Review for Berserk Collector's Edition Collection
The original Berserk anime is my least favourite favourite anime show, if that makes any sense. I love watching Berserk. Once I’m into the story, I’m in it for the long run, and I won’t put it down until I’ve watched all 25 episodes. It’s getting around to watching it that has me procrastinating. After all, what I remember of the brilliance of its story, the depth of the characters, and the sheer dark direction it takes them, is always overshadowed by what I remember of the show’s production values, which are cheap to say the least. This is a show with limited animation, the clichéd use of triple pans and harmonies (freeze-frame images that maximise the stylised artwork offering more detail than the animation) that are often used to cut costs, and it actually looks ten years older than its late nineties origin. On top of that, it’s a sword and sorcery show, which is my least favourite of genres. The final problem is that it just doesn’t have an ending. It adapts the Golden Age arc of Kentaro Miura’s manga, prefacing it with an opening episode of just how bad things have gotten in the nation of Midland, before flashing back to happier times of warfare, massacres and bloodletting. It takes us on a 24 episode trip, showing us how events transpired, and it’s all meant to serve as prologue to the main Berserk storyline.
The problem was that storyline wasn’t animated. There was no follow up to this series, at least not immediately following its release. Then in 2012, they released the 3 Berserk movies, which went and animated the Golden Arc all over again, although they were no match for the original series in my opinion, opting for a CG approach that endeared few fans. Last year, finally, they went about animating the further story in Berserk 2016, and they did it in CG again. I didn’t even bother watching that, and it seems I wasn’t the only one put off by the idea of more Berserk CG. When it came to that show’s home video release, much of it was re-animated traditionally. Hopefully when Universal release it here later this year, we’ll see that version.
You might be wondering why Blu-ray, given my previous comments about low production values and limited animation. Well, for one thing, Berserk made the most of what it had, keeping the characters on model, the world design rich and atmospheric, and the conveyance of mood, grittiness and the sense of horror and gore through its visuals, effective in ways that the modern CG iterations of Berserk have never even approached. The second thing is that it was made traditionally, with cel and paint, and shot on film, as opposed to the shows of the early to mid 2000s that came after it, digipaint at native NTSC. Like shows such as Outlaw Star, Nadia of the Blue Water, and Cowboy Bebop, Berserk is perfect for HD presentation. This will be a proper HD show, and given the original DVD release, an early effort which was an NTSC-PAL standards conversion, the difference should be like night and day.
Set in the fictional nation of Midland, it follows the story of a young mercenary named Guts, who wields an unfeasibly large sword, one that would have Cloud Strife of Final Fantasy green with envy. After proving his prowess on the battlefield, he is recruited by a powerful mercenary lord named Griffith into his Band Of The Hawk, in the ongoing war between Midland and the neighbouring Chuder Empire. But it’s an ill-omened decision as we learn in the first episode.
25 episodes of Berserk are presented across 3 Blu-rays from MVM.
1. The Black Swordsman
2. The Band Of The Hawk
3. First Battle
4. The Hand Of God
5. A Wind Of Swords
6. Zodd The Immortal
7. The Sword’s Owner
10. Noble Men
11. The Battle
13. Prepared For Death
14. Bonfire Of Dreams
15. The Decisive Battle
16. The Conqueror
17. Moment Of Glory
18. Tombstone Of Flames
23. Eve of the Feast
24. The Great Eclipse
25. Time of Eternity
Back when Media Blasters originally released Berserk on DVD, Japanese companies were still supplying anime masters in the form of NTSC broadcast video tapes, of higher quality than home video, but not by much. On top of that, Berserk looked old, the colour had faded, and the image looked tired. There were even scan lines from the tape master on the print. It was soft, of low resolution, and prone to interlacing artefacts. We in the UK got all that, plus an NTSC-PAL standards conversion thrown in.
