Another fun little romp through fantasy-land, quests to be ventured and gold to be reaped... or maybe not quite.
Welcome to 2018's most controversial anime, Goblin Slayer. Little known by western anime fans, it came much out of nowhere, with a first episode that made viewers aghast and the social medias ablaze. And why, you may ask. I will have to leave that unanswered for a moment, as you should not yet be reading this review if you are unfamiliar with what scene I am referring to. But I will leave a word of caution: you should probably not watch Goblin Slayer if you are easily disturbed.
Spoilers of the first episode, necessarily, will follow.
What transpires in the first episode overshadows everything that comes in the following eleven episodes. And so, this review will be centered primarily on the first episode and its resulting controversy. Though I will also be discussing the artistic merits of the anime as a whole, this will be as much a critical analysis as it is a response, an answer of sorts to whether the controversy Goblin Slayer brewed ever had any meaning in the first place.
And, I will tell you, no, it really did not.
From the second episode onward, a 'viewer discretion' warning appears in the subtitles provided by Crunchy Roll. But nowhere does it appear in the show itself, in Japanese. It is quite clear who was actually offended by this show... and it was not the Japanese audience, for whom this anime was made.
I'm going to be quite blunt, as this perception that westerners' views are always, unquestionably important is bothersome. Japanese anime studios do not care about what English-speaking YouTubers have to say, for they cannot even understand them in the first place. They do not care about Tumblr, nor do they care about anyone except viewers in Japan who could potentially buy BluRay discs of their series. They are companies, not political organisations. They are from Japan, not from the United States. The only thing the west could do to make an anime studio utter more than a flippant 'oops, sorry' is to have a spot on CNN or some other giant television network, in the same vein as the infamous adult game, 'Rapelay'. So, unfortunately, if you think yourself a sort of champion of justice, destined to rid the world of all portrayals and even mentions of rape, in countries you have never even visited and which do not share your beliefs— then, sorry to say, your words have fallen upon deaf ears.
If you have ever played a visual novel, read adult-oriented manga or watched an R-18 anime (and the Japanese audience for Goblin Slayer most certainly has), then sexual assault, as vile and irredeemable an act as it is, is not particularly unusual or shocking. I suppose it may be shocking in the context of Goblin Slayer being a TV anime, in which these sorts of acts are seldom depicted. But you also have to keep in mind that Goblin Slayer airs past midnight on a weekend, well into the usual watershed hours of western television. Kids are not meant to be watching this in the first place. And sexual assault is not rare in late-night anime so much because it is 'going overboard', but because the anime community in Japan is obsessed with the concept of virginity and do not take kindly to their imaginary characters being touched by a man other than them. Hence, the reason for why sex is not so much as mentioned in non-erotic anime, whether it be consensual or not. If sex is not graphically depicted (i.e. genitals showing and thrusting and all), then it is, generally speaking, safe to air past midnight on Japanese television. Goblin Slayer's now infamous scene, unpleasant as it is to watch, was not especially graphic. It did not black-out and fast-forward to the end as most anime do, and so while this scene is not entirely innocent (true, it is difficult to not feel at least a little bit sick in the stomach), it is hardly the traumatic viewing experience that some claim it to be. Say, for example, "13 Reasons Why", a western Netflix series, was far, far more graphic in its depiction of similar subjects and yet it was extremely popular among western teenagers, particularly females. But when an obscure late-night anime aimed at a completely different culture, and with drawings instead of real actors, tries to tread the same waters? Take it down. Take it all down, they say. Right. Good luck with that one.
I suppose the deeper question, then, is whether these scenes were actually necessary. I highly doubt these scenes were meant to be erotic, to arouse its viewers when they were preceded by a brutal stabbing and a brutal massacre. And the attempted rape that follows the first is abominable enough that it defies any and all human logic, clearly meant to invoke deep feelings of hatred for goblins rather than a boner-pop and an "oh yeah, baby, show me more." Goblin Slayer showed these scenes to create a sense of danger and to make you root for the titular character's, uh, titular slaying of said goblins. And fair enough. But equally fair is the question of why they chose rape in particular, rather than some other wretched act that would make you want to see goblin heads hitting the floor. Hatred was necessary for the story to continue, but not so much rape itself. My guess is the author chose that route because other fantasy series such as Re:Zero have already done the same with violence alone. The author wanted to set their series apart, to invoke a sort of hatred that anime-only viewers have rarely or perhaps never experienced before, and, well, the result of that is laid bare for all to see: angry westerners, and Japanese fans who just want to see some dead-ass goblins.
