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Berserk

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Date Aired
December 31st, 2015
Running Time
25:29
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Berserk is the subject of the 134th episode of Anime Abandon, hosted by Bennett the Sage. It was posted to BenTheSage.com on December 31st, 2015. The episode has yet to be posted to YouTube.

Licensed by Central Park Media and released in 2003 in the United States, the 25-episode TV run of Berserk from 1997 has been highly praised for how well it followed the manga, but also how it followed through on its themes of ambition and the cost of it. 

Sage closes out 2015 on a high note with a show that is in his personal top 10. In fact, it was #1 in his 2013 list of his favorite anime. 

Episode TranscriptEdit

(Anime Abandon Opening 2.0, fade in on Sage)

Sage: Imagine, if you will, a young teenage boy trying to get his friend into anime. After some successes…and some failures, he decides to chance on a title that the both of them have never seen, or heard of. That show would quickly become a personal favorite for the both of them. That…is how Gabe and I first saw Berserk.

(Cut to first-person handheld footage at a video rental store. As Sage speaks, we walk through the store with him, and turn the corner to a shelf with “Anime” emblazoned on a small sign card. The camera then drops to the individual Berserk volumes [remember those days, kids? -Ed.])

Sage (VO): Yeah…back in 2005—or 6, it might have been—we both came across the entire DVD set at our local video rental store called “VideoDroid.” And on a whim, we rented it volume by volume over the course of a month. And we were both hooked. To this day, every time I turn the corner at “The Droid” and I see all the DVDs still there on the shelf, I can’t help but smile.

Cut back to Sage

Sage: Even Gabe here can tell you that Berserk is one of his personal favorite anime, as well as mine, right Gabe?

(Cut to Gabe in a bandanna with an eyepatch over his left eye)

Gabe: Yeah, I mean, whether you’re talking about the orig—(Gabe is cut off by Sage)

Sage: Thanks, Gabe! Berserk is a series that is as close to mine and Gabe’s heart as anything we’ve ever seen. And I suspect it’s close to yours, too. Not just because it’s a great action show, but because it’s a great action show that rewards you for digging deeper into it.

(Cut to footage from Lucky Star and its almost diabetes-inducing art style)

Sage (VO): I’ll admit the thing that got my curiosity going with Berserk was that it looked nothing like the anime that was coming out at the time. You see, this was the mid 2000’s, when anime was in the middle of another recession after a surge in popularity.

(Cut to panning shots of Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Suncoast stores, with tomes upon tomes of manga)

I’m pretty damn skippy that most of you remember back around 2002 to 2004? when it seemed like anime and manga were everywhere. Best Buys, FYEs, WaldenBooks, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, they were all filled with shelves upon shelves of DVDs and manga. But as the decade went on, the dedicated retail spaces shrank, and the stores began going out of business. The model of 30 bucks for four episodes of a series was proving to be too costly, especially with the emergence of online sharing sites like LimeWire and BitTorrent.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: What could anime companies do but try to find series that were still selling in the market and try to replicate it? And unfortunately, the only shows that were still selling were shonen series like Naruto and One Piece, and moé crap.

(Cut to Haruhi Suzumiya footage)

Sage (VO): By 2004, the quote-en-quote “moé industry” had generated something to the tune of 88 billion yen in Japan. So it’s no wonder that in the following years, American fans were drowned in a lake of cutesy, saccharine retch.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Look, no offense to you if you like all of this, but my definition of hell is being strapped to a chair and then Clockwork Orange’d with nothing but moé titles until I lose my goddamn mind.

(Cut to footage from Berserk)

Sage (VO): To no one’s surprise—least of all my own—this was about the time my interest in anime began to wane. New titles that were being shipped out to the States didn’t interest me, which caused me to look to older titles to see if there were any hidden gems.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: From that point of view, Berserk may as well have been a 24-karat diamond in a brick-dense hunk of pig shit. Not just because of the titles it found itself surrounded by, but also because of how it looks.

