Goblin Slayer is one of the strangest anime I have ever seen, though I don’t mean that on a conceptual level. Fantasy anime with comedically single-minded protagonists and RPG elements is an oversaturated market, but Goblin Slayer manages to make a few decisions to keep things interesting. However, it is hard to talk about this show in any meaningful way without mentioning the controversial first episode. It’s also been analyzed and discussed to death, so talking about it at all feels redundant.
As a compromise, it gets a small mention. Personally, the episode wasn’t upsetting, though I understand why many people found it to be, and it certainly was done in poor taste. There are plenty of ways to depict sexual violence without being repellent or needlessly gratifying. The writers wanted to establish that the goblins were reprehensible and that the protagonist, Goblin Slayer, was correct to exterminate them with prejudice, so they used graphic sexual assault as a sort of shorthand, but it just wasn’t necessary. There are myriad ways that they could communicate how awful the goblins are without invoking something like sexual violence. In conclusion, it was a poor decision on the part of the creative team, but not one that ruins the anime as a whole.
With that out of the way, I can talk about the actual content of the show, because it has very little content of that nature outside of the first episode. It’s alluded to, and the threat remains present whenever goblins are depicted as a threat to a woman, but there is nowhere near the same level as in that pilot. And when trying to analyze Goblin Slayer, there’s a lot more meaningful content than the shock value that dogs one episode, and a lot that they do well.
In the first couple of episodes, you get the impression that the character of Goblin Slayer is merely a vessel for the audience to watch the creative executions the writer cooked up to befall the goblins. He’s the same type of one-track and absurdly violent antihero like the Doom Slayer or the Cautious Hero, so I never expected him to receive development beyond that. As they peeled back layers on his backstory, though, I was pleasantly surprised. The series which was such a source of controversy in the community for its insensitivity towards subjects that demands sensitivity, is actually a thoughtful exploration of trauma and how it informs the behavior of the traumatized.
Before I can explain how weird Goblin Slayer’s writing on character psychology is, it’s best that I explain what makes this such a bizarre show, especially if you haven’t seen it. It helps if you have a passing familiarity with Dungeons & Dragons, from which the series takes a lot of its character archetypes, world and magic rules, and an obsession with dice. In this by-the-book anime world, high-grade adventurers fight demon lords and rookies ignore the threat posed by goblins. The protagonist, known only as Goblin Slayer, is a silver-ranked adventurer who exclusively kills the pests.
The series balances dark subject matter with absurdist humor, mostly at the expense of Goblin Slayer, who treats demon lords and world-ending calamities as secondary to the threat posed by the fantasy equivalent of cockroaches. Other adventurers consider themselves heroes, this man is an exterminator. He is accompanied by a group of various races and classes typical to D&D, though they’re mostly just cardboard cutouts of the archetypes they represent.
The show is also just wildly hormonal. It doesn’t clash with the dark tone, but the camera has a wandering eye and during dialogue scenes, things tend to bounce with no real rhyme or reason. It makes for an interesting blend of goblin gore, imaginative fight scenes, and ecchi. Goblin Slayer also possesses impeccable character design, which helps the cast stand out far more than their personalities do. This is a studio White Fox production, so the visuals are usually decent and often excellent, with the occasionally jarring CGI. The entire production has the feel of a D&D campaign that’s heavier on the combat and puzzles than the roleplay.
The protagonist’s backstory is standard edgy RPG material. Raised by his older sister, they lived an idyllic rural life until the village was overrun by goblins, who require women of other species to reproduce. Through this scarring tragedy, he acquired his hatred and fixation of goblins by watching them torture his sister. After that point, he was taken in by a rhea and trained in his signature lethality to goblins. His cruel mentor brought out the boy’s lethality to deal with the menace, while fostering his callous attitude and obsessive hatred of the creatures.
After a close call with powerful goblins in the capital city sewers, Goblin Slayer has a heart to heart with his traveling companion, a young priestess whom he rescued in the first episode. Watching her party members die at the hands of these monsters has left her shaky, and that unreliability nearly cost them dearly, but she isn’t sure how to cope with that fear. Goblin Slayer reveals to her that he’s lived with paralyzing terror after the death of his sister, and how the thought of taking a single step forward filled him with dread. When asked how he got rid of that fear, he explains that it never left.
