Berserk Vol. #1 (also w/Box) (Mania.com)

By:paul
Review Date: Friday, June 21, 2002
Release Date: Tuesday, May 28, 2002



The Review!
Audio:
Both the Japanese and English versions are stereo, but neither version uses the stereo effects, even during action scenes. Almost all sounds come from the front soundstage, and the stereo mix only serves to give the sounds a little more fullness. The music and sound effects are mixed a little louder in the original Japanese track, which yields a slightly more satisfying listening experience.

Video:
Media Blasters has done a great job with the video production on Berserk. The show has a dark, gritty feel, and the visual look of the show will probably not impress anyone. There are a few places where splicing errors are visible in the original source materials. Still, I think it's a complement I can say that the DVD production does not stand out, but presents the material naturally.

Packaging:
As far as I am concerned, the Berserk art box represents the finest DVD box currently available for Region 1 anime titles. This thing is simply gorgeous, and those at Media Blasters should feel very proud of it. Rather than a simple slipcase design like most boxes, this art box is a fully enclosed design that opens to expose stunning, internal artwork. As a result of the fully enclosed design, the box looks great from any angle. The front uses the simple, and unsettling, design of a Behelit. The two sides show Guts in the midst of his blood rage. The back includes the mysterious text that appears at the beginning of each episode, and is quite possibly the key to understanding the theme of the entire series.

The first disc itself is equally effective, and is also one of the best single-volume discs that Media Blasters has done. Releasing the disc in a bright red keepcase was a stroke of genius, as it draws out the red highlights in the cover art and increases the sense of urgency and violence one expects from the show.

Menus:
The menus are truly creepy, using thematic elements from the show effectively. The main menu shows a withered tree with vaguely human-like shapes hanging from it and carrion birds flapping about. The menu items are engraved on tombstones in the near ground, and the only reason the menu loses points is because they are bit difficult to read and counter-intuitive. Submenus are simpler, and thus, more effective. The chapter menu is a little difficult to navigate, as it takes too many actions per page to change episodes. Still, a creepy and wonderful experience.

Extras:
Extras include a surprisingly satisfying Art Gallery and a handful of production sketches. Once again, Media Blasters includes a set of irreverent and often amusing outtakes. I'm starting to wonder, though, if some of these were scripted.

Content:
(Please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers.)

I must confess that I am not much of a fan of fantasy fiction. I find that there is simply too much dependence on magic and stock characters. One of the titles that has been discussed much among anime fans lately, though, has been Berserk, a late-night television series based on the long-running ultra-violent manga series. Based on heady recommendations, I decided to give Berserk volume 1 a go, and discovered that it holds the magic to a minimum and introduces characters which rise above the standard fantasy stereotypes.

The series is set in a moderately anachronistic fantasy setting, which resembles central Europe during the latter years of the Dark Ages. The country is divided into rival kingdoms, each king constantly at war with the other. The quasi-historical setting serves well, giving both an immediately sense of familiarity as well as realism.

Berserk starts off with a critical misfire, a dull and downright silly story in which Guts, a scarred warrior with comically gigantic sword, fights against a snake demon disguised as a provincial governor. The episode progresses in predictable fashion before Guts finally slays him. The opening episode serves mainly to inform the viewer that a man named Griffith sits on the throne of the kingdom, his a heavy-handed rule which has led to the oppression of the commoners, and to introduce the Behelit, a mystical artifact which portends to play a major part later in the series

Right at the most critical moment of my disinterest, however, the show shifted gears completely. The second episode begins several years earlier, focusing on a much younger Guts serving as a mercenary during a particularly bloody civil war. His valor and swordsman skills have distinguished him, and have helped his side win several battles. However, when his contract has expired, he simply walks away from the conflict, having no particular allegiance to his employers. Very soon thereafter, he is captured by the opposing general, an effeminately beautiful man named Griffith, presumably the same man who is now king.

Griffith has mounted an army of commoners and outcasts, called the Band of the Hawk, which has gained reputation as the most fierce some group of warriors on the battlefield. Though they appear dedicated and loyal to their side, the noblemen who command them seem to treat them with nothing but contempt. Griffith, recognizing that Guts was instrumental in their prior defeat, attempts to persuade him to join the Band of the Hawk. Griffith's top lieutenant, the ferocious swordswoman, Caska, rankles at the thought of recruiting the enemy and frequently challenges Guts. Guts requires some serious persuading to get him to join the Band, but eventually does so, proving himself in battle, and rising to a command position equal to Caska's. And there ends the first disc, which does not so much complete a story, as prepare the viewer for the coming darkness as the war turns desperate.

There is a fair amount of general silliness going on that doesn't quite stand up to close inspection, but the patient and deliberate way the characters are revealed to the viewer through the writing kept me interested. Each time Guts shows up wielding his oversized phallus, I mean sword, I couldn't help but remind myself how much more effective he could be with a smaller, more agile, weapon. He duels a horse-riding Griffith, but though he possesses a weapon capable of slaughtering the horse and leveling the playing field, he does not attack the horse, and is easily dispatched by Griffith's lightning-fast saber. Even so it is in the ways the characters respond to the outcome of the duel gives the show a believability, a gravity, the fight itself doesn't offer. Arguably, Guts is a much more interesting character when separated from his sword.

The most distinctive thing about Berserk's transition from manga to anime is the total lack of directorial artistry. The visual style is jumbled, and the editing is uneven, each scene running fitfully too long. The use of cheap animation techniques to draw out the running time, such as dramatic stills and the infamous triple-take, disrupt the tempo and tension of the story. The few moments of real visual flair and imagination seem to be taken directly from the rough-hewn artwork of the manga. The audio production is similarly lackluster with no sense of location created by the unidirectional audio. The opening and closing songs are unintentionally hilarious, and the cacophonic background music is mixed so loudly that it pulls the viewer away from the on-screen action, rather than drawing him in.

The story of Berserk is one of brutal and unrelenting violence, but the creators of the anime have shied away from the gore of the manga to create an unsatisfying compromise in which violence is kept off screen, showing only cartoony sprays of blood spouting into the frame. The question that remains, then, is how to take a brutal story, remove the brutality, and still keep the heart of it. Again, the secret is in the characters themselves. They are drawn and acted as lifelessly as could be imagined by a production staff not quite equal to the challenge, and yet they are still as affecting a cast as one could hope for, living, breathing creatures, damaged by the darkness of their pasts, but not succumbing to it.

In all, the Berserk anime is flawed, but mostly entertaining in spite of itself. This first disc is a not-quite-solid foundation for what promises to be an interesting journey through the shattered and tortured souls of Guts, Griffith, and Caska, our anti-heroes. Media Blasters has done a good job with the production, including a top-notch English dub. The story so far is worthy of at least a rental, but the gorgeous art box deserves a place on your shelf, and overall it is a safe purchase. Personally, I am looking forward to more.



Review Equipment
Panasonic Panablack TV, Codefree Panasonic RP56 DVD player, Sony ProLogic receiver, Yamaha and Pioneer speakers, Monster cable. (Secondary equipment, Pioneer 105s DVD-ROM, ATi Rage Fury Pro, ViewSonic A90f, PowerDVD 3.0)



Mania Grade: B
Audio Rating: B-
Video Rating: B+
Packaging Rating: A+
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 16 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Media Blasters
MSRP: 29.95/44.95
Running time: 125
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Berserk