Goblin Slayer’s just like… kinda sad and boring, I guess?

[content warning: discussion of sexual assault in the context of fiction]

Ah, the visual metaphor I needed! The horse is rape, the cart is the first episode, and the desolate world is everything else. Behold the smallness of Goblin Slayer!

[It’s 2am and I can’t sleep because I already slept, all day, on a stultifying migraine. Let’s turn on the blue-light filter and see what comes from this moment of madness.]

I hate having opinions. Of course, that doesn’t to stop me from actually having them… for example, I enjoy irony because it helps me close the paradoxical loop that “hating having opinions” is itself an opinion. Oh, but that loop’s still a problem. Maybe I should revise…

No, I don’t hate opinions so much as I do thinking about them. You have to justify them, and then consider their rebuttals, and sometimes even rebut their opponents in turn. That’s hard work. Sure, maybe you don’t have to do any of that. You could just content yourself with fluttery feelings: “I like this, not that.” But that approach always seems dangerous to me. What if you need to revise an opinion, like I just did? Or what if you hurt someone’s feelings? Or worst of all, what if you reveal your ignorance, if you’re just wrong?

I think Emil Cioran gets it about right in The Trouble with Being Born:

To have opinions is inevitable, is natural; to have convictions is less so. Each time I meet someone who has convictions, I wonder what intellectual vice, what flaw has caused him to acquire such a thing. However legitimate this question, my habit of raising it spoils the pleasure of conversation for me, gives me a bad conscience, makes me hateful in my own eyes.

I have opinions; yes, it’s only natural. But except for the most serious issues, I never feel secure enough in them to approach a considered conviction. It’s not just my own waftiness either: if I fear the flaws in all of my own opinions, I distrust everyone else’s as well. How can anyone have such surety to upgrade a mere opinion to a conviction? Like Cioran says, the question becomes awkward in conversation: I can hardly criticize someone’s convictions if I can’t counter with my own, beyond the ironic one that I can barely have any to begin with. “Bad conscience” indeed…

I suppose it’s good then that I don’t have any strong opinions on Goblin Slayer. When the series first aired for the Fall 2018 anime season, it exploded into the most polarizing piece of televised fiction I’ve ever encountered. After the rape scene in episode 1, most of the people who would have disliked it bombed the series with negative first impressions before dropping it like a live grenade. That uproar left some severe survivorship bias in its wake: the complete reviews that followed offered little but glowing praise. Given the severity of the polarization surrounding the first episode and the series’ own singular focus on killing goblins, neither this world nor Goblin Slayer’s left much room for ambiguity.

But as someone with little tolerance for certainty, I never understood the hype. Goblin Slayer has little positive or negative to recommend it, even when compared to other works in its stale video-game-inspired fantasy genre. To summarize my ambivalent experience: Goblin Slayer‘s just like… kinda of sad and boring, I guess?

How can I put an even greater damper that opinion…

I suppose I should start with the first episode because the extreme graphicness of that rape scene makes it unavoidable. A group of goblins ambush a party of inexperienced adventurers, killing the man (compared to the women, a mercy…), shattering one woman’s bones and raping her, and paralysing and violently stripping another before the Goblin Slayer arrives to save the survivors. Though many have accused the scene of peddling in crass shock value or sex appeal and I understand the arguments about regressive sexual politics, I’m reluctant to condemn the scene despite my own discomfort. Rape is awful and Goblin Slayer depicts as much. At no point does the series insinuate that sexual violence is good (here, I would make a comparison to the benign depiction of slavery in the isekai anime How Not to Summon a Demon Lord).

However, I’m still struck feeling that Goblin Slayer wasted the scene. My problem with the first episode isn’t so much that it depicts rape as that whole series does little to capitalize on the sexual assault themes that form the foundations of its world-building. Though goblins must rape to reproduce, Goblin Slayer makes little to no productive commentary on the issue beyond a tepid, almost tautological “rape is bad, goblins are rapists, thus goblins are bad.” After the initial shock wears off, that’s just like… kinda boring, I guess?

Here, I think I think it’s helpful to compare Goblin Slayer’s rape(s, plural) to the rape of Dr. Melfi in the mafia drama The Sopranos. Melfi’s scene shocked me even more than Goblin Slayer’s. But The Sopranos follows up with so much thematic value: it depicts the horrifying aftermath of sexual assault by showing Melfi’s struggles to overcome her psychological trauma while working through a scathing commentary on the way the American legal system often fails to punish sexual assault. Most crucially though, it all culminates in a serious display of female empowerment: Melfi demonstrates her tremendous fortitude when she declines to use her mafia connections to seek revenge because it would violate her moral convictions. The rapist steals Melfi’s personhood, but she has the strength to reclaim it.

By contrast, what does Goblin Slayer do? It literally carts away the despondent rape survivor from episode one to some kind of convent, never to be seen again. It’s sooo weak, and the main reason why I can’t take praises of Goblin Slayer’s depiction of trauma or PTSD victims very seriously — because it barely depicts them at all.

