Berserk just finished its first season this past friday and, despite its more than rocky start, it was announced that there would in fact be a Season 2 coming in 2017. This is great news for those of us who followed the manga and who love the story of Berserk, but only if the production gets its act together and fixes what went wrong with Berserk’s first season.
First, let me be clear. Berserk is not bad anime per se. Its got a great storyline and excellent voice acting. But the animation/CGI, storyboarding, and music choices turned what should have been a great anime into something mediocre at best. Here’s what went wrong, and what needs to be fixed if Berserk is going to succeed.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with CGI. Let me say that again: There’s nothing wrong with CGI. CGI is a great tool that, if used properly, can create stunning visuals at a fraction of the cost of hiring animators to do the same work. It’s particularly useful for action scenes, as we saw in the second and third Berserk films. Yes, we all know the CGI was terrible in the first Berserk film, but the production team got their act together after this and created some stunning visuals, particularly by blending traditional 2D animation with CGI. In addition to this, there are plenty examples of fantastic looking CGI Anime out there.
CGI isn’t ruining anime and is perfectly acceptable as a medium. So if it wasn’t CGI per se that made Berserk look so bad (and it looked terrible) what was it? To put it bluntly: it was cheap CGI.
CGI is not a magic cost saving tool: it requires time and effort just like traditional 2D animation. The benefit of CGI is that, once you’ve built your models and your scene (don’t forget proper texturing), the front end work is done. Like a traditional film set you can move your camera, move your characters, render the scene and move on. This saves a lot of time and effort compared to 2D animation where each new scene requires at least some new animation (even if you re-use the background you’re still drawing characters from a new angle).
CGI, like traditional 2D animation, needs time and effort (and money) to look good. Bad cell animation is just as bad as its terrible CGI counterpart. The problem is that anime viewers have been spoiled by the truly breathtaking anime that has come out of Japan in recent years, and have not had very good examples of CGI to compare it to. Many fans come to the (wrong) conclusion that CGI is inherently inferior to 2D animation and that the use of CGI in itself ruins an anime. This is wrong.
Take a look at the 1997 Berserk Anime. It looks bad, even for 1997 standards. The rest of the Anime was spot on so many viewers forgive the sub-par visuals. The problem is that the mangaka (manga artist) Kentaro Miura is one of, if not the best, artists living. I’m not talking just for manga. Just look at some of his art:
As you can see, Miura is capable of breathtaking detail in both his depictions of cosmic horror and in otherworldly beauty. To put it bluntly, there is no way for an anime to come even close to Miura’s detail without resorting to CGI. This is the main reason why the character design of the 1997 Berserk series was so very limited, because otherwise the cost would have been unfeasible.
But what we see in Berserk is not good CGI, but bad, cheap CGI. I can only imagine that, with the reduced budget and rushed production schedule, the director had to settle for subpar CGI in order to get episodes out in time. As we’ll see later, there is some evidence to support this.
I used to be an editor. Not a particularly good one, or even a particularly successful one. But I know what I’m doing and I know what the series director, Shin Itagaki, is doing. Many of the cuts in the earlier episodes may have seemed nonsensical, but I suspect that these were done in order to cut away from some bad CGI that could have been fixed if the production schedule hadn’t been rushed.
That being said there are some cuts that the director makes that serve no purpose. As a general rule you should only cut to a new shot when it will add information to the story. If you want to see some truly awful editing you need look no further than the pilot. The sort of MTV style cut every 15 second editing works fine for music videos or action sequences, but much of the storyline is lost or diluted by the shaky editing.
The good news is that the show seemed to get better, especial once Guts got to the Tower of Conviction. I assume some of this was helped by the fact that the vast majority of the series spent its time there and thus more time could be spent on building character models and scenery, just removing the “cut out of bad CGI” need for shoddy editing.
This is where the real issue with Berserk is. The bad CGI is just about watchable, and the editing began to improve as the CGI improved, so we can assume that much of it was to cover up CGI mistakes rather than an incompetent editor, but the storyboarding is where Berserk truly fails.
Storyboarding is key to any visual medium, from designing comics, to films and yes, even to anime that are based on manga. You can’t just cut the panels out of the comic and put them on the storyboard. Telling a story in comics/manga has different requirements than in a motion-picture medium. You have to deal with the movement of the characters, camera and background animation. You have to plan dialogue, sound effects and musical choices that are left mostly up to the reader in the source material.
Berserk has the feel of a show that was never storyboarded. Just with the editing, there are shots that just don’t make any sense. These are the kinds of shots that should be removed in the storyboarding phase, or at least trimmed off in the editing phase.
But what seems to be happening to me is that the director is, rather than going the traditional route of writing a script, storyboarding, and then animating the scenes in CGI, skipping step two and going straight to animation.
