Based on the arc of the same name in Kentaro Miura's original manga, the Berserk Golden Age Arc films have adapted and streamlined the series, no doubt in an effort to expose more people to the franchise.
With a ton of ground to cover (volumes 4-13 of the manga) and only three films with which to do it, quite a bit has been sacrificed. Entire mini-arcs and even characters themselves were excised in the name of trying to tell a self contained narrative.
Berserk Golden Age Arc III: Descent is the final chapter in studio 4°C's series of films, finishing the story of the swordsman Guts and the Band of the Hawk.
Descent is also the most unpleasant, rage-inducing film I've seen in quite some time.
Berserk Golden Age Arc III: Descent (Theatrical release)
Release Date: February 1, 2013 (Japan)
[Spoiler warning. The following review spoilers many major events from the first two films. If you haven't seen them yet or have no familiarity with the manga, I would suggest skipping to the final paragraph]
A year has passed since Guts parted ways with Griffith on that snowy day. Led by Casca and constantly on the run from the Midland army, the Band of the Hawks is plotting a rescue mission to save Griffith from his captors. One night, a group of assassins catches them off guard, and a bloody battle for survival begins. Just as things are beginning to look grim for Casca, Guts reappears and saves the day. With the Band of the Hawk in shambles and Casca determined to return things to normal, Guts rejoins his friends and embarks on a mission to save Griffith.
Coming in at a running time of 120 minutes, Descent is the longest of the Golden Age Arc films. Nearly two thirds of the movie is spent on rescuing Griffith and the Hawks' reactions to having their leader back. Most of the major beats are all still here, but if you were expecting a 1:1 adaptation, you'll want to adjust your expectations. Many smaller character arcs were axed in favor of placing the focus on Griffith and the eclipse. Disappointingly, the blood thirsty mercenary, Wyald, has been completely cut from the film, which makes Griffith's rescue that much less harrowing. Though this didn't come as much of a surprise, I was nonetheless disappointed.
I understand that it would have been impossible to fit much of this content into Descent, but that doesn't make the edits any less frustrating. The second act suffers from some weird pacing as the it builds toward its crazy climax. On the plus side, this stretch of the film has a lot of really solid character moments, especially for Guts and Casca.
In my review of Golden Age Arc II, I noted that the heart of the film was the growing relationship between Guts and Casca. Descent also places them at the center of events, though this romance is soon dirtied by the reality of Griffith's condition and Casca's struggle to let go of her own feelings. Griffith's return is marked with ominous signs that not everything is as it would appear to be. Brief shots of his eyes watching Guts and Casca interact do a good job of expressing his thoughts without actually giving him any real dialogue. Impressively, Griffith's overwhelming silence in the first half of Descent speaks more about his inner thoughts than either of the previous films did. While the supporting cast doesn't get nearly as much screen time as the three leads, they each at least get memorable final scenes. Judea in particular stands out for having a strong overall arc throughout the entire trilogy.
The eclipse sequence is where Golden Age Arc III descends into pure, unadulterated madness. Without spoiling anything specifically, it is essentially nonstop terror all the way up until the end credits. Everything in this series has been building toward this singular, tremendous even, and it doesn't disappoint. Blood is shed, characters are defiled, and extremely upsetting things happen onscreen. This is not a film for the squeamish, though if you've stuck with the films for this long, you already know what you're in for.
Descent's climax is dire, hopeless, anger-inducing, and simply depressing. To that end, studio 4°C has a narrative success on their hands. I felt bad for the characters, and it was difficult to watch what fate had in store for them despite my already knowing the outcome. For the record, I caught the R-15 version in theaters, which meant there was some censorship during certain scenes. In terms of violence, it didn't seem like a whole lot had been cut, though human genitals were covered by shadows.
Studio 4°C once again utilizes a combination of traditional 2D animation and CG techniques to bring the world of Berserk to life. Unfortunately, it's about as hit or miss as their previous attempts. Typically, the CG work looks fine when used on monsters and characters who are at a distance. Much of the CG in the eclipse sequence is also fairly solid, lending the strange creatures an otherworldly feel. In particular, I found that the blend of 2D and 3D animation to work especially well on the four members of God Hand.
Descent's animation quality suffers whenever entire characters are rendered in CG during closeups. This problem is further accentuated when following cuts proceeds to feature hand drawn characters, creating an awkward juxtaposition of styles. The inconsistent aesthetics are constantly clashing with one another. When it works, it works well. When it doesn't, it tears you right out of the experience.
On the flip side, the 2D animation is beautiful. Subtle character animations go a long way, especially in Griffith's case. The finale, when not indulging in CG, is strikingly disgusting in how detailed and painfully everything is drawn. There's one particular moment in the last fifteen minutes of the film that was difficult and uncomfortable to watch, largely because of how realistic the 2D animation was.
Veteran composer Shiro Sagisu (Rebuild of Evangelion, Nadia) turns in another strong score in line with the previous two films. Descent is particularly heavy on the dark, heavy, choral themes, which makes sense considering how weighty the whole back half of the film is. I wouldn't necessarily call it memorable, but Sagisu's work on this trilogy has been nothing if not consistent.
Fifteen years after the original TV anime adaptation, studio 4°C has nobly tried to bring the Berserk franchise back into the public eye. In retrospect, I don't think anybody will ever make the argument that the Golden Age Arc films did a better job than the TV anime of telling the tale of the Band of the Hawks. That being said, I don't think 4°C ever had to do that in the first place. As a streamlined version of the Berserk tale, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the Golden Age Arc film series. It's a solid way to dip your toes into the franchise before diving head first into the superior manga.
Like the first two films in the series, Berserk Golden Age Arc III: Descent is solid entertainment, despite the sometimes awful CG animation that threatens to ruin the experience. Just make sure to go in knowing that there is no happy ending to be had here. Characters will be raped, blood will be shed, and you will feel extremely uncomfortable by the time the end credits roll.
7.0 – Good. Films or shows that get this score good, but not great. These could have been destined for greatness, but were held back by their flaws. While some may not enjoy them, fans of the genre will definitely love them.
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