As a huge Berserk fan, I was cautiously excited when news of an upcoming series broke. After The first PV for the upcoming adaptation was revealed a lot of criticism surfaced of the clunky looking 3D animation which had low frame-rates and bulky looking models that seem to plague a lot of the sub-par animation work done in 3D these days. This is what the 'cautious' part of my excitement was worried about. Now while my fears as a Berserk fan were somewhat assuaged by the second PV, still a lot of people worried out there. 3D animation has gotten a bad reputation around the anime community, and for pretty good reasons. People were worried that a series like Berserk would be ruined by 3D, and while time will tell if the new adaptation will succeed or not, there's actually reason to look forward to the use of 3D in the series. To demonstrate this, first I want to talk about the first two adaptations in regards to their presentation, and what are some strengths and weaknesses of their animation.
The 1997 Series
Many fans remember fondly and were introduced to Berserk by the original 1997 series which followed the Golden Age Arc. And while the original Berserk anime overall does adapts a lot of what's fantastic about the Manga, it's visuals were always pretty disappointing. To state it simply, the original 1997 anime wasn't capable of adapting many of the large-scale fighting sequences into consistent, good-looking animation. For example, one of the most iconic fights in the Golden Age Arc, where Gut's take's on 100 soldiers to make way for Casca's escape, is plagued by still frames. The use of still frames should bother fans of anime because the point of anime is to... well, animate. Though many of the still frames, produced under the helm of legendary art director Shichiro Kobayashi, look beautiful, animation is supposed to put characters and objects in motion, and this doesn't happen as much as it should in this series.
Aside from the still frames,Too many battle scenes resort to characters standing in place. They hack and slash at each other with the same movements over and over as if they're trying to commit these mechanics to muscle memory. Not only was the animation in battle scenes lacking, but there wasn't much in the way of expressive character animation as well. The characters often feel static and rigid and don't move with a lot of life to them. This would be a problem for any series, but for Berserk, which utilizes a lot of body posture and facial expressions to show character emotion, it's especially troubling.
The 2D/3D Hybrid Film Trilogy
Now how does the new film trilogy compare to the original in terms of 2D animation? In many ways, much better. The scene where Guts first awakes in the camp of the hawks is a great example. The animation is detailed and fluid, and you can see this right from the beginning of the film. Look at how life at camp, different soldiers lounging around, tending to horses and cooking. You can see it in how Griffith's hair moves and how his facial expressions react to Guts. The animation does a better job of capturing the subtleties of emotion.
One of my favorite examples of this is during the 100 man slayer scene in the second film. Guts is cajoling the soldiers, and saying that if they tried anything on Casca, Well... they'd lose more than they bargained for. If you look at Casca in the background while Guts is talking, she's not just standing still. You see a range of emotions in her body language and facial expressions. She looks a little bit flustered and caught off guard when Guts begins talking. Then she looks a little irritated, but in the end gives him a little knock on the head, almost playfully. Sequences of this is why anime means so much to me as a fan. Sequences of shots that can show a range of emotions, and clearly illustrate how characters you care about feel are one of the marks of good animation. That in particular feels more like Sakuga to me than just some guy swinging a sword fluidly.
This is a good example of the quality of the 2D animation throughout the movies, which is impressive. The problem of course... is that it's not all in 2D and the 3D animation in the series has some serious quality issues. The models are bulky and don't look great even standing still. In movements, they look slow and clumsy and feel more at home in a PS2 game than in anime. Sometimes, you have characters hand-drawn and 3D figures in the same scene, and it just looks awkward. However, the use of 3D did allow for the battle sequences to look and feel more like the battle sequences in the Manga than what the 1997 series managed. There's so many models on screen in movement that it actually feels like a real battle. This made scenes from the first battle in golden age, through the attack on Doldrey to the eclipse, feel much more frenetic and engaging. They only managed to achieve this when characters or the camera were moving around at a pace where you really couldn't focus much on the 3D figures themselves.
What Can this Comparison Tell Us about the Possibility of the 2016 series?
Now I have a point to make in criticizing the 1997 series so much, and I don't think it's a bad series, but In the broader 2D vs 3D debate, fans often compare something like Redline or the Vampire Hunter D film to the dragon scene in the original Fate/stay night adaptation. There's no doubt that 3D has been responsible for some awful looking animation, but this doesn't mean all 2D is automatically better. The 1997 series, in many places, looks very sub-par. Even anime that is remembered fondly can still have very serious presentation issues. I would say that the Berserk film series, purely in terms of presentation alone, did a better job of adapting the manga.