Its an easy trick to fall into. Your camera is built right into your animation software and it’s totally valid to play around with the camera while animating to see if different shots will look more aesthetically appealing. But you need to start with a storyboard so you can at least plan out your shots. It just doesn’t look like the director Shin Itagaki is doing that.
The music choices are fine, but they pale in comparison to the masterful soundtrack from the 1997 anime and to the soundtrack from the three Berserk films, particularly the third film covering the Eclipse arc.
The music from those two iterations of Berserk were thoughtful and thrilling, subtle when needed and epic where it was warranted. The music of this series is mostly techno remixes of the soundtrack from the films, or instances of the director shouting “this is so cool” or “this is so exciting”. Listen to the track “Behelit” from the 1997 series:
Now compare this to the new track Ai Yo:
Now listen to “My Brother” from the second Berserk film:
And now the “My Brother Remix” from the anime:
Now there’s nothing wrong with any of these elements. Techno/guitar is totally acceptable as a medium for sound tracks, even for fantasy ones. And I actually enjoy hearing some of the songs from the films used in this anime. It helps to remind us that this is a continuation of the films, by the same production staff and essentially begins right after the third film leaves off.
But listen to both “My Brother” and the “My Brother Remix”. What’s the difference, other than adding in guitar and techno sounds? The timing is totally changed, taking a relatively fast paced song into a racehorse of a track that speeds along at breakneck speed.
One of the issues with soundtracks in the modern age of television and film is that they are used not merely to add to the scene but rather to instill a sense of urgency, dread, suspense, etc to the scene. And I suppose this is both a virtue and a flaw. Idealy you would want each scene to provide the appropriate feeling to the viewer before the soundtrack is added. The soundtrack would add to, and complement, the scene rather than instill the entirety of emotion.
Watch the “My Brother Remix” scene again, this time muted. Now watch this scene, which uses the original version from the second film:
The scene is exhilarating without the soundtrack, but with the audio turned on it is a masterpiece. Toshiyuki Kubooka, the director of the three films, knows exactly how to use the soundtrack to heighten the effect of the scene, to add to, but not instill by itself, the mood.
You should also watch this clip to show you what we were all expecting when the anime was released. Compare this to the “My Brother Remix” clip and you’ll see why storyboarding, editing, camerawork and soundtrack are such an essential part of any visual medium.
Part of the reason why the soundtrack, editing, CGI and storyboarding are sub par is almost certainly because of a rushed, under budget production. But part, in fact probably most, of the blame rests on the shoulders of the director.
You would expect that with all these myriad, rookie mistakes Berserk would have a rookie director who’s just learning his craft. But you’d be wrong. Shin Itagaki has been directing episodes since 2003 and been directing whole series since 2006. He knows what he’s doing, or at least he should.
One of the problems is that, looking at his IMDB page, you’ll see two things. First, Berserk is the first adult oriented, action packed series he’s directed (he’s directed single episodes of such anime but not entire series). Second, this is the first CGI anime he’s directed.
I imagine that, in combination with a rushed production schedule and a sub-par budget, Itagaki was forced to learn how to direct in CGI while trying to get the show out on time and under budget.
Because, looking at his previous credits, he’s a competent director. So surely some of the blame rests on the shoulders of the director, but not all of it. Yes, the director chooses the shots, hires the animators, hires the editors, he hires the people to do the soundtrack, And therefore at the end of the day it is the director who should receive the blame for most of these problems, just as he would receive the credit have the show been an outstanding success.
That being said, that all assumes that the director is both in complete Control of the production, and has the proper budget and timeframe to produce a quality show. And to be honest, it doesn’t seem like the director had either of these. What we saw was, if not a rush production schedule, at the very least a very minimal budget, and a director that was clearly an experienced in a new medium.
So what does all this mean? And how do I feel about season two which is slated for 2017?
Answering in reverse order, I am both hopeful and a little bit excited for season two. It appears that, near the end of season one, the directing improved. And that means that either the director learn how to properly use CGI, The CGI improved enough so that the shaky, almost spastic editing could be set aside for more traditional editing techniques, or a combination of both.
But for all of Berserk’s faults, it still has an utterly fantastic storyline to fall back on. And the amazing art of the manga aside, Berserk is one of the best written manga currently being produced today. And for all of the mistakes that the Berserk anime makes, it’s still stays pretty truthful to the source material (setting aside the first episode, and the exclusion of almost the entire Black Swordsman ark).
So for people who, like myself, were already fans of Berserk, it will be no surprise that I’m going to be watching it until it is canceled. Which I hope doesn’t happen. Instead, I hope the production gets its act together by the time season two rolls around, and we finally see Berserk as what it should be.
As an aside, if you want to know more about the story of Berserk, and why you should watch it, or at the very least read the manga, i’ll be writing an article on just that topic in the coming weeks.