It has been a very long time since I’ve done an anime review here at With Both Hands. Goblin Slayer [Amazon link] has been on my radar for a while, and I recently had a chance to watch it. The short review is I found it a perfectly enjoyable show, although mostly unexceptional except in being more like the anime I used to enjoy twenty years ago. It was good but not great. At the current $4.99 USD price point to get the whole series on Amazon, I think it is a good value.
The longer review is more interesting. I found the moe turn of anime in the mid 2000s not particularly to my liking, and I almost entirely stopped watching anime at that point. For a while, I thought my tastes had just changed, but I discovered that in this area as in fiction, the trends moved away from me rather than the other way round. Goblin Slayer is a return to a more diverse field of storytelling that you used to be able to find in anime. This was a young man’s adventure story, very much a story of heroic deeds and right versus wrong. However, I do say young man’s, not young boy’s, as there is lots of graphic violence and strong sexual themes. I would not show this to my kids.
Goblin Slayer is known to me precisely because of a controversy around the sexual themes of the show. Particularly the rape in the first episode. It is disturbing, but it is not nearly as disturbing as many scenes in A Game of Thrones or Outlander, so I suspect the controversy is more about the moral valence of rape in the context of the story, rather than any particular depiction of it. Sexual assaults by goblins are a tool used to illustrate the evil and depravity of the eponymous monsters, and to launch a young man’s foolish and obsessive quest for revenge.
The rest of the series returns to this theme again and again, but never again in quite so graphic a manner. I’ve noticed this as a very common technique is many television shows, using sex and titillation to attract viewers to the first episode, and then toning it down subsequently. However, I do think this show isn’t for everyone, including many young men, who don’t really need more visual sexual imagery in their lives.
However, as the story as a whole is very much about doing the right thing, even if everyone else thinks you are nuts, I find that the good vastly exceeds the bad.
Absolutely everything in Goblin Slayer is D&D inspired. A blatant ripoff. However, what is fascinating about it is that it better reflects the D&D of forty years ago than the prevalent style of play today. A TPK [and R] is the first thing that happens. Because the naïve adventurers accept a quest to clear out a nest of goblins, expecting a level appropriate challenge. They’ve clearly never heard of Tucker’s Kobolds.
Tucker’s Kobolds are an infamous example of how in original D&D, there was no such thing as a “level appropriate challenge”. Just because a monster is small and only has a couple of HP has nothing to do with how dangerous it is, especially if the DM allows them to learn from experience or to respond to their environment in an intelligent manner.
Conversely, there is also no limit to the cleverness of player characters, and how they choose to deal with things that might kill them in a fair fight. In D&D, as in life, if you find yourself in a fair fight, you have made a mistake along the way. Accordingly, player characters have a tendency to come up with crazy schemes to kill the monsters and take their treasure.
The Goblin Slayer, in his obsession with killing goblins, studies them relentlessly. He learns their ways, and schemes better and better ways to kill them. It reminds me very much of this Hill Cantons blog post about they way Chris Kutalik’s Vietnam veteran father played D&D like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam. All the other adventurers find the Slayer kind of weird. And he is kind of weird. But he is really good at what he does, and he takes a real problem very seriously that no one else does. The metajoke here is of course that everyone else this fantasy world thinks they are playing the modern roleplaying game of improv theater with fantasy superpowers, while the Goblin Slayer lives in Fantasy F**king Vietnam.
There is also a very funny bit in the middle of the first season when the Goblin Slayer gets hired by the local adventurers guild to sit in as a representative in an advancement exam, and the candidate gets failed because he stole from his party and took the loot back to town while they were still in the dungeon. This kind of thing was notorious for happening in the early 80s with thief characters, who were trying to play out the full panoply of alignments realistically. As the Goblin Slayer tells the thief, doing that makes you a bad party member, because you are acting selfishly in-game and in real-life, as parties work in D&D as an alliance of those seeking order and justice against the forces of chaos and evil. Nobody really likes honestly played evil characters, as the Blue Bard notes this is built into the structure of the game [and life].
All of this is situated in a fairly typical anime, but it was well-executed so I can’t complain. I found the harem storyline a bit much, but it wasn’t actually a big part of what I found interesting here, so I can let it pass. The Goblin Slayer’s male obsession with finding new ways to burn, drown, suffocate, ambush, or blow up goblins is an absolutely fascinating portrayal of how otherwise anti-social tendencies get put in the service of a greater good. If sexual violence were less prominent in the story, I would recommend this more highly.