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Berserk (1997)

In 1997, OLM took a sharp turn. The Japanese production company, known best for animating the children's media phenomenon, Pokémon, released a series far unlike its standard fare. Directed by Naohito Takahashi and based on Kentaro Miura's 1989 manga, Berserk was an adult program in every sense of the term. Even now, the series tops lists as one of the bloodiest anime ever made. Fans who make this claim tend to cite Takahashi's graphic last episode as proof--and while there is no denying Berserk's gruesomeness, there is far more to this epic than meets the eye. Beneath the blood and gore lies a deep, probing meditation on human nature, full of fascinating character studies that continue to spark dialogue today.  

Takahashi takes us to Midland, a quasi-medieval realm embroiled in a century-long war with its neighbor, the kingdom of Tudor. Griffith is the leader of the Hawks, a mercenary band said to be invincible despite its small size and thievish background. For years, Midland’s armies have tried to stop the Tudor invasion, but to no avail. As his forces continue to thin, the King of Midland makes a desperate move: he hires the Hawks to defeat Tudor, placing absolute trust in Griffith despite the man’s common birth. Griffith surprises his doubters, however, and slowly starts to repel the enemy. In time, he will become the King’s favorite, rising through the nobility and growing ever closer to the throne.

His ascent is no accident.

Unlike most mercenaries, Griffith values power over wealth. Bright, driven, and heedless of his low estate, he believes that he can claim Midland one day and rule it as King. The young leader’s ambition is rivaled only by his ruthlessness. Griffith will stop at nothing to realize his dream, relying on deceit, force, and even murder to quash those who oppose him. Between his battlefield finesse and savvy in court, the would-be king seems truly invincible--invincible, that is, until a single man brings his world crashing down.

Before their campaign begins, the Hawks meet Guts, a lone mercenary who catches their eye in battle. The Hawks marvel at Guts’ strength but grow angry when, hired by the opposition, he steals their victory during a fight between two lords. Craving revenge, a few of the Hawks ambush Guts as he makes off with his bounty. Their attack is unsuccessful, and as more of them join the fight, the mercenaries find themselves completely outmatched. Impressed, Griffith takes a shine to Guts and asks him to join the Hawks. Guts refuses to come quietly, countering that he will only join if Griffith bests him in a duel. Griffith accepts the wager and, though the fight is close, defeats Guts. The masterless warrior thus becomes the newest addition to the Hawks, eventually becoming Griffith’s second-in-command. And so, accompanied by their lieutenants, CascaJudeau, Corkus, Gaston, and Pippin, the duo set out to defeat Tudor.

Guts and Griffith form a strange pair. Despite the latter’s deep, and implicitly romantic, attraction to the other, the two men have almost nothing in common. Griffith is cool and duplicitous; Guts is brash and straightforward. Griffith seeks absolute control; Guts seeks absolute freedom, and it is this difference that both sparks and destroys their tumultuous friendship. Like Griffith, Guts is self-reliant. He has neither the desire nor the will to live life second hand, and while his comrades delight in being Hawks, he sees no sense in serving another man. Divided by dreams but mutual in their individualism, Guts and Griffith forge a bond that is both magnetic and repulsive. They understand each other, but Griffith’s dream demands that all submit to him--and Guts, fiercely independent, cannot oblige. He eventually breaks free of Griffith, igniting a destructive chain of events that will scar the Hawks forever.

Guts’ entrance is disruptive, and the weight of his presence affects the whole band. Once bound to Griffith alone, the Hawks saw their leader as exceptional. Self-reliance was a gift that only he possessed, and following him, they believed, was their destined lot in life. In a telling scene, Judeau explains this view to Guts, revealing that both he and Corkus joined the Hawks at the expense of their own ambitions. Corkus was even a leader at one point, a memory that fuels his antagonism toward the bold, new stranger. Though none of the Hawks admit it, Guts disproves their weak self-image. By equalling Griffith, he subverts the leader’s exceptionalism, implying that the same greatness is buried in all men. That is the reason why Corkus hates Guts: when he looks at him, he sees the man he could have been.

For anime fans, Berserk is a rare find. Its dark atmosphere, layered themes, and cynical ending defy the conventions of popular storytelling. Takahashi is more keen to teach his viewers than please them, and his earnestness shows: the script itself reads like a Shakespearean play, laced with deep, brooding monologues that require close attention to be understood. While this writing would not fit most anime, it suits Berserk's feudal universe, seamlessly complementing the ladies, lords, and knights who inhabit it. Even the score, composed by fringe artist Susumu Hirasawa, seems to belong to an older age. Perhaps that is what makes this story so captivating: though released in the nineties, it convinces us that it has existed for centuries, waiting to be told.

Few stories are flawless, however. While Berserk comes within inches of perfection, its violence straddles the line between needed, plot-essential content and overt sadism. Blood does not flow; it spews, so much so that it risks looking comical. Add an ill-fitted, discordant title track to the mix, and it is clear that Takahashi stumbles at times. Beyond these minor faults, however, Berserk is a worthy watch. Its writing leaves a lasting impression, parallel to literature in its intellectual richness and depth. Part gorefest, part sophisticated drama, this epic takes anime to new heights, pushing boundaries and demanding to be taken seriously. Enjoy the costumes, speeches, and swordplay, but be warned:

This is no fairy tale.



A dark but intelligent reflection on human nature