Dark, brooding and brutally violent, Kentaro Miura's Berserk would at first glance seem like the poster child for all of what made anime and manga infamous in the late 80s and 90s. However, that would be to neglect the genuinely complex storyline and layered characters that run through the bloodshed and occasional bit of sex in its mountains of pages. Its popularity is such that Miura has been running the thing for well over two decades on his own schedule, otherwise content to faff around Nico Nico Douga and Idolm@ster. There was also an excellent TV anime that aired in 1997 that has inspired a quiet but consistent demand for a further adaptation of the story.
Fortunately, over ten years after that anime finished its run and a little less than two years after being initially announced, renowned production house Studio 4°C has finally delivered Berserk Golden Age Arc I: Egg of the Supreme Ruler to theaters. Filled with great action and a thrilling story, the result is one of the most exciting and satisfying anime action movies this side of Redline. Which makes the chinks in the armor all the more painful.
Fortunately, the problems are not in the script, which is more-or-less faithful to the original material with the requisite caveats that come with fitting several hundred pages of manga into a 90-minute feature. True to its title, the story starts from the Golden Age arc of the manga, which also took up the bulk of the TV version.
As in the earlier show, we are introduced to Guts, proving his worth on the battlefield against a feared warrior before being discovered by the beautiful mercenary Griffith and being practically seduced into joining his Band of the Hawk. At first feared and looked down on, Guts proves himself to be a brave, if reckless, leader, earning him the fury of the woman warrior Casca, who harbors barely concealed sentiments for Griffith who in turn holds an ambiguous affinity for Guts. As Griffith's political ambitions grow and become more scheming and unclear, Guts and Casca can only wonder what the future will hold.
The opening scene is brilliant in setting the look and tone of the rest of the movie for both better and for worse. The swordfight choreography is exquisite, thanks in part to the fact that the bulk of the film is rendered with 3D CG and it is as gory as can be by virtue of being freed from TV guidelines. To wit, the camera doesn't flinch as Guts slices his sword down between some poor sod's eyes, complete with popped eyeball and exposed grey matter. Beyond the viscera, there is also a subtle psychology, with a pronounced focus on the emotions of the combatants which remains consistent for the movie. Here, the fights aren't just fancy pyrotechnics, but are intertwined with the characters' growth, feeling weighty and significant throughout.
What doesn't feel so weighted is the movement of the characters themselves. Sure, the fight scenes astonishingly never succumb to the floaty physics that tend to plague Japanese CG features such as Vexille. Granted, they do look like Wii real-time cutscenes, but at least they don't usually feel like them. Quite an accomplishment when you have large battles with hundreds of men on horseback and otherwise hacking away. Yet, somehow the drama scenes inexplicably often feel like watching people bobbing about the Moon instead of the gravity of Not-Earth. Also, it's questionable if it was nearly as wise to have the CG “frame-skip” to mimic the feel of most 2D anime, which just looks choppy and brings unflattering flashbacks to Malice@Doll.
It's a shame too, because, funny walking aside, this is one of the best-looking attempts to imitate traditional anime with CG. Director Toshiyuki Kubooka (perhaps best known for his work on the Lunar series) gives his 3D bodies 2D faces for close-ups and usually it's enough to at least forgive the limitations of the animation and focus on the story. In fact, when it doesn't move, it's easy to forget about the CG and get caught up in the unfolding drama as well as the battles.
Where the animation is uneven, Shiro Sagisu's musical score is rock solid. Relegating long-time Berserk composer Susumu Hirasawa's eclectic electronica to the main title theme and an insert song, Sagisu brings a more conventional but appropriate brass bombast, making up for the lack of the notorious “Tell Me Why.” Those who appreciated his equally over-the-top soundtrack on the Rebuild of Evangelion movies will be right at home here. As the camera sweeps over battles with hundreds of men on horseback hacking away at each other as militaristic drums and dramatic violins wail, Berserk gains a momentum that keeps things going.
And go is the key word here. At a lean 90 minutes, there is little time wasted. Every scene pushes the film along, conversations are kept to only what needs to be said, with anything else conveyed through subtle character animation, and it's otherwise wall-to-wall with action. However, even for newer fans, it shouldn't feel too overwhelming. Kuboota manages to find the right pace for each scene. Talking never feels bogged down, the action doesn't zip too fast and the story doesn't get lost. Every fight has its place and never feels gratuitous while still pushing the narrative along, the quiet cliffhanger whetting the appetite for the June release of Part II.
Yet, for this praise lavished upon it, the unconventional and uneven animation keeps it just this short of flawless. For fans of the franchise, it's a foregone conclusion that this is a must-see. For those just coming in, its still highly recommended and bound to be a good time, but perhaps those iffy about the animation style might do well to read some of the manga or watch the TV anime. As for this reviewer, summer has just started looking a little brighter.