Adaptations Analyzed: Goblin Slayer

A little while ago I talked about some of the failures of critique I saw swirling around the TV adaptation of the Goblin Slayer franchise, a fairly typical fantasy franchise from Japan with solid ideas about action and characterization. At the time we hadn’t seen much of Goblin Slayer yet and so I withheld critique of the show itself and confined myself to the rather narrow and one note response some people had. Now, looking back on things, I have a hard time blaming them. In part because writers of the show seem to have made the same oversights.

Let me back things up and start from the beginning. Goblin Slayer is a fantasy story about a man who was traumatized when goblins murdered his family at a young age and spent half a decade training himself to fight back, then several years more actually fighting goblins alone. It shows how he uses imagination and preparation to wipe out foes that outnumber him significantly, while at the same time showing how he teeters on the edge of becoming a depraved monster himself. It then introduces a series of friends and allies who struggle to understand him and slowly evolves his character from dangerously unstable to moderately reliable. Unfortunately, many of the things that makes this dynamic work in the novels doesn’t make the jump to the small screen.

The Pacing is Off 

The formula of Goblin Slayer, the novel, is simple. It swings back and forth between moments of fairly dark and frequently gruesome violence, whether perpetrated by goblins or the Slayer, and glimpses into the equally dark psychology of those who perpetrate said violence on one end of the spectrum to moments of mundane normalcy or lighthearted camaraderie on the other. At its darkest Goblin Slayer prompts comparisons to some of the darkest fantasies on the market, at its lightest it can almost be mistaken for a slapstick humor show.

I rather like this contrast, as it is gives a fairly realistic picture of how people in more violent times probably lived – doing their best to live like we do day to day, enjoying one another’s company, but much closer to violence and brutality than anything first world people have experience with. This sharp contrast also makes clear the greatest danger in their world, the sudden change from normalcy to deadly danger. People most frequently die in the story when the context around them changes unexpectedly and they don’t react in time – which explains why the Goblin Slayer always functions as if he is in a circumstance of deadly danger.

However, in its adaptation Goblin Slayer takes several steps to undercut this pacing. It throws out some of the smaller dark beats in the early story, probably because they revolve around unnamed side characters who die and thus aren’t important, and then it removes one of the darker stories in the mid point of its run, where Goblin Slayer has to defend his home against a roaming goblin horde and we get a look into the mind of a Goblin Lord (it’s a pretty dark place). With these dark beats removed, a number of the lighthearted moments all run together, occupying almost all of three episodes with either easy wins for the Slayer or goofy moments around town. This ruins the pacing that is supposed to keep us tense and on the edge of our seat, swinging from highs to lows, and is a real strike against the adaptation.

Insufficient Vicious Death 

Goblin Slayer is about people dying in unpleasant ways. The story doesn’t really endorse this, it just makes it clear this is part of the world, and part of what justifies the terrible decisions Goblin Slayer and his companions must make. Unfortunately, a lot of that justification doesn’t make it into the story as an adaptation. Yes, there is that controversial part in the first episode but after that, in the anime, the crimes of goblins are mostly alluded to in dialog rather than shown. Conversely, in the book and manga side characters dying is almost always shown, to remind us that Goblin Slayer’s creed – “That’s no excuse to let the goblins live” – has the force of a moral imperative for good reason. This could almost be part of the pacing issue, except moments of the Slayer’s violence are quite dark as well. Or they should be, except…

This is Not the Goblin Slayer You’re Looking For 

The internal conflict between Goblin Slayer is how closely his mindset has come to mimic that of the goblins he hunts. He has to understand them to kill them so effectively, but he’s neglected to also understand his own humanity. This sets up Goblin Slayer as potentially the greatest villain of the tale if he’s not careful, and creates numerous moments where his friends worry about his mental state and penchant for violence.

However, most of those moments are stripped out of the animated adaptation. They’re at the very lease minimized in favor of focusing on the action scenes – not entirely unjustified, it is primarily an action tale – and the humorous bits – a little harder to justify as it’s not a comedy. Losing this aspect of the Goblin Slayer’s character weakens the story measurably. And this is not a story that had a big margin for error – with the internal conflict for its protagonist Goblin Slayer is a good story, without it we then slip towards mediocrity. And I’m afraid that’s where the Goblin Slayer anime lands for me.

What Happened? 