You can forget that all now. For the Blu-ray, the Japanese studios went back to the original film, and put it through the same restoration that catalogue film titles get on their way to Blu-ray. The film was cleaned up and scanned at HD resolutions, and we in the UK and Australia (The US hasn’t got this yet) benefit from all of that hard work. Berserk looks fantastic in its 4:3 pillarboxed 1080p form. You get the full HD resolution of film, looking almost pristine on these discs, with an image that is sharper, and clearer than modern digipaint HD anime. The colours too are rich, gorgeous, and wonderfully vivid. Naturally you don’t have to worry about the videotape and conversion artefacts of the DVD, but I wasn’t expecting a progressive 24 fps transfer to make as much difference as it does on the Blu-ray aside from the resolution increase. It’s everything that you would want from a Blu-ray anime disc.
Berserk still isn’t the best looking show around though. This is a low budget affair, opting for battle noises over static scenes, the triple pans, the harmony images that all save on animation, and what animation there is, is limited and understated except for when it’s absolutely necessary. The Blu-ray however reveals the depth and splendour of the world design, the background art, and the detail in those harmonies. It reveals just how effective the atmosphere and mood is in establishing Berserk’s dark and gruesome story. Too, you’ll see detail that you’ve never appreciated on DVD, images being reflected in people’s eyes, things like that. Berserk is a low budget animation, but the Blu-ray reveals just how much Studio Madhouse accomplished within those limits, and it’s a result that would have big budget shows envious.
Here's a link to a Youtube video that compares the DVD to the Blu-ray. Just remember to watch it at 1080p to get the full effect...
Berserk gets DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo English and Japanese tracks with optional translated subtitles and a signs only track. The subtitles are in a nice, legible white font, but are identical to those on the DVD releases. This is not a new translation. The Japanese audio is definitely the way to go, with the original cast doing a fine job in their roles, and the stereo really giving the show some space, with Prologic offering a degree of immersion into the action. Add to that Susumu Hirasawa’s exquisite music score, and the Berserk Blu-ray audio is a great experience. The English dub is the same as before, and is comparatively centralised compared to the Japanese track. It certainly feels less immersive, and even verges on the mono at times. I doubt that the original English audio materials were available for the re-master to Blu-ray, and I’d guess the DVD audio was used instead.
The three Blu-ray discs are held in a digipack which unfolds to reveal some very nice artwork. There are seven gorgeous artcards that slot neatly into the centre of the digipack too. It’s all held in a chipboard slip case (a positive last minute design change that delayed the release of the show a tad), again with some lush artwork.
The discs boot up to animated widescreen menus, unique to each disc, reflecting the story elements in those particular episodes. The episode selections are simple numbers rather than titles, but given the simplicity of the menu design, excessive text would clutter up the screen.
All of the extras are on disc 3, and other than a few more textless credits and a TV Spot, merely repeat the extra features from the DVDs. A couple of things that are missing are the galleries. The stills galleries are pointless now, given that you can just pause the Blu-ray and get an image that surpasses those SD stills, but you might miss the line art galleries, and it might be worth holding onto the DVDs for those.
You get the Textless Opening, the Textless Ending, the Original TV Opening, and the Encore TV Opening. The Forces Full Version lasts 2:49 and has that iconic piece of music presented as an AMV. There is also a 30 second TV Spot (unsubtitled).
In the DVDs, the outtakes were split by volume into chunks a few minutes long. Here the outtakes are presented together in a 38:49 wodge. Small instalments of goofs are tolerable, even funny, but sitting for two-thirds of an hour through them is unbearable.
You get the episode 13 Storyboard which lasts 8:12 against English audio.
Paint it Berserk lasts 3:21 and offers Japanese street artists at work creating Berserk murals.
The Interview with creator Kentaro Miura is audio only and lasts 20:01. The Interview with Tushio Nakatani lasts 18:01 and the producer looks at how Berserk was brought to television.
All of the extras are presented as 1080p HD, whether they are native or up-scaled, and you get an idea of just how much this show was restored before it was released on Blu-ray when you compare it to those textless credits and other clips.