(Cut to Berserk)

Sage (VO): Some of the more obvious aspects about Berserk—visually speaking, at least—is that the main character looks remarkably more masculine than any contemporaneous anime lead at the time.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Even his name is hyper-masculine to the point of absurdity: Guts. Sounds like a nickname for David Ryder, doesn’t it?

(Cut to Berserk, but with audio from the MST3K episode of Space Mutiny)

Servo, Mike, Crow (VO): Fridge Largemeat! Punt Speedchunk! Butch Deadlift!

Sage (VO): Also, his goddamn sword is the biggest motherfucking Claymore this side of Nightmare from Soul Calibur! And you thought Cloud was pushing the limits of impossibly humongous swords! This can’t even scratch the threshold of believability! It’d be easier to swing fucking Mjolnir than this girder from a cruise liner!

Guts: My sword has gotten very dull. However…it’s three times as thick! And does three times the damage of a normal sword! You better pray you die quickly, or this could be painful.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Well, that’s…awesome and everything. As…well as really goofy, but what else immediately jumps at us?

(Cut to Berserk and Mr. He Did Nothing Wrong himself, Griffith)

Sage (VO): Well, his foil Griffith, might as well be the diametric opposite of him, both in appearance and coating. Also, the setting is weirdly non-Japanese. Even a cursory glance at any episode would liken it to something more along the lines of Game of Thrones than anything identifiably Japanese, or…Asian, for that matter.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Lastly, the anime kind of looks…ho-hum.

(Cut to Berserk)

Sage (VO): Technically speaking, there’s very little about the show that strikes the viewer and makes it stand out. Save for by comparison. Yes, when you contrast it with the anime that was coming out at the time, the difference is night and day. Yet there’s little, if anything, that the show can claim for itself as a visual signature. Save for the aforementioned humongous sword and the last few episodes, but we will get to that in a bit.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Oh! Uh, while we’re still talking about the visuals, it doesn’t take long for you to recognize that it’s animated pretty poorly.

(Cut to more footage of Berserk, with its admittedly meh animation. And that’s being nice.)

Sage (VO): Besides reusing animation loops and other shortcuts, Berserk is heavily reliant on the watercolor still frame instead of actual animation. And when I say heavily reliant…I mean laughably so.

(Cut to one of those watercolor stills from what was the first chapter of the manga [I’ve personally never seen this Berserk series -ed.]. It pans around a flame-red background, with mounted infantry slaughtering all in its path. It then cuts to the Snake Baron.)

Snake Baron: (Laughter) Kill every last one of them! Burn everything!

(Cue more stills for about 20 seconds before we cut back to Sage)

Sage: Goddammit, even Ken Burns would tell them to tighten it up!

(Cut back to the show)

Sage (VO): So, it’s obvious that the show was made and animated on a shoestring budget that probably would’ve left Roger Corman eating ramen noodles for a month, but a lot of these faults can be overlooked by great storytelling and characters, as long as the show gets off on the right foot. This is about initial impressions after all, and you know what they say: you never get a second chance at them.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Sadly, they kinda drop the ball here, too.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): Well, it’s only a dropped ball once you’ve watched the entire series, but the beginning episode is probably the weakest aspect of the entire run. Hell, even if you don’t watch the entire series, the first episode leaves you feeling like it was…all right? Ish? It starts with Guts letting everyone know in a tavern why he’s called The Black Swordsman.

(A fat guy charges towards Guts, screaming at him, while he’s already got an arrow in his chest area. Guts easily strikes him down with one stroke from his Dragonslayer, blood splattering on a nearby table. Cleaved in two, the patrons look on in horror as the top half of the assailant’s body goes flying across the room, and falls aside Guts.)