I’ve seen some claim that the Goblin Slayer anime is what happens when people decide to pander to two audiences at once – creating an impression of a dark fantasy story while actually trying to make something that appeals to the fans of light-hearted fantasy romps as well. That’s not entirely improbable, and the end product does have a bit of that pandering feel to it. But it’s not like very dark and violent anime hasn’t done very, very well in the past. Just look at the success of Attack on Titan three years ago. And, of course, the source material doesn’t have this problem. The producers could have been trying to distort the source material to satisfy their own goals, but then again they might not. I think the real answer is a bit more simple.

Goblin Slayer has a 12 episode run. That’s about four hours of total screen time once you cut commercials, openings and credits. Not a whole lot of time. It seems the story team just wanted to focus as much as possible on Goblin Slayer and his adventures as they could, and cut all the fat. Side characters who serve to build tension but don’t advance the story of the main character any are cut. Introspection that reveals the Slayer’s character but don’t advance plot or action are cut.

The Defense of the Farm getting removed also suggests something along this line – it involves a lot of non-Goblin Slayer characters who the show doesn’t seem to think are important. (Although the one episode side story it does add focuses on those character anyway, so perhaps cutting this story was just a time saving move, as it would have taken at least three episodes to do well.) In short, the team rushed to tell Goblin Slayer’s story and cut everything they thought was unnecessary.

But this is what leads me to believe whoever was producing this adaptation didn’t understand the story very well. The internal struggle of Goblin Slayer was just as important as the external act of slaying goblins – in fact, symbolically the act of fighting goblins represents the internal struggle Goblin Slayer is going through. But the anime adaptation gets rid of all that richness and nuance in favor of just telling us as many things the Slayer has done as possible. In doing so, it misses the point and fails as an adaptation. Sad, but not at all uncommon.

The Past and Future – The Unique Speculative Fiction of Pumpkin Scissors

In my family we used big ol’ knives to carve pumpkins. For Ryotaro Iwanaga they apparently used a large and heavy set of scissors. The title of the story is drawn from the central cast’s role in the government – they represent a sort of internal affairs group that audits corruption in the military, government and associated contractors, cutting through the tough skin of bribery and backroom connections to try and bring relief to those suffering in a post war world. That’s not what really makes the story of Pumpkin Scissors interesting.

What makes it interesting is the way it uses old fashioned technology to shed light on how our current technology is changing our lives, creating one of the most unique approaches to speculative fiction I have ever encountered.

You see, the level of technology in Pumpkin Scissors is all over the place. They have high performance internal combustion engines but telegraphs are relatively new and they’re just starting to think about radio. Tanks and zeppelins are a thing but no one is talking about building airplanes. One of the protagonists has had his brain surgically modified but they can’t build a flamethrower that can be used without injuring the soldier carrying it. The reasons for all these absurdities is summed up in the name Caplan.

A recurring trope in Japanese storytelling is the genius. This is not a Sherlock style figure, who is knowledgeable in many fields and has a mind of frightening acuity. Rather it is a superhuman figure who dominates everything remotely related to their field of interest. A baseball genius will have unparalleled strength and footspeed, a magicians dexterity, the hand-eye coordination of a master sniper and a head for figures that can remember every player on every team now active in his league and most of the notable players from other leagues – even leagues overseas. A fighting genius will be able to medal in the Olympics in every fighting sport they put their hands to. And a scientific genius will lead the way in every field of study known to man.

Such a figure was the founder of the Caplan Institute. He pushed science forward to such degrees, and with such acuity, that in many cases the infrastructure and technology to test his theories did not exist. Every aspect of medicine, botany, biology and engineering had their borders vastly expanded by Caplan. Ultimately he would die with many of the mysteries he hoped to prove long out of reach. As the society around him built up their industrial capacity to manufacture the blueprints he left behind in his Institute they began to put them to use, and so, with the help of Caplan, some fields of technology grew in leaps and bounds, driven by the work he left behind combined with the needs of the governmental and industrial leaders who came to Caplan for aid.

This allows Iwanaga to create very interesting situations where technologies that would not normally have interacted because they existed in different eras do meet – with results that he can accurately predict because all the pieces in play did exist and had fully understood limits, even though they would not normally work together in such a way. He can also use some aspects of this antiquated technology to offer commentary on modern society, such as when terrorists seize a far-flung telegraph network to institute a miniature surveillance state, obliquely reflecting the way our own telecommunications create vast quantities of information that can be used against us and are not at all as secure as we might like them to be.

