As Game of Thrones fever spreads like wildfire across the world in the wake of the successful HBO adaptation, it seems that Adult Fantasy is hot property again - and they don't come any more adult or epic than Kentaro Miura's Japanese manga opus: Berserk.
First published in 1990, Berserk is widely regarded as the king of seinen manga (adult comics), having sold over 24million volumes in Japan and 7million abroad (thanks in no small part to Dark Horse Comics publishing it in America), but that title stems less from sales figures and more from the appreciation of its quality. Ask most self-respecting fans of fantasy serials and they would probably tell you that Berserk should be mentioned in the same breath as other adult classics like Preacher and Hellboy, mostly because it ticks all the right boxes: combining fantastic illustrations, complex characters, a compelling universe (that makes the world of Westeros seem rosy), gruesome horror, and thrilling action sequences.
Outside the page Berserk has had a more chequered past: An anime series was produced in 1997 but aired in a night time graveyard slot and thus never garnered enough viewers to justify an extension beyond the original 26-episode season, despite being well-received critically and later becoming a modest hit abroad when distributed on DVD. This was the first real exposure Berserk had in the west and the series was famous as much for its unresolved cliffhanger finale as its content. An attempt would be made to adapt Miura's story further in video game form in 1999 & 2004 on the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 respectively, but only the former was released outside of Japan.
Since then there's been vague internet rumours of a live action script treatment being commissioned in Hollywood a few years back, but nothing concrete had surfaced until 2010 when the comic announced that a new Anime series was in the works, under the moniker: Berserk Saga Project. What fans didn't expect was that this would be a long-running CG film project intended to cover the entire story through a series of trilogies that each cover a single arc of the manga. The starting point for these trilogies would be the same arc that the ill-fated TV series adapted: The Golden Age, which was originally a flashback arc in the comics that covered the back story of the protagonist Guts and the rise of the mercenary outfit The Band of the Hawk.
And so we come to the UK release of the first film in the first trilogy (deep breath) Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King, a title that is almost as long as the film itself given it's somewhat brief runtime of 76minutes. Berserk I commences with an unknown battle at an unknown castle, where a teenage mercenary with a 7ft broadsword helps the winning side gain a complete victory by brutishly chopping down a notorious man-slayer named Bazuso. This act earns Guts a pocketful of silver and the attention of a rival mercenary outfit called The Band of the Hawk, who after the battle decide to test Guts' mettle with a surprise attack that leaves them a couple of members short until enigmatic leader Griffith arrives to fell Guts in a single strike.
When he awakes, Griffith manages to persuade Guts to join the outfit, and in just three years The Band of the Hawk rise to become one of the most feared mercenary fighters in Midland as they wage war with rival the rival kingdom of Chuder. Griffith has lofty plans to earn his own kingdom one day, a ball that starts rolling when the King of Midland elevates him from commoner to noble for his deeds on the battlefield, but acceptance of the band into the court of Midland comes with a price when the king's resentful brother Julius starts plotting their downfall.
Berserk I is certainly a bit of a mixed bag. If you rate the opening entry of an action franchise by its style and pacing then the film performs pretty well: director Toshiyuki Kubooka wastes no time building up to big action set pieces, from the first frame onwards the entire opening half of this short film is dedicated to one battle sequence or another, and each sequence is frantic, gruesome and energetic, with Kubooka employing a wide range of CG rendered pans and sweeps to give the action a thoroughly cinematic feel. In the second half the pace is wound down when Griffith is accepted into the court of Midland and the inevitable intrigue commences. It is at this point that we start to get a true handle on the primary characters of the piece: Guts & Griffith, and the unusual bond that stems from their own internally-perceived destinies.
If however you rate the opening entry of any franchise on how well they establish a universe and all the characters within it (not just the two lead characters), then this film is something of a failure. The thing about The Golden Age arc is that it's supposed to tell the story of not just Guts and Griffith, but the entire Band of Hawk mercenary outfit they lead. It's not exactly the most narratively adventurous tale, but the characters make up for that, and pretty much all the characterisation of these significant supporting roles is completely lost to three words: Three Years Later...