Sage (VO): Seems the village has been under the tyrannical rule of an unmistakably obvious evil lord who just happens to be a snake demon. Still, demon or no, nothing escapes an arrow to the eye. Or…several arrows, as it were. And it’s here that you would expect that the series would go on about Guts’s many bloody adventures, slaying demons and being a stoic badass. But…no.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: It instead ends on a flashback to his youth. And from there, it just tells the story of how Guts turned into the man we saw at the beginning of the episode. We don’t even catch up to the present until the very last scene of the very last episode.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): Anyone who’s seen Berserk always has the exact same criticism afterward: that the story felt pointless. After all, we leave Guts where he began, so the story winds up circular and without any forward momentum. Which is especially galling because it leaves the story on quite a few loose ends.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: What’s worse is that this problem could have been alleviated if they just cut the first episode! I mean sure, it introduces us to the character of Guts and also clues in the audience that he’s a walking death machine, but in the long run, all it does is set up the audience for disappointment.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): And it’s not like the second and third episodes don’t flesh out Guts’s character, because they do. If you skip the first episode, you will not have missed anything crucial, and would in fact be more invested in what is happening by virtue of not knowing where this will all lead to. You won’t be waiting for Guts to lose his eye or arm because you don’t know he will.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: You could make the argument that knowing the specifics of how Guts loses his eye and arm creates intrigue, but that’s an interest rooted in the concept of abstract meta-narrative instead of something solid like plot development. (Sage throws a hand up and shakes his head, trying to clarify) OK, here’s what I mean:

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): If you compare and contrast the Guts at the beginning of the first episode with the Guts at the end of the episode, there is a remarked difference, and I mean besides age and fewer body parts. His attitude and demeanor are different. His emotions are more clear and defined when he was younger, as to be expected.

Guts: Our contract expired today, didn’t it? Seems the fighting is over around here.

Soldier: W-w-wait a minute! I will secure your position and income as well! You won’t need to put yourself in danger as a grunt during the war—(the grunt reaches out and grabs Guts’ arm, but as fans would know, he doesn’t quite like that…)

Guts: Don’t touch me! Don’t you ever touch me.

Sage (VO): His actions and words reflect a completely different character from the older Guts who seems personally driven in his bloodshed to the younger Guts who just seems to love to fight. Looking at these contrasting personalities, there is the analytical allure of finding out what happened to cause Guts to grow into such a different person, but from an investment perspective, it feels like we the audience were cheated out of an emotional transition. We now know what he will grow up into before we even meet the younger him. And considering that the crux of the story is his coming of age tale, the issue is compounded even further. 

(Cut to a short scene from Breaking Bad)

It would be like if Breaking Bad began with Walter White in his hidden away cabin, and the resulting story is just him reminiscing about how he got to the point where he’s at.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: But my overall point isn’t that the beginning was done poorly. It’s that the series doesn’t make a good first impression. The art is uninspired, the animation is barely there, and the story sets itself up for failure…but it doesn’t fail.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): By all outward appearances, this should have no reason or way of being as good as it is, and that’s because its strength lies in its characters and themes: both aspects that are not preceptively obvious, and take time to mature and resonate with the audience.

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Let’s start with our protagonist, Guts. We know he’s a warrior and a swordsman, and just about the deadliest thing on two legs, but there is more to him.

Sage (VO): Over the course of the show, we learn more about his past, which is one of constant conflict. There was hardly a time in his life where death in battle weren’t surrounding his every waking hour, forming a man who can only become what he is.

(Cut to a scene where Guts is fighting a plethora of soldiers by himself. Many are slain around his feet, and the commander, watching from above, is amazed by Guts’ skills.)

Commander: Incredible! Despite his wounds he’s defeated nearly half of my hundred men! So then…he has some skill!

Guts: Huh? What’s that you say? So there are still 50 of you left standing? At this rate, it’ll be dawn before I can crack open all of your skulls.

(Cut to a quieter scene with Guts and Griffith)

Sage (VO): In less capable hands, this would be the story of a villain to-be: a violent psychopath whose urge to kill and conquer is all-encompassing. But Guts—while morally ambiguous—hardly fits on the evil alignment scale. His personal journey starts on familiar villainous ground, yes, but through interactions with his friends and brothers in arms, he finds new purpose in the bloodshed. 

