Review Summary: RIP Kentaro Miura (1966-2021)
Berserk's Golden Age Arc features some of the most graphic examples of violence, brutality, and horror in manga, with a solid argument to be made that it has only been outdone by its own subsequent arcs. Anyone who is familiar with the series however is aware of the degree of heart, complexity, emotion, and beauty that serves as the foundation of its narrative, with the 1997 anime exemplifying that depth more successfully than any adaptation thus far. The soundtrack plays an integral role in bringing that narrative to life by establishing a dense atmosphere that perfectly complements the adaptation’s direction and art, and by fleshing out the arc’s central characters.
Everything apart from the opening and closing themes is unmistakably digital, and given the year of the adaptation’s release, the soundtrack could have easily doubled as an OST for a PlayStation or Sega Saturn dungeon crawler. Its battle themes are hopelessly dark, foreboding, and industrial, with icy and metallic textures that brilliantly amalgamate with sword clashes, battle cries, and the dialog spread throughout the rendition’s 25 episodes. The most notable exception to this is the Beheilt theme, serving as the backdrop to some of the series’ most pivotal moments like the two duels between Guts and Griffith. The flute melody against echoes of crystalized arpeggiated synths is a perfect marriage between serenity and agonizing suspense, highlighting the tension and importance of the scenes that it accompanies. The soundtrack’s peak and most iconic piece is Guts’ theme, comprised of swells of sampled voices drowning amidst an ocean of reverb, struggling to swim above shades of digital piano beneath the surface. The theme’s genius lies at its ability to highlight the trauma and emotional scarring that fuel Guts’ rage, isolation, pain, and struggle in discovering his own raison d'etre, with each dimension of his psyche eventually culminating in a decision that forever changes the Band of the Hawk and the world of its central players. The soundtrack’s only low-point is the opening theme, albeit only in respect to the cohesiveness of the rest of the OST. A campy, lo-fi Japanese garage band song on a fully hand drawn anime is about as 90s as it gets, and while it fails in exemplifying the tone and content of the story, it is catchy and charming, my rose-tinted glasses are more than willing to give it a pass, and at the very least, it serves as a palate cleanser between episodes that usually end tragically.
The 1997 anime unfortunately seems likely to be the most faithful and best executed Berserk adaptation for the foreseeable future. At least it is a classic, right? The 2012-13 film trilogy fills in important gaps that the series left out due to time and budget constraints, and it has its own moments of awe and brilliance, with the third film being a notable standout due to its imagining of the Eclipse. Nonetheless, this rendition of the Golden Age Arc has the most heart, the most attention to detail, is most loyal to the manga, has the best atmosphere and art, and the best soundtrack, which stands as being one of the best in anime overall.