Iwanaga also offers commentary on the politics of academics through the controlling nature of the Caplan Institute and its patent systems, which allows it to quash scientific inquiry in other places through force of law and superior financial power. While Caplan does have very advanced theoretical work in its vaults, there’s no guarantee it’s the only solution to the problems Caplan imagined – much less the best. And, knowing what we know of much more advanced technology than Caplan put forward, some of which should exist alongside what exists in the present day of Pumpkin Scissors, the readers can see that yes, the scientists in Iwanaga’s world are, indeed, missing big pieces of the puzzle that have been hidden behind the walls of Caplan’s own vision of the future. How much, Iwanaga seems to ask, is missed by a modern scientific establishment that is driven by its own prejudices and politics?

Science fiction is often positioned as stories about the future and what it could mean for our society as technology progresses and we try to adapt to it. But the genius of Pumpkin Scissors is that, in spite of have a fairly normal story in structure, character progression and plot, it manages to fascinate by taking the strictures of its own genre and tinkering with them in a way that challenges our expectations while still delivering on that solid story. Many people delight in subverting expectations but they never stop to ask why that so often makes for surprising stories. The reason for it is simple – it forces us to look at a story, its tropes and morals in a new light. But if all you do is subvert expectations for its own sake then you’re just creating a new canon of tropes and morals – and probably not as interesting a canon as the old (it was there for a reason, after all).

But by subverting genres with intention, as Ryotaro Iwanaga does in Pumpkin Scissors, he revitalizes his story and makes his take on his story a little fresher and a little newer. Well done, sir.

Legend and Myth

Our society is obsessed with myths. We dig deep into those primal tales that define the limits of human nature in society after society, staring into the face of human greatness and frailty and seeking what precious lessons there are to offer. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s something that seems to be a necessary part of the human experience. Any attempt to expunge one set of myths seems to result in an entirely new set creeping in to replace them, so just as myths explore human nature, so also human nature needs myths to understand itself. This is right and good.

But legends. Legends are a kind of story of their own.

Where myths are about human nature, legends often tie back to the way cultures think they should be structured. Consider the legend of King Arthur – his position at the head of the Round Table perfectly embodied the feudal system in Europe. In reality feudal rulers relied on a sort of mutually assured destruction, where any rebellion by one feudal vassal would be quashed by the others in conjunction with the king. But the king was powerless against his retainers if they all chose to turn against him. In Arthurian lore the solidarity the lords maintain with one another and the king is a sign that these lords offer the king their loyalty and the kingdom is bound together by virtue – a noble idea and certainly something to aspire to. Perhaps made all the more precious by the fact that it was rarely the case.

There are, of course, legends more modern than these. Take the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. Many people have heard how, after accidentally cutting down his father’s fruit tree and being confronted, Washington refused to lie and admitted to the transgression. It’s unlikely this story is true but it lives on as a testament to the moral fiber Americans would like to see in their leaders. Other legendary figures speak to the independence or work ethic, people like Johnny Appleseed and Davey Crockette, Paul Bunyan and John Henry loom in the public consciousness as embodiments of the sort of rough and tumble, single minded, courageous people Americans once wanted to embody their civilization. What’s interesting is how these legendary figures don’t have real counterparts in other cultures. Instead, other figures embody very different virtues.

In France legends revolve around thinkers like Voltaire or occasionally leaders like Napoleon, spinning tales of refined thought and action. Seafarers traveling far from home occupy the legendary halls of the British, keeping to their stations with grim determination in the worst of circumstances. In China it is the educated elites who walk the halls of legend, clashing against one another in a quest for enlightenment, embodying Confucian values of wisdom and filial piety or the conflicting values of Buddhism and its nihilistic enlightenment. And, while the semblance is imperfect, we can see these cultural values reflected in the cultures that gave birth to these legends.

Of course, the line between myth and legend is blurry. Arthur is both a mythic and legendary figure. Once and future kings are not unique to the West, for example, whereas his knights are very much legendary and not mythic figures that embody the virtues of chivalry and how they should relate back to a leader. The relationship between Merlin and Arthur is mythological – mentor and student go back to the Greeks and likely before. The love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere is legendary, showing the contest between the sides of love that can be fun but destructive and those that fulfill duty but sometimes feel dull, and painting their consequences across a national fabric.

The line between myth and legend is, in many ways, an artificial one. But classifying and naming kinds of stories is one of the ways that we break down and analyze why the work and why they do not. It’s a very important part of how human minds understand things and thus something that I, personally, find very important to look at when crafting stories. (Anyone here who still remembers when I had a running bit on the broad categories of stories called Genrely Speaking?) I began wondering about legends when I tried to pin down what count as the legends of our era and I realized I couldn’t think of any.

