Berserk, Vol. 1: War Cry (1997)
Review by Doc Ezra

Written by Kentaro Miura
Directed by Naohito Takahashi
Art Direction by Shichirô Kobayashi


Doc's Anime Warnings:

Rating: 16+

Anamorphic: N/A

My Advice: Own it.

Berserk opens (in somewhat perplexing fashion) with an unknown warrior called simply "The Black Swordsman" challenging the obviously evil serpent-loving ruler of a place called Midland. With ruthless (and, let's not forget, bloody) efficiency, this towering swordslinger dispatches said evil overlord's henchmen, and then proceeds to slice'n'dice said overlord himself. Then things seemingly start over, and we see what is undoubtedly a younger version of this "Black Swordsman," travelling around looking for work as a mercenary and going by the name Guts.

This introduction can be a bit disconcerting at first, until one gets the picture--namely, that in the first few moments of the very first episode, viewers have essentially seen the end of the story. The rest of the series, presumably, will detail the chain of events that led Guts to take up the ominous mantle of "Black Swordsman" and challenge the evil ruler of a fallen kingdom. There is no narrative information thrown out to support this conclusion, but it seems to be the direction taken by this first disc in the series.

Once past the bloody conclusion, the remaining episodes follow the young Guts as he seeks work as a mercenary, eventually becoming involved with a company called The Band of the Hawk, led by the seemingly flighty Griffith, a warrior whose fluid, fencing style is the absolute antithesis of Guts' massive sword and brute force approach to battle. Intrigued by the dedication and fearless way in which Guts fights, Griffith takes him into the company, despite the protests of some of his troops, in hopes of better understanding what could make this boy into a berserker.

The show has the makings of a great fantasy epic, and the "flashforward" nature of the introduction captures viewer interest right out of the gate. Knowing that the story has just 24 episodes to go from teenaged berserker-in-training to overlord-slaying Black Swordsman makes it all the more intriguing to watch, as every little event in Guts' existence suddenly has the potential to be earth-shaking, or at least character-shaping. The writers of the show have set themselves an interesting challenge, and one which brooks no dawdling or inconsequential sideplots. While perhaps artificial, it does imbue each episode with a level of narrative weight that it might not otherwise have on first viewing.

The DVD presents the show in excellent, crisp color (particularly nice for some of the freeze-frame watercolors employed in battles), and the sound is likewise superb. The voice-acting, both American and Japanese, is excellent, with no character voices that become annoying or shrill after long exposure. The translation seems fairly solid, at least in comparing subtitles to English dialogue dub. The outtakes are entertaining (and pretty amusing in places, given the fairly serious nature of the show), and the sketches and art gallery provide some nice eye-candy.

So, if you like fantasy-genre anime, and don't have any aversion to some fairly graphic cartoon violence, then Berserk should be just your cup of tea. The story starts off strong, and with any luck will continue to be so throughout the remaining discs. Characters are interesting, and avoid standard genre stereotypes quite nicely, so the only one-dimensional figures in the series are the short-lived secondary players and scene dressing.

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