Berserk (2016) Review - Guts' Mighty Frying Pan
Greetings, wanderer. I see you try to cross the vast desert of nothingness that is the Winter 2017 season. Alas, the oasis of KonoSuba 2 has dried just days ago, and the spring rains are still yet to come for some time. You have far to go, and the journey will be harsh, but I invite you to take respite here. Please, sit around the campfire and have a drink. Listen as I tell you a tale of glorious times past, in the age of Death Note, our one true god, for indeed we all require some cheer during this long, dark night of inconsequential noise.
“SnYves, aren’t you’re being a little overdramatic?”
Well, of course I’m being overdramatic, reader! As I’ve complained in my previous articles, there is nothing to watch right now. Everything showing is either so bland it can’t hold my interest, so confusing and rushed it could give a string theorist a run for his money, or so asininely twee I’d probably get diabetes from watching it.
C’mon, Crunchy, I’m not asking for a ton here. I have varied tastes and likes; surely you can find something remotely recent that I would like. So, in what was certainly the best way to handle the situation, given my calculating, scientific demeanor, I mashed the Random button like a madman until I saw something that seemed remotely interesting. I saw catgirls, I saw food porn, I saw ping-pong, I saw transvestites, and then I bumped into the Berserk remake from last summer.
And if Hollywood films have taught me anything, it’s to always be weary of remakes of something that was incredibly popular for its time that has little to no reason to be remade in the present day. In this case, that would be Berserk the anime from 1997, a cult-classic dark fantasy show about a mercenary named Guts having the world’s worst day at work. It has political collusion, war drama, and action that would be best described as watching Dynasty Warriors being played in the middle of a Dark Souls boss. It was cathartic, it was impactful, and apart from the show being animated at maybe two frames an hour, it was pretty well received to boot.
So you can understand why I was cautious poking my head out from under the covers on this one, mostly because I really happen to like the old Berserk and I want to do everything in my power to avoid posthumously ruining it. But after a minute I decided to sit down and try enjoying it as its own thing, base material aside. The original was simply a baseline, and now we have a new story using it as a jumping off point. That’s it, that’s all.
That was my mindset going into Berserk 2016 at any rate. It was when I came out of it that I realized that Berserk 1997 really doesn’t have to worry about getting dethroned anytime soon, mostly because the memorable thing about the remake is just how hackneyed and confused it is.
Actually, let me back up a second and get the story ready. Once upon a time, there was a mercenary named Guts (Hiroaki Iwanaga) who served as second-in-command for the renowned mercenary group The Band of the Hawk. Their leader, a horribly disfigured maniac named Griffith (Takahiro Sakurai), used his men as sacrifice as part of the borderline demonic Eclipse ritual to gain power, with Guts and his lover Casca (Toa Yukinari) as the only two managing to escape. Casca’s gone insane, both of them now have a disposition for attracting evil entities, and Guts has gone off on a revenge quest. The series picks up a few years later, when Guts meets the elf Puck (Kaoru Mizuhara) getting tortured by undesirables. Of course he helps out, Puck joins him, and we’re on our way.
The first thing you’ll notice about Berserk 2016 is how staggeringly inconsistent its animation consistently is. This is a problem I see with quite a few shows that try using 3D animation as their primary art style, and I’m going to rail on it every time I see it. I like to think of Knights of Sidonia when I think 3D animation, and yes, I’m perfectly aware that show’s framerate was about as stable as peace in the Middle East. But do you want to know what it did correctly?
It stuck with the gimmick. The entire show was animated in 3D, and it served to enhance the action on screen as well, because good luck trying to accurately gauge depth in the middle of space with 2D drawings. And this is where Berserk fails; it can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a 2D or 3D show, so instead it awkwardly wobbles between the two and hopes the viewer doesn’t notice. Problem is, when the animation loses a dimension, it is really obvious, and for me, I couldn’t stop looking at it. I almost started up a drinking game, until I realized I actually needed to pay attention for the review, and that I can’t really do that if I’m dead halfway through the first episode.
And yeah, they do strictly 2D animation whenever the script calls for Guts to flashback to his time with the Hawks, and had that been the only time they “flattened” the animation so to speak, that would’ve been a pretty nice stylistic touch. It helps the viewer keep track of time, the animation quality during these scenes is all-around solid and a nice little callback to the parent series, but the big problem is the animators don’t restrict their use of 2D to just those flashbacks.
