Sun-woo, elegant of dress and speech, is ostensibly the manager of a four-star restaurant — but we know there is more without being told as such. One night he’s summoned to one of the party rooms to “deal with” an unruly client. He unhurriedly finishes his dessert, adjusts his cuffs, walks downstairs, and politely asks the thuggish man and his cronies to leave. They do not, and that serves as a trigger release: he leaps up onto the table, thrashes them all into submission, and sends them back home to their gangster boss.
Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee, of JSA and 3-Iron) has been working for seven years as an enforcer for “President” Kang, head of a large Korean crime syndicate. He is still young and handsome, and from what we can tell he was recruited directly into this job without much in the way of formative experiences in the real world. He has never had a real vocation, never fallen in love, and never had his loyalties tested in any significant way. For all of his brutal worldliness he is still in some ways unformed, embryonic — and A Bittersweet Life is, more than anything else, about Sun-Woo growing past his protected world and becoming autonomous, however briefly.Read more
Still dazzled by Berserk, I went back and had a closer look at the other major example of an anime that draws on Western-style fantasy. And it’s funny how Record of Lodoss War, or Lodoss as it’s more commonly simplified, is in many ways a lesser parallel to Berserk. Both deal with the idea of human life in the arena of grand ambitions, about whether or not any of us are truly in control of our destinies, and how that affects the fates of nations. Berserk takes these ideas seriously and sees them through to the bitter end. Lodoss uses them for window dressing, a way to spice up a fundamentally routine story that isn’t motivated by anything bigger than the need to touch all the bases on the way home. For most people this isn’t a bad thing, but I wanted more.
The Lodoss mythology was derived from a tabletop roleplaying game setting created in Japan, later adapted into a series of novels and a manga (also published in English). If memory serves it might even have been the very first fan-subbed anime I ever saw: someone loaned me a rather blurry VHS tape with the first four episodes on it, with English titles added by hand courtesy of the then-cutting-edge Amiga’s video compositing system. I enjoyed it, but at the same time I felt like I was watching a missed opportunity in some ways. Now, over a decade later, I think I can put my finger on what went wrong: there’s no greater purpose in the story that isn’t already part of the genre it’s in. It can’t help but be a retread.Read more
Berserk does the one thing I almost never see in epic fantasy: It takes the full implications of its setting seriously. Even The Lord of the Rings, for all of its scope and careful detail, feels too much like a fairy-tale for the darker elements of the story to have any gravity. Berserk is as blood-spattered, violent, and grim as a tale deserves to be when it is set in an era of feudal warfare. It knows that life in such a time is, to quote Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short; that men will do anything in their power to live a little longer than the opposition; that history is written by victors and studied by everyone else; and that our world is built thanks to the millions of dead who came before.
It’s also an incredibly exhilarating show, and for exactly all of those reasons. Granted, it’s hard to make any movie about war — whether it’s the Vietnam War or a wholly fantastic conflict — without making it entertaining, and thereby making war itself seem like fun. François Truffaut pointed this out time and again, which was probably a big part of the reason the anti-war Johnny Got his Gun was one of his favorite films. Berserk makes war seem exciting, but also never shies from the fact that (as Barrows Dunham put it) in war one’s lands are devastated, one’s friends get killed, ones family gets killed, and you get killed yourself. So what kind of man would possibly want to make a living out of it?Read more