#1 Guts’ character arc
Set in a grimdark medieval fantasy world, the story of Berserk is all about the legendary warrior Guts. A former mercenary turned bane of demonkind, for whom the term “One Man Army” is an understatement. Guts is like an unstoppable monster. One that has actual, real monsters cowering in fear of him. He is objectively the coolest badass in all of fiction.
This 1997 anime mainly covers the Golden Age arc, which acts as a backstory for Guts. His rise to badassness, so to say. And also, it shows that there is more to the man than unrelenting violence and boastful one-liners.
The Golden Age arc revolves around Guts’ younger days. His days as a freelancing mercenary who could back up his rash confidence with unmatched power. He is a lone wolf by choice, who does his job and staunchly refuses to be bound by anyone. Until he is one day bested by Griffith, the leader of a mercenary army known as “The Band of the Hawk”. As a condition for their duel, Guts is forcibly recruited into this merry band of warriors. An environment which he initially rejects.
However, as years go by, you see Guts mature and his attitudes change. You learn more about his past and how that shaped his mindset, but also how the camaraderie among the Hawks heals his inner self. Yet, no matter how many people surround him, Guts is haunted by a deep and crushing loneliness. A gaping hole that can’t be filled. Even when surrounded by trusted friends, Guts feels isolated and out-of-place. Feelings that aren’t always outspoken, but which are brilliantly communicated by the visual directing.
These paragraphs cover so very little of the amazing (and ongoing) arc that Guts goes through. Just rambling about his personality and development could fill an article all of its own, and that’s not even touching on anything that happens in the manga. He is a fantastic character, who combines the immediate appeal of a badass action hero with a deep inner world. You love to watch him inflict carnage on the battlefield AND you’re invested in his emotional experiences.
#2 Intense medieval action
The Golden Age arc is also notable for featuring a more low fantasy setting. Berserk is presented as a tale of medieval kingdoms locked in perpetual war. Of lords commanding armies into endless conflicts, as they vie for control of castles surrounded by vast wastelands. You could think of it as an anime adaptation of a Total War campaign. Fortunately, the gore DLC was unlocked by default for this one.
The Band of the Hawk ventures from one battlefield to the next. Always looking to strike in such a way that it turns the tides on otherwise impossible battles. While that may sound strategic, Berserk mainly draws from the Bittenfeld school of strategy. It’s all charges all the time. Commanders just can’t resist the appeal of having hundreds of cavalrymen ram into each other. No matter how completely unhinged doing so would be.
You don’t seek out a show called Berserk for its refined military strategy, I suppose. Violence is what matters and violence is what Berserk delivers.
The bloodshed in this anime is unrivaled in its catharsis. Whether its those aforementioned clashes between cavalry, duels between larger-than-life heroes, or watching Guts take on entire armies alone. Guts and his enormous sword are icons of anime and God does it feel good to watch him sling that hunk of iron around. An experience that is amplified by excellent audio mixing and fountains of blood.
#3 Gorgeously-framed visuals
I often see Kentaro Miura being lauded for the sheer detail in his work, but I don’t feel that quite covers just how astounding of an artist he was. Miura wasn’t just a master of his craft because he painted giant castles brick-by-brick. He was equally skilled at framing these illustrations in phenomenal ways.
What makes the Berserk manga so unique to read is the time you spend on individual panels. The layouts are so intricate, it feels wrong to just skim over them. There is so much to take in and, oftentimes, so much emotion residing within. While incapable of fully translating the manga’s impact to animation, Berserk gets incredibly close. Close enough to hit homeruns when it matters most.
Some of the anime’s best moments are punctuated by captivating shot composition. And with all due respect to Naohito Takahashi and his team; a lot of that is down to the artists faithfully adapting Miura’s original panels. I find this particularly noticeable outside of action scenes. The fantastic visuals truly help sell the story’s more emotional moments.
#4 Susumu Hirasawa
Despite being one of his earlier soundtracks for an anime, Susumu Hirasawa has become synonymous with Berserk. The OST he made for the show is, without exaggeration, one of the best anime soundtracks ever composed. It boosted Hirasawa’s career to new heights and made it impossible to think of this series without imagining the likes of Forces or Guts’ theme.
What I admire most in this soundtrack is how it resonates with Berserk on an emotional level, even though its deliberately mismatched for the setting. Hirasawa employs a lot of electronic sounds and synthesizers, which feel out-of-place for the medieval fantasy setting. Yet when paired with the chanting and other instruments, each song seems to magically fit with the series anyway.
Guts’ theme stands out the most for me. Instead of a macho rock track, Guts’ song is really rather poignant. Its a melancholic tune with piano music interspersed with emotionally-ambiguous singing. It adds a punch to the more touching moments of the series. Not to mention, it’s a stark contrast compared to the more aggressive music that plays whenever Guts does his thing on the battlefield.
#5 Focus on the Golden Age arc
I am going to go ahead and do something blasphemous here. I am going to critique the manga for a moment.
One thing that always kinda bothered me about the Berserk manga is how the early volumes are paced. You get a few volumes where Guts goes around in the present day, slaughtering demons as a wanderings swordsman. Then it suddenly changes gears and you get like 10 volumes of backstory in the form of the Golden Age arc. It is a fantastic storyline, don’t get me wrong. It just feels like the manga allows you to get too entrenched in one story, before putting that on hold for an eternity to catch you up on the lore.
Episode 1 does start where the manga does, but then we cut ahead a few volumes to the start of Golden Age. Relevant side-characters like Puck are also excluded from episode 1, so Guts is the only tie we have to this setting. This is such a good call. It allows ample time to do the Golden Age arc justice, while leaving you wondering how everything will eventually lead into the events of episode 1.
#6 Cosmic Horror
Berserk keeps the fantasy influences low throughout much of the anime; focusing more on warfare and court politics for much of its run. However, episode 1 gives you a glimpse of the supernatural elements. Demons exist in this world and they are nightmarish.
Episode 1 gives you a taste of this, after which demonic influence occurs sporadically. This builds up to a major pay off, at which point the series fully embraces cosmic horror. The scope and nature of the setting shift dramatically. In such a way that a lot of those battles over land and castles suddenly feel so very irrelevant, compared to the supernatural threat now facing our characters.
This has contributed to making the ending of Berserk infamous. In turn making it the perfect draw to start reading the manga, so you can find out what happens after.
More like this…
The Heroic Legend of Arslan: Medieval fantasy battles revolving around powerful heroes.
Devilman (OVA): Cosmic horror with gore-tastic action.
Giganto Maxia: Medieval fantasy manga by Kentaro Miura.