It’s been a while since I started watching this series. On the night that Kentaro Muira passed away (Rest in Peace), I finally made the purchase of this show from eBay and the order looked opened. It’s hard to tell what’s not a bootleg sometimes. I am not a manga reader, so I try to inhale Berserk anyway that I have before hand. I have watched the Berserk movie trilogy a few times and have even enjoyed the 2016 and 2017 versions of Berserk despite the visual problems and the issues that every Berserk fan had with its story line. Yet, this was the version of Berserk that I always wanted to watch and the one version that was never available anywhere for literally years at this point. Berserk 1997 is worthy of legendary status.
The setting of Berserk is not as amazing as one would think about it. If you look at the time and location that it takes place in before looking at anything else, it is very much like a generic fantasy series. Even, in my opinion, very influenced by the 100-year war between England and France though I could be very wrong on that. The country of Midland is currently under the invasion by the Tudor empire. (Ok, maybe my thoughts are somewhat founded.) Every army that the Midland Kingdom faces against the Tudors ends up losing except for one specific group. A Mercenary group called The Band of the Hawk led by the ambitious and infamously strong Griffith. An outsider group compared to the rest of the empire and shapes up and angers the nobles of Midland despite the king rightfully rewarding the group for its deeds.
Of course, that isn’t all that there is in Berserk’s setting. There is a larger super natural element to the series which Berserk 1997 keeps underground until the most important moments. A decision that makes sense in my mind for this adaptation because of the way 1997’s story is focused and told. This isn’t a story about characters fighting against the super natural demons most of the time. Those super natural elements are tied into the minds of our characters. The white haired, bishonen Griffith is a character whose ambition is so strong that he wears a mystical Behelit. That is something only ambitious people can wear until the right moment, as a necklace. Berserk is a story about its characters. While there are medieval fights and Game of Thrones borrowing Berserk’s political chess moments that show how smart Griffith is, Berserk’s quiet moments are my favorite. They are the moments that allow the cast to really breath.
Who are these character you ask? Will, they are three specific characters. I’ve mentioned one named Griffith who will stop at nothing to become king. There is also Casca, a woman who can beat most opponents in sword play and used to be a servant and is one of Griffith’s top leaders. The show also has Guts, the black swordsman who carries a sword bigger then he is and seems like a standard Berserker, but has a lot more to him then one would let by first appearance. He is also the main character of the show and has a lot of reflective moments to himself and other people. I’ve mentioned Griffith first, because he really is the driving force for this story. Griffith was the one that fought mercenary Guts and brought him over to the band of the hawks. Guts constantly feels out of place in that band, yet Griffith wants him there and, in some ways, Guts is the key that makes the Band of the Hawk work and when he’s gone, it falls apart.
The first half is a great set piece for establishing so many things in Berserk. The arc itself is very simple, a lot of medieval combat for supremacy. Mainly the Band of the Hawk vs the Tudor armies after the other armies of Midland lose. There is a lot of siege combat, excellent tactics by Griffith against the dumb members of the Tudor forces who are fun to watch lose, and what allows the Band of the Hawk to actually gain notoriety. That doesn’t just mean them getting famous, but being looked down upon by the nobles involved in it. Its actions that take Guts away from the battlefield and place him into places that make him uncomfortable by assassination people in the middle of the night and wearing fancy clothes he never thought he would wear before. Seeing him be uncomfortable gets more character out of him by making him really feel like he shouldn’t be there under the weight of Griffith’s ambitions.
Those medieval fights also allow the trio of Griffith, Casca, and Guts to interact with each other. There is always Griffith issuing orders to Guts, Guts follows them, and then Casca usually gets upset by what Guts does. Why? Casca is always the ultimate Griffith follower when she isn’t fighting and she always wants everything to aligned for Griffith. She is the in-between of Griffith and Guts and is constantly trying to understand why there is that connection which leads to her getting angry at Guts a lot despite Guts going beyond his duty by being wreck less. Guts is the only person he can get mad at for not understanding everything at times, yet Casca and Guts do eventually get closer together as Griffith gains popularity and starts moving farther and farther away from the Band of the Hawk. The tension of all their relationships comes to a full head later on.
