Written by Jonathan Wojcik
BERSERK: The Troll Caves!
Created by Kentaro Miura, Berserk is a long running Manga series I've enjoyed checking up with from time to time for Miura's outrageously inventive monster designs and seemingly extensive zoological knowledge; we've seen demons modeled after hagfish, surinam toads and even springtails in the series thus far. It's just, well... not a series I can recommend for just anybody, unless you have a strong stomach for fantasy series where innocent people get ravaged by barbed demons and children are eaten alive in the name of darker and edgier entertainment. If you're more like me and you only care about the character design side of things, I might consider reviewing a large number of monsters from it in the coming year, but for now we'll just test the waters of Berserk as part of my Halloween monster review marathon, specifically with my favorite of its many locales, the troll caves!
"Trolls" in Berserk are one of those darker and edgier things that warrant a serious warning if the series looks enticing to you thus far. They only reproduce by impregnating humans who are subsequently eaten alive by parasitic trollbabies, a process we're shown brutally and graphically from start to finish. Naturally, they also eat babies, but for some reason Miura leaves that visual more ambiguous, so a mass troll assault on young women is cool with Berserk, but eating a few babies is too far, somehow. It's too bad they have to leave such a gross taste in all my mouths (even the big one), because they look so gosh-darn lovable, with faces somewhere between a shark and a mole rat. We also have the ogre, that big weirdo in the background, which is actually formed by hundreds of trolls melding together. Upon defeating the ogre, our heroes follow the surviving trolls back to their lair to do some pest controll (ha ha my jokes are awesome) and find quite a bit more than they were expecting; a whole mesmerizing biome of supernatural vermin we are going to look at in excruciating detail.
The first peculiar being we're treated to is this comically disquieting little goblin, a ludicrous waddling egg-head with flapping ears. It proves completely harmless, easily spooked and so clumsy it just falls over when it tries to run away, but serves as a taste of the strangeness to come, and I always enjoy when "evil" creatures take on such pitiful, silly forms, not unlike the demons painted by Bosch. It makes sense for "dark" magic to produce a lot of things that aren't necessarily formidable, but kind of degenerate, sad and just...not meant to be. More "wretched" than "menacing."
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Entering the caves proper, we get our first of several full-page spreads showing off the cave's fantastic fauna, and yes, I am going to single out and discuss everything in all of them, though I may skip some of their initial appearances when they show up later in better detail. You can click this image for a much larger view, and I recommend doing so in a new window so you can read along and play a little "Where's Waldo" with each creepy crawler as we review them!
First, let's marvel as that fat, newt-like thing with the face of a grumpy old man. Another non-threatening but distressingly unnatural being, easily one of the creepiest things you could hope for while shining a lantern around a dark tunnel. What's he so grumpy about?
They're squid-like and they're maggot-like, so let's call them "squaggots." That sounds nice and horrible. Those could be eyes lining their sides, or just spots of luminescence. They also look a little like sea cucumbers, but I couldn't think of an unpleasant enough portmanteau of maggot, squid and cucumber.
This large creature seems like it has a distinct head and neck ending in human-like lips, but it also has a huge eye on its "back," so the mouth might be more of a trunk or proboscis. We can't see what the rest of it looks like at all, but I want to think it has a lizard-like body for whatever reason.
We can see both slugs and snails with these elf-like heads and humanoid arms, and we'll see more of them later. Again, I love these things that are just fanciful and harmless, but still products of "evil." It makes them just a little disturbing, a little sad, and a lot adorable.
A simple "stalked eye with spider legs" design, which is something we've also seen in Monsters Inc. COINCIDENCE? Yes, obviously, but I choose to say no. I'm pretty sure this is the same creature we can see retracted into hollow knots throughout the massive tree roots in this and some other scenes.
This thing reminds me of a moray eel, a frogfish and a wolf fish, I guess because of its wide mouth and love of dark holes. It probably has a long, sinuous body so it can shoot out and snap up prey like eyeders and salamen, and I'm betting its glowy eyes continue all the way to its tail.
We'll see this one again, but it'll never get much clearer. All we know is that it has a human face, without any actual eyes even where it appears to have eyes, and a whole lot of squiggly roots or tentacles. It blends right in to surrounding roots, but really seems to be a distinct being.
