Berserk: The Golden Age Arc II - The Battle For Doldrey

Greatest hits compilations are a mixed bag. They're great when you want to get a band's best-known songs without spending a fortune. If I've purchased all of a favorite musician's recordings over the years, however, their greatest hits collections feel like something is missing. A completist is going to pick up a greatest hits album for the goodies included like live recordings or special remixes, and those extras are nice. Yet I can't help but miss the songs that are dropped along the way. I'm always going to think that Red Barchetta follows Tom Sawyer and Welcome To The Machine follows the first half of Shine On You, Crazy Diamond. I miss them when they aren't there. (And yes, I know I'm dating myself by referencing music recorded before I was ten. And an era when people actually purchased full-length albums rather than singles. Oh, well.)

What does all that have to do with the second Berserk movie, The Battle For Doldrey? More than you might think. There's not a whole lot to complain about concerning the film -- it covers the central plotlines from the arc, it's thrilling, and it looks quite a bit better than the first installment. Every last bit of fat has been trimmed to give the audience the leanest, meanest animated version of Berserk yet. I expect that someone having never seen or read any of the series will get the core facts and enjoy themselves quite a bit. I did. Yet even with my memories of the television series a couple years back now, I couldn't help but feel like I was watching Berserk's greatest hits. The high points are there and the notes are all perfect. It's what's supposed to be in-between that's missing. As exciting and engaging as this is, the film suffers from not spending enough time on the deeper character interactions that made the original far more meaningful than a slash-and-hack adventure.

As the movie begins, the Band of the Hawk has made a name for themselves, but their greatest challenge awaits. Led by wunderkind Griffith, they seem to be able to do no wrong. However, chinks in the mercenaries' armor can be found. Casca, despite her fearsome skills as a warrior, is still a woman, and she nearly gets herself killed on the battlefield when she experiences menstrual cramps during an engagement. Guts comes to her rescue, much to her chagrin, and he winds up slaughtering close to a hundred men before they can make it back to their encampment.

Meanwhile, Griffith plans to prove his skills by taking Doldrey, a fortress thought to be nigh-impenetrable. Despite being hopelessly outnumbered, if the Band of the Hawk can pull off this feat, Griffith's legend will grow to the point where true nobility will have to be bestowed upon least that's the plan. While Guts owes his life to Griffith and would slice through a horde to help his friend, he also realizes that their paths will eventually need to diverge. That truth may hurt Griffith more than any enemy sword possibly could.

From a technical standpoint, The Battle for Doldrey is considerably better than its predecessor. While there are a few moments where the 3D character modeling looks bad, it rarely stands out like it did in The Egg of the King. A few breathtaking shots make those unfortunate mistakes forgivable. The battles are striking and engrossing, if blood drenched, and the animation lovingly renders all the carnage. The music this go-around still doesn't have the punch of the TV series' soundtrack, but the songs lend gravitas and are fuller in the sound mix. Purists and the critical will complain, but I was pleased.

If you're a fan of action, you will never be bored during The Battle for Doldrey. The story is in constant motion, even in its quieter moments. Every melee and conversation has significance. If the first film felt fast, this one's at sheer breakneck speed. However, there are some welcome moments of levity, as well as several brief cameos by well-loved characters and glimpses at players who will show up later. And surprisingly, some minor changes from the anime (especially in the climactic scene) make it ring a little differently and add a certain poignance. From start to finish, there's very little here I would have changed.

So why am I giving it only a B+? It's because so very much is left out, particularly the passage of time. There's not enough building of the relationship between Guts and Griffith to warrant Griffith's obsession with him when he wants to leave. There's precious little to explain why Casca's hardened heart towards Guts finally turns soft. We do get a sliver more time with the minor players this time out, but not enough to explain why a certain member of the Band of the Hawk despises Guts so much that he would call Guts out.

For those of us who've experienced the story in animated or manga form, these aren't huge issues. I know how and why it all fits together. But a newbie is going to wonder why Berserk is often considered one of the greatest anime of the last fifteen years. The films want to be epic, but they just don't have enough depth. It's as if we're rushing through this part of the story -- which, admittedly, has been told in animated form before -- so that we can eventually reach the narratives we haven't yet seen. I'd be OK with that. But I know of no more Berserk movies on the horizon save for the third one which ends The Golden Age arc. If we only get truncated versions of what has come before, there's little point.

I don't think this is a bad way to experience Berserk. It's still the engrossing, bloody spectacle it's always been. But the pieces don't all add up this time around. I'm glad to see these characters back in action, and I have hope that we will see some more of their stories before the film series is all through. I am looking forward to the third film. That said, I can't help but miss all the harmonies absent from the story in this retelling. The melody is fine, but it lacks the oomph to send The Battle For Doldrey over the top.

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc II - The Battle For Doldrey -- extremely graphic violence, nudity, profanity, strong sexual content -- B+