Second in a series of disorganized thoughts I am left with immediately after watching something.
An abridged symphony of violence.
After a (possibly?) excess of workout, from which my back was so sore I couldn’t maintain uprightness for a good hour or so, I convened at my place of employ for a screening of the first in a series of films adapted from the Berserk manga by Kentaro Miura. We’ve got an anime club and a theater! Good combo. I’ve read that the plan is to just keep going as far as possible in an effort to animate the entire (and still ongoing) series, which is now in excess of 36 collected volumes since the manga debuted 22(!) years ago.
Coming into this, I was not super-familiar with the series… I just knew it was a grim, dark medieval fantasy story following the exploits of a mercenary named Guts. Also, Susumu Hirasawa (the late Satoshi Kon’s usual composer as well as Japanese new wave weirdo under the handle P-Model) wrote some rad songs for it.
The animation is very nice, using a clever blend of CG and hand-drawn animation to allow for some large-scale battles and impressive sword-fighting. There are levels of composition… got a huge army of dudes? All CG. Are principal characters on-screen, but wearing armor? CG bodies, hand-drawn faces. Are they in their comfy duds? All hand-drawn. Basically, if some level of expressiveness or organic form is required, they’ll draw it, otherwise CG does the heavy lifting for the more detail-driven stuff.
It’s not shy about the violence, and why should it be? In the first battle, Guts demonstrates his power by defeating a champion of the opposing army, cutting him deep in his side, then splitting his skull. And then an eyeball pops out. Good times.
Throughout the film, there was a good mix of gritty brutality and unexpected humor… I understand the manga concerns itself with exploring both the good and bad sides of mankind, though this first act was definitely heavier on the bad.
Impressed by Guts’s power, Griffith, the effeminate leader of the Band of the Hawk mercenaries, seeks him out. There is fighting, a horse gets its back legs cut off (sad frowny face), and Guts is incapacitated by Griffith. Two days later, he awakens next to Casca, the most prominent woman amongst the Hawks, who had been ordered by Griffith to keep Guts warm during his recuperation.
I don’t mean to summarize the entire plot, but the quixotic nature of Guts and Griffith’s relationship is established soon after in a duel. Griffith beats Guts, who is duly honor-bound to serve under Griffith. Griffith, an apparent orphan of low birth, has aspirations to rule over a kingdom of his own, a goal he feels is within reach due to his possession of the titular Egg of the King. The Egg of the King is an artifact referred to as a behelit, a red stone with apparently carved eyes, nose and mouth scattered randomly around it. It’s creepy-lookin’.
Guts seems to be a man without an ethos, looking only to prove his worth in battle to himself, and make enough money to eat. Under Griffith’s leadership, though, he becomes an instrument for Griffith’s ambitions.
In the kingdom of Midland, Griffith gets all nicey-nice with the princess, which angers the king’s brother Julius. Julius, viewing Griffith as either a threat or a nuisance, attempts to have him assassinated, but it’s a no-go. Guts, ever so willing to do Griffith’s bidding, winds up assassinating not only Julius but, in a moment of recklessness, Julius’s young son as well. It’s a sobering moment for Guts, and he spends just about the whole remainder of this first film in silence, contemplating what he has become. I think.
It’s clear that, as he and Casca overhear Griffith explaining the notion that men without dreams of their own are not his equals, Guts has some sort of epiphany. What he’s realizing isn’t articulated. I think, most likely, is that since Guts has only been acting in support of Griffith, he thought they were peers when Griffith still views Guts as just a tool to be used. Guts gotta get a dream of his own, and something tells me before long that dream is gonna involve killing the hell out of Griffith. No spoilers! (WARNING: There were some spoilers above).
Also, I didn’t mention the royal feast! They were having dolphin. That is all I wanted to add about that. Mmmmm dolphin! Maybe it was porpoise?
Griffith’s definitely being framed as a bad dude, though. When news of Julius’s death comes at the end, with a servant rushing up to Griffith and the princess Charlotte, of course Griffith is unfazed. He was expecting that. When the servant then goes on to say that the son Adonis was killed too, no hint of “oh, that’s more than I wanted” crosses Griffith’s face. He is smirking quite contentedly.
Oh yeah, I wasn’t quite expecting it to be as supernatural as it’s turning out to be, what with Griffith and Guts’s earlier encounter with the at-least-several-hundred-years-old Nosferatu Zodd, whose appearance is reminiscent of Japanese oni. He can also turn into a giant winged wolf/bear/gorilla beast, which is handy for a speedy escape after he discovers Griffith possesses the “Crimson Behelit”. He scurred? He scurred.
Anyway, I was probably most surprised at how short this was, being part one of a planned three-part arc for this “Golden Age” storyline. Clocking in at an hour twenty, it ends very abruptly with a bunch of “next episode” previews, basically. I was emotionally prepared for a two-hour movie, guys! Suffice it to say, I do want to see that next episode, but it felt like large time leaps were made here when a bit of extra story would have served the narrative well. Editing was a bit abrupt at times, and character development only revved up without necessarily turning anything over.
Music was good, though! Courtesy of two of anime’s powerhouse composers. Hirasawa’s new theme song was energizing, and the score was provided by the veteran Shiro Sagisu, notably the composer for Neon Genesis Evangelion in all its forms.
Speaking of Evangelion, a comparison can be drawn as these are both film series spreading a major narrative over several films. With the two Evangelion Rebuild films released so far, they were better about self-containing a full dramatic arc as well as contributing to the overall saga. It seems a bit of a cop-out to spread a total runtime that would have comfortably served two films into three, as Berserk seems to be doing, especially when this first one suffered from as wide-assed a cliffhanger as it did.
Oh well, this was a free screening, and the other two films are being released at a steady pace, so I’ll probably pick up the inevitable trilogy box set.