At no point does the show frame what he is doing as morally compromised, but rather as a sad fact of life. His story is probably one of many as a child growing up in the world of Midland: a constantly warring state between kingdoms over land, property and people. The only thing separating him from another is his full-on inhuman-level ability to be great at battle.

(Cut to a scene where Guts is taking on a mounted infantryman by himself. Their swords clash, and after a brief struggle, Guts hulks up and easily overpowers the rider and his horse, decapitating both in one stroke, much to the shock and awe of his fellow soldiers.)

Sage (VO): In a world where his feats are looked at with awe and reverence, if not a healthy dose of fear, morality becomes a more hazy and ill-defined question. Is Guts a bad person because he kills people? Is he evil because he’s good at it? Or is he just a handy tool for someone else to use?

Griffith: This is an assassination. It differs thoroughly from fighting in battle. It’s a dirty task, and you cannot be allowed to fail. You must not be seen, either. Because of the nature of this task, you are the only person I can trust. You have a choice.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: His inward examination of strength and ambition is darkly reflected in his friend-slash-rival, Griffith. You know, the…swishy-looking guy.

(Cut to a scene with Griffith, Guts and Casca)

Sage (VO): Having conscripted in Griffith’s army, the Band of the Hawk, after losing to him in a fight, Guts learns for the first time in his life to fight for something other than his continued survival: for the dream of Griffith.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: The relationship between these two characters is the central focus of the entire anime, and it also provides a focal point for the story’s themes.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): Besides sharing an interest in battle, both Guts and Griffith also relate to each other by their mutual need to prove themselves. The real difference being Guts has a need to prove to himself his worth, while Griffith’s is more outwardly dependent.

Corkus: You might be grateful for the rank and position that Griffith—and no one else—saw fit to bestow upon you! The position an ass like you does not deserve!

Guts: I don’t want what another man can give me. If he grants me anything, then it’s his to give and not my own.

Corkus: (stammers) Now you sound like a goddamn woman!

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: Guts’s aim is more towards singular events, like one-on-one fighting in tournaments.

(Cut to the show)

Guts: Well. You look like a big one. How ‘bout it? Feel like a friendly competition?

(Cut back to Sage)

Sage: Griffith, meanwhile aims for titles and lordship. A status that says he is better than everyone else just by virtue of existing.

(Cut to the show)

King: I believe that it is proper for me to grant Count Griffith and the Hawks the title of White Knights, with supreme command over all of Midland’s armies.

Sage (VO): This need drives the plot as Griffith guides Guts and the rest of the Band of the Hawk to glory, fighting for the king of Midland. Not for the sake of ending war, but in hopes to curry noble favor and forge his own kingdom.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: And as comfortable and capable as he is on the battlefield, Griffith proves that he too can also play…well…the game of thrones.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): From sussing out the conspirators that plot against him and eliminating anyone who dares get in his way, we begin to see Griffith for what he really is: a romantic, but dangerously focused sociopath. 

This transition from young idealist to cold, calculating mastermind is helped along by the fact that we don’t know much about Griffith for the majority of the series. We only learn about his calculating, underhanded actions after they were performed. And nearly every personal detail that we learn about him comes from the perspective of others.

(Cut to a scene where Guts is talking with a particularly dextrous squire in Judeau, balancing a small knife on his hand)

Judeau: I’ve always been clever enough to do most things well. (He flips the knife to his other finger and balances it there) Quick with a sword and dagger, I was always a better fencer, fighter and archer than anyone around me. Of course, I would never be a master of anything. So I made a decision: if I could never be the best, then I would find the man who could, and serve at his side. Every man at some point dreams of greatness.

Sage (VO): It’s very rare that Griffith actually talks about his past, only opening up to Guts and Griffith’s second-in-command, Casca.

(Cut to another scene with Guts and Griffith talking. Griffith is stark naked in this scene. You’re welcome, ladies.)

