Berserk's first episode of its 2016 TV series premiered today. My jaw is still on the floor, where my tongue will need to be scraped off with a spatula. That's some damn good anime. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The dark medieval manga boasts 343 chapters of fantasy gore, which creator Kentaro Miura has been industriously producing since 1989. In 1997, the shonen anime Berserk debuted to critical acclaim. Three movies and two video games followed, many not quite matching the quality of Miura's manga in tone or execution. I don't know about you, but I've just been waiting for an anime reboot, praying that Berserk's brutal fight scenes will finally be rendered to befit Miura's eye for high-brow pulp. And this rendition fucking delivers. Its first episode, "The Branded Swordsman", is a grim, sanguine mess embellished with pitch-perfect writing, masterful texturing and world-building mysteries that will be enough to take me through the whole series.
This debut episode features the protagonist mercenary Guts revealing several details about his cursed past and massacring a mob of Incubi in a possessed forest. It. Was. Awesome.
It's no secret that, even for 1997, the original Berserk anime looked bad. Its colour palate was drab, its shading lazy. I feared that the series' latest rendition would go the route of Sailor Moon Crystal, sacrificing the artist's original style and tone for vapid glitziness. Not so! Our dear Black Swordsman is rendered with brash, sketchy lines that evoke the series' grit. And yet, strikingly high-quality textures contrast against these lines, which appear lovingly pencilled in, to break up the aesthetic. Guts' prosthetic arm, armour and sword glimmer like hammered iron, nearly 3D. Bright fuchsias against oxblood depict dead bodies floating in a river.
And in favour of the laconic writing of the 1997 Berserk, this year's first episode captures the spirit of the manga, which is at times overwritten. Over a sea of blood (the episode's opening scene) appears the translation: "On that day, a dying sun rose above the multitude of nations." Unf. Go on.
Other one-liners like, "You're too damp to be useful as firewood" didn't land quite right, even though it was said to a demonic tree.
The grit factor can't be emphasised enough. Director Shin Itagaki, who worked on Fullmetal Alchemist and Gurren Lagann, did not skimp on the horror elements. At one point in the first episode, Guts is wandering in the forest and is picked up by a small blonde girl and her aged father who are riding by in a carriage. They kindly offer him nourishment. Although Guts warns them that he has been possessed by evil spirits, it's clear they were even more surprised than me about what would happen next: The forest transforms and becomes a nefarious realm of unearthed skeletons and ancient trees with prying tentacle-branches. Guts brandishes his sword, which prompts 20 seconds of gratuitously phallic up-and-downs along its "hulking mass of iron". He destroys the skeleton hoard. Yet in the process, this poor girl becomes possessed and decapitates her father. Guts slices her into tiny pieces in a scene that will scar me forever.
Since the series is based in the middle ages, you have to expect some overwrought sword-fighting. Blood is present in, I'd venture, over a third of the episode. But there wasn't any sexual violence. One of Berserk 1997's first scenes features a girl openly harassed at a tavern forced to lick spilled wine off a table. Guts, predictably, saves her. It's dull. Perhaps this series' writers have caught up with the times — the corresponding tavern seen in this episode sees Guts saving a young, aspirant mercenary boy from a similar pack of thugs.
For anime fans who found 1997's Berserk a bit too emo, Itagaki opted to include Puck, the moe, winged elf boy (the earlier TV series completely erased him). In the manga, Puck was adorable comic relief, offsetting Guts' melodramatic self-hatred. Here, his animation morphs to accommodate his role in the scene: In a long monologue to Guts, who is ignoring him, Puck is drawn chibi to reflect his relative warmth.
Berserk is not for the faint-hearted. But "The Branded Swordsman" proved to me that directors of fighting-heavy anime are making more of an effort to beautify and civilise the genre, doing justice to shonen manga that showcases writing and ingenuity.
Americans can watch Berserk on Crunchyroll, but unfortunately it is currently unavailable in Australia. Hopefully that will change soon.