Andrew Osmond wades into the bloodbath
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In our first article on Berserk, we linked it to the Game of Thrones generation of harsh ’n’ bloody fantasy epics (though Berserk originated first). This third film thrusts us, bleeding and yammering, into Berserk’s answer to the Red Wedding; a nihilist bloodbath, spraying the walls with its major characters. Berserk’s version has toothy monsters and demon dimensions, but it’s rooted firmly in human emotions; jealousy, betrayal, the interplay of love and hate, sweet longings and foul rape.
This is what Golden Age was building to, with demented extremes of sex and violence beyond anything in the earlier films or the TV Berserk from the 1990s. In Japan, distributors took the highly unusual step of releasing The Advent to cinemas in two different versions, a wide release rated “R15” and an “R18” version in late-night screenings in a couple of cinemas. (Who’s betting they were overbooked?) The BBFC, which rated the first two Berserk films ’15,’ rated the uncut third part a hard “18,” with “sexual violence, strong bloody violence and strong sex.” Believe us, they’re not kidding.
Advent picks up the story a year on from the climax of Battle of Doldrey. The Band of the Hawk is now a ragtag of dispirited outlaws, with their champion fighter Guts AWOL. Their leader, Griffith, languishes in the king’s dungeon following his reckless seduction of the princess. The film starts with Guts finally returning to the Hawks in time to save them from a deadly attack, but Casca – now the band’s acting leader – has issues with him. Once they’re worked out – very physically! – the pair join forces to rescue Griffith, to whom they’re still devoted. But what is left of Griffith to save?
We’ll leave you to find out how things develop, though if you know the manga or the TV show, you’ll find events have a terrible inevitability, announced by tolling bells and supernatural agents gathering for the showdown. Of all three films, Advent is the most character-driven, with Griffith at its centre, tortured, maimed and un-manned, his dreams of glory imploding in anguished visions. Although it’s fair to compare Berserk to Game of Thrones, it also parodies “high” fantasy, with a chosen hero handpicked by the gods, driven by a hero’s journey strewn with corpses.
There are scenes of naked passion and gentle caresses; lovemaking in Eden, defilement in Hell. If you’re looking for echoes, a scene of soul-breaking despair at a lake recalls the end of End of Evangelion, while a stupendous sequence where Guts claws and struggles over a monstrous hand suggests a famous episode in the Chinese story Journey to the West, where the trickster Monkey is caught in the palm of the Buddha. Advent merges sexual, violent and demonic imagery, perhaps coming the closest of any recent anime to the lurid Legend of the Overfiend a quarter-century ago.
If you’ve seen the earlier TV version of Berserk, once again you’ll see how a different studio takes on the same material with a cinema budget. The Berserk films have been criticised for their CGI, with the animation compared to videogame cut-scenes, though such critics can unfairly overlook what’s sometimes tremendous character work. Some of the criticisms also hint at a generational snobbery among older fans: technical or artistic shortcomings in old films or TV enhance their creative experience, shortcomings in new films and TV confirm they’re flashy trash. Advent may be Griffith’s story, but it’s Guts who is put through the dramatic wringer, reaching apotheoses of both rage and tenderness on screen.
The film ends differently from the TV show. The series finished on a jagged, shocking cliff-hanger which ruined the show for some fans, but made it a classic for others. The film reaches that cliffhanger and carries on – a little – although its answers only raise huge new questions. While the TV approach was bolder, both versions are compromises with the source material. The Golden Age is just one arc in the mammoth Berserk manga, which still hasn’t finished in Japan after twenty-four years.
And yet The Golden Age has a cruel emotional wholeness, whatever new stories may follow. This was the story of Griffith, Guts and Casca, taken through their rise, their fall, and to their terrible eternity-rending destiny.
Berserk Movie 3: The Advent is out now on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.