[EDIT: This post was done under the false presumption that the original Berserk anime was made by Madhouse, when it was actually made by Oriental Light and Magic. Please ignore all the stuff about Madhouse.]
I wish I knew more about the changing states of anime studios. In the past few years, many studios have undergone many changes, and it’s gotten hard to keep track of who’s where and what impact any of it has. This post concerns itself with two studios that have been particularly confusing as of late: Studio 4c and Madhouse.
Madhouse has been around forever, and for the longest time, their touch on a show was unmistakable. They worked in many different genres, but always had a certain way with character design that I can best describe as “solid” or “grounded.” They’ve always been the only studio that can do right by CLAMP designs, and even though those designs are wholly different from the styles of shows like Hajime no Ippo or Rainbow, all of them share that solid, grounded feeling.
Madhouse shows are usually high-quality, and if the animation doesn’t exactly shine, it doesn’t mean that the show isn’t a big undertaking. I once asked the studio head, Masao Maruyama, at a Q&A, about how the studio’s budget is divided among the many shows that they create at once, pointing out that one of the shows they were doing, Souten Kouro, seemed to get the shaft in the animation department compared to their other shows. Maruyama simply corrected me by pointing out that Souten Kouro requires drawing large numbers of men in very detailed armor, and horses and shit, which makes it still a lot of work to draw, even if the movement isn’t as smooth.
This is how I would describe the original Berserk anime produced by Madhouse. There are a lot of shoddy animation and off-model moments, but the show was cel animated with shitloads of large battle pieces full of armor-wearing dudes, and the character designs were incredibly complex. A lesser studio couldn’t have made Berserk even as good as it was, which was about as good as it feasibly could’ve been at the time.
After fifteen years of only getting more popular, Berserk is now seeing a new set of movie adaptations. I’ve heard that apparently they’re supposed to adapt the entire manga eventually, but my sources are iffy at best. I have no idea why Madhouse can’t or won’t do these movies, nor indeed what the hell is going on with the studio. I’ve been told that a lot of their staff has left, which would explain why the’ve been doing little other than shitty comic book adaptations for the past year and a half. I’ve also heard that some of the staff went to TMS Entertainment, which would explain why that studio is doing The Woman Called Fujiko and Zetman, which look like Madhouse shows.
But again, my sources are secondary. I just don’t know what’s going on.
Then we have Studio 4c, which is even more of a conundrum. 4c used to do almost nothing but ultra-artsy shorts. They did a lot of music videos, short films, and joint projects with Madhouse and Production I.G. Years ago, I read an interview with the head of the studio, wherein they stated that 4c only took on projects that it was interested in, that the core of the studio was very small, and that they did a lot of small projects at once, usually working with different directors who came up with the ideas. I have no idea how much of this remains true.
Even though Studio 4c and Madhouse used to collaborate frequently, and both enjoy artsy projects, the studios are almost opposites in terms of style. 4c usually has more fluid designs, in contrast to Madhouse’s solid. Even when Madhouse would go more fluid with a show, like Kemonozume, it still feels more grounded than something like Mind Game or Tweeny Witches from Studio 4c.
However, in the past few years, there’s been a surge of 4c doing stuff that seems more up Madhouse’s alley—and totally failing at it. They did an anime accompaniment to Street Fighter IV (2009) which was absolute shit, precisely because big muscly dudes aren’t something 4c are good at. Read this Ogiue Maniax post for more on how the studio was switched to Gonzo for the anime accompaniment to Super Street Fighter IV, what with Gonzo being second only to Madhouse at animating solid, muscle-heavy characters.
This hasn’t stopped 4c from continuing down this path. Last year, they worked on Asura’s Wrath, which was a game wherein every character looks like Akuma from Street Fighter. Asura’s Wrath mostly consists of interactive cutscenes, which are about giant dudes beating the piss out of one-another in incredibly over-the-top fashion. Lots of people enjoy it for this—meanwhile I found the cinematics to be poorly directed, uninspired shitpiles from the ones that I saw. 4c is also doing the new Thundercats cartoon for US TV, which is again a show primarily concerned with masculine characters, and which also looks pretty damn awkward because man IT’S STUDIO 4C.
Once more, I don’t know if Studio 4c has majorly changed and become a studio that’s all about muscly dude animation now. What I do know is that they are the ones making the new Berserk movies, and while they haven’t fucked the first one up anywhere near the kind of way they fucked up Street Fighter IV, it still feels a bit strange.
Berserk is a fantasy manga, and it really comes through in Kentaro Miura’s art. He draws whispy, fantastical lines, sometimes hard-edged for gritty pulp fantasy, and other times light and feathery like a fairy tale. In the early part of the manga, though, which was adapted in the anime, it was mostly the former.
Madhouse captured this brilliantly. Their character art was rough and gorgeous just like Miura’s, and the hand-drawn aspect served to fuel it as well. More importantly than anything, Kobayashi Shichiro’s superb background art brought the fantasy world to life in its rustic, old-school way that he still brings to everything he works on to this day.
The new movie does not have this. Everything is very clean and polished. Everything is in CG and modern, the opposite of the anime’s rustic feel. The characters are still gorgeous, but they are not harsh or edgy. The world looks more expansive and more real than ever, but it does not look like fantasy.
And this aspect, more than anything, is what bothers me about the Berserk movie. As a Berserk fan, I already know the story and characters, so missing things here and there is no problem. The movie is amazingly faithful to the original anime, so aside from missing some pieces that I really would’ve liked to see (what happened to the first major battle Guts fights with the Band of the Hawk?), the portrayal of the story is solid. I love that the movie brings new realism and better fights to the franchise—but I hate that it isn’t merged with the visual fantasy that gives the series its tone.
[NOTE: For what it's worth, it's not as though the Studio 4c manly show trend is out of nowhere. Studio 4c did Spriggan in 2002, which is probably the best thing of the sort that they've done, though it still isn't as good as Madhouse could've done the same movie. I think it should be more indicative of their style that when they and Madhouse both did shorts for Batman: Gotham Knight, Madhouse did it in ultra-masculine comic book style, while 4c did it in the whispy style that they're best known for.]