Friday, February 20, 2015

Lessons from Anime: Berserk

So… let’s talk about endings.

Last week I did talk about the importance of earning your ending over at the Operation Awesome Blog. Check it out here. During that post I talked about earning a happy vs. sad ending. Happy endings don’t work if you’re not worried they won’t be attained. Sad endings don’t work unless you have hope that the characters might overcome the odds.

In fact, that is why sad endings are so soul crushing. Because even though, in the back of your head, you know things aren’t going to end well, you just REALLY want them to. Because you love these characters and they’ve gone through so much and they were SO CLOSE to achieving greatness only to screw it all up with one stupid mistake and now there are demons everywhere and everyone you love is dead.

I’m talking about Berserk of course.


Berserk is a glorious little anime from the 90s with a well-crafted story and animation so hideous that you’d swear you’re watching a slide show. That’s not even a little harsh. The animation is not good. But the story and characters and music are so rich and complex that really it all makes up for it. You get used to the speed lines and over the top blood splatters after a few episodes as you get sucked in to the plight of these characters. The Band of the Hawk rises from a common mercenary band to the most important army in the country of Midland, through the leadership and ambitions of the charming Griffith, and the ridiculous brute strength of Guts,

This is a rain of despair

Of course I only wish I could say it was for the better… cause, you know, it’s a tragedy.

But I went into this anime knowing that. I went into Berserk knowing that if I let it take hold of my heart, my heart would end up crushed. But it just felt like things were going so well. I wanted to believe that everything would work out. It almost tricked me into thinking it would.

This, you see, is how you build up to a proper tragic ending. By making your audience want happiness so bad and then denying it to them. Berserk had all the making of the perfect example of a well built up tragic ending.

Except it didn’t end. It left on a mortifying cliffhanger. A ‘read the manga’ cliffhanger. And then never continued.

It’s hard to describe this ending without spoiling it, but picture you’re writing a bike over the rolling landscape of the plot. Sometimes there are highs, sometimes lows. It’s quite a roller coaster. As you climb the very highest peak, you get the feeling it’s going to be a long way down. That’s fine though. There will still be closure as you reach the final valley of this show. And then you can get off the bike and find another anime. I’ve watched tragedies before that leave me feeling empty but also content. The endings of tragedies, if they’re good, might be sad but they still feel right.

But this is not one of those animes. You see, as you start to ride down the final hill, momentum picks up and instead of coming to a valley you crash straight through the ground and through the earth, screaming all the way, and the bike is on fire and you are on fire and everything is on fire and you are in hell. 
And then the bike ride just… ends. You don’t get off the bike. It just… explodes. And leaves you with a To Be Continued sign that will never make good on its promise.

It’s hard, in light of this, to look back on the show as a rewarding experience. A fun bike ride of ups and downs. You are scarred for life and the show didn’t even have the decency to earn what it did. It didn’t end. It stopped and left too many questions unanswered. There is no reason they couldn’t have given the show a proper ending separate from the manga. It had all the buildup but screwed up the payoff in a mortifying way. Therefore it can’t be nearly the masterpiece of story telling it should be.
Bottom line, if you’re going to crush your audiences’ heart… make sure you do it right. Do it in a way that will keep them coming back years later to watch the show again. Endings matter. Do them right.

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