Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Berserk: The Golden Age Arc I - The Egg of the King - Give Blood. Lots of It.

Apologies for the delays on write-ups. The situation in a nutshell is that my laptop decided sometime last week that this would be a good time to try and fit its whole figurative fist in its mouth. Which was a cool trick at first...then it couldn't get it out again.

So, after three years of mostly loyal service, I'm in the process of hunting down a replacement. I'm working off an interim computer in the meantime, which brings us to this writeup.

In the few weeks of technological knockout, I've been getting reacquainted with a series. It's a fairly popular ongoing fantasy series known for its parallels to real medieval history, an alarmingly high mortality rate among its cast, and concerns within its fanbase over the idea that the author may be dead before he gets around to bringing it all to an end.

...okay, yes, that IS Game of Thrones, but that's not what I'm referring to. At least that has a contingency plan should something happen to Martin.

It also waited a little while before easing into the more brutal on-screen murder, but that's a discussion for another time.

Berserk has been my go to answer to people saying A Song of Ice and Fire has been taking too long. Besides the now public knowledge contingency plan, we know Martin at least has a project ending in sight, and compared to other titles, has been making good time meeting it. By comparison, Berserk has been running for longer (preceding ASoIaF by six years), is meted out in much smaller increments, and has been taking its time to such an extent that it's become a punchline within the fandom.

Despite that, the story is still generally pretty good. In particular it's done well enough to inspire now two animated adaptations. The first was a TV series that ran in the late 90s, and was later released in the US to become quite the hit here. The second is a much more recent trilogy of films meant to kick-start a revival to adapt the full manga.

Which brings us to now.

The Egg of the King is the first of three films that are designed to adapt the 'Golden Age' arc of the Berserk manga. This storyline, while not the first featured in print, is ultimately the backstory that establishes everything (and, to be fair, they can always recap the 'Black Swordsman' and 'Guardians of Desire' arcs in a single movie after this should they feel so inclined.) Telling a story in prolonged flashback, it introduces us to protagonist Guts (Hiroaki Iwanaga,) a swordsman born of a cursed fate who has been living day to day as a mercenary. After proving himself at a fateful battle, he catches the eye of charismatic mercenary leader Griffith (Takahiro Sakurai,) a seemingly superhuman man propelled by his ambitions. What follows? Well, that'd be getting into spoilers.

Moments like this I almost question if it's even worth the caption. I mean, this one practically writes a ream of material right here.

Anyway, the first film concerns Guts's first meeting Griffith and later joining his mercenary corps, The Band of the Hawk. It then proceeds to work through several of the main events of the first part of the story, most notably their meeting with recurring antagonist Nosferatu Zodd (Kenta Miyake) and Griffith's growing prominence in the noble circles (and the subsequent ire that earns him.)

One of the things that's still surprising to realize about this movie is how short it is. I mean, we live in a culture where nowadays it's almost unheard of for an action movie to come in at under two hours. By comparison, the first Berserk movie clocks in at all of an hour and sixteen minutes. Now it's rare to even find kids films that short.

That said, that brisk runtime is something of a, and I'm sorry to use this term here, double-edged sword for the movie. On the one hand, it keeps it from overstaying its welcome, and the movie keeps its plot at a lively pace. On the other hand, it means in order to cover the ground it wants to, arcs have to be folded over, cut out, or just skimmed over. This is especially pronounced in the first part - after a fairly well-handled and even expanded version of the siege where Guts proves himself by taking down the knight Bazuso, much of the subsequent arcs where his childhood and his early sorties getting to know his fellow members of the Band of the Hawk are all largely left out. The former is actually briefly hinted at care of a series of fever dream flashbacks by an injured Guts - it's an interesting way to try and cover the material (and somewhat thankful in a way of getting around one REALLY unpleasant part of his past) but if one isn't familiar with the original manga, the events are rather hard to make sense of. The last shot of the nightmare especially loses its impact if a viewer has no idea who the man Guts is watching die is. It's still a very effective sequence for dropping hints and just capturing the nightmare feel well, but it's a bit of a hurdle for any newcomers in the crowd. By comparison, the other early sorties are just dropped altogether, and after Guts is officially made a member, the movie jumps to a 'Three Years Later' card.

The second half of the movie has overall better pacing, and to its credit, makes a decent effort try and transition between the smaller plots to give the movie less of an episodic feeling. They don't always work too well, but the effort is at least appreciated, and a few of the new bits are actually pretty good means of maintaining the flow and tightening up events.

One of the better examples from this - both for scene bridging and time compression - comes care of a bridged scene where several nobles are seen discussing Griffith's successes on the battlefield. It's a pretty standard narrative trick - classic Greek chorus style recap - but it still makes for a decent transition events-wise, especially to help establish just how much of an upset his succeeding despite his common lineage is in the eyes of the nobles. Also, the decision to do this scene all through silhouettes is something of a nice touch. Yeah, it's likely to help save on some animation, but it does also help convey the notion that this small group is representing the sentiments of all of the nobility in Midland.

I'm trying my best not to compare this too much to the earlier series, because they're two different adaptations and two different formats, but I have to admit, it's very hard not to. Especially since it seems each picks up the ball where the other drops it.