Moreover, I believed that the 3D animation while having huge flaws, still did help the production team overall. Large set-piece battle sequences are intricate and require a huge amount of time to pull off, and each film required a number of them. The use of 3D, though imperfect, did give the battles a sense of scale that made them feel more like the battles in the Manga than the all 2D 1997 series. And I think it's reasonable to assume this has helped the animators make the 2D scenes so beautiful given the limits of time and budget.
The time constraints of a television series are even greater, where the weakly episode deadlines become an even bigger hurdle for a studio to handle. This is why films and OVA's having higher animation quality is often to case, there's simply more time to put into a smaller run time. One of the reasons 3D is widely used in anime today, is that it helps studio's save time on things like vehicles and background characters, in order for them to focus on other areas. I think it's reasonable to assume that, unless a world-class, all-star team of animators and other production staff all left their studios to work on Berserk, that adapting large parts of the manga would be too big a task to handle without 3D animation. Frankly put, any animation studio is going to need the help from the use of some 3D to pull of a Berserk adaptation for a television series.
The AnimeJapan 2016 PV and Other 3D Done Right
One of the things that gives me some hope about the future of the new adaptation was the PV released during AnimeJapan 2016. Particularly the use of one, very simple, but very clever design feature in the character designs. The Shading on the characters is reminiscent of pencil strokes and gives a very manga-like feeling. It's similar to the way designs are done in the sports series Haikyuu!! and Diamond no Ace, though those are 2D designs, they give off the same manga-esque feeling. This a great feature because though it's in 3D, the designs are reminiscent of hand-drawn figures and makes the 3D models look a lot less glaring.
I hope this is part of a trend of 3D animation improving throughout the anime industry, and one series in particular that stood out to me was the second season of Sidonia no Kishi (Knights of Sidonia.) The first season of Knights of Sidonia was jarring to get through partially because of the 3D animation. Models moved awkwardly and at a sluggish pace, which is again similar to the common criticisms of 3D. However, the Mecha battle scenes in the series were consistently well done. In the Second Season, there was a lot of improvement in the animation and that word 'Improvement' is key in how this relates to Berserk.
Knights of Sidonia Season 2 had more fluid movement which made the characters feel like it had much more life in them. Some of the action sequences, all done in 3D, were absolutely fantastic, and are a highlight of the series. They often featured a huge number of Mech's moving at once and very fluid movements of the camera which gave a very frenetic feel to everything. There was the use of a lot of effects on the screen such as lens-flare, which made you feel like there was a lot to look at. The Lighting was done exceptionally well, always fitting where the scene was set which gave the series an overall better look. But what do cinematic lighting and various effects have to do with animation? What it did was take the focus off of 3D and put into other aspects of the presentation in ways that made the series more visually engaging. This, coupled with improvements in the 3D animation itself, made Knights of Sidonia one of my favorite series in the year from a visual perspective and it's important to note that this is a development in the Second Season.
That improvement makes me think that the more time a studio spends with 3D, the more they can do with it. The 2016 Berserk series is slated for two cours, and the first episode is set to air in July. With what we've already seen in the PV, I think the Berserk series has a solid foundation with regards to build on. Moreover, since the series is set to adapt the Black Swordsman Arc, this means it's likely that the series will get through about half of the Conviction Arc (unless the demon known as filler rears it's ugly head). There is a lot of Berserk to adapt, not counting the parts that Miura hasn't even published yet. What I hope is this translates to a studio that can, as time goes on, always keep improving their 3D animation, similar to the Improvements Polygon Pictures made with Sidonia no Kishi S2
Only time will tell whether the new Berserk series will be successful or not. And while I hope it's worthy of the manga, there are plenty of things that could go wrong. This is the Russian roulette of any adaptation, and indeed every work of fiction, that's even been made. For all we know, the animation could be stellar, but the other parts of the series could be a bust. However, the point of this article is that the 3D shouldn't be an immediate deal breaker for you. There are good things that 3D brings to a project, especially if it's the quality of the 3D we saw in the AnimeJapan PV.
The 1997 adaptation, while overall good, was proof that a project being solely 2D didn't necessarily mean it would look good. Moreover, the film series proved that an adaptation with the use of 3D, even not particularly good CG, could bring positive things to the adaptation. I would love for Berserk to be given a hollywood budget, and have all the best animators and staff members in the industry leave their studio to work on it. This is because Berserk deserves it. But alas, anime works under tighter restrictions, and despite this, a lot of the time, anime comes through with more and more great series. In the end, all we can hope for is that the new series delivers. Berserk fans, we've finally gotten off THE boat, but don't hop off the boat of the new series just yet.