It is not so much from an artistic perspective that I am defending the author's choice, however. Gratuitous and pretentious, it is, when what follows in the later episodes is of little importance and does not in any meaningful way make use of the hatred instilled in the audience. Rather, it returns to the exact same silly and carefree tone of the anime's opening few minutes, as if it what happened in the first episode was just some sort of dream. Heck, the second episode may as well have been the beginning episode— the first completely obliterated from existence— and little would change at all with regards to the story and the characters. Goblin Slayer does not contain much in the way of themes other than 'goblins suck' and 'revenge begets revenge', and the trauma the heroine experienced during her first encounter is hardly touched upon or even acknowledged afterwards. Indeed, after an experience that horrifying, you would expect the heroine to, if nothing else, be apprehensive about another goblin slaying adventure, but by the next day she gives almost zero damns and throws herself to the protagonist's side merely because he is tough and can protect her, I guess? A bit of an idiot, indeed. Other characters will casually talk about their traumatic experiences as the camera pans lustfully over their breasts... almost as if it is a joke, making it pretty well clear the anime has no intention of taking these issues seriously. How are you supposed to care for characters that don't even know how to care about themselves? In the end, the main thing that sets the rest of the anime (everything sans the first episode) apart from any other fantasy series is the level of blood involved. Goblin Slayer is a strong dude, the heroine is cute, and screw goblins— there you go, Goblin Slayer's deep themes interpreted by yours truly.
If a darker fantasy anime in the lieu of Berserk is something you are clamoring for (as, well, there really are not a whole lot of them), then Goblin Slayer is if nothing else a serviceable adventure. The titular protagonist, Goblin Slayer, is essentially a more calm and composed version of Guts from Berserk: taciturn, a dark past, filled with hatred and a desire for vengeance, armor and all... albeit with a sword a size that humans can actually wield. His cold but logical manner of speaking are refreshing in a genre that is largely defined by self-righteous protagonists spouting idealistic nonsense. Goblin Slayer will save whom he can, but he is also capable of recognising the limits of his power and putting those with mortal wounds out of their misery. He knows that fighting requires planning and a clear head just as much as it requires strength. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is his way of living, but he does not try to moralise his lifestyle, instead believing that his endless lust for revenge makes him just as violent and as brutal as the goblins themselves. He has a sort of awareness and intellect that most anime protagonists lack, which makes the desolate world he lives in feel just a little bit more authentic. But those who are not a fan of darker or more morally ambiguous protagonists will only find the anime more unappealing with his presence. "Edgy", "pretentious", others might say. Considering that one's enjoyment of Goblin Slayer is almost entirely decided by their interest in the protagonist, and consequently his goblin slaying journey, those who do not find these sorts of characters appealing are well within their right to dislike the anime as a whole. But to say he is dark merely for the sake of being dark would be something of a lie. No, he is dark because he grew up in an awful world with rapey, murderous goblins.
Considering the natural path for most fantasy anime is to gradually hunt stronger and stronger monsters, the fact that Goblin Slayer is perpetually chasing weaker monsters— goblins— and even being ostracised for it by his fellow adventurers, is a refreshing change of pace for a genre that is often so predictable that you can already guess the events of the final episode based on the first. Sure, those in search of climactic fights may find themselves bored with an adventure that stays at largely the same difficulty level for its entire duration (with the rare boss battle here and there), but then again, how many times does one need to see a big bad dude or a dragon slain before they are satisfied? While most anime increase the stakes as the opponents get stronger, Goblin Slayer is able to portray weak little creatures as menacing, something few anime do, slimes and goblins brushed aside as if it is a necessity. The issue is that Goblin Slayer, despite it having a clear, singular focus with goblins as the villain, never really does or say a whole lot with them. They are almost entirely identical to one another, existing to rape, kill or be killed and little else. When the antagonist of a story lacks a motive and a personality, it's kinda hard to care much about where things go in the end.
Goblin Slayer is neither horrible nor is it great. And sometimes it is both. Putting aside all the noise surrounding the series, and looking at it as a piece of fiction like any other, what is left is merely a decent dark-fantasy anime. Its artistic merit is hardly comparable to its big brother, Berserk, and while there are very severe issues afflicting the show, in a season where truly abysmal, irredeemable rubbish such as "Ore ga Suki nano wa Imouto dakedo Imouto ja Nai" has aired, Goblin Slayer is not what I could consider a bad anime. There's enough of interest here with the protagonist and the setting that I am at least considering reading the light novels in Japanese, where perhaps things are a bit better explained. Those regarding Goblin Slayer as the worst anime they've seen are more likely than not fishing for attention by exaggerating their opinions as much as possible. Either that, or they have just not watched a whole lot of anime, I would have to guess.
But to say I am a fan of Goblin Slayer, or that I even liked it would to be as dishonest as saying I hated it. My defense of Goblin Slayer is my defense of the author's right to artistic freedom. Being offended by this show is reasonable. Using said offense to try and shut down an author's livelihood, or to generalise an entire country of 130 million people as perverts or as morally bankrupt, is not. Some may even say it is despicable. And, you know, I think there is some truth in that.
So, feel free to watch Goblin Slayer if you enjoy dark-fantasy and have a tolerance for uncomfortable content. Or skip it, because truth told, Goblin Slayer was never really worth caring that much about in the first place.