After the attack, his options were to let the terror overwhelm him, or to latch onto the anger and push through despite the petrifying dread. This moment is key to Goblin Slayer’s character, as it demonstrates that while he might seem cold and antisocial, he is because he has to be. The only emotion left to him is his rage, and the unfeeling front he puts up is the sole way for a repressed and traumatized man to communicate with others. Drop that degree of separation, and any sane person risks completely shutting down. He slowly learns to loosen his grip on that guard, even willingly taking off his signature helmet, but the progress is gradual.
A key symptom in trauma, especially the untreated variety, is obsessive and compulsive behavior. Goblin Slayer is meticulous in dealing with his prey, and the rituals that he follows are his method of retaking control from the monsters that burned his home, killed his sister, and robbed him of agency. Whenever he rests at his childhood friend’s farm in between quests, he religiously searches the property for goblin footprints, damage to property, or any indication of their scouts.
It’s also evident in the way that he plans his goblin kills. You might look at how detailed and complex his strategies are and think that he just has a good mind for strategy, and loves killing goblins in creative or over-the-top ways, but it also rings of someone who desperately needs to be in control at all times. Planning everything out in advance and holding onto many contingencies is just his method of doing so. These plans aren’t just his eye for tactics, but the same fixation that drives his everyday habits and behavior.
The series does plenty to hint and inform the audience about the main character’s condition, and how much there is going on with him despite his quiet brooding persona. He might read as an edgy and grimdark antihero, if you’re not bothering to look at his mannerisms and quirks as symptoms of mental illness and deep-seated trauma. Late in the first season, his childhood friend both speaks to him and internally debates with herself about the future, and why he seems to have so little interest in it.
A common expression of suicidal thoughts and depression is a lack of hope for the future, or being under the impression that the future will not contain you. Goblin Slayer’s cavalier attitude towards risking his own life doesn’t come from a place of nihilism, but rather skepticism that the future holds a place for him.
There are many characters who become embroiled in their trauma and their goals of vengeance, from the aforementioned Doom Slayer to Batman, but most media depicting these characters is honestly uninterested in them. They don’t bother to dig deeper into how and why these characters behave this way, and how it informs their lives and behavior. We are between our sixth and seventh live action portrayal of Batman, and basically none of them have troubled themselves with what has to be broken in a person to pursue a vengeful warpath like this. The writer of the Goblin Slayer light novels, Kumo Kagyu, was concerned with this, and it shows in the series’ writing.
Couple that with some incredibly well-planned fights, solid presentation, and a banger of an opening, and Goblin Slayer doesn’t deserve most of the flak it receives. It is a fun anime that incorporates the creativity of tabletop roleplaying in an otherwise conventional grimdark fantasy story, and that’s actually really refreshing. The best part of games like Dungeons & Dragons is how they can be anything to anyone, and that is the key to Goblin Slayer as a story.
The best part of Goblin Slayer is how accessible it is. Few shows are so immediately willing to meet a viewer on their level, no matter what that is. If you want a dark and violent take on Tolkien-esque fantasy, it can be that to you. If you want a decently fun swords and sorcery story that has a great sense of humor, you just have to take it less seriously. Taking Goblin Slayer’s relentless hatred of goblins as earnest or self-aware provides the same amount of enjoyment, and not many anime can be enjoyed both seriously and ironically.
It’s a shame that the first episode does a convincing job that this show is not accessible. I firmly believe that most people who like anime and fantasy should have no problem watching Goblin Slayer, but it unfortunately contains a content warning that prevents many people from enjoying it. It’s a shame that so many dark shonen series are getting a boost in popularity when their fantasy counterpart does its best to make fans steer clear. Ultimately, I suggest tolerating the first episode if you can, and skipping it if overcoming the distasteful elements isn’t an option. Binging this show is some of the best fun I’ve had in awhile in anime, and skipping it entirely because of one poor creative decision isn’t fair to you.