looks like the 90’s series covers the beginning arcs of Berserk–basically the Golden Age, a small part of the Black Swordsman arc (like 1 episode small), and up to the Eclipse where SPOILER ALERT Dumbledore everyone in the Band of the Hawk besides Guts, Casca, and Griffith dies.

In addition to the 90’s anime, there was a series of 3 films released from 2012 to 2014 covering the Golden Age arc using an updated 3d/2d animation method. I watched those films and they are actually pretty decent–though I won’t be going into detail here. The art style for this updated 2017 Berserk series is pretty much in the same vein–a CG hodgepodge reminiscent of cel shaded games.

But enough about the past, let’s talk about the now.

First, the Good

There are a significant number of flaws with this new series, but I thought I should be fair and start with the good things in this 2017 rendition of Berserk. The series is quite faithful to the manga, starting off in the retaining many of the major plot points, though some story elements are cut from the Black Swordsman arc–no Elves of the Misty Valley, no Snake Baron, and a much truncated Count storyline. It would have been nice to have these just to watch Guts murderin’ some fools, but oh well. The rest of the plot is kept pretty much the same as the manga with a few edits to introduce characters like Puck and Isidro earlier.

There’s no significant loss of content due to the cuts since the Black Swordsman arc always served as an introduction to the world of Berserk. The truncation essentially just assumes foreknowledge of the series on the part of the viewer with less background exposition or exploration of Guts’ quest of infernal hatred of Griffith.

Thankfully, the adult tone and mature themes are preserved–this is definitely not PG. One of the aspects that makes Berserk’s world so great is how in-your-face-no-holds-barred gory, graphic, sexual, and ultraviolent it is. People get sliced in half with their intestines leaking out, heads are crushed, blood spills like bottles of wine juggled by a drunk clown slipping on a banana peel, and the death count is staggering. It’s pretty gnarly. It’s pretty great. They didn’t cut out any of the several full or partial nudity scenes involving women either.

guts cuts a little girl in half
16 minutes into the first episode: Friendly little girl gets stabbed, possessed, then cut in half.

It wouldn’t be Berserk if the studio had tried to tone it down. You’ll be happy to hear that there’s still death and destruction aplenty in the animated series. No sugarcoating.

Quick aside–did you know Adult Swim wanted to show Berserk but it was deemed too violent for broadcast television?

Many of the key art quirks and unsettling weirdness of key characters make a fine translation to animated form. For example, Mozgus’ grotesque appearance with a veined face of religious fervor is rendered faithfully in the manga’s style. The characters look like who they’re supposed to be–that should be a given, but you’d be surprised how art can get distorted due to budget when it moves to an animated form. Compared to the manga, the art is cleaner, not necessarily a good thing, but at least it isn’t all muddled to hell. More on that later.

Later is Now

So remember how I said the art style was very clean? Well, I think the cleanliness of the art style kind of loses some of the original soul from the Miura’s manga source material. Here, have some side by side comparisons:

mozgus' face anime vs manga comparison
The manga has a bit more detail in the grotesqueness.
guts biting an eye plucker anime vs manga comparison
There’s more expressiveness and spunky urgency in Guts’ battle face here.

There’s a lot of dynamic detail in the source’s line work that seems to be missing in the anime version. If you read the manga, you’ll notice how well the compositions, line work, inking, and shading convey the chaos of the many battles and grotesqueness of the demonic forces at play. In many scenes, there’s so much chaos it’s almost like you’re not quite sure what’s happening–and that’s a good thing. The personality in the art makes you feel the ugliness of each battle, its confusing stress. I’d even say that the art is reminiscent of a medieval woodcut art piece with its linear shading idiosyncrasies.

death and the solder - woodcut art from the met
German woodcut from the 1500’s, notice that banded shading and texturing? Via The Met Museum

When you’re watching the animation, the world feels a little too sterile, too clean. If there’s one thing to be said for Berserk’s atmosphere, it’s the desperation and sheer perseverance of a man in a dirty, dark hellhole of a world. A lot of the expressive art and chaos captured in the manga’s depictions of various scenes aren’t fully translated over to the cg animated form. It’s almost like the cg animation is at odds with the mood of Berserk. Still, it’s different mediums so I supposed I shouldn’t be so hypercritical of the stylistic difference, but I feel they still could have done a better job.

Berserk should always be absolutely berserk.

guts cutting some fool's wing off like a boss
U scary

Panning for Gold?

A minor point–the anime uses some slow panning over nearly stationary artwork. The slow pans give viewers the feeling that cost savings and budget constraints were ruling the director’s choices. The worst example of this is actually in the second season, but it still feels cheap when you have a couple seconds of the camera slowly moving across an a barely moving character.

Ever rewatch Dragonball Z to see how many times they did a slow pan over characters mostly remaining still? Or a slow pan of the camera across a vast unmoving landscape? Or zooming out of a barely moving image? Or even just moving slowly across someone’s eyes? That technique certainly saves on the animation budget and pads the running time of every episode, but you can’t say it’s something that made you excited.

Botched Botox

I’m not sure if it’s a consequence of the CG art or budget constraints, but a lot of faces have a robotic uncanny valley thing going on. Essentially, faces appear almost doll-like c instead of human. The eyes and mouths of characters evoke a feeling of working independently from the rest of the unmoving face, a bit similar to the movements of a clockwork animatronic figure. Every facial expression feels too limited, like they had a few presets programmed into the computer that they couldn’t change too much. CG doesn’t have to equal unrealistic facial expressions either, just look at how natural the facial expressions were in Half Life 2, a game released 10 years ago.

