While everyone’s busy fighting the darned Russians or North Koreans or Iranians, our society is facing a graver, invisible menace. An army of nu-males, facial hair sparse and testicles receded, gurgling soylent and threatening our way of life from within. They roam the lands in hordes, chanting strange rites as they wave the Nintendo Switch controller: “sweaty”, “yikes”, “maybe, just maybe”, “let’s unpack this”, “doggo”, “wifey”, and of course “I’m fine with my girlfriend cheating on me with that guy from Tinder because she needs to have her needs met and loyalty is but a construct of the cisheteropatriarchy.” Only one man stands against them, armed with nothing but the memes in his mind and the black pill in his heart:
St. BlackOps2Cel Goblin Slayer.
Ahem. The first episode of Goblin Slayer did not leave a very strong impression; it is also unrepresentative of the series overall. However, by the third, I was already hooked and craved to see more. What’s unusual is that I couldn’t exactly identify why I enjoyed it as much as I did; though it did some things right, they weren’t spectacular. Even in sheer edginess, I’ve both seen and written far worse.
Fantasy settings are aplenty, even if they’re grimdark. Admittedly, Japan has been regurgitating the same formulaic isekai blandness for a few years now: faceless male protagonist, impoverished world-building, comically overpowered cast, happy-go-lucky atmosphere and varying degrees of harem. My genocidal feelings towards isekai are public and rest assured they have not abated. Goblin Slayer has a very opinionated, if relatively flat protagonist, and it most certainly isn’t isekai; the fluffiness and the harems are a different story.
With a pilot episode full of gratuitous cannibalism, rape, murder, and genocide—lacking only in paedophilia to complete a five-pointed star—you’d be justified in predicting it is the Warhammer 40,000 of anime. Surprisingly, you are wrong: once the series gets going and more characters are introduced, their interactions are heart-warming and genuinely interesting in their displays of cultural exchange. This is not to say that there isn’t blood and gore, but for me the primary focus and allure of Goblin Slayer are the adventures of Goblin Slayer’s party and the character development they enable.
You might think this clashes tonally, but it ends up working in its favour: building up something good and virtuous gives weight to the threat of its destruction. If Goblin Slayer was an unending stream of suffering, you’d get desensitised very fast, and the supposedly “threatening” encounters would lose all meaning. Minor tonal swings are essential for properly calibrating the stakes of the story, and to that end Goblin Slayer is very effective; serious scenes are improved from what must be protected, and light scenes carry a visceral air of relief.
You will soon notice every character in Goblin Slayer has a generic name, such as, well, “Goblin Slayer”. Goblin Slayer draws inspiration from tabletop role-playing games, and in fact it’s almost certainly the most faithful depiction of classic tabletop role-playing in anime form, from the way spellcasting works to Goblin Slayer’s choice of weaponry—some rulebooks outright forbid spears in dungeons, though they would be ideal for taking out the child-sized goblins from a safe distance, and the series adheres more to gameplay conventions than strict realism.
Goblin Slayer isn’t just about the adventures of this group of adventurers, but a reference to all the other adventures you’ve had during your childhood. A lot of its tropes, especially the edgy ones, are in fact derived from classic works of western fantasy, for example the Wheel of Time, though the specific application to goblins is likely its own innovation: there are no female goblins, so they must reproduce through other compatible species like parasites.
The more I watched of the series, the more I grew to love the world and the characters it had built. The flat and stoic Goblin Slayer turns out to be a man struggling to cope with combat-related PTSD, and as the series goes on his gradual opening up, his blossoming ability to trust and rely on others, becomes a focal point for me, and one of the things I enjoyed the most. Though he isn’t a pushover, he doesn’t win because he can overpower his enemies, but because of his superior planning, his optimal use of the means available to him.
He is surrounded by a very colourful, easily identifiable cast, starting from his party members, and extending all the way to minor or background characters. Coming fresh off the last season of House of Cards, and how it devolved so many of its characters to memes, Goblin Slayer’s achievements are all the more surprising: its characters start off as memes by design, because they’re all fantasy tabletop gaming stereotypes, but they develop into genuine characters sometime during the blink of your eyes, seemingly without effort.
It’s not like Goblin Slayer spends a massive amount of time in exposition or narrating the characters’ origins or motivations. Their characterisation is through their interactions, the tone of their voices and their body language, a trail of crumbs leading up to their souls. I am amazed by how it pulls it off with supposedly irrelevant slices of life; a party dining around campfire; Cow Girl preparing breakfast; the way the Guild Girl’s face shines bright when she sees the man she loves.
First episode aside, this atmosphere remains consistent for the rest of the series; the novels’ cynical narrative tone is translated perfectly with moody colours, and the hints of Goblin Slayer’s face under his helmet through a red light cast from his iris. It’s a very faithful adaptation by people who are trying very hard to do it right, preserving not just the events and the characters but also the texture of the prose in animation. Their effort is appreciated and I wish western adaptations of novels were half as intelligent.
Be that as it may, corners have been cut; the animation as animation is nothing to write home about. Goblin Slayer’s complex armour is often rendered in 3D to ease the drawing process, though there are hand-drawn stills, and boy, are human hands superior. That said, it isn’t nearly as jarring as the likes of Berserk—it definitely feels like you’re watching anime the whole time through—it’s just that it needed a bit more polish. Action-packed scenes are also hit or miss, primarily the result of poor direction rather than budget constraints. Were it not for the soundtrack, important fight scenes would lose most of their impact, and on that note it is very good work, from the opening theme to the atmospheric pieces.
It took me up to episode 10 to realise why I enjoyed watching Goblin Slayer as much as I did. Though I’ve been praising it, it’s not like it has especially awesome characters, plot, or world-building. If that’s what you’re interested in, there’s tons of things that do it far better. What it excels at is pacing: every scene has the exact amount of time required for it to breathe, and neither drags on for too long nor is cut too short. More macroscopically, episodes iterate between relaxation and tension to keep you hooked while also building up to something magnificent. The 10th episode in particular made me feel like I was watching one of the better episodes of House of Cards with how it ended, leading to a climax all the previous “relaxed” episodes had built to; this story has definitely seen more than one draft.
Some people accuse the series of being a fascist allegory. Narratively the goblins are more intelligent (and more evil) zombies, and play the role of an acceptable target for the audience and the characters, as well as a common threat that binds them as a group. Unless you’re willing to declare fascist all the variations of zombies, skeletons, demons, and other cannon fodder that finds its way to fantasy settings and especially games, I don’t think the accusations hold any weight. Since the series lacks a strong, identifiable antagonist, my interpretation of the role of the goblins is that they’re the embodiment of “nature” in the “man against nature” conflict class. If you must look for a political interpretation, diluting an occupied population by raping their women has been used historically by several genocidal regimes, e.g. Turkey, so goblins are closer to a fascist allegory than Goblin Slayer.
Overall I was very satisfied with Goblin Slayer, due in large part to its pacing and cohesion. I enjoyed it more than series whose individual components are superior, notably My Hero Academia or Re:Zero, but its lack of a grand plot and especially an antagonist are pain points. Nevertheless, it is a solid unit, and though there will be another season, the narrative of the first 12 episodes is perfectly self-contained and executes the character arc it needs with finesse matching some of the greatest works of fiction. Well done.
Final verdict: 8/10