Griffith: Oh, this? (Grabs his necklace) Well, I got this from an old fortune teller woman a long time ago. It’s a behelit. She called it The Egg of the King, for once you possess this, you are destined to rule the world…in exchange for your flesh and blood.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: Because of all this, we the viewers can’t help but see Griffith as how the other characters see Griffith: as this larger than life charisma knight that will lead us all to the promised land. In myth making terms, he is anime Brad Pitt.

(Cut to a scene from Fight Club)

Sage (VO): From a story writing perspective, the best way to mythologize and elevate a character from quote-en-quote “mere mortal status” is to not frame the story from their perspective, but rather from the characters surrounding him. For instance, even though the narrator Jack is the main character in Fight Club, all anyone can talk about or focus on…is Tyler Durden.

(Cut to a scene from Meet Joe Black)

An aging Bill Parish makes a speech that intrigues Death himself, but even his own daughter can keep her eyes and attention off the unknowable and mysterious Joe Black. 

(Cut to a scene from Inglorious Basterds)

A French rebel plots against the Third Reich, and succeeds in her scheme of trapping every major Nazi officer in a theatre that she burnt down, even dying so that this plan may succeed, but it’s not her that Hitler fears…or is even aware of. It’s Aldo Raine and his Inglorious Basterds.

(Cut to Berserk)

For the rest of the Band of the Hawk, Griffith is all anyone they can care about. To the point where they can’t even recognize Guts’s own greatness.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: Throughout this series, Guts’s accomplishments are either on-par with Griffith’s…or they exceed them. And yet whenever anyone tries to compare the two, they either just laugh it off, or they outright dismiss it!

(Cut to the show)

Guts: I want to be at his side. As an equal, when I have forged something for myself. No more. No more will I be anything less to Griffith than his equal.

Corkus: You think yourself Griffith’s equal?! (Kicks over a basket and stands up) Goddamn you and your childish bitching! I won’t listen to it! Griffith is exceptional, and you are beneath him!

Sage (VO): Even Guts buys into the cult of Griffith, once pledging his life and sword for his goal. But the enthrallment wears off when there are simply no more enemies to fight. 

Conflicted with his need to fight, and his want to stay true to his friend, Guts finally decides, after several years of fighting together, to go out on his own. Unsurprisingly, this is unthinkable to Griffith, who challenges him once again.

(In a climactic duel, Griffith and Guts charge towards each other. With one final powerful stroke from his Dragonslayer, Guts breaks Griffith’s sword, and stops short of him. Griffith’s face is uncharacteristically broken and twisted in the agony of defeat. The business end of Griffith’s sword symbolically lands tip-down in the snow. After a short stare down and an almost catatonic look from Griffith, he drops his sword and falls to his knees, a defeated man, seemingly for the first time in his life.)

(Cut to Sage)

Sage (VO): This moment is made so much more impactful by the fact that the show keeps addressing the theme of power and powerlessness.

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): As we learn from Casca and a few others, Griffith inspired each and every one of his soldiers to overcome their position in life and claim their own personal strength and glory.

Casca: It was like a moment in a dream. Unreal and divine. In his mercy, God had sent me a savior. An angel to defend me. And for a moment, that’s what I honestly believed. But what the angel offered me…was not the salvation I expected. 

(Griffith throws a sword at Casca’s feet)

Griffith: If you have something to protect, take up the sword.

Sage (VO): But the road from an ordinary mercenary company to infantry in the king’s army involved not only bloodshed, but a more intimate sacrifice on the part of Griffith.

(Cut to a scene where Casca confronts Griffith after he prostituted himself)

Casca: Why would you do that with him?!

Griffith: For the money. Maintaining an army is quite costly. Soldiers, horses, provisions and equipment…none of these are free.

Sage (VO): Affected by the death of a young child soldier under his banner, Griffith sells his body for a night so as to gather money for his army and expedite his dream of a kingdom. For Griffith, the stigma of selling his body means nothing if it helps him realize his dream. Especially if it means fewer deaths of his soldiers. 

