It’s a cliche at this point to suggest that the Golden Age arc of Berserk is the high point of the series. That its particular mix of hyperviolence, earnest sentiment and stark horror stands at the very top of 90s fantasy, medium be damned, and that nothing else in the series is quite as special. In recent years, I’ve seen some friends argue that rather than become more diluted, Berserk instead becomes more complex. They argue that the author deserves praise rather than damnation for allowing his protagonist Guts to heal over the course of his journeys; that the art only becomes more ambitious and spectacularly detailed the further you go. As a manga reader who loved the Golden Age material but has yet to explore the later arcs, this sounds right to my ear. But there’s something to be said for the popularity of the Golden Age arc, if nothing else. Call it a singular masterpiece or a journeyman work by an artist raring to prove himself, but there’s an appeal to it that, in the hearts of many, is Berserk. Period.
But what to make of the material before the Golden Age? It’s easy to forget Berserk begins not with the marching of armies, but with a scene out of Legend of the Overfiend: a naked woman transforms into a demon mid-coitus, and our hero Guts crams his robot cannon arm into her mouth. “The only one trapped here is you, bitch!” Frankly, the series reads for the first volume or two as if Miura was figuring out what story he wanted to tell in real time. It isn’t until the God Hand appears for the first time, and Griffith is introduced, that Berserk’s legend truly begins.
The 1997 anime adaptation of Berserk is 25 episodes long. 24 of those episodes cover the Golden Age arc, from Guts’s introduction to the Eclipse that scars him forever. But the first is set in the pre-Golden Age era of the comic, a little slice of grimdark fantasy in which Guts witnesses the horrors of a post-Eclipse world. It’s an episode that fans appear to be divided on–Griffith and Casca are nowhere to be found, Guts is a cruel asshole instead of a three-dimensional character. But it sets expectations for the tragedy to come, and the episode’s end takes us to the very beginning of the story. So: what to do about it? I’ve seen some fans recommend saving the episode for the end of the series. Others suggest skipping it entirely, so as to more quickly reach the meat of the story. Watching the first episode in the wake of Miura’s death, I tried to put myself in the shoes of these fans. What in the first episode of Berserk is Berserk? What is not Berserk?
There is a specific moment in the first episode of Berserk where Guts is sleeping in the forest. Clouds swallow the moon, and the spirits of the damned howl from the trees. Then, this music begins to play:
The music to 1997’s Berserk is composed by Susumu Hirasawa. He’s best known today for his collaborations with anime director Satoshi Kon on films like Millenium Actress and Paprika, as well as Kon’s anthology television show Paranoia Agent. If you’ve seen the famous Paranoia Agent opening credits, where men and women stand laughing against apocalyptic cities, you know Hirasawa’s work:
When I think of traditional fantasy scoring, I think of the horns from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score, or more recently the soaring violins from To Your Eternity‘s soundtrack. I don’t think of whatever track 6 of the Berserk anime soundtrack “Fear” is, a wall of discordant synthesizers that appears after roughly ten minutes bereft of music to knock the viewer on their ass. “Fear” doesn’t sound like “the Bad Guy’s theme,” or “the danger theme.” It sounds like fear. Berserk is not so much a story about overcoming evil as it is overcoming trauma, and “Fear” is the trauma. It is scored in such a way that you, the viewer, hear it and immediately understand just how bad things can still get.
Berserk is Guts, Griffith and Casca, the horrors of the Eclipse, nights on the road and long talks about leadership and ambition. It is also this: the nightmare lurking a key change below the relatively straight-laced fantasy series you are watching. Hirasawa might not have been the obvious choice to compose the music to a fantasy series, and he hasn’t done it since. But his (admittedly very sparse) score adds a special something to the anime that once in a while lets it bridge the unassailable gap between its respectable-but-low-budget appeal and the living myth that is the source comic. This is the song that plays during next episode previews, “Forces”:
What about this song besides the synthesized bagpipes says “fight song for a classic dark fantasy series?” Not much. But in the moment, you feel it: “Forces” is Berserk. Just like “Fear”, in its first appearance in the maligned first episode of the 1997 adaptation, is Berserk. As a manga reader, I respected the praise I’d heard for the first anime adaptation but figured that it could never compare to the source. I never should have doubted: now and forever, Berserk is here.