These are the titles for a time-skip that occurs immediately after Griffith persuades Guts to sign up, and the film feels a little anaemic without that development - In fact I'd wager that most viewers watching Berserk I who haven't read the comics beforehand are probably going to have a very hard time naming five members of the Band of the Hawk in total after the credits roll, which however way you look at it is a very bizarre position to be in going into the second film.
It's even more bizarre when you consider the modest runtime of this feature: 76minutes, which is barely feature-length by today's standards. Just half an hour of extra footage could have made the world of difference, and it's not like Japanese audiences are known for their impatience, so perhaps the creative decisions of Kubooka and his production company were dictated by a limited budget, or perhaps they're just not a fan of peripheral character development. I guess we'll never know.
Berserk I is not a total loss, it does a lot of justice to enough elements of Kentaro Miura's comic to whet the appetite for subsequent instalments, which promise to be significantly more substantial if the lengthy runtime of the next film (Berserk: The Golden Age Arc II: The Battle for Doldrey) is anything to go by, so stay tuned and your patience should be rewarded.
PresentationWhen I first put this BD-25 disc into my PC I had to do a double take when I saw the filesize listed as 10.4GB, and sure enough a BDInfo scan revealed this release has a total bitrate of 18.5Mbps with an average video bitrate of 9.51Mbps. This is startlingly small - suspiciously so even - and the only explanation I can think of is that there isn't really a lot of high-frequency detail in the animation to begin with, but either way you do have to question whether this release has been hit with a compression sledgehammer given there are significant banding issues throughout the entire film. Pretty much any scene with darker shades exhibits horrible gradients, a good example being the scene where Guts wakes up in the tent next to Casca after suffering his first defeat at the hands of Griffith.
Otherwise the transfer seems pretty faithful to the source material; or rather it accurately exhibits all the flaws that stem from the way Berserk I was animated - chiefly the supremely excessive diffusion filter applied pretty much throughout the entire film that sucks all the detail from the image (this is where the lack of high-frequency detail comes in). It's not so bad that it looks like standard-def, but I doubt you're gaining much extra detail in the leap between 720p to 1080p. Contrast & brightness levels are naturalistic, grain is imperceptible and there are no sharpening filters in play. There is a little aliasing in the lines of animation at times, but nothing distracting.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic PAL DVD holds up to the Blu-ray pretty well, colours are an even match but detail is obviously lower and banding is if anything slightly more of a problem. However when you look at the flaws inherent in the high-definition transfer you've got to rate this disc fairly highly.
Two audio tracks are present on the BD, offering DTS-HD 5.1 presentations of the original Japanese and an English dub. The Japanese track has some very delicate audio design, one second it can be blasting out a punchy battle sequence that's aggressively scored then the next the volume dips so a less rambunctious dialogue exchange can take place. In this regard the DTS-HD presentation is hard to fault, delivering a smooth, well-defined sound that has excellent directionality.
In comparison the English DTS-HD track is a very close match to the Japanese, with the dialogue perhaps being a little higher in the mix. The Japanese & English DD5.1 tracks on the DVD, though less refined, offer a pretty similar experience to their lossless counterparts on the BD.
Player generated English subtitles are provided on both discs, but they are non-removable.
ExtrasManga UK are releasing Berserk I in a standard Blu-ray + DVD Double Play release and a fancy Collector's Edition that comes with a Berserk Data Book (sadly not provided for this review), but there are no extras on the discs themselves save for a skippable pre-menu advert for Bleach: Hell Verse.
I should also point out that the menu for the Blu-ray disc proved annoyingly glitchy on my Oppo BDP-103 BD player, having a lag of about 5-7seconds when you try to move the cursor from one option to the next (even though there are only three options in the menu: PLAY, CHAPTERS, AUDIO). The BD also seems to break PowerDVD 11 (or at least my copy), causing it to freeze just before the Bleach trailer is due to play.