Berserk: The Golden Age Arc 1 - The Egg of the King

Adaptations are hard. When you're translating something from book to film or film to TV or some other combination, things change. That can infuriate purists, yet it can also make for compelling storytelling more suited to the new medium. But which version is best? While I love the musical film version of Les Miserables, it's been lensed at least 21 times according to IMDB. The first third of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy has been panned for having much too long an opening...despite the fact that it's the part that's most faithful to J.R.R. Tolkien's vision. (The animated Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit barely lasts 80 minutes, if that.) Stephen King is notoriously more satisfied with the mini-series version of The Shining than the amazing Stanley Kubrick film. Go figure!

The filmmakers behind a movie adaptation of Berserk had a problem. The manga has been going on for a generation, and while it's horrific and gruesome and worse, it's also deeply compelling and often thoughtful. It's won major awards. The television series, now 15 years old, covered the first (and most would say best) major arc thoroughly and well. Both are still popular, while there are plenty of newbies to add to the fold. How can you make your series of films agreeable to long-time fans while pulling in those for whom Berserk is brand new?

Much like the Evangelion reboot, Berserk: The Golden Age Arc 1 - The Egg of the King takes us back to the beginning, covering familiar ground for all but the uninitiated. And just as the first EVA movie had fans crying "rehash," I'm sure that similar cries have been heard here. Berserk also has the unfortunate problem of being obnoxiously animated in a 2D/3D hybrid that has moments of brilliance and several instances of sheer incompetence. It says a lot, then, about both the story and the script that it turns out just as great as it does.

Guts begins as nothing more than a mercenary who fights to put bread in his mouth. Yet he's also got a strong brash streak, a gigantic sword, and genuine skill. Griffith, the leader of a crew of ragamuffin soldiers called the Band of the Hawk, recruits him by besting him -- something he's never experienced. Though Griffin's lead commander, Casca, is put off by the brutish guy, Griffith immediately takes a shine to him. Guts spends three years with Griffith, fighting by his side under Casca's watchful eye. Griffith gets noticed and becomes more than just a mercenary leader but a knight, which makes him the devil to all the nobility of the land. They're more than willing to see him dead to stop a commoner's rise to power as the Hawks gain ever more fame and fortune.

But dark forebodings await. In a ghastly battle, the Hawks meet a horrific beast named Nosferatu Zodd. Zodd knows the amulet that Griffith wears around his neck, the amulet given to him in childhood by an old gypsy who promised him he could be prince of the world. Griffith may be a natural leader who cares deeply for his men, but the amulet spells eventual doom for Guts...and as Guts learns, as Griffith's most trusted man, his hands will get far bloodier and his conscience seared in ways he never thought possible.

Now if you've read my original Berserk review, you know that some of the sentences above are lifted verbatim. That's intentional. Berserk: The Egg of the King is simply the first 10 episodes of the series condensed into a breakneck 76-minute feature film. That's both bad and good. What's bad? Simply, there's no room to breath, which could be exhausting (especially for the newbie). This also means that we have to take for granted the deeper relationships between characters; we see them, but only briefly. Enjoyable sidekicks become cameo figures. And, of course, the seasoned viewer might be bored; it may be action-packed, but there is genuinely nothing new in this film.

Yet there are also some real pluses to the film. For one, the Berserk TV program had the habit of making the Hawk's enemies into total idiots full of bravado who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag. These baddies of the week are gone, which makes the stakes higher from the very start. Eliminated as well is the material from the first episode, a grim and grotesque opening that predicted the finale but also convinced many not to watch further. Guts' childhood and the political court machinations are covered briefly, but with quick visuals rather than long, talky bits. What struck me is that while this might be the Cliff Notes version of Berserk, nothing of major importance to the plot is missing. On top of that, while the breakneck speed doesn't leave much room for character development, it does make for an incredibly exciting film. There are truly no wasted moments. I found it thrilling, honestly.

What will always make Berserk a worthwhile enterprise is still here: a strong plot held together by complex individuals caught in moral conundrums they aren't ready for. I was amazed how quickly I was swept back into the story and wanted to see these characters again. As someone who hasn't read the manga, I do want things to move forward, which won't happen until at least the third film. Yet I have no problem returning to this band of mercenaries. They are still compelling. (I should warn you, however, that it's just as violent as before, perhaps even more so. Berserk is not a franchise for the easily offended.)

The animation on the first go-around of Berserk was hampered by a shoestring budget, and fans have been clamoring for something that looked better. Sadly, this doesn't fix the problem. Is it much more expensive? Absolutely. Many shots look gorgeous. When we have full-scale invasions of a castle, it looks like a crowd of thousands is waiting to bludgeon each other. 80% of it is awesome.

Problem is, the 20% that isn't is horribly distracting. There's a mesh of 2D and 3D used here, and it's apparent that they just didn't know how to get characters to look right on the 3D frames. Some of them look downright horrible. "Younger" Guts, our lead character, looks dumb through about the first 25 minutes or so. A prince that wants to take Griffith down looks imbecilic. It's jarring, and I'm amazed that so much money was spent to make something that had these kind of visual problems. Does it ruin the movie? Not for me, but it brings down my rating, and I can see where some would find it deal-breaking. Word is that they have done significantly better on the second film; I can only hope those initial reports are correct.

The other technical elements are a mixed bag. The original dub cast is back, and I'm glad for it, as they do a bang-up job. While it wasn't the greatest dub of its era, to get a dub cast back after ten years -- especially since most of these folks aren't typical anime regulars -- was quite the coup. On the other side, the music this time around is orchestrated, and it sounds very much like any other medieval film might...which would be great except for that fact that the TV series had a repetitive soundtrack that nevertheless was just perfect (and insanely memorable). Again, for the future I can hope that they'll bring some of the original music back, perhaps made symphonic so it fits in with the whole.

Is Berserk: The Egg of the King for you? If you've never seen Berserk and wonky animation from time to time won't ruin your experience, it's a great intro. Fans of the original manga and anime will either thrill to seeing an exciting recap of a great story (like I did) or dismiss it for containing nothing new plot-wise (which it doesn't). The problem areas would almost force my hand into giving it some sort of B rating, but I'll give it a low A- simply because I really liked it, flaws and all. Berserk is about wounded souls who are battered and bruised, and I guess I can deal with a film of it that's not perfect either. I'm seriously waiting for the second film with baited breath.

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc 1 - The Egg of the King -- graphic violence, brief nudity, adult themes -- A-