Over the past year, Berserk has returned to the limelight in a big way with a trilogy of movies based on the first arc of the popular manga. I panned the first of these movies as an ugly, inferior rehash when compared to the 1997 anime adaptation of the story. I felt that the second movie at least attempted to correct the mistakes of the first film, but only occasionally surpassed the TV anime. But where the previous two films fell short, Berserk: Golden Age Arc III: Descent reigns supreme and delivers an experience surpassing even the original manga in both emotional turmoil and eye-wrenching ultra-violence.
My biggest complaint about the last two Berserk films was the horrible-looking CG models used for the characters in action scenes in lieu of traditional animation techniques. This has been completely corrected in Descent by animating the faces traditionally and the bodies with the cost-saving CG (in all but the widest of wide-angle shots). Instead of clashing as one might expect, this art style looks great. The armor-clad bodies are consistently more detailed and their motions more fluid than those found in traditional animation, while the faces maintain the dynamic emotional detail we have come to expect in modern anime.
Descent completely surpasses its '97 anime counterpart not only in animation quality but also in storytelling. This last, and quite depressing, section of the first arc tends to drag in the beginning a bit when dealing with the characters' confrontation with their suddenly uncertain future. Despite this, the film keeps even this portion of the story moving at a fair clip—and then focuses nearly half the film on the most (in)famous scene in all of Berserk: the eclipse.
What surprised me, as a Berserk fan, was that many of the events in the manga are cut out of the story—most noticeably the vast majority of Rickert's adventure. The entire encounter between the Band of the Hawk and the demon outside of the eclipse is nowhere to be found. The same cuts were also made in the ‘97 anime.
This is actually for the best, however. As much as I would have liked to see these scenes and others, their removal gave the movie both focus and a better pace. And, unlike the ‘97 anime, Descent made sure to include the pivotal character of the Skull Knight and even reveal some of his backstory.
Descent is quite simply the most graphic mainstream anime movie I have ever seen. The eclipse is just shocking, and it far surpassed my personal tolerance for graphic violence. And unlike many gorefest films, Descent never hits the point where the gore becomes so over-the-top, it's funny. Instead, it remains genuinely horrifying from beginning to end. I would even go so far as to say that the eclipse is even more disturbing than it was in the manga. In still frames, it was shocking (to say the least); but in motion with an aural accompaniment, it was nearly unbearable.
But as graphic as it is, Descent is not ultra-violent for the sake of being ultra-violent. More than anything else, it's a tool for character development—a way to show you just what will drive Guts for the rest of the story. Every excruciating detail is meant to make you empathize with Guts and teach you the true definition of an unforgivable act.
The night terrors are just a happy side effect.
Berserk: Golden Age Arc III: Descent is a great improvement over the previous two films and is a well-paced and beautiful (if such a word can be applied) adaptation of the Berserk epic. It is also, however, a film that is by design very difficult to watch. It is nothing less than an emotional hammer, and the amount of graphic rape and ultra-violence make this movie unwatchable by anyone with a weak stomach for such things. Of course, none of that stopped me from loving it.
But really, what boggles my mind is that what I saw was the "edited" (r-15+) version of the film—though I didn't know that until after I had left the theater. Late night showings (r-18+) are reportedly uncut. Frankly, I cannot imagine what could have been considered "too violent" compared to what I saw. And honestly, I don't really want to.
Berserk: Golden Age Arc III: Descent was released on February 1, 2013, in theaters across Japan. It, like the two previous films, has been licensed for an international release.