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.
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.