But when faced with the reality that there is someone who is stronger than he is—someone he cannot control—he resorts to desperation, and enters the room of the king’s daughter at night. Because we can only speculate as to Griffith’s motivations, we’re left wondering if he thought that bedding the princess would mean eventual marriage and inheriting the king’s throne, or if he needed to regain some semblance of manhood after this symbolic castration of a fight. 

Regardless of his thinking, the affair is exposed and Griffith is arrested. With the Band of the Hawk disgraced and Griffith in the hands of a torturous dungeon keeper—

(Cut to a scene where Griffith is slowly being tortured by a creepily-soothing dungeon keep. As the keep sticks long silver needles into Griffith’s torso, Griffith writhes in agony.)

Keep: Oh now, there, don't worry! I’ll stay away from your vital bits! You won’t die yet! You see, I’ve been ordered by my king to keep you around at least another three years!

(The keep continues to stick needles in Griffith’s midsection)

Keep: But I don’t know…I like you.

(Cut to The Machine scene from The Princess Bride)

Count Rugen: And remember: this is for posterity so…be honest. How do you feel?

(Westley’s quiet whimpering is the audio we hear on top of a close-up on Griffith’s eye.)

Rugen: Interesting.

Sage (VO): Guts rallies the remaining troops and rescues him, but it’s too late, and he’s now only a shell of his former self.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: To go on from here would be spoiling the series for those who haven’t seen it, but judging from the beginning…you can probably surmise what might have happened.

(Cut to the show and more watercolor stills)

Sage (VO): Maybe not specifically, surely, but enough plot happens in the last few episodes that I feel like going over them would absolutely ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the series. Suffice it to say, the ending is near-perfect: a gem of a climax that will leave you emotionally drained, but entirely satisfied. The only detraction I can really make is—again—that the beginning takes away the surprise of everything. Still, a hell of an ending…is a hell of an ending.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: To see Berserk unfold from the first episode to the last is something very special to anime. And I think that’s why it’s one of my personal favorite anime of all time, if not my most favorite.

(Cut to an action scene)

Sage (VO): It's the only TV series I’ve ever seen that got better and better with each passing episode. And the experience I had when I watched the entire series has yet to be matched by anything I’ve seen yet in anime. Even with its poorly-advised beginning and really cheap animation, Berserk still stands out in my mind as one of the all-time greats. Hell, even the animation shortcuts are sometimes used with startling effectiveness.

(Cut to the watercolor stills with Casca and Guts making love)

Casca: My life has been an honest one. I have only my pride, and I owe that to Griffith. But…I’m changing. There may be a place for me in this man’s soul. Not because of what I may receive…but for something of worth…I may have for him.

(Cut to Sage)

Sage: And the fact that this is all coupled together with the fantastic score from one of my favorite composers, Susumu Hirasawa, means that I just cannot recommend this highly enough! Even if you’re squeamish around violence and gore, I’d still urge you all to watch it!

(Cut to the show)

Sage (VO): Oh, and if you need any more convincing, there’s plenty of gay subtext, if that’s your thing. In fact, sometimes it crosses the line and becomes plain old gay text!

(Cut to a scene where Griffith and Guts are playfully throwing buckets of water on each other, with a song from Top Gun in the background [I think it’s Playin’ With the Boys, not 100% sure. -Ed.])

(Cut back to Sage, with the DVD complete set in his hands)

Sage: OK, yeah, I’m joking, but my point still remains that there is something for everyone here in Berserk, and as long as you give the series a shot…then…I can walk away happy.

(Sage sighs with satisfaction, and maybe a bit of sadness as he looks at the DVD set and plays us out for 2015).

Well, thus, Anime Abandon ends for 2015. And even though the month didn’t go the way I expected it to, on the whole…I feel like I had a pretty good year. Here’s to a bright future for all of us, and may kindness find each and every one of you. I’ll be back in 2016 with the one and only…(Holds up a DVD of—) Robot Carnival, but ‘till then…happy new year.

Cut to credits

Footage and Sound UsedEdit

  • Berserk
  • The Princess Bride
  • The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000
  • Meet Joe Black
  • Lucky Star
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Fight Club
  • Breaking Bad
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