Direction is a big example of this. The movie isn't particularly bad from a directorial standpoint, and there are a few scenes that I like the handling of in this version- most notably the end of the movie. Choosing to end the film with Griffith explaining his ambitions to the king's daughter, Charlotte, is a good choice to end the movie on - it helps remind us of the kind of man Griffith really is underneath it all, and how much his dreams define who he is. It's a scene that is vital to really helping establish his character, and without giving too much away, the movie sells both the delivery and the foreboding about how far this man might go. At other times in the film, however, the direction lacks something of the same impact the earlier version had. One of the biggest examples of this going to the confrontation with Zodd. Now, I liked parts of how the film handled this scene (most notably Guts's walking past the corpses of his men to the reveal of Zodd) but the scene lacks the overall ominous sense that was hanging over the scene in the earlier version- particularly in its last moments, which are supposed to be a grim bit of foreshadowing for events to come.

(...actually, I'd watch a version of this with Zodd dubbed by the late Randy Savage, but I digress.)

Outside of comparison, one sequence I will give the movie that is unique just to this version actually goes to the opening sequence. The siege the movie starts with is well done, both in terms of building up (the sequence starts with the sounds of combat muted staring at the sky before flying to the ground and the Hellish din of war) and the extent to which it's covered (the effects of the siege are shown at several levels, from soldiers to noncombatants, all moving fast in keeping the chaos of the sequence.)

On the comparison front, one area where this film holds a sizable edge is with regards to animation. I'm not sure how much budget the show had to work with, but I can honestly say its animation has NOT aged well at all. In fact, I was struck by just how often the show relied on stills and pans to get around certain sequences (to compare the two versions of the Bazuso scene, I was struck by the fact the series version apparently meant Guts had signed up to a corps of combat-trained ventriloquists. Everyone talking, no mouths moving.) By comparison, the movie's computer-based animation means they can do a lot more with motion. This isn't to say it's perfect - in fact, the large scale battle sequences tend to be plagued by a sort of stiff motion that causes many of the actions to look more like game cut-scenes, an effect only added to by the 'generic' faces on a lot of the soldiers under their helmets, which look eerily flat. It's like watching Guts fight his way through full-size Lego minifigures. At other times, however, the motions look surprisingly good, and at times it's easy to forget it's not CG animation because certain scenes manage to capture the 2D look well. As an animation style, this has a long way to go, but it's still come quite a ways from, say, the earlier Appleseed movies.

One of the tamer of the many scenes that had to be cut from The Lego Movie to maintain its family-friendly rating.

Alongside the animation, I do have to give this movie some extra points for the effort put into the combat choreography. One of the consequences of the earlier version's corner-cutting in animation was the fact many kills simply amounted to a still shot of a character with their sword drawn and their opponent spraying blood behind them. This time, they're better able to capture the speed and style used in the kills, so the fights become more than just 'swing once, NEXT.' I was actually surprised at some of the techniques they had animated some of these characters using for kills, particularly because many of them made sense in terms of 'you can target areas besides just swinging at the head or chest.' I continue to concede some of the motions are still a bit stiff, but hopefully that will be improved upon as the films go on.

At this point, about the only thing I really have to say sat fully wrong with me on this movie was the soundtrack. Now, Shiro Sagisu's score isn't bad on its own, but it's similar to comparing the scores Leonard Rosenman and Howard Shore did for their respective versions of Lord of the Rings. The Rosenman one is decent, but ultimately a pretty standard issue fantasy movie score. By comparison, Shore's version was a distinct part of its setting, and really helped define the films. The same has happened here - for years, Susumu Hirasawa has been the go-to composer for Berserk's music. First recommended by the original author, his score for the earlier series was, and still is, one of the best features of the show. The man's electronic-based score was a surprisingly good fit for the universe, with its sometimes tribal, sometimes unearthly quality that has since lead to his being called back to provide songs for several tie-in games to the series. We still get some of that feel in his one contribution to this version, the movie's opening theme Aria, but not hearing his style in the rest of the setting just feels off-putting. I know it sounds like an odd grievance to have, and comes across as just being critical of change, but it speaks to just how much his music had become a part of the world. Sagisu's score is still good, but it just does not seem to fit here.

"...and just watch. I'm gonna get blamed for all of this mess."

As far as the cast, I will admit I've only checked out the subtitled version so far (as the cast notes indicate.) The knowledge the dub brought back the cast of the series, which had a good quality dub all around, does speak very well for this, and has me curious to check it out in the future. The sub cast, on the other hand, are all largely recast compared to the original version. In this regard, they have proven well suited for the cast so far. Particularly surprising in the case of Iwanaga as Guts, who is still apparently quite new to voice acting. As the other main lead of the movie, Sakurai's Griffith strikes a good balance between his friendlier side and that underlying ruthlessness that goes with the character's drive. Rounding them out, Yukinari's turn as Casca is good so far, though she hasn't really gotten to do much with the role yet. This will change with the events of the second movie, so I'll withhold my full judgment on her for now.

In all, Egg of the King is a decent bid to reboot the title for animation. It's not a triumph out of the gate, but its failings also aren't so bad as to want to write things off. As is, it's taking the series out on the road for the first time in years, and in that regard, it's running better than expected. There's still a lot of things they can improve, but at this point it's less something to condemn, and more something to hope for in future movies. How far they take this project remains to be seen, but it's still off to a decent, if occasionally shaky, first step.

Whew. Not bad for a short film.

Hopefully, I'll have the laptop sorted out by next week at latest. In the meantime, I'll have another entry lined up for later this week. In the meantime, please bear with the delays, and we'll be back on schedule soon enough.

Till then!

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