I've been pretty quiet about the BERSERK: THE GOLDEN AGE ARC/ベルセルク 黄金時代篇 film trilogy up until this point. Truth be told I've held off on watching them until all three films were available, partly because I didn't want to torture myself with waiting a year and change to see the next one, and partly because... well, the trailer footage left me unsure if I wanted to watch the film at all.
Kentaro MIURA's now 24 year old Berserk manga is a powerhouse of of character building, realistic pseudo-European dark ages fantasy, and shocking horror, with a total of 38 collected volumes so far - and, to this day, no end in sight. This very specific combination propels the Golden Age into one of the most memorable and unusual experiences available in Japanese comics out there. It was adapted as one of the very first "otaku" shows in 1997 by Oriental Light and Magic, an experiment that pushed the boundaries of violence and sexuality on basic broadcast in an industry that had just been up-ended by surprising mainstream break-outs like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Revolutionary Girl Utena. The 25 episode BERSERK: 剣風伝奇ベルセルク TV series was certainly extraordinary for its time - a gorgeously designed, phenomenally cast and scored adaptation of the manga that focused on the character development more than the fantastic and horrific elements of the original source material - but the sudden, explicitly grotesque final episode that left many seemingly important details unexplained left non-Japanese audiences with the worst case of storytelling blue-balls this side of The Sopranos.
I had started reading fan translations of the Golden Age perhaps six months before Dark Horse picked up the rights to the North American market, and started their unusually expensive English run in 2004. While I was interested in reading the continuing adventures of Guts, Caska and that little fairy looking thing - and felt just morally obligated enough to not keep stealing it, once I'd satisfied my curiosity to discover what I had "missed" by way of the TV series. Sadly, even Dark Horse's own aggressive publishing schedule wouldn't get up to the end of the Golden Age until some time in 2007, a period when I was mostly broke and the thought of spending $15 per book of something I knew had been running for nearly 20 years (and thus was no small investment) just wasn't on my personal radar, much as I wish it could have been. Of course now that I'm not filthy-poor and want to not only read the rest of it, but share the glorious Golden Age books with my wife, I'm faced with the grim reality that the earlier volumes are all but impossible to find for anywhere close to cover price... man, how time flies.
Digibook enthusiasts are recommended to look across the pond.
The Berserk: Golden Age trilogy is a series of animated theatrical films covering (roughly books 4 to 16 of Miura's original manga. Minor spoilers in the scheme of things will be covered in the following paragraph, so if you want to know as little as possible, just skip the red text below:
The films film, THE EGG OF THE KING, covers from Guts' battle with Bazuso the Bear Slayer to the assassination of Count Julius. The second film, THE TAKING OF DOLDREY, covers from Guts' battle with Adon Corbolwitz' battalion to Guts leaving the Band of the Hawk, and Griffith being imprisoned for treason. The final film, DESCENT, opens with Guts' reuniting with the weary Band of the Hawk to rescue Griffith, and ends with "The Eclipse" and the immediate aftermath as he accepts his new role as the Apostle Slayer.
While even the TV show felt occasionally rushed at 25 weekly half-hour episodes, the these three films average out roughly 4 hours and 45 minutes, all three films having a common opening sequence, a preview for the next two movies and inordinately long credit sequences, the actual "content" can't be more than 4 hours total (or roughly half as much runtime as the TV adaptation). With this in mind, many concessions to the original material had to be made, and while many of them are present thematically (if nothing else), some of the deleted content does change the tone and scope - if not the focus - of the story. Guts' tragic past as an orphan raised by an abusive, violent mercenary is barely paid lip service in a vague flashback, the lengths to which Griffith would go to in order to fund his dream are never properly explained, and the Queen of Midland simply doesn't exist in the trilogy's universe, boiling the complicated politics and dual-nature of Griffiths' emerging spot in high society somewhat less interesting.
There are a number of lines and brief images that fans of the material will likely recognize, but if the Golden Age trilogy is your first introduction to the franchise there's going to be a lot of questions left unanswered. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the limited development that the Band of the Hawk gets outside of the three leads of Guts, Caska and Griffith: Judeau, Corkuss, Gaston, Pippin and Rickert are all present and accounted for, but they just don't get enough screen time to matter nearly as much as they should, particularly with the harrowing events that close the story arc. Guts' blacksmith Godo never makes an appearance (though his daughter does!?), and neither the villainous Wyald nor the unnamed human general who took his place in the TV show ever make an appearance - a shame, as he serves as a sort of Final Boss before the God Hand shows up. The new films do feature Skull Knight, a rather central figure in the final hours of the Golden Age, as well as cameos by Serpicio and Farnese, who aren't important in this particular part of the story but become fairly major players later on. Puck the Wind spirit also makes a brief appearance, as does Silat the Kushan warrior in a more impressive battle-sequence that ends in a stalemate, but won't impact the story for some time to come.
