Berserk Golden Age Arc I: The Egg of the King (2012) film review

Few stories can capture your mind and soul in a visceral way from the beginning, and never leave you. Berserk is one of them.

Written and illustrated by the legendary manga artist Kentaro Miura, Berserk (ベルセルク) is an epic fantasy saga that knows no time, no boundaries, and has no end. It tells the story of Gatsu (ガッツ), a boy born from the corpse of a woman hung on a battlefield, who struggles to fight his unfortunate destiny. Set in a fictional version of medieval Europe, Gatsu is a young mercenary who travels with no direction nor purpose, swinging his huge sword in merciless fights in order to survive. He buries his blade deep into the flesh of his opponents, fighting like a madmen in battle, reminiscent of the nordic berserks, coming closer and closer to death, maybe to finally feel alive. His life is meaningless, his actions have no honor nor reason, except survival. He strives to escape his nature, that of a man born from a dead body, already between this world and the other, with nothing to lose except his miserable life.

That is, until he meets Griffith, the impossibly beautiful and charismatic leader of the undefeated mercenary band called "the Band of the Hawk" (鷹の団 Taka no Dan). This encounter will forever change his life, and that of everyone else.

Miura began the prototype of Berserk in 1988, releasing the first volume in 1990. Twenty-two years have passed since then, and the saga has been religiously followed by millions of enthusiasts, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the most successful manga series ever written. It has been widely recognised for its excellence in Japan and throughout the world, winning the outstanding award at the sixth installment of Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize in 2002. It should come as no surprise that the manga has been constantly at the top of the best anime list globally.

Beware, Berserk is not an ordinary series. It is hard, violent, and not easy to follow. There are no flashbacks constantly reminding you of what happened before, no fill-in episodes, no sweetening of the pill. It is a solid punch of crude reality hitting you in the stomach, and you have no way of guarding yourself. Miura's genius permeates in each page, down to every minute detail. The themes treated are difficult, and never simplified for the sake of the reader. Reality has no shortcuts, no easy way, and that is reflected in the story. The characters in Berserk are genuine, real, endlessly complicated, troubled. They hold secrets, they cheat, murder, conspire, but they are also capable of great kindness. Friendship, ambition, causality, the supernatural, our ambivalent nature, the struggle for power, love and hate. Twenty-two years in, still going strong, in what is possibly one of the greatest stories ever told.

With that premise, you would think that the task of turning such a story into a series of animated feature films would be arduous. And you would be right. In 1997, OLM produced a series of 25 animated episodes, which covered the first thirteen volumes of the manga (currently at number 36). While the series was generally well done and positively received, it failed to capture the real essence of the story, the subtle messages, the details, the moments to savor again and again, the climatic drama that builds up until it becomes unbearable. Only an animation studio capable of immense greatness could be up to the task.

STUDIO4°C is one such group. They were responsible for creating masterpieces such as MEMORIES (1995), the award winning psychedelic avant-garde film MIND GAME (2003) and five segments of the cyberpunk dystopia "The Animatrix", in collaboration with the Wachowski brothers (now brother and sister).

Berserk Golden Age Arc I - Egg of the Supreme Ruler - opening scene

From the opening scene we know what kind of film we are dealing with. A clear, peaceful blue sky is contrasted by the presence of ominous birds flying in circles, while balls of fire fly over them. Guts looks up at the sky with sad eyes, a scar in the middle of his nose and a helmet on his head immediately tell us what he is. A heartless mercenary. The deaden sound of the blasting gives us a hint of where we are. Everything moves slowly, as if underwater, or inside a womb. How appropriate for someone who was born in a battlefield, who is neither truly alive nor dead, until he begins to fight. Gatsu's heart starts pounding, as he watches a black hawk fall down, the sound increases, until the bird drops dead in the middle of the fight, crushed beneath the boots of armed mercenaries, assaulting a castle. That is the time when the sound rises up at full blast, and we are catapulted into the battle.

The fight is cruel and violent, unlike anything I have ever seen. The Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Game of Thrones, list what you want, nothing compares to the level of horrifying realism that Berserk has to offer. The animation is top notch, the colours vivid and stunning, you could take any frame from the film, hang it on the wall, and it would work as a painting on itself.

The soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu is perfectly calibrated to match the already spectacular animation sequence, the epic chorus elevates the scenes to a sense of greatness, without ever overdoing it. The first eight minutes are a masterpiece of action down to the last second, flawlessly directed by the talented Toshiyuki Kubooka.

In every moment we can see something in motion, be it the clouds in the background or the hair on someone's face, the level of maniacal details is lessened only by the overuse of 3D animation (which is a bit irritating at times). But action sequences of crude violence, great animation, and impeccable sound effects are just a spec of dust in the whole opera. The real value lies in the moments of silence, when the characters quietly ponder about their lives, or study each other, looking into their souls. We can see through their fears, their dreams and aspirations, their hate, without them needing to utter many words. And the few words that are spoken weigh a million tons.

Berserk Golden Age Arc I: The Egg of the King covers volumes 4,5 and half of 6, each of which requires a few hours to read, all delivered in 70 minutes. As you can imagine, they had to make some choices and not everything was included. When this happens, the story usually loses value, the characters are simplified, and everything becomes dull. Surprisingly, this is not the case here. The first part of the Berserk Saga Project, which should cover the Golden Age Arc of Berserk does not disappoint. In fact, it excels, in both execution and presentation. The climatic drama and the anticipated tragedy yet to come reach the peak at the end of the film, accompanied by an epic final score by Susumu Hirasawa.

The second film, Berserk Golden Age Arc II: The Battle for Doldrey, will open in a few days in Japan (June 2012), while the third one, Berserk Golden Age Arc III: Descent will open sometime later this year.

When I first heard about the Berserk Project two years ago on twitter I was burning with excitement, but at the same time I was afraid it might fail to live up to my expectations. Having read the manga and watched the animated series several times over, I imagined it would have been boring to see it all over again, only with slightly better graphics. Boy, was I wrong.

STUDIO4°C has delivered a compelling and engaging story, masterfully animated and directed, which breathed life into Miura's pencil, and gave it voice. I can only hope that they continue along this path with the other two films, and why not, the whole story.

I can dream, can I not?