If you're just starting to really get into anime, you've probably heard the name whispered or seen it mentioned in lists: Berserk. A legend in the anime and manga community, Berserk is one of the longest-running manga, and consistently one of the darkest out there, but also one of the most emotionally powerful and rewarding.
WHAT THE HECK IS BERSERK?
Berserk is the life's work of manga artist Kentaro Miura. That’s not an exaggeration or figure of speech: Miura envisioned a story that would take him decades on end to tell, and so far has.
The first volume hit Japanese shelves in 1989, introducing readers to Guts, the Black Swordsman, as he hunts down his mortal enemy, Griffith. At first, the story seems cut from the same cloth as any other grimdark, wish-fulfilling epic fantasy: Guts carries with him the Dragonslayer, a sword as tall as a man and weighing twice as much, described in the manga as "little more of a slab of iron." With it, Guts is hunting grotesque demons called Apostles and taking their Behelits, an egg-shaped fetish carried by each one.
It's a humble, almost silly beginning for what fast becomes one of the greatest literary works in all of manga. There are multiple facets to the story: a tale of rivalry and revenge that would stand up to Batman and the Joker; unanswered questions that would frustrate even the most ardent Twin Peaks fans; political intrigue, love, and betrayal that would give Game of Thrones a run for its money.
Guts' ultimate struggle is not merely against monsters, but against destiny itself, embodied in a mysterious power called the Godhand. The story tackles the idea of free will at great length as Guts resists the pull of predetermination at every corner. And while Guts is driven by the thirst for revenge and the sting of betrayal, he also grows and heals as he learns to depend on the few friends he makes in a rapidly changing world.
In addition to its epic-length manga run, Berserk has been animated three times.
The first, a 25-episode TV series, hit in 1997, covering the "Golden Age" arc of the story, in which Guts and Griffith's friendship blossoms before Griffith's destined betrayal tears everything to pieces and unleashes true magic upon the world.
The next time Berserk appeared in front of viewers’ eyes was for the 2012 and 2013 release of a trilogy of animated films, collectively called Berserk: The Golden Age Arc. It covers the same ground as the original series, but with some crucial differences that we'll get into below.
Finally, the third Berserk animation project, the 2016 TV show, moves things forward from where the first two left off and brings us to the same point in the story as the most recent manga volumes.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
The hardest thing about Berserk isn’t its plot, which can get pretty complex when you try to explain it to a friend. It’s where to begin with it at all. You have multiple inroads, all worth traveling down.
The manga, which, so far, consists of 39 200-plus page volumes, is unquestionably the best way to consume the entire story, and currently the only way to get every detail from beginning to end.
If you start picking the paperback volumes up new, you'll spend almost $400 at $9 - $12 each (or $12.99 for digital volumes on Comixology).
Start with the first four volumes, since that gives you a good sense of the general flavor of the story. If you like that, pick up volumes 4-13 — the "Golden Age" arc — and then see if you’re in for the full enchilada. Used bookstores are a good resource, and the occasional collection hits eBay for a decent price. Also, check your local library system to see if they offer it.
The first anime series, now 20 years old, is a bit tough to find these days, as the original licensors have lost the rights to the title. You can pick the collected show up on sites like Amazon for just shy of $70, though again, trolling eBay and used media shops is going to be a great option here.
The Berserk anime isn’t a forensically precise adaptation of the original story, but it’s faithful, beguiling, and provides an experience cold print alone can’t. The show preceded the shift to CG art by a few years, and it's packed from end to end with beautiful art and some nice animation. More important to me, though, is the irreplaceable score from composer Susumu Hirasawa, whose synth-heavy soundtrack brings an otherworldly feeling that reminds of some of those great practical-effects-fueled '80s movies. It fits perfectly into this story where magic is beginning to emerge in a world where no one believes in it.
The 2012 movie trilogy, available on Netflix as of this writing, is unquestionably the easier to get your hands on. It does a solid job of delivering the major plot points and even adds a few things the original TV show left out (e.g., the mysterious Skeleton Knight), but it cuts the actual runtime in half, so some of the pacing of the original anime is lost, and its CGI-driven animation is occasionally marionette-like.
The one place I wouldn't start is the 2016 anime. It's hardly unwatchable, but the rushed CG animation is a disappointment that doesn't live up to the Berserk legacy.
Diving in with the movies is as simple as you can get, but you likely won't want to stop there. The manga has a long history and a fervent fanbase on communities like Reddit that you can dive into once you've started, where you'll find fellow fans, fanatics, loremasters, artists, and more. The Golden Age is just the start of something truly huge.