The problem with animated adaptations of serialised manga is that the creators are attempting to adapt a series that may be years away from its conclusion. This isn’t a problem if you’re pretty much guaranteed to get enough episodes to cover everything, as is practically a rule with Shonen Jump adaptations, but it can cause problems if you only have half-a-year to a year of episodes. Some series, such as the first Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation, plan around this and work with the original creators to present an altered take which tells its own complete tale. Other series just quickly throw out the source material altogether; or perhaps even worse, they simply reach a certain point in the story and call it a day. This is the fate which befell the animated adaptation of Berserk, a still ongoing tale of a brooding swordsman locked in a conflict with demons in a medieval world. The adaptation ended at an infamously dark and depressing turning point, leaving viewers wanting closure in animated form.
The popularity of the series led to the announcement of plans to do a full adaptation of the manga in movie format. The first hopeful stage of this is a trilogy of films subtitled The Golden Age, covering the events previously adapted by the TV version. The first of these, The Egg of the King, runs roughly 70 minutes and focuses on introducing the main characters.
In a world seemingly styled after an alternate medieval Europe, a young swordsman named Guts makes a living as a mercenary. After single-handily turning the tide of a battle, he attracts the attention of Griffith, the aloof leader of the Band of the Hawk mercenaries. When Griffith makes it clear he wants to add Guts to their number, the swordsman suggests a duel with his freedom as the prize.
Three years later, the Band of the Hawk have prospered as the preferred enforcers of the king in opposing foreign invaders. Much of this success is owed to Guts, who now serves as one of Griffith’s most trusted subordinates, and a strong friendship has seemingly formed between the pair. But as Griffith moves ever forward with his ambitions to become a king himself, Guts starts to see signs that a destiny tied to Griffith is a dark one indeed.
The nature of Guts and Griffith’s relationship has become one of the anime equivalents of the significance of Rosebud or the identity of Darth Vader. The latter is particularly pertinent here, as watching the film is a bit like watching the Star Wars prequels. You know (intentionally) bad stuff is going to go down and roughly how, making some of the twists on the journey less effective then they might otherwise be.
Despite this, the film manages to present the right balance of elements to keep viewer interest. Although the film has a number of battles, the focus is on the relationship between Guts, Griffith and Casca, the sole female Hawk, who is clearly smitten with Griffith and views Guts as an annoyance and possibly a romantic rival. It’s clearly early days for her character, as she spends most of the film refusing to see any value in Guts’ addition to their ranks in a way that comes off as almost tsundere.
One questionable choice is that the foundation of the two men’s friendship is kept off screen. After Guts’ loses his bet, we cut to three years later, when he’s now a loyal soldier and he and Griffith are able to joke freely about that day. But this omission–possibly a casualty of the running time–is balanced by the implication that he has in the meantime addressed the lack of direction and purpose that previously defined him, and it positions him for the assignment he receives in the film’s closing act. Said assignment, in turn, allows the story to delve deeper into Griffith’s psyche. It’s a tricky (but rewarding) thing to pull off rewarding when a story allows us to spend time with a character and seemingly come to understand him, only to learn that we’ve been fooled along with everyone else. There’s an almost Shakespearian influence to Berserk, and Griffith would surely spark debate amongst many of the Bard’s scholars. Away from the battlefield we get to see a gripping game of social hierarchy as Griffith’s rise in favour attracts ire from the ruling class. Is he a caste outsider prepared to work his way to the top or a much more dangerous individual with a sociopathic modus operandi? As with real people, the answer isn’t simple.
The development of all three characters climaxes with an effective chapter break in the final scene. It leaves you wanting to see what will happen next: a desire sure to be stoked by a pre-credits trailer which promises the second film will push things deeper and darker.
There are some awkward technical aspects to the film, however. One is the film’s indecisive use of cell-shaded 3D animation. This first occurs in the opening battle, where it is used to animate the hordes of armour-clad soldiers fighting for a castle. It’s fairly unpleasant in this sequence but makes sense given the scale the sequence is trying to relate. However past this the film dances back and forth between it and 2D animation often for no greater reason than because the characters in question are wearing particularly ornate costumes.
Elsewhere, a fight against the demonic warrior Nosferatu Zodd showcases both the positives and negatives of the CGI animation. As Guts searches alone through an isolated building and discovers the mutilated corpses of allies, the 3D animation is used to bring a greater horrifying visual depth to the sequence and pull the viewer deeper into Guts’s horrifying situation. The negative occurs when opponents will be sizing each other up, and the camera will pull a fixed 360 degree spin which feels less like a fluid camera motion and more like the artificial spin you see when computer models are shown off in behind the scenes featurettes.
As should be expected of a story with a medieval setting, the violence in the film can be quite brutal, as is made clear from Guts’ very first victory. I wouldn’t label it gratuitous, but be prepared for some nasty realities of combat with weighted metal weapons; this really isn’t a title for younger children. In particular the events of the final act produce some chilling imagery which some may find offensive.
Music ventures into the same Latin choral chanting most fantasy movies go with, but overall the soundtrack is a perfect fit, adding to the atmosphere of the story and the grim and gothic sensibilities of the world.
Language options consist of subtitled Japanese and an English dub. Although the Japanese recording opted for completely new actors, the dub managed to bring back the actors for the main three characters. I’m not quite sure if that’s a good thing, though. Both recordings are perfectly enjoyable, but Marc Diraison’s Guts brought back memories of retro dubs where actors would be seemingly chosen to voice tough guy characters solely because they had a deep voice. Diraison isn’t a bad actor, but his performance somehow doesn’t seem to fit the character. Aside from this minor issue, this is a case where I can honestly recommend both language tracks.
The film is being released on a choice of DVD or Blu-ray as well as in a Collector’s Edition DVD & Blu-ray combo-pack complete with a special booklet. We received the DVD release, which lacks any extras. This continues to be a concern with Kaze releases, and a perplexing one given how they’re clearly otherwise invested in high quality releases. I offer my old standby that even production art and trailers would be welcomed. Given the returning dub actors, maybe even a short chat with them on how it feels to come back to their roles? The film is enjoyable enough that extras aren’t needed to balance it out, but in this day and age some form of extra is an expected standard.
Berserk: The Golden Age Movie I – The Egg of the King is an engrossing drama that juggles its various elements well, particularly avoiding the overtly whimsical nature of other fantasy adventure whilst not lapsing into the weariness of stringent historical drama. Like any good story it is driven by the characters, and you quickly become involved with their plight, to the point I felt the just over-an-hour running time felt like half of that.
My biggest complaint is with the inconsistent and poorly composed use of cell shading, though based on the included trailer that won’t stop anytime soon. Bigger Berserk fans may wish to invest the small amount of extra money into the Collector’s Edition but even if you just opt for a standalone DVD or Blu-ray this is well worth a watch, carrying a flavour other anime releases can’t match.
Berserk: The Egg of the King (UK Edition) is available from Amazon.co.uk.