We have Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth to help inform our thinking about mythic stories and how they impact our consciousness. There isn’t any kind of system like that for legends, the stories that represent how we are now trying to reckon with the human nature myths describe. I find that disturbing, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not. This may be a sign of how unmoored our societal values have become from one another, or indicate some breakdown in culture. It could just be a consequence of mass communications disrupting our society and speeding the creation and replacement of cultural touchstones to absurd degrees. It could be that we just can’t see these things from our current place in the culture. It’s hard to tell. But it’s a problem worth a story or two all on its own, don’t you think?

The Great Endeavor

It’s hard to understand people. So much of what we see on the outside is a poor reflection of what’s going on inside of them. It’s easy to make snap judgements or jump to conclusions. Worse, long patterns of behavior intended for one purpose can easily be misunderstood or just be flat out toxic, no question of perspective at all. What do you do then? That’s one of the many surprisingly deep questions tackled by Kohei Horikoshi, author of the manga My Hero Academia.

What’s even more interesting is that Horikoshi tackles this tricky question not once, but twice – possibly more, given that I will not rule out his planning to pull the trick a third time just to rub his skills in our faces. The characters he does this with are his protagonist’s archrival, Katsuki Bakugo, and his protagonist’s mentor’s archrival, Enji Todoroki, aka Endeavor. In doing so, Horikoshi takes a very nuanced approach to asking a very simple question. Can trying to take a noble form do good for a person who’s heart and mind are ignoble?

This is not a new question. Many people have tried to answer it in Western literature as well as Eastern. There is no one answer. So perhaps it’s fitting that Horikoshi looks at it from two different perspectives. (With possibly more to come.)

Of course, given the genre of My Hero Academia, it’s only natural that the goal both characters aspire to is All Might, the Symbol of Peace. (A few hundred words on what that means here.) The short version is both aspire to be the greatest defender of their society. However neither one really understands what that means and thus they stray from the path of righteousness in a couple of significant ways. Fortunately, through the efforts of All Might and series protagonist Deku, plus Endeavor’s son Shoto in Endeavor’s case, we get to see these characters confront their shortcomings and begin to change.

Bakugo’s shortcoming is multifaceted. On the one hand, he has always admired All Might’s ability to win out over evil no matter what form it comes in or how overwhelmed he might be. On the other hand, Bakugo is an incredibly blessed child, with a strong mind, instincts suited for his desired profession and a power tailor made to help him do what he wants to do – namely, defeat evil like All Might does.

Japanese society is not very forgiving of wasted talent and so Bakugo is under considerable pressure to measure up to expectations, leaving him very stressed. Combined with his own ambitions and the result is a serious insecurity about his place in the world. He wants to be the best and everyone expects him to succeed, so he constantly reassures himself about his position by being a bit of a bully. Deku is the primary recipient of this in their younger days, constantly drawing fire to himself by offering Bakugo help in ways that the insecure hothead interprets as condescending.

This conflict goes into overdrive when Deku gains One for All, leading Bakugo to presume Deku had hidden superpowers the whole time (when, in fact, Deku had been given his powers by All Might). At first Bakugo interprets this as just another sign that Deku didn’t take him seriously, hiding his powerful quirk rather than fighting him fairly to see who was better. Thus Bakugo’s rude talk and disrespect increase. But, at the same time, now that the two are in high school and among people who are much closer to their peers in terms of maturity and skill, we begin to see that Bakugo’s attitude is actually kind of fitting for his life goals.

In particular, during the sparing tournament in the Sports Festival arc, Bakugo ruthlessly crushes Urarara Ochaco in the quarterfinals, a match most of his peers saw as a rude, hotheaded boy beating up on a soft, timid girl. On the other hand, having made it to the quarterfinals, Urarara was bound and determined to do everything she could to win the tournament overall. When he actually went out in the ring to face her Bakugo knew this instantly, his remarkably perceptive mind and almost animal instincts both warning him he was about to have a hard fight on his hands. He won, of course, but he was mystified by his classmates implying that Ochaco was a weak little girl, ironically showing her far more respect than anyone else in the class. Bakugo respects people who take him seriously, he’s incensed by people who don’t.

This message is driven home in the finals of the tournament as Bakugo goes toe to toe with Shoto Todoroki. Todoroki is conflicted about using the quirk he inherited from his father and can’t fight Bakugo at his full potential, even though he did fight Deku at full strength in the round before. This enrages Bakugo – even though Todoroki is the furthest thing from a weakling. This makes it clear that Bakugo might look like a bully – but he really just can’t understand people who don’t measure up to his standards of dedication and skill.