One thing I need to say is that the Band of the Hawk isn’t just an entity that exists in the show to just fight people. They are a living breathing group of people who have no where else to go besides fighting for Griffith. There are a lot of great cast members that form the top leaders of Berserk. There is the strong and silent Pippin, the great with knives Judea who is aware of everything that happens in the show, Corkus who feels like he is constantly at war with Guts because the two are the exact opposite in some ways including strength, and Rickert, the heart and soul of the group considering that he is a young kid. (That’s not all of them, but you know…) When moments centered around Guts, Griffith, and Casca, these three usually get the focus to fill the atmosphere of the show. There are also the nameless characters that each major person leads, but still have a voice in Band of the Hawk business here. This is a show of people who don’t belong in the world making a place for themselves in whatever way they can.
Berserk 1997’s visual direction during the combat scenes where on point the entire time. This show is infamously low budget and is full of still frames with only some good action scenes. Yet, the direction of the show is phenomenal. This show is yet another example of why smooth animation isn’t all that is needed in a good anime. The direction of the show allows all of those important moment to have the impact they would have of those combat scenes were actually animated with all the detail put into it. There are a number of scenes that have high action energy in largest and most possible way a low budget show could have and they feel great here too. The sound design of the show with all the movement of the armor in the show is incredible and the sound track by Susumu Hirasawa is incredible and makes it feel like another world. No other show could have this soundtrack and made it work like this
Finally, the second half hits and the world of Berserk changes a bit and gets to its real meat. The Tudor are defeated and Midland is free. As a victorious moment of it all and the Band of the Hawk gets comfy. Griffith gets rid of/kills all the people who tried to kill him in the Midland court without the others even knowing about it. There are balls in place, people like Casca and Guts, once again, wear clothes they wouldn’t wear otherwise in the right moments, and they finally get to know each other. Once again, the Band of the Hawk are set for life to live in luxury with Griffith becoming an actual noble. Something that worked as hard as he could for and finally it happened. It’s too good to be true, right? Yeah. Once Guts leaves, it all falls apart when Griffith’s iron tight plan falls apart because Guts was the cog that made his machine work.
This was what everything in Berserk was setting up. That lack of communication between Griffith and Guts to where it was so strong in the beginning of Berserk’s story. It’s not there anymore. Guts didn’t feel right living with people who have dreams when everyone else who had one simply followed Griffith for it, so he left to search for his dream. That leads to Griffith making some of the worst mistakes in his entire life and Casca leading the Band of the Hawk for a full year before Guts appears again at least knowing where he is. The eclipse happens because of this lack of communication. After Guts and Casca become a couple and talk in front of Griffith like he isn’t there due to how tortured he is, the only thing that Griffith has is his ambition. The Band of the Hawk is not even his anymore. There is only ambition. Only dreams. Suddenly, nothing goes right and lots of people die with the infamous cliff hanger. Yikes.
If there is something wrong with Berserk besides the visuals that I have no problems with, it’s the sexual assault. Now, Berserk is a story about victims of sexual assault between Griffith, Guts, and Casca trying to make good with what they have and them get more. All of their back stories are heavy and dark in that way and a vast majority of the show is about sexual assault with these characters trying to find trust with each other to where they can actually become intimate with each other. So yeah, there is open commentary about all of these things because the character do talk about it or feel it during big emotional moments. There is no glorification of it. At the same time, the show ends on sexual assault beyond anything most anime could ever show. Yeah, an actual cliff hanger on it and everything. It’s not framed as positive by the way characters act, but its still there and is over emphasized. Yet, not a fan of it. If there was more Berserk by this crew, then it would work a lot better. I think having the situation resolved would have solved this one issue for me.
Regardless of that attribute because it needs to be taken into account, Berserk 1997 is amazing. Absolutely worthy of the rating of solid and even beyond that. Possibly a favorite series, but I just finished it the week I am writing this and I don’t know where to place it on my list yet here. I mean, this story is almost Shakespearian in how its written and thought about and put together. It is very navel-gazey, but this was an era about the og Evangelion series where shows just had that direction. In all honesty, it really works for Berserk 1997. It allows the show to feel so complete and amazing because it isn’t like all other fantasy shows. This isn’t just about some angry brute with a sword killing people. Guts is a complex character among a cast of complex characters. I am so glad that I finally watched this show. It is a real treasure. An anomaly that shouldn’t exist, yet it does. Even one of my favorite mecha directors, Yasuhiro Imagawa, was behind the scripting of this show and you can tell if you watched how he writes his works. He’s very good at writing amazing characters.