There is, in the abstract, nothing wrong with remakes. A good remake can not only bequeath an improved look and feel on a property that's aged badly, but address all that went wrong the first time around. But there always needs to be a more informed sensibility at work than just the urge to resell an old property to a new audience. And underneath that, there needs to be some sense of how the original's status a product of its moment in time conferred on it things that might not automatically appear in a new version.
You could scarcely have asked for a better poster child for an anime remake than Berserk. Abandoned after one season — and just when it was getting really good, too — the original TV anime adaptation of Kentarō Miura's mammoth fantasy epic plays out like an exercise in frustration for the viewer. Doubly so for the critic: is it possible to recommend a series that you know is great, that has one of the finest character dynamics in all of anime, but ends like a door being slammed on both one's foot and in one's face? (Some of that was by necessity, since the manga was — and still is — ongoing at the time, but that doesn't make the ending any less contemptuously abrupt.)
And yet I did recommend Berserk 1.0 to people, supplying more warning about its incomplete adaptation of its underlying source material than I did warnings about its violence and dark eroticism. Most of the folks I made the recommendations to were other fans, after all; the sight of bare breasts offended them orders of magnitude less than a "To Be Continued" that never really had been. I recommended the show with said caveats because that was, after all, how it had been in turn recommended to me, and by not one but two parties who didn't even know each other.
Even by 1997 standards, Berserk 1.0 wasn't the most technically accomplished production. It's littered with obvious television-level animation cheats. Its full-frame picture looks downright cramped today. The best thing about its English dub are the laughs from the now-classic blooper reel derived from it. The list goes on.
But most everything about the show that's a "defect" is merely a product of the circumstances of its creation, not a design defect resulting from poor choices. If every show that suffered from a low animation budget was automatically out of the running, there'd barely be an anime worth talking about. And it's not as if a bigger budget or a more accomplished studio gives a show immunity to criticism, as any number of lamentable recent examples like Fractale or Guilty Crown can attest.
Shows with low animation budgets share much of the same spirit as well-executed low-budget live-action movies. When you don't have money to throw at the screen, you're forced to be ingenious with what you do have to play with. Berserk's battle scenes, a big draw for the original comic (pun intended), couldn't be rendered in all their sweep and glory in a late-night animated TV series. But being forced to gloss over them meant only that the attention got put right back on the most important part of the story: the three-way struggle of wills between lone-wolf Guts, charismatic plotter Griffith, and headstrong Casca. Character won out over spectacle.
Berserk 1.0's stylistic crudeness works more for it than against it on a thematic level, too. The ugliness and moral squalor of the story — which, again, are the point — contrast all the more against its moments of tenderness and beauty because of that. If you create a story about violent characters in violent times, it feels wrong to put too much polish on it — not only because the last thing you want is to make such unpleasant material palatable, but because then people remember only the polish and little else. Here is a story about (among other things) a man so determined to make an empire of his own that he prostitutes himself to one of the very people he's eventually hired to fight. You prettify something like that at your own risk, and to its credit the TV show does nothing of the kind. It stays true to the material in the ways that deserve most to stick with us.
A too-pretty face
Whereas if Berserk 2.0 has a flaw, or a paradox, it's in how its visuals are so much more lush and expensive than the TV show that they come close to missing the point.
No one disputes that Studio 4°C, the folks who gave us everything from Mind Game to Tekkon Kinkreet, was a good choice of production house for the new Berserk. They sweated blood to make the series look good, and it shows in the lushness and richness of detail that abound in every shot. The common positive adjective I would use is "painterly", but it's a cold digital perfection compared to the rough analog warmth of the original. It's Ingres, not Delacroix (let alone Goya).
And as I watched the first two installments of 2.0, I saw how all this beauty came at yet another cost. The digital rendering used to accelerate much of the animation production for the battle scenes — and even for many character moments — comes at the cost of making the characters in those sequences seem ... well, robotic. They all look uncomfortably like they just stepped off the mini-soundstage of Thunderbirds Are Go -- or maybe the Katsuhiro Otomo-designed Freedom, which suffered from the same problem. Instead of the crudeness borne of necessity, there's a different kind of crudeness — one borne more of the use of a technique that hasn't yet been mastered by its creators.
But I also suspect there would have been no turning back. Not just because old-school painted-cel animation is effectively a dead art (too expensive, no one trained in it much now), but because going old-school for its own sake, especially on a feature-film scale, isn't its own reward anymore. Widescreen, hi-def, digitally rendered images are a lot more appealing to modern audiences, who today enjoy the luxury of not having to watch older shows they find visually unappealing. The lo-fi aesthetic doesn't fly with mainstream audiences; all they see is something that looks crummy. (When I took a film course in college, the number of other students who refused to watch anything in black and white was dismaying.)
Losing it in translation
Even if the visuals are just visuals, the deeper and more pervasive problem is the way one kind of adaptation issue has been traded for another.
TV shows are now demonstrating how well they can tackle novelistic depth of character and long-form storytelling, provided they're not succumbing to all the other things that plague even the best of TV (hardening of the arteries, prolongation of arc movements for their own sake, concept over character, etc.). Since Berserk 2.0 is a movie series, some of those benefits do show up: you can do a lot more over the course of three films than you can with just one, if also while courting many of TV's pitfalls.
But there's no ignoring how Berserk 2.0 suffers from its own grade of story truncation. Some of that is runtime: you can do a lot more in ten hours of TV than you can in, say, six hours of movie. Still, the balance of it always comes down to to creative choices — how long you linger on something, where you elect to put the camera, and whether or not you bother to leave something in at all.
Many of the most brutal, but also vital, aspects of 1.0 were smoothed down, paved over, or eliminated entirely for 2.0. Griffith whoring himself out has been reduced to a footnote; Guts's backstory with Gambino hasn't even shown up at all yet (maybe it's been moved to the third installment, but not having it earlier starves us of crucial character context), and Casca's own origin story has also been shorn down to a few flash shots that imply far more than they describe. And when too much time is spent on things which seem trivial — the ball at the end of the second film is stodgily paced — it's hard to see how limited running time or even budgets are the culprit.
Even the soundtrack feels like it's lost something. Susumu Hirasawa's throbbing, violent score for the original series was so much a part of the experience of the show it might as well have been a character unto itself. 2.0 swaps in composer Shiro Sagisu (Bleach, the various Neon Genesis Evangelion incarnations, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water), who turns in work that's competent but barely one-tenth as memorable. My own prejudice as a lover and collector of soundtracks might well be doing the talking here, but to me that constitutes one less reason to feel 2.0 is the better work.
What the new Berserk does have, far more so than its predecessor, is the opportunity to tell the whole of the Berserk saga, from beginning to whatever end it will have. That by itself makes even the most glaring omissions, even the most aesthetically problematic choices all things I can live with — especially if over time, as the rest of the series is filmed, those things recede in prominence and become part of 2.0 as we have learned to like it, rather than further evidence 1.0 had it more right than we wanted to realize.
We are, after all, talking about adapting one of manga's greatest and most ambitious stories to date, and just being able to see it happen at all is momentous. Because the odds are, after this, there won't be another attempt — let alone another chance to get it right.