What's that? Guts on Titan? I'd be fine with this being the fourth movie...
If the only sin these films had committed was being a Cliff Notes version of Berserk, I'd be merciful by default: Adapting Berserk in anything less than a limitless number of hour-long TV episodes (particularly 20+ years worth of manga material later) was always going to be problematic. The larger issue is the focus on digital animation techniques, including a new and theoretically exciting combination of CG renders and 2D elements, fusing traditionally animated character designs and 3D elements that would have been to complex to reliably animate by hand. In a very real way this is the future of animation, combining the superior tactics of different mediums to create a seamless whole... but goddamn, the technique just ain't there yet. In the same way that The Black Cauldron and Golgo 13: The Professional had to get the ball rolling with CG in the first place, Berserk: The Golden Age is going to be remembered as one of the first franchises to literally stretch 2D animation on top of 3D models to create some at times mesmerisingly fascinating results.
Unfortunately, the results fail just as often as they work, if not more. It's easy enough to forget that, for example, Nosferatu Zodd is an entirely 3D character with the intentionally jerky, textured movement, but the 3D soldiers on the "epic" battlefields that open the first film are painfully stuff and almost infuriatingly sloppy looking. The result is an epic scope that looks distractingly poor next to the almost non-animated slideshows of the TV series, and the fact that the quality of the CG will shift from above average to well below it in the same exact scene only serve to underscore how not ready for the responsibility Japanese production methods are in 2013. To this day, the best CG feature to come out of Japan is Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, and if this trilogy looked even half that good I'd be more forgiving of its aims; certain scenes, particularly the lengthy battle in the second film in which Guts takes on a hundred men, really do look better than they should. Unfortunately the consistency is so hit or miss that if bad CG pisses you off, I'm hesitant to recommend this as the way to introduce yourself to Miura's world. Director Toshiyuki KUBOOKA has come primarily from a video game background, and seeing the massive, epic scale combined with the middling quality of actual animation and attention to detail, I'm not particularly surprised.
The first film in the Golden Age trilogy is by far the weakest of the three, trying to boil down several years into a about two reels, and focusing on ugly CG battles instead of relevant character development. As an adaptation it's serviceable, at best, but as a film on its own merits it's a bloody mess. The second film is far more competent on all levels, focusing on a single period of time and upping the action ante by focusing on the medieval warfare and political back-stabbing without being forced to try and explain complicated backstories or introduce elements of Lovecraftian-Barker horror. The second film is one dwarf short of lapping Game of Thrones at its own tricks, and suggests that Kobooka knew what he was doing after all.
As for the third film... well, the third film is where this gets really interesting. For one thing it's - by far, in my eyes at least - the best of the three films, but we'll discuss it in detail another day. I want to compare a few details to the original manga and TV versions before making any detailed or definitive judgment on what it does and doesn't do properly, I walked away from this film absolutely enthralled, horrified and disgusted. Which is a good thing, considering the pitch black material it covers.
Despite the first two films being drenched in gore, frontal nudity, child abuse and even lengthy graphic sex scenes, they both escaped the EIRIN - that is, the Japanese equivalent to the MPAA - with "PG-12" certificates. Friends will know I was already crossing my arms and glaring at this news, but aside from ignoring Miura's shocking depiction of child rape, the first two films were surprisingly true to their source material, brutal violence and brazen sexuality included. When the teaser for the third film hit, however, it promised an R-18 rating - and, yes, that is literally the equivalent to an NC-17, which has since become used primarily for Hollywood films and Pink Eiga rather than films actually produced for the Japanese market (with the exception of oddities like Miike's Ichi the Killer, and Sato's Love and Loathing). The later, expanded trailers carried an R-15 certificate, and it wasn't until the solicitations for the recently released Japanese Blu-ray surfaced that we knew the full story...
Since we're discussing the end of a recently released film, I'm going to spoiler tag the rest of this entry. Yes, this was material written in the mid 90s and released - as a TV series - on DVD world-wide over a decade ago, but some of you might be discovering the series for the first time, or - perhaps like myself - you DO know the score and you're just curious how "The Feast" plays out in the new adaptation. In any case, the following text is going to be spoiler-filled... it's also going to get, really, really rapey all up in here. I know y'all reading this are grown ups and stuff - I mean, I say "fuckshit" and "pussyfart" all the time and you're pretty cool with it - but... well, this is adapting one of the single most traumatizing pieces of fiction I've ever encountered, and it's so over the top they had to edit it FOR JAPAN. If that doesn't ring a few potential warning bells, I don't really know what would. So consider yourself warned; lots of monster cock is on its way.