Consequently, there are some pretty disgusting shifts in the main part of the series where the animation snaps from 2D to 3D between cuts, and I’d catch it every single time. I became less focused on the story and was just watching in deviant glee at when the next laughably awful sketch would snap the dark mood the series sets out to maintain.
Speaking of distracting, the sounds and music for Berserk are all over the place, from the spoken words not being anywhere close to matching the mouths speaking them, to the confused background music not sure if it wants to be metal or dubstep or operatic or all three, to Guts' signature armament sounding less like a massive hunk of iron and more like Princess Peach’s frying pan. Don’t try peddling it as anything else; I know what a frying pan sounds like by this point, so whenever Guts winds up a brutal cleaving attack with his signature armament and the only impact I hear sounds like a punchline from Food Wars, I can’t help but snicker.
There is some pretty dodgy VA in the show all around as well. Normally I try not to complain too much about Japanese voice acting, but something feels stilted in a lot of the deliveries, almost forced in a way. At best it makes the spoken dialogue sound a tiny bit awkward if you have the ear for it, and at worst it makes some of the most inappropriate scenes absolutely hilarious. After Guts lets loose on a platoon of soldiers in Episode 2, one of the dead’s friends comes in to mourn his buddy, and lets loose the most overacted reading of “Oh, Tonio!” I think could’ve ever been conceived. I burst out laughing and had to play that line five or so times before I finally got over it and moved along, but the fact that even happened in a show titled Berserk signifies that this series is not going to meet expectations.
That’s kinda the tragedy of the show as a whole, in my opinion. If you take away the ugly animation, flawed presentation and subpar audio, there’s a great story and some brutally awesome action beneath all of the negatives this show has. The Holy Iron Chain Knights are a great anti-hero faction for Guts to work off of for character development, the evil monsters he routinely fights are widely varied and never stop being fun to slice in half, and Griffith’s God Hand Apostles are deeply unnerving in that Dark Souls-y way that just chills your spine whenever you see one and learn their backstory. Almost every scene has some punch behind it, and the fight scenes, despite the animation quality scarring them deeply, carry that same cathartic impact I loved so much about the original.
The story keeps me going in the same way 91 Days did. It’s not the most original plotline, but it keeps the audience engaged with well-paced and decently choreographed action and suspense, while steadily moving the plot along during the downtime. If Berserk does anything right, it knows how to tell a compelling enough story without losing focus on what made the original so popular to begin with.
The writing isn’t anything special (and Puck wears out his welcome very early as a character), but it doesn’t need to be. The art style and action do all the speaking here, and in a way, Berserk is a great example of visual storytelling done right. The fact that it manages this feat despite its crippling shortcomings is commendable.
“SnYves, seems like you’re sending a lot of mixed signals here. Are you recommending the show or not?”
Hmmm…ahh…no, I just can’t. Sorry. But damn if Berserk doesn’t try. While I still stand by my statement that there is a great story to be told here and atmospherically its rich, dark and foreboding setting contrasted most of the summer 2016 lineup very nicely, it is a very ugly anime whose positives are marred by its lack of presentation value. The animation is passable whenever it’s not being bad to the point of breaking immersion, and despite the show being directed well-enough for what it shows the audience, it needed a lot more care in the visual department in order to be fully appreciated.
Berserk had the potential to be a really great show, and at its core you can easily see all of the good ideas it wanted to show off. It is a wonderful concept ultimately held back by its very flawed execution, and even though I had more fun watching this than I thought I would, these glaring production issues just made me wonder what this series would be like if all of my complaints about the animation and sound design were fixed. This could’ve easily been my anime of the year.
Regrettably, what we have instead is a choppy, non-committing series with just a few too many holes in its presentation for me to formally recommend. If you can get past that and not let it get in the way of the story it’s trying to tell, then you’ll probably have a decent time; otherwise, I wouldn’t say you’re missing a ton.
Well, except for the fighting bits. Where Guts kills an entire skeleton army with nothing but his trusty pancake skillet.
THE VERDICT: C-
Next time: A slice of Diablo.