ANIME & MANGA - Review
09:00 - 5th October 2013, by Andrew Osmond

Berserk - The Golden Age Arc II: The Battle for Doldrey

Once upon a time in fantasy movies, swords were treated like fashion accessories, even like toys. The mighty fantasy hero would hold his sword pointing up at a stormy sky like a medieval lightning conductor. If he wasn't actually saying, "I have the power!", then he might as well have been. Or he'd be using the sword in play-duels with feisty ladies, or in highly theatrical fights that'd go on for hours, with lots of time for leaping on tables and urbane baddie-baiting banter. Very occasionally, the sword might go into someone, or separate body parts with a drop or two of blood. But otherwise, such swords had no more menace than a cardboard prop wielded by a rookie cosplayer at his first anime convention.

Need we say that the swords in Berserk are different?

They don't have any functions as toys, or fashion accessories, or aphrodisiacs. Nope - they're bloody huge lumps of metal, created for the single purpose of turning the enemy into crimson-coloured chutney. One of the main set-pieces in the second Berserk film, The Battle for Doldrey, has the hero Guts taking on around a hundred warriors single-handed, carving through them like a chef preparing a bumper Sunday roast. You can almost believe it because of how solid Guts' weapon feels, in contrast to the human blood-bags it dispatches. Later, in the title battle for Doldrey, there's a delirious moment where a mighty general's whirling axe causes several horsemen to explode around him.

The film is the second cinema instalment of Kentaro Miura's Berserk manga, specifically the "Golden Age Arc" centred round the young Guts, his commander Griffith, and his female comrade-in-arms Casca. Berserk newbies should start with the first film, The Egg of the King, though if you know the manga or the 1997 TV anime, then you can pick up here if you want. In The Egg of the King, Guts' devotion to Griffith led him into an act which shocked even the mercenary; he accidentally killed a helpless child during an assassination mission. Afterwards, Guts was devastated to overhear Griffith declare his contempt for his loyal followers (including, by implication, Guts himself), whom Griffith saw as tools rather than friends.

The Battle for Doldrey divides into three parts. The first relates Guts' and Casca's struggle for survival when Casca falls from a cliff in battle and Guts dives after her. In their subsequent adventure together, both characters learn more about each other. The title conflict follows, as Griffith leads his Band of the Hawk against a fortified stone city and a force many times greater. In the film's last act, the tensions between the characters cause a chain reaction leading to catastrophe.

Doldrey is a more satisfying watch than the first film. Story-wise, there's more character development, including a very poignant, adult sequence where a naked couple are intimately entwined, while the thoughts of one of them are filled obsessively with someone who's no longer there. It's a terrific piece of anime drama, animated and edited with great skill, in a film that's even better-looking than its predecessor. Images like the wounded Casca lying on a riverbank in the pouring rain, or a snowfield in the rising sun, have an unadulterated beauty in the hyperreal, artificial rendering of Studio 4°C.

The Egg of the King sometimes overreached itself in its ambition to show staggering battle spectacles, leading to clunky mixes of CGI and traditional animation. In the sequel, it feels much less of a problem, though that may be partly because the fights themselves are more exciting, with the enemies properly introduced before the death matches start. Fans of the TV Berserk will be especially gratified to see the return of Adon, Berserk's closest thing to a pantomime villain. He boasts amusingly ad nauseam of his family's centuries'-old battle skills which inevitably turn out to be duds, like the Acme gadgets used by the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. As with Game of Thrones, Doldrey is a wholly human drama, excepting a tiny Tinker Bell-ish cameo at the end.


But it's also the drama that's the issue. It should be stronger, and of course it was stronger in other versions of the story. Doldrey seems to presume its audience knows Berserk already. In the middle of the film, there's a beautifully designed, but weirdly fumbled, encounter between Griffith and the ruler of Doldrey. It hints at a backstory in the manga and TV versions that's crucial to understanding what unites Guts, Griffith and Casca - basically, pain and rape - but quite honestly, it should have been spelled out here, brought to the forefront. Again, the TV version of Berserk brilliantly presented the growing tenderness between Casca and Guts, in low-key scenes that wouldn't have eaten the movie's effects budget. Instead, the film gives us an extended ballroom dance that's pretty, but romcom cheesy.

Without strong connective tissue, Doldrey feels like a middle, a middle and a middle. The focus shifts awkwardly from Guts and Casca to Guts and Griffith, but it lacks a powerful sense of these characters as a triangle, playing out a destiny that - whatever each of them may think - is shared and melded in concert. Without that, we're left with a film that shows what cinema anime can do - magnificent images, hypnotically timed set-pieces - but also reminds us of what it often misses - the hearts of its characters and their intersecting relationships, gained through many episodes' worth of acquaintance.

This second film improves on its (already impressive) predecessor, with better fights and characterisation; but it skimps on the deeper story and relationships, making the overall plot disjointed. Still, it sets expectations soaring for the third film - anyone who knows where the story's heading can only imagine how it'll look in the bloody beauty of Studio 4°C's spectacle.
SCORE: 4.5/5
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