Before we get into this, I can confirm that the runtime for the "Special Version" (R-18) and the "Theatrical Version" (R-15) are exactly the same. The R-18 cut runs 01:47:48, while the R-15 cut runs 01:52:28. For one thing, after we see Guts as the Black Swordsman walk towards the camera, the R-18 cut simply fades to black, and then cuts to the WB logo. The R-15 cut fades to black, and then says "THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING" [in English] and then cuts to an exclusive 5 minute music video - though exactly what the song is, I'm not certain. It's all still images, clips from the first two movies and a few new pieces of animation including a lone wolf wandering the fields. It's cool, I guess, but totally superfluous.
The real difference between the R-15 and the R-18 versions are a number of alternate cuts that run through the final minutes of The Eclipse - for the most part the R-18 version is visibly more explicit, but one shot in particular is actually more visible on the censored version! I spotted 11 shots that were re-animated/censored for the theatrical version, and I'll post both time-codes and lengths, to give you an idea how different the two versions are.
Ideally, Viz will release both cuts whenever they get their chance to release the film sometime next year, but if worse comes to worse, at least you can all make a properly informed choice on if only having one cut is a personal deal-breaker.
Last goddamn chance, people: It's about to get really rapey up in here.
Femto (Griffith) molests Caska's breasts and crotch.
Theatrical version darkens the bottom of the screen.
01:23:46 - 01:24:50
Close-up of tentacles spreading Caska's legs as Griffith continues rubbing Caska's crotch.
Theatrical version darkens the shot and zooms it in so you can't really see anything.
01:23:55 - 01:23:58
Far shot of Griffith molesting Caska's crotch.
Purple fog extended around Caska and Griffith on theatrical version.
01:24:47 - 01:24:50
Griffith penetrates Caska.
Theatrical version de-focuses/shakes the camera, and darkens the fog.
01:24:52 - 01:24:54
Griffith continues penetrating Caska as Guts struggles.
Black fog added over Caska and Griffith's bodies.
01:25:06 - 01:25:09
Pan-shot of Griffith continuing to rape Caska.
Black fog added to the right side of the theatrical version.
01:25:33 - 01:25:34
Close-up of Griffith's penis and Caska's rump.
Darkened on theatrical version, but just barely visible on uncensored version.
01:26:50 - 01:26:52
Griffith rapes Caska from behind as Apostles hold Guts on the ground.
Dark fog layer added to Theatrical version around Griffith and Caska.
01:26:58 - 01:27:00
Another close-up of Griffith's penis.
Darkened on theatrical version again.
01:27:12 - 01:27:15
Guts' POV of Griffith raping Caska as his eye is punctured by a demon.
Blur effect added to the UNCENSORED version - this time, the R-15 cut is actually less obscured!
01:27:22 - 01:27:24
One last shot of Griffith's penis before he drops Caska.
Darkened in the theatrical version, again.
Amazingly enough, the shot at 01:27:35 in which we see Griffith's sperm dripping out of Caska's body is identical in both versions. I didn't spot any differences in all of the shots where Guts is hacking off his own broken arm, either, which is easily the most disgusting act of dismemberment in what's basically a non-stop orgy of bodily destruction.
As I've said, the ideal solution for all releases going forward would be to include both cuts of the film, but if I had to choose one the "Special Version" would be it. It's clearly the final, raw, uncompromising version of the cinematic equivalent to being force-fed a razor blade and feces cupcake, and with Berserk as a story being an experiment with extremes, this seems like the only logical way to view the film. That said, the theatrical compromise is surprisingly good on its own terms; the censorship is far less blatant than it could have been, and the only overly distracting shots in it are the shot of Caska's legs being spread, and the obnoxiously icky close-ups of Femto's demon cock. [Assuming, of course, that I didn't blatantly miss any additional instances of censorship in my side-by-side viewing.] I'll also point out that the film version completely removes the scenes of the demons stripping Caska and preparing her to be "Sacrificed" to a large, blade-faced beetle monster, which remains one of the most upsetting and lengthy fake-outs in Miura's original comics. Considering Wyald was basically a walking rape dispenser and the Midland King tried to rape his own daughter in the manga, that's saying something.
These censored shots might look more glaring to someone less jaded by several years of "intentional" Pink Eiga optical censorship, but as 4C went out of their way to censor shots where you literally couldn't see a damned thing and then somehow left the above moments intact... well, some of it has to be an intentional "Fuck You!" to the EIRIN's demands that sex and violence remain intact, but sexual violence - even in the context of a story that presents the act of rape as the ultimate betrayal - is simply the line. It is bizarre that one instance is actually less visible on the uncensored version, but as we're seeing Guts' POV as his eye is literally being punctured... yeah, it seems more like an artistic decision than anything else.
And... that's all I got. I meant to talk about goddamn Man of Steel, but c'mon. You guys needed this way more than whatever opinion I have about the latest Superman movie.