Definitely not the best look.

face moving kind of awkwardly
Nice lips.
facial animation and a wink example
*Wink*

This awkwardness extends to the movement depictions. It actually reminds me a bit of early CG animated TV shows, where everyone’s walking looked a bit stiff. Arm movements also appear a bit jerky and unnatural, almost inhuman. The wooden movements of every character further emphasize a kind of cold clinicality that is already present from the clean artwork. I would say the animation is missing organic-ness or humanity, something I believe a more hand drawn approach would have had. I mean, you can go back and look at the old series and see how the older artwork had more personality in it.

weird elbow bend in arm movements
Why is that elbow bent like that?

Got Some Fight Left in Ya?

Berserk is all about the legendary fights.

It’s about watching Guts struggle to beat enemies against overwhelming odds, about seeing his sheer force of will, his tenacity through adversity, his unwillingness to let anyone except himself shape his fate even as he suffers, bleeds, breaks bones, loses consciousness, and more. Then you watch him emerge, exhausted, barely alive, but all the stronger for conquering his trials.

Berserk fights are just wicked SICK.

The thing about Guts is that he doesn’t have some one-shot special attack that he spams all the time to beat enemies, a common anime trope. Sure he has a big ass sword, throwing knives, explosives, a cannon in his arm, and an automatic crossbow, but he ends up having to use all of his weapons–in addition to his wits–to defeat tough enemies. It’s more about wearing down his enemies, outlasting them, and striking them when they’re finally vulnerable, at a cost to himself, but always tactically calculated.

guts taking the hit to counterattack
Coincidentally, this is tactically correct in military doctrine when you get ambushed.
guts shooting his cannon arm at one of mozgus' lackeys
Is that a cannon in your arm or are you just kErRaZzZy?
guts slicing another mozgus lackey with his sword
After the cannon arm comes the big ass sword.

Thus, when it comes to the animated version of these fights, I would like them to be extended as much as possible with a lot of detail in every little action. If there’s one place to spend the most time on, it’s the fight scenes. I want them to be technical, showing the little feints and flourishes, the little moves that show the contest for advantage in a fight. Most of the time a fight in real life isn’t won by one big special move–though knockouts do happen, see Aldo vs McGregor–so it’s a lot more exciting when they add in the little things that show the struggle.

If you can’t tell, I have high standards for fight scenes.

That’s why I was a little disappointed with the fighting animation. While I wouldn’t say it’s bad, it just feels adequate. All the broad strokes of each battle are faithfully translated from the manga, but I feel they missed an opportunity to expand the content and really make it shine in animated form. Again, the art style doesn’t help the character of each battle with its lack of personality. The scenes just lack a certain dynamic–Guts feels a little too static–and cinematic composition

The fight scenes lack the set-piece feeling and rhythm you would get from a well choreographed martial arts movie, which would have been an admirable target. I don’t expect it to be ultra-realistic, especially since we’re talking about a guy wielding a giant dragon slaying sword that likely weighs ~400lbs while fighting colossal supernatural demons, but I appreciate an effort to attain a certain level of in-world believability.

Since I mentioned the Dragonslayer sword, I should mention how they chose to animate Guts’ handling of his sword. He just swings his sword like a giant log, less swordplay and more edged bludgeoning. It makes sense conceptually–it’s a giant lump of iron that isn’t all about finesse–but it would be nice if they showed a little more agility with his swings. As it is, it feels a bit dull even though he’s shown moving it precisely.

Overall, the fighting is okay, my complaint is more that they didn’t try as hard as they could have in fight choreography when they could have taken it much further.

Don’t let me just talk at you about this, watch it for yourself to get an idea of the animation quality (ignore the garbage music choice):

And another one that’s extra NSFW:

Minor Quibbles: Pacing & Fairy Dust

These aren’t very big criticisms so I’ll only mention them briefly.

Guts’ initial encounter with the Holy Iron Chain Knights is weirdly paced, in that the episode starts off with it, yet the previous episode made no mention that he got himself surrounded. The last episode just ends with him walking along on his journey, then the next episode starts with him already surrounded by the knights. If I hadn’t read the source material, I would have felt lost, like something was missing in that jump to the action.

Second quibble–Puck’s healing fairy dust is never mentioned in this season. Guts’ remarkable healing abilities after every life and death fight seem almost healing factor-ish since they never mention that Puck is healing him post battle.

I’ll Keep Watching, But I’m Left Wanting

Overall, I think it’s still pretty watchable and faithful to the source, but I’m disappointed they couldn’t do more with the anime. Berserk deserves top tier treatment, at least in my estimation. The one major thing that would have really made the series excellent would be quality drawn artwork, instead of the CG. Just look at a One Punch Man fight sequence and tell me you wouldn’t want the same witchcraft performed for Berserk.

I’m glad they kept the mature tone–that is essential to the world of Berserk–because that’s the only way it should be. I’ll keep watching to see how the series develops over 2017, but my reservations will always be there nagging at me, like the threat of rage consuming Guts.

It’s fine, it’s still Berserk.

Sunny Mui

Sunny Mui

An SF Bay Area native with a decade of Comic Con experience. Reader of books, comics, and more. He also writes short stories and poetry once in a while, when he's feeling to the task. Designer, developer, and marketer by trade, but professional fun person by night.
Sunny Mui

Post Author: Sunny Mui

An SF Bay Area native with a decade of Comic Con experience. Reader of books, comics, and more. He also writes short stories and poetry once in a while, when he's feeling to the task. Designer, developer, and marketer by trade, but professional fun person by night.