By Yavor Tarinski
The Imagination is a weapon. Those who don’t use it die first.
Goblin Slayer in Episode 2, Season 1
Animes have always been charged with social and political messages. The recent series of Goblin Slayer (GS), directed by Takaharu Ozaki and based on the novel written by Kumo Kagyu and illustrated by Noboru Kannatuki, does not make an exception. Furthermore, its political symbolism seems abreast with the current age of social struggles against oppression, which refuse to accept grand narratives or engage in representative politics. One can argue that GS deals with urgent matters and draws important political lessons that can be valuable for contemporary social movements. Others have already attempted to analyze this show, but seem to not have grasped in depth its emancipatory politics.
Few words regarding the plot
The world of GS is inhabited by magic and mythical creatures like elves, dwarves, lizardmen, goblins, gnomes, trolls, demons etc. Some of them coexist with humans in peace, while others are terrorizing and threatening them. For this second category is being formed the adventurer’s guild, an organization that strives to protect society. The two main characters of the show are the Priestess and Goblin Slayer that have dedicate themselves to fighting goblins, and during the episodes are being joined by other adventurers.
The question of Scale
GS can be interpreted as an analysis that delves into the question of what scale activists and social movements should pursue when fighting oppression and injustice. Whether they should enter the field of electoral politics on national and transnational field and engage in “epic” and spectacular “battles” of central political character, or maintain their struggle on grassroots level and fight domination in everyday life, even if this means enduring mundane and/or dangerous activities. Currently we have been seeing this question to be central with the French “Yellow Vests”, that has been urged by politicians and experts to elect its representatives and negotiate with the Macron government, while the activists of the movement themselves refuse to enter the spectacle and hierarchies of National politics.
The season 1 of GS seems to be dealing, to a certain point at least, with that matter. Situated in the fantasy genre, where usually the heroes of the story have to face an epic threat that threatens to destroy the world, the present animation turns this narrative on its head. The main character (who remains anonymous and faceless throughout the season) refuses to take on the grandiose threats to the dominant order, like the Demon Lord, and focuses solely on slaying goblins. Throughout the episodes of season 1 we constantly hear references to the former, but his actual presence is not being felt. Instead we hear of his appearances in the capital (the supposed power center of the GS universe). Even the way he is being slayed – by some characters of insignificant role to the plot and in a scene of under a minute length – comes to represent the insignificance this supposedly epic threat has on the everyday life of people.
The goblins, on the other hand, are being constantly ridiculed by the adventurers for their insignificancy. They are supposedly weak enemy that terrorizes communities, located on the periphery of society. When slayed, they do not bring prestige, status or glory. On the contrary, if one is being killed by them, this could bring shame. But their parasitic and oppressive presence is being constantly felt throughout the season. We often hear of raped or kidnapped girls, robbed or killed peasants, and pillaged communities. Even when the Goblin Lord appears in episode 11, he is not some generic threat, but a specific one with concrete social consequences. And this is the reason why the main characters have decided to fight only them.
Goblins, in the context of the show, can be understood as exploitation, discrimination, sexism, etc: these forms of domination and oppression, which are present in almost invisible way (consciously hidden from the public by the ruling authorities) in contemporary everyday life. The Demon Lord, on the other hand, represents the realm of electoral spectacle. The importance of the conflicts that take place in it is often blown out of proportion. They are being presented as epic battles with existential character, but which are not actually felt by common people in their everyday life. A real world example is the electoral battle between the centrist Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Marine le Pen, narrated by mainstream (and not only) media in terms of “Good versus Evil”. And although the supposed hero defeat the villain, the life in France remained precarious, just as the goblins in the GS universe continued to torture people and communities even after the defeat of the Demon Lord. Thus the social movements in France, just like the GS main characters, had to continue their struggle against everyday injustices and exploitation, culminating in the uprising of the “Yellow Vests”.
Goblin Slayer is supposedly presented with the option to escape all the slaying and return to rural life, but he knows that if he remains inactive, goblins will sooner or later disturb the peace of him and those around him. Furthermore he himself is a victim of theirs, with his sister being slaughtered when he was only a boy. He knows that the people on the periphery of society will always be tormented by goblins, so he cannot neither give up, nor engage in the epic battles of the capital. Similarly, many activists remain active on grassroots level and continue to struggle against oppression, refusing to enter the realm of electoral spectacle, where they will remain politically toothless in the face of injustice.
Bureaucracy and Narcissism
The GS universe appears heavