Originally published on The Fandom Post.
Warning: Spoilers and NSFW images ahead.
Someone unfamiliar with Berserk’s reputation could be forgiven for writing it off as just more 90s ultra-violence. The first episode seems to have all the stereotypes: a badass lead who seems to have no personality beyond his sword, extreme violence, grotesque monsters, and a dark fantasy setting. In spite of that, there’s an enthralling atmosphere to Kentaro Miura’s dark fantasy, and anyone who sticks with it is in store for a one of a kind fantasy anime. Before I get to that, a little background is warranted. The Berserk manga began in 1988 and continues to this day. Because of that, there was no way for the anime to fit the entire story, even just including what had been published then, into 25 episodes. Rather than forcing it or doing an anime-original ending, this adaptation opted to cover only the Golden Age Arc, which details Guts’ backstory and how he became the Black Swordsman we see in episode 1. I bring this up only to explain why episode 1 exists in the first place. It’s a heavily abridged version of the first arc in the manga, and serves little purpose other than to set up that this isn’t going to be a happy ending. Now, before I get into why Berserk lives up to its reputation, there’s one glaring flaw I’d like to address: the animation.
Even by the standards of 90s TV anime, Berserk looks pretty bad. Movement is extremely limited across the board and often relies on sliding the characters across the screen rather than fully animating them. It also regularly uses painted still frames over actual animation which, while well drawn, aren’t a substitute for properly animating a scene. The artwork is also heavily pared down from Miura’s excellent manga art, likely to make it easier to animate. It’s not badly drawn, but it lacks the manga’s striking detail. All in all, Berserk is not something you watch for the aesthetics.
Even if the animation doesn’t hold up very well, the rest of Berserk is rock solid. Unlike the first episode, most of Berserk is a low fantasy character drama. There are plenty of fights, sure, but those are far from its main priority. Looking back on it, the Golden Age Arc is very similar to a Greek tragedy. The first episode tells us that things won’t end well for Guts and Griffith, and there’s a constant ambiguity as to whether Griffith is a hero or villain. He has an almost supernatural charisma that’s apparent to both other characters and the viewer, but he’s also utterly ruthless and only grows more so as the anime goes on. Even so, his ambition and occasional kindness really make you wonder who he really is. Is he the charismatic leader or the ruthless schemer? When we finally get the answer, it’s just as shocking to us as it is to Guts.
In spite of his occasional cruelty, Guts remains loyal to Griffith until the very end. To Guts, Griffith represents a fully idealized person, which Guts knows he himself isn’t. Beyond fighting and surviving day after day, Guts doesn’t have any real goal in life. That never bothered him before, but seeing Griffith and the power his ambition gives him ultimately inspires Guts to become more. Griffith is who Guts aspires to be someday, which only makes the ending more tragic.
If there’s one event that defines Berserk, it’s the Eclipse, which I can only describe as a nightmare. It comes completely out of nowhere, turns everything we’ve come to know on its head, and is home to some of the most horrific imagery in anime. Character’s we’ve known since the start are summarily slaughtered by monstrous creatures, on Griffith’s order no less. Guts is completely helpless to stop any of it from happening, and the anime ends with Guts watching helplessly as Griffith rapes Caska.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the Eclipse would have been nothing more than shock horror, but Miura is far more skilled than that. Griffith betraying everyone who ever cared for him serves as a final statement on ambition. Berserk always framed ambition as something crucial to being human, but the Eclipse reminds us that it can just as easily lead to abandoning our humanity. Griffith’s ambition took him to great heights, but also turned him into a literal and metaphorical monster. It’s not a sudden twist, either. Everything Griffith does during the Eclipse is completely consistent with the Griffith we’ve come to know. Griffith’s betrayal is the inevitable end for someone driven by nothing but ambition. Rather than a changing during the Eclipse, Griffith only becomes more like himself. By saving the Eclipse to the very end, Berserk ensures that it’s burned into the memory of everyone who ever watches it. Shock factor is one thing, but the thematic points behind it and investment we’ve built in the characters turn the Eclipse into one of the most iconic moments in all of anime. Even with how unsatisfying it is as an ending (it doesn’t resolve any plot-threads and leaves everything between then and episode 1 ambiguous), the Eclipse remains Berserk’s defining moment.
Berserk isn’t a perfect anime; it can occasionally move slowly, the aesthetics haven’t aged well at all, and the ending is laughably inconclusive. Even so, there’s a reason its reputation has endured for so many years. Berserk’s character writing is masterful, as is the inevitable conclusion. Guts and Griffith are both iconic characters, and Griffith’s betrayal during the Eclipse is one of the most memorable moments in all of anime. Berserk may not be perfect, but it lives up to its reputation.