This perspective begins to change when he is abducted from the U.A. summer camp and the subsequent rescue pits All Might against All for One, causing All Might to exhaust his last dregs of power and go into retirement. Bakugo takes this very personally, seeing it as a failure on his part that reached so far as to undermine the man he admires most in life. That’s not a good assessment on Bakugo’s part, but it is an understandable one. Bakugo has always measured up to standards before, now he feels like a failure and that’s opened up a new perspective he has to consider.

All Might’s fall caused Bakugo to stop and, possibly for the first time in his life, consider what the consequences of his actions would be for other people. A lifetime of struggling to make sure he lived up to expectations – others and his own – made Bakugo a very, very self-centered person. He had good goals, but he spent far, far too much time worrying about where he was in relation to those goals and not enough time thinking about where he was in relation to other people. While high standards are good, there was no way Bakugo was getting where he wanted to go without that added aspect of interpersonal savvy to go along with it.

Enji Todoroki is an interesting contrast to Bakugo, and stands as a stark reminder that personality flaws not corrected when one is young can metastasize into something much, much worse. Where Bakugo admires All Might and makes emulating him a goal, Endeavor resents All Might, and makes deposing him the goal.

The source of Endeavor’s rivalry with All Might is hard to pin down. All Might is sometimes characterized as a foreigner, and he certainly draws a lot of influence from American sources. (I did a whole post on why I think he’s actually a US national here.) So I suspect the origin of Endeavor’s animosity is the belief, very common in Japan, that Japanese cultural icons should be of Japanese origin, and not borrow influences too heavily from other cultures. It’s also possible Enji just disliked how effortlessly All Might seemed to climb the ranks to the top spot. Regardless, Endeavor wanted All Might out of his place at the top of the hero hierarchy and, as All Might’s position as the Symbol of Peace grew more and more obvious for all to see, Endeavor turned to more and more extreme measures to try and take his place.

This ultimately resulted in a marriage to a woman who’s quirk would complement his own and four children who Endeavor ruthlessly tried to craft in his image. Unfortunately, three of his children did not inherit the temperament or skillset necessary to follow in Enji’s footsteps. Only the youngest – Shouto – had the mix of his father’s personality and both his parents skills to take up the path.

However, Endeavor’s growing frustration with his failures became toxic, driving his timid wife to a nervous breakdown and turning all of his children against him. By the time Shouto does decide to take up the hero mantle he goes so far as to forswear using the gifts he received from his father and does his best not to bring up the familial connection.

Like Bakugo, Endeavor’s personality shift begins with the end of All Might’s career. However, where Bakugo’s problem was his self-centeredness, Endeavor’s comes from his myopic focus on All Might. As the shadow of his rival got ever larger and more intimidating, Endeavor lost all sense of his own actions save for how they related back to the goal of deposing All Might. Instead of an overinflated sense of self, Endeavor’s sense of self vanished into his drive – his endeavor, if you will – to catch All Might. He would not snap out of it until the revelation of All Might’s powers dwindling and eventually extinguishing forced him to face the fact that he was chasing ghosts – Yagi Toshinori wasn’t some unstoppable force of justice. He was a man limping to the end of his career, struggling to make his mark one last time.

This revelation snaps him out of his delusions and leaves him with a quandary. Endeavor has done terrible things to his family. He’s allowed terrible things to continue in his family, because he did not care enough about them to take a hand in his family’s inner workings. And he did it all trying to depose something that didn’t even exist. Left with only the pieces of his life that didn’t revolve around All Might, Endeavor is hollow indeed. Particularly since he now occupies the number one spot he chased for so long and has no idea what to do with it.

Oddly enough, while Endeavor isn’t satisfied with his new position or how he got it, it seems he spends more time trying to mend fences with Shouto and even making overtures to the rest of his family than he does exclusively on his career. He’s making changes, but unlike Bakugo, his habits are much deeper in his personality and the damage his flaws have caused is much more widespread. Healing it all will be an endeavor that could very well end his career – but only time will tell.

The parallels between Bakugo and Endeavor are interesting as part of the moral of their stories. They’re more than two surly guys with fire themed powers. They’re a warning to the young readers the story is primarily aimed at – face your personality problems, or they will infect even the worthiest goals and cause ongoing damage to your life. The sooner you sort it the easier it will go for you. But even if it takes time, even the seemingly least redeemable of toxic people can start to make a comeback. It’s a worthy story to tell and one told with subtlety and heart worthy of such a meaningful endeavor.