We learn that trolls and the various slimy things they share their tunnels with are produced by the Qliphoth, actually a concept in Jewish mysticism, a metaphysical realm of spiritual impurity, so not always "evil," but encompassing a lot of negativity.
Is this not the gloomiest furry spider guy you've ever seen? I like how subtle its human qualities are, the simple shading around its eyes and the presence of a nose enough to give it an uncanny level of anthropomorphism. Uncanny, but also begging to be cuddled and reassured.
These look a lot like planarian worms, but with one creepy, human-like eye. It's almost like they're just eyes, with just enough excess skin to sort of have a body to creep around with.
We see a lot of these "mushrooms" with faintly human faces at varying stages of growth, some more pained than others. Some a lot more phallic than others. What does an immobile growth need a face for, anyway?
Similar to the "salamander" is this man-faced frog, though not quite as nightmarish...or maybe they're just slight variations on the same creature.
These look a little like stick insects, but you can tell they're more human (fairy?) than insect. They're only seen among the tree roots with faces, so I'm going to pretend they're related. Maybe the "stick people" eventually turn into root-faces, or just crawl around fertilizing root-face spores.
This has the appearance of a slimy embryo, so you know it's one of my favorites. The rest of it trails off into gelatinous, ghostly tendrils, and it seems to be floating through the air, though it's hard to tell for certain.
The funny thing about this bug with the human-like face is that except for the blind lumps over its eyes, it looks exactly like the attempts at "cute" insects you see in some cartoons and books for preschoolers, uncanny valley face and all.
This simple slug-like form with luminous stalks will appear in a few other places. They don't have any faces, heads or other apparent features, but probably have mouths on the underside. Probably unpleasantly human ones.
I enjoy these clusters of faces and arms, especially how they might not even really be "faces" at all, since the eyes and mouths seem more like oozing splotches of blood!
Ringed with spooky eyes, these look and function just like sea anemones, just with lots and lots of fingers instead of tentacles.
Another slimy "ghost," with a more developed and therefore less adorable body. It seems like it's actually a lot tinier than the embryo-like one.
Why have I never seen any other multi-layered, multi-faced jellyfish-like monster? It's a great idea.
You can never go wrong with a fly-winged eyeball, unless you make the dire mistake of not calling it either a "fleye" or "flyball."
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Finally, we come to the first of a few big scenes positively loaded with awesome stuff to find!
This predator is structured a lot like a deep-sea anglerfish, but it's a human-like nose that's been modified into an antenna. It's hard to tell if it works more like a lure or just a gasping hand, or possibly both. The multiple eyestalks protruding from below the mouth is a cool feature.
There are several one-eyed rays flapping around, each with rows of insectoid limbs and no apparent feeding orifices, unless they're sustained by light or magic or something.
These have an interesting body plan, spider-shaped, but the "body" is a mollusk-like head with a single eye, and some sort of stinger-tipped tentacle is likely their feeding mechanism.
These are one of the cave's more subtly disturbing creatures, almost nothing more than crawling pairs of lips. In an earier panel, they can even be seen to have teeth!
These one-eyed jelly things actually appears to be a monster we've seen earlier in the series, the "incubus," which apparently just rests on sleeping people and consumes their dreams. Whose dreams are they eating here? What does a mushroom with kind of a face on it dream about? Having more of a face??
This little, eyeless dinosaur mouth with bendy legs feels a lot cartoonier than even the other absurd creatures here. It wouldn't even look out of place in a Mario game, or something. These are compliments.
I love the thin, snaggly-toothed jaws on this long, spindly predator, and its feathery, luminous antennae are beautiful. I kind of wanted to think up names for all these monsters, but I couldn't come up with many that I liked...except that when I look at this, I hear the word "fangsnide."
Adorable! I can just see this brain puttering along on its stubby little toes like a wrinkly, wet ladybug.
These are likely inspired by predatory deep-sea tunicates, but I wonder what they eat? Like their marine counterparts, I suppose they could just wait for little things to blunder into their mouths, though it's the ocean's current that usually makes this strategy viable. Maybe they lure things in with a pheromone.
Okay, these look a whole lot like walking, severed penises, which I wouldn't put past Berserk anyway. If you stomach reading it you're gonna see a fair share of weird monster dicks. These also kind of remind me of the early misinterpretations of Hallucigenia.
This multi-eyed axolotl-like creature almost feels out of place among all these fleshy land-corals, bugs and body parts. Remarkably ordinary. The interlocking, fleshy protrusions of its lips are interesting. Not quite teeth, but something a few odd real-world fish possess.
These jagged mouths on branching stalks are extremely plant-like, but in a sunless environment we can presume they're more animal, fungus, or perhaps parasitic on the tree roots.
Another rare vertebrate form, almost resembling the head of a carnivorous fish with thin, needle-like limbs. When I look at this one I can only think "snipe." There are real animals called snipes, but the term is better known as a made-up, nondescript creature and I feel like it could get away with being this particular thing. It's just...snipey.
Another stalked thing with "jaws," or maybe they're just pincers. They almost look like patches of arthropod legs growing like blades of grass, my dream lawn.
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Not much new in this shot, but some great close-ups of a few we're familiar with. If you're like me, you're too drawn to the mushroom faces to even notice the corpses, which make the goofy little guys forty times as nightmarish.
A pretty decent blend of insect and fish, similar to some of the weirdly jointed ostracoderms of prehistoric seas. Did you know it's even been hypothesized that some of them could crawl onto land with their jointed fins, often looking an awful lot like crab legs? It's probably a really unscientific hypothesis, but it's still a cool one to imagine.
Eye stalks and vertical lips are kind of old hat at this point, but they come together pleasingly here, another sort of "anemone-like" form, though it probably doesn't use its eyes to grasp prey.
Little more than the suggestion of a nose turns this segmented worm into something with a "human face," a trick Miura is pretty good at if you haven't noticed by now. It's also centipede-like, but the "legs" just appear to be parapoda ending in clustered feelers.
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Finally, we come to the last real view we have of the cave creatures, and the scan that first turned me on to this Manga when it was posted many years ago on the blog Monster Brains.
Another brain with bug legs? They spoil me! We saw it before, cloaked more in darkness, but now we can really appreciate how much it resembles a Fiend Without a Face from the movie of the same name, albeit with limbs like a spider-crab instead of just tentacles. Maybe this is the mature form of that cute, fat brain-beetle from before?
We saw a tiny little baby version of this earlier, and now we know how formidable they can get. A worm-like being split almost totally down the middle by its mouth is a design concept I've seen a couple other places, but this is one of my favorite examples. You can lmost miss the fact that it has centipede-like legs, too.
Okay, so some of these organisms are just cheap imitations of sessile marine life. That's okay, I do the same thing. These are just deep sea tube worms with very little embellishment, but tube worms swaying around in a cave instead of the ocean is still pretty awesome.
More "cave reef" creatures, this time little "clams" with fanged shells and delightfully expressive eyes. You don't know how badly I always wished bivalves existed on land. I don't know why, I just think an entirely air-breathing dirt-clam would be one of the coolest pets ever.
Another clearer shot at something we saw in the shadows thus far, the human faces staring off these otherwise natural looking crustaceans are fairly frightening. Knowing Berserk, the faces probably have their own consciousness but can't control their lobster-crab bodies and live an existence of perpetual, silent horror, so, another of my dream pets.
Not to get repetitive, but this one was in the first scene, too. One end of its body is this vertical row of eyes, while the other end is just a singular eye on a stalk. There's no telling which one is the front or back, if that even applies here. Maybe it's like a flatworm, and the mouth is exactly half-way down on its underside anyway.
The corpse-gnashing lizard looks straight out of an old medieval dragon painting, an Ultraman episode or one of those lovable inaccurate rubber dinosaurs I used to amass as a kid, none of which are the usual style for Berserk, but never unwelcome.
One of my favorite designs in the whole series, these are clearly based on daphnia or "water fleas," but with human-like skulls and rib cages, big fishy eyes and fat tentacle legs. Perfection. I also enjoy how their mouths are just small, perfectly round holes, a very eerie look when combined with the human teeth visible through the transparent skin.
For another fun game, go back and see if you can find the itty bitty baby one of these!
For another fun game, go back and see if you can find the itty bitty baby one of these!
There are a couple more creatures inhabiting the troll caves, but nothing to write home about, and you won't get a good look at them without also getting a closer look at naked corpses than we even have already. I'll just leave you with a look at the handsome hero who steps in to destroy the trolls once and for all:
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