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Andrew Osmond goes mad for Berserk

Christmas Eve sees the release of the first of a spectacular new film trilogy based on Berserk, the brutal fantasy manga epic by Kentarou Miura. The films, starting with Berserk Movie 1: The Egg of the King, retell the story from the beginning. It’s primarily the saga of a warrior, Guts – and one might add, of guts, usually sliding off Guts’ mighty sword. To say that Guts kills things – human, animal, monster – is like saying that people breathe air. It’s Guts’s job; it’s what he’s good at; and he’s in a world where there’s no shortage of things to slay.

Timing being what it is, the Berserk films arrive as bloody, harsh fantasy is in the ascent, thanks to the live-action TV version of A Game of Thrones. But Berserk got there first with Miura’s manga beginning its run in 1989, seven years before the first volume of George RR Martin’s fantasy saga. Older fantasy fans will have their own yardsticks; for example, the books of British author David Gemmell (try 1987’s Wolf in Shadow.)

Miura himself has cited such 1980s western films as John Boorman’s Excalibur, Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh+Blood and John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (not last year’s travesty!). He also acknowledges his debt to a Japanese fantasy saga that’s even longer than Berserk; the prose Guin Saga by the late Sumiyo Imaoka, writing as Kaoru Kurimoto, which ran for three decades and well over a hundred volumes. Like all good fantasy writers, though, Miura was influenced by more than just fantasy. For example, he says his thinking was shaped by seeing news reports of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Berserk is set in a medieval world where there are magic and monsters, yet they’re marginalised for long stretches. This is a “fantasy” that remembers humans do terrible things to each other without any supernatural aid, inspired by high heroism or the base urges.

The three new Berserk films adapt an early storyline called “The Golden Age,” which spanned ten volumes of the manga. Don’t be fooled by the name. Berserk’s Golden Age is dark and gruesome, but it’s a pivotal time in Guts’s youth when the lone swordsman met new people and found a compelling cause to fight for. We meet Guts as a mercenary, sacking cities for hire. In the first minutes, he shows his mettle by splitting a man’s helmet – and head – down the middle. (Fans of the manga know that’s nothing compared to what he does when he gets going.) Then he’s waylaid by strangers, led by a strange white-haired man – and, impossibly, loses a fight to him.

Rather than kill him, the leader takes Guts back to his camp, and asks him to join the band. This leader is, well, striking – an impossibly beautiful, charismatic man called Griffith, who offers Guts a better life. Guts is seduced, and joins Griffith’s Band of the Hawk. His closeness to Griffith sparks the jealousy of Casca, a woman and Griffith’s second in command. Griffith in turn sparks jealousy, as his band rises in fame and favour, attaching itself to the royal family. Guts will do anything to support Griffith and his cause, leading to consequences more terrible than even Guts can imagine…

Whereas Game of Thrones deals with warring families and a huge ensemble cast, “The Golden Age” arc is focused on a trio of individuals: Guts, Griffith and Casca. Naturally the relationships – and the balance of power – shifts as the story develops. Griffiths’ feminine beauty adds a layer of gender-bending, in the tradition of manga classics such as Rose of Versailles, with its cross-dressing swordswoman Lady Oscar.

All three Berserk characters, despite appearances, are painfully vulnerable, Guts perhaps the most. He starts the “Golden Age” story as a lone wolf, only to suddenly gain companions, comrades… and could it be more? But there’s a snag. For all his monstrous strength, Guts has a chronic fear of physical, human contact. We won’t go into his backstory here, but it’s bad. Miura does things to his hero that most authors wouldn’t dare, a ruthlessness extending to his other characters as well. If you’re a cute kid or a wide-eyed girl in the Berserk world… Well, don’t worry about old age.

The Berserk manga runs for thousands of pages – it’s still going in strip form, 36 books and counting – but the “Golden Age” arc is best known to manga fans. In 1997, this part of the story was made into a TV anime, running for 25 episodes. A year later, it had a much weirder anime incarnation, parodied in an episode of The Adventures of Mini-Goddess, the super-deformed version of the Oh My Goddess anime. Fans complaining about the same material being made twice might reflect on the 14-year gap between the series and films, a good deal longer than the gaps between the old and new versions of Evangelion or Fullmetal Alchemist.

The new Berserk films are made by Studio 4 Degrees C, which has a colourful CV. It’s certainly not afraid of remaking familiar material; last year, it animated a remake of America’s ThunderCats (though the original ThunderCats was also drawn for hire in Japan). It’s made stylistically maverick anime movies such as Tekkon Kinkreet and the brilliant Mind Game, and contributed to action spectacles such as Spriggan and Steamboy. Interviewed by the Anime News Network website in August, the studio’s president/CEO Eiko Tanaka confessed she had not heard of Berserk before she was invited to adapt it. However, when she opened the manga, she was “overwhelmed with its density.”

According to Tanaka, the biggest animation challenges were depicting the armour and the fighting itself. The solution is a blend of hand-drawn animation and CGI; to get an idea of what it looks like, watch the trailer below. Sharp-eared fans will notice the beginning of the trailer has the distinctive music of Susumu Hirasawa, who contributed to the original series of Berserk, as well as music for Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, Paranoia Agent and Paprika.

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The third and final Berserk film is scheduled for January 2013 – only will it be the last? Ever since the original series, Berserk fans have been clamouring for more of the story to be adapted, and Tanaka herself says she would like to follow the manga to its (as yet unwritten) end. Berserk is the kind of franchise whose fate may well turn on sales outside Japan, so if you want more of it on screen, you know what to do…

Berserk: Egg of the King is out on Blu-ray and DVD on Christmas Eve in the UK.

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