I don’t think I’ll ever be hesitant to start watching Berserk again. The Blu-ray release is a thing of beauty, and not just the packaging. By going back to the original film source and re-mastering it, you don’t have to worry about the artefacts from a telecine transfer compounded by a NTSC-PAL standards conversion plus video artefacts. The faded colours and compromised image of what was little better than VHS is a thing of the past, and what we have here on Blu-ray is crystal clear, pin sharp, and with astounding colour rendition, You get to see Berserk’s artwork as never before, and that makes a world of difference. The show looks fantastic and that level of detail, the dramatic intricacy all draws you in.
My opinion of the show has mitigated too over the years. I used to rate the central 21 episodes, as one of the best character dramas in anime, but shied away from dark fantasy horror of the bookending episodes. I now see Berserk as more of a piece, its dark, twisted conclusion a necessary outcome of its storyline. The contrast between the opening episode and the subsequent flashback storyline is still just as jarring as ever, but it’s a shock that emphasises the tragedy of the Golden Age even more.
The 100 years war between the Kingdom of Midland and the Chuder Empire that runs through most of the series is a great backdrop for the story, a tale of friendship corrupted by ambition and lust for power. It’s all about the characters. You have Guts, the berserker swordsman whose skills and strength catch the eye of the leader of the Band of the Hawk, Griffith. Guts’ traumatic childhood set him on a path of violence, and of constantly testing his strength with greater challenges. It’s the battle that matters to him most when we meet him; he’s less concerned by issues of power and control.
Griffith is all about power. Since he was a child, he’s been enamoured of the kingdom, and he wants a part of it. He possesses a Behelit, the Egg of the King, a mysterious amulet that marks him as a man who will rise to great heights, but he’s not waiting for providence. As the leader of the Band of the Hawk, he’s head of a group of mercenaries that quickly obtain a reputation for getting things done, particularly the impossible things. And once that reputation is noticed by the King of Midland, so Griffith’s ascent to power really begins, as the Band of the Hawk are first accepted by the Kingdom as soldiers, and then the commanders ennobled for their prowess. Griffith wants a short cut to the throne, and in Guts he sees that short cut, as well as a potential equal. Naturally there’s no shortage of jealousy and scheming from the established nobility.
Then there’s Casca, who as a girl was saved by Griffith from being raped, and has idolised him as a hero ever since, as well as rising to a position of command in the Band of the Hawk, a rare female soldier. She worships Griffith’s dream, and supports him unquestioningly, which is why she’s frustrated when the fiercely independent Guts joins, and is also jealous when Griffith looks on Guts as an equal in a way that he never looks to her.
It’s fascinating watching this complex three-way relationship unfold, with Guts slowly realising that he needs to find a dream of his own, that following Griffith’s dream is not enough. Casca’s antipathy towards Guts slowly turns to affection, and her loyalties become conflicted, something which isn’t lost on Griffith. And Griffith’s assured rise to power, his supreme self-confidence wavers when Guts chooses a different path. And as well as all this, the war between Chuder and Midland plays out, alongside the scheming and politics of the Midland royal court. Berserk is a fantastically told story, which due to its limited animation, makes the most of the character relationships and story developments, and with strong voice acting performances, it makes it a compelling watch indeed. It very much leaves you wanting more, although after a 20 year gap, I’m wary of whether the new TV series can actually provide more in the same vein as the original series, or if it will opt for CG eye-candy instead.
That’s a concern for another review, as the original Berserk on Blu-ray is the show as it was meant to be seen. Actually it’s fairer to say that as a TV anime from the NTSC age, it was never actually meant to be seen in this quality, but the beauty of film and the wonder of HD restorations mean that the artistry of Berserk now really does do the story justice. This is a show that you really should get. And while this Collector’s Edition may be racing off the shop shelves, MVM will revisit it with a standard Blu-ray release as well, so you won’t miss out.