Japanese Title: Berserk Ōgon Jidai-Hen III: Haou no Tamago
Release Date: 4th February 2012 (Japan)
UK Release Date: 2013
Running Time: 80 mins.
Director: Toshiyuki Kubooka
Writer: Ichiro Okouchi (Script),Kentarō Miura (original manga)
Starring: Hiroaki Iwanaga (Guts), Takahiro Sakurai (Griffith), Toa Yukinaru (Casca), Aki Toyosaki (Charlotte), Kenta Miyake (Nosferatu Zodd)
I find it hard to believe that I resisted Berserk until earlier this year. My first taste of it was an unpromising opening episode from the anime that was part of a cover-disc on Neo magazine and a Dreamcast game (Sword of the Berserk: Guts’ Rage) which convinced me that it was a simplistic medieval hack and slash title. Then I was inspired by fan fervour to watch the twenty-five episode TV series. At first bemused at the story of a guy with a huge sword in a love triangle with a bishōnen and tsundere I gradually lost my flippant attitude and got sucked into the saga of Guts.
How did I go from dismissal to full embrace?
I came to realise Berserk was a magnificent existential drama taking place in a medieval world laced with supernatural elements and populated by characters I came to care about. It also had awesome action, music and an ungodly amount of gore which also helped. When I watched the movie at a recent anime film festival it was with a sense of trepidation. If it was bad I would be pretty disappointed. Thankfully the movie proved to be a great adaptation.
Guts is a wandering mercenary who has a huge sword and few dreams or ambitions beyond surviving. All of that changes after he meets Griffith, leader of a group of mercenaries named Band of the Hawk who are working for the Kingdom of Midland in their war against Chuder. Guts decides to throw his lot in with them and develops a deep relationship with Griffith but also finds that Casca, a commander in the Band of the Hawk, is jealous that Griffith returns his feelings. Both Guts and Casca find themselves facing fierce battles and fierce emotions as they are swept along in Griffith’s rise to power.
Berserk Golden Age Arc is the first of a trilogy of films that adapt Kentarō Miura’s much lauded manga which began all the way back in 1990 and was adapted into a twenty-five episode TV anime in 1997/98. The manga currently stands thirty-seven volumes and is still being printed. This trilogy of films focusses on the Golden Age Arc which ranges across volumes three to fourteen of the manga, the same story covered by the anime. That is a lot of ground to cover but this film sets everything up neatly.
The script does an excellent job compressing the story into eighty minutes and you do not need to know the original story to fully understand what happens. The film charts the initial success of the Band of the Hawk and ends just after the assassination run with Griffith’s speech about dreams. While the TV anime had enough air time to give us a mixture of full blown battles with detailed tactics and the twisting court intrigue faced by Griffith in the kingdom of Midland, the film is more selective and the story is told elliptically.
The direction, editing and script are skilful in bringing this large span of information through the use of easy to understand montages and quick sequences that flow into each other. At first, being familiar with the anime, I felt that it was all cut a little too short but quickly found that it was effective.
Visually the film initially seemed odd. Studio 4c’s film mixes CGI characters with 2D backgrounds and the character models seemed to stand out too much, but I quickly got over it as soon as I saw Guts leap into the fray by stepping on faces and heads. I became enamoured with the combination of the two. The models are gloriously fluid and while I prefer the heavy lines of the TV anime’s character designs, the CGI characters are still attractive and capture aspects of the characters like their youth. The 2D landscapes are detailed and beautiful with the vibrant blues of skies over the verdant green fields full of grass and flowers providing the perfect arena for heavily armoured opponents to crash into each other and the layered colours in sunsets that provide a beautiful background to conversations in what looked like Stonehenge.
Part of the reason I loved the visuals so much was that the camera movement elevated everything to the perfect pitch. My favourites include an overhead shot which follows a siege defender as he switches positions to track soldiers pouring into his city, the desperate POV shots just before the Nosferatu Zodd battle and every time a tracking shot calmly followed Guts as he launched into a frenzy of hacking and slashing at opponents, cutting to close-ups at the right moment to show the techniques in his swordplay. Indeed, if you want a view of medieval warfare, this is bloody good because it has everything from sweeping cavalry battles all the way to intimate sword fights where gore sprays everywhere (including on the lens) and many heads fly. I was sucked into the action. I became so excited that I wrote “looks so awesome” in my notes. I became a grinning schoolboy because the film had that swagger and grit from the moment that Guts appeared and let loose with energy and brutality and demonstrated the will to live even when wishing for death. It seduced me away from reason and into some primal place. IT WAS FUN!
So far the film sounds like a simplistic action adventure but the script also does a good job of transferring the characters onto the big screen and setting up their emotions and the existential battles they undergo.
We get a glimpse of Guts’ awful childhood that sets up his antagonistic attitude and nihilism with a traumatic sequence involving Gambino which is animated with shaky, impressionistic POV shots and jump cuts. We feel Guts’ rage, determination and youthful swagger in the way the film makes the sword an extension of his body, the camera tracking it from point to Guts’ shoulder. It is shown in animation when he fights and strides around, when Guts refuses to bow before a king and comes up with dialogue like “I hate being restrained.” He starts off an aimless warrior but after meeting Griffith and hearing his dream he tries to create a dream for himself… although that comes later. He will soon be an example of an individual pursuing their own freedom of choice.
The complete opposite of Guts is Griffith, the man of destiny. Does he have control over his own actions? Again, that is for later. In this film we see him as a charismatic dreamer but the piercing blue eyes, rosy red lips and white hair mark Griffith out as cold and calculating, intensely beautiful and dangerous, his all-conquering desire advertised most notably when he says “I always get what I want”. And yet we see his youthful nature in a goofy grin and silly behaviour that reminds us that he is still young. The dialogue is ripe with knowing lines that crackle with humour, especially if you followed the TV anime “What, you swing that way?”
Other characters like Casca, Corkus, Judeau, Rickert and Pippin are all present and are set up but not as detailed as Guts and Griffith. Casca is set up for her entry in the second film and is often seen criticising Guts about his reckless tactics. This is where the TV anime does better because over the course of twenty-five episodes we become deeply embedded in the attitudes of the characters and we feel the depth of their emotions but the film still does well and looks to set up the second and third part of the trilogy magnificently.
Shiro Sagisu’s music serves as a good replacement for Hirasawa (Paranoia Agent) Susumu’s original and distinctive electronic score from the TV anime. The battles are accompanied by exciting music that help stir up a sense of scale while the more intimate moments and supernatural parts are given a simple or creepy piano melody respectively. For anybody who misses Susumu, he has worked on the main theme of the film entitled Aria.
Overall the film is a brilliant adaptation of an important part of the Berserk story. I was able to enjoy the action that unfolded and thought that it did a good job of translating the story onto the big screen. I think being familiar with the anime and manga helped but it is not essential. People new to the franchise can enjoy it and fans of the series will find it is a good start to what looks like an excellent trilogy. I found it a lot of fun and I cannot wait for the second and third parts!!!