Cart to a convent, out of sight, out of mind

Goblin Slayer offers a little more depth on the issue for the Sword Maiden’s recovery from her repeated rapes while imprisoned by goblins, but not much. For example, the series shows how she hides her trauma and insecurities under her “lady of justice” archetype. However, the subversion maybe goes too far when it then turns her into a gratuitous flirt to compete with the innocent virgin Priestess for the Goblin Slayer’s affections. The foil amplifies the Priestess’s growing confidence and shows the gradual pollution of her idealistic purity, but in the process the Sword Maiden loses much of her appeal as an independent character. Unlike The Sopranos’ Melfi, she never has an empowering moment to reassert her humanity in a cynical world that doesn’t care. She’s just damaged goods who will live in fear forever after. It’s so… sad.

There’s a critical line expressing Goblin Slayer’s defeated philosophy here: The Sword Maiden says “No matter how many goblins are slain, nothing… nothing changes.” The Goblin Slayer then replies “And I think that’s fine” before promising to kill them anyway. Seriously, that’s fine? Both Goblin Slayer and The Sopranos observe that society does not take sexual assault survivors seriously. But Melfi rages against that injustice and feels a visceral desire to change something, even if she refuses to make a deal with the devil – the mob boss Tony – to do so. By contrast, both the Goblin Slayer and the Sword Maiden accept rape as just a natural, inevitable part of the world. No matter how many goblins they kill, they won’t ever solve the problem. I am a terrible, terrible pessimist who likes to quote Emil Cioran, but that attitude deflates even me.

If that weren’t sad enough, the Sword Maiden’s romantic rivalry with the Priestess does even worse damage to her character by making her a reliable source of ecchi sex appeal. I don’t mind ecchi in anime and won’t criticize other issues like the “Cow Girl’s” titanic, bouncing tits here, but in the Sword Maiden’s specific case, it feels so crass given her status as a survivor. The ecchi builds throughout the Water Town arc, but reaches an an almost farcical climax when the Sword Maiden visits the Goblin Slayer to flirt after the Priestess resurrects him by sleeping naked with his corpse. The scene badly diminishes the supposedly “serious” tone of the series;  I briefly wondered if I hadn’t tuned into a genuine comedy like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord (~boobs recharge mana points~). But more to the point, I never felt sadder watching Goblin Slayer than when it showed the Sword Maiden’s erect nipples press through the light cloth covering her massive breasts. The goblins used the Sword Maiden as a sexual tool, but then Goblin Slayer itself turns around to do the same.

Look at that sadness! But it’s such a thematic contradiction: Goblin Slayer shows how sexual objectification has harmed her, but then does the same for the audience’s titillation.

The resurrection scene highlights another persistent frustration I have with the series: the murder and rape in the first episode establish a dark, “high stakes” tone as a matter of world-building but the remainder of the series falls back on the usual plot armor typical of light fantasies. The Goblin Slayer dies, but comes back to life. I mean come on, don’t make me laugh! The comedy-harem fantasy DanMachi takes death about as seriously! In a different scene, a giant goblin takes a massive, gaping bite out of the Priestess’s shoulder. But just an episode later, she explains that through the medical marvel that is healing magic, she’s made a full recovery. Good for her, but after seeing the healing and resurrection miracles, I never felt threatened on the main cast’s behalf again. Only the side characters have to fear death or dismemberment and well… isn’t that just kind of boring?

The inconsistent tone and inability to establish serious stakes also damages one of the main draws of Goblin Slayer: its apparent origins in pen and paper roleplaying games like D&D. The show is full of references to character sheets, dice rolls by the “gods = players,” and even some self-aware metagaming manipulation of rules (like when the Goblin Slayer recommends killing the giant eye by kiting it in and out of its boss room with ranged attacks, one of the funniest jokes in the show). Mixed with the dark tone, the RPG focus seems to suggest that the narrative will permit a certain degree of arbitrary randomness: even the smartest hero’s best plan might fail, even the strongest hero might die to a child-like goblin, if they just happen to roll a critical failure.

However, the final episode reveals that the Goblin Slayer alone is immune to the fickle capriciousness of the dice because he’s just so determined. Some closing narration in the final episode justifies his special fate with the line: “he was always concocting strategies, thinking, taking action, training, using his wits, and being thorough.” Alright, those are all great qualities, but how does that make him special? Couldn’t you say the same about DanMachi’s Bell Cranel or Sword Art Online’s Kirito (before he settled down with Asuna)? Despite the show’s attempts set up a contrast between the downtrodden everyman Goblin Slayer doing undignified grunt work and “The Hero” fighting to save the world from the glorious Demon Lord, he’s not much more than a typical fantasy chosen one. Little distinguishes him from the usual hyper-focus, shounen power-up protagonist except for his trauma-induced lack of a cheery personality.

And ooohhh that personality becomes tiresome, even to me as someone who loves deadpan. A full half of the Goblin Slayer’s dialogue must consist of grunting “un’s” and curt “sou ka’s” (“yeah” and “I see” respectively). There’s a little comedy in those lines, but no wit — he’s a human brick. Considering that his military-like discipline and life of killing have fully anonymized him, I wouldn’t mind that characterization if Goblin Slayer had a more consistent tone. However, like with the ecchi, his personality becomes almost farcical when a light harem of four girls assemble around him even though his singular focus on killing every goblin in existence leaves little time for hearty trivialities like friendship or romance. He opens up to his party-mates a little bit as the series progresses, but the show confines most of his characterization to exposition flashbacks that keep him emotionally isolated from the rest of the cast.

But oh, don’t worry about his roboticness! Under the helmet that he never takes off until the end, the show assures us that he’s actually a handsome, charming man even though it never gives a full view of his face even without the helmet …and even though the Goblin King had just repeatedly smashed that face into the ground minutes before. But spare me; the anonymization makes him just as much a power-fantasy hero as blank-slate Kirito from the first season of Sword Art Online.

Curb stomps will make any man handsome!

If Goblin Slayer’s titular lead falls flat, the rest of the cast doesn’t do much better. Just consider their names, all direct references to classic fantasy archetypes like “High Elf,” “Dwarf,” “Lizardman,” “Mage,” and “Priestess” (along with “Cow Girl” and “Guild Girl,” gripping stuff). You might expect that a piece of fiction that plays with such literally named characters might attempt a bit of genre commentary with them, but nah, Goblin Slayer just plays them straight. The Dwarf does rock stuff and gets drunk. The High Elf is a haughty but naive archer. The Lizardman dresses like a Native American and communes with his ancestors. Oh and he likes cheese. Is that characterization or a meme? It’s funny a few times, but also it’s about all we ever learn about him, or any of the other characters for that matter. It’s terribly boring.

I’m getting really sleepy now and I’ve offered too many opinions already, so let’s wrap this up with some quick comments on the setting. Beyond the goblins-reproduce-by-rape premise, Goblin Slayer’s uses a guild-and-quest system already present in plenty of fantasy anime like KonoSuba or DanMachi. But fitting the dark tone, Goblin Slayer’s guild operates like some kind of Randian dystopia in which people only act out of a desire for contracted rewards, resulting in a severe market failure: only inexperienced rookie adventurers even try to clean up the goblin mess because the quests to do so don’t pay enough for more effective exterminators. In a previous impression post, I staked the position that I don’t care about realism in Goblin Slayer, so I won’t criticize some of the oddness this world-building. However, consider the thematic implications here:

At a basic level, I suppose the guild system works as a commentary on psychopathic players who care for nothing but loot in fantasy games. But in the context of Goblin Slayer’s thematic allegory using goblins as a stand-in for rapists, it’s so strange. It seems to suggest that few people will even try to stop sexual assault unless they get paid. Goblin Slayer’s solution then is to throw more money at the problem: in the final episode, the guild offers a full gold piece for each goblin head, causing all of the strongest adventurers to rush out to defend the Goblin Slayer’s farm out of greed and a lust for glory. However, this feels like a misdiagnosis of the social problem of sexual assault. Looking back to The Sopranos’s interpretation again, society fails to punish perpetrators because of structural biases in law enforcement that suppress reporting and prevent effective prosecution. It’s not a problem money or sharp acts of vigilante justice alone can solve.

One final point on the idea though: even if we accept Goblin Slayer’s solution to just use money and personal favors to defeat the the goblin army — and by allegorical extension, sexual assault — the closing narration repeats the Sword Maiden’s defeated sentiment from before: “He would probably never change anything.”…except he did just change something by defeating the goblin army! It’s just another awkward contradiction in a long string of thematic misfires. But more to the point, isn’t that awfully sad?

Except for the sheer shock value of the rape scenes, Goblin Slayer never distinguishes itself. I suppose as a matter of basic enjoyment, it offers some schlocky blood-fountain violence, some meme-y comedy like the Lizardman’s love for cheese, and some references that fans of pen and paper RPGs might appreciate. But to return to the DanMachi comparison one more time, you can find all of those things in standard video-game inspired fantasy series, just without any of the uncomfortable baggage attached to the botched sexual assault themes. Though I can’t criticize those themes in the same way many of the outraged first impressions have, I can’t say anything good about them either. Goblin Slayer wastes its dark tone.

If you want a game-inspired fantasy anime, go watch something less cynical like DanMachi, KonoSuba, or hell, even the Aincrad arc from Sword Art Online before giving Goblin Slayer a try. Or, if you want the cynicism, maybe look to a more thematically consistent dark fantasy like Re:Zero first. None of those series are masterpieces, but they’re all so much more fun.

Goblin Slayer‘s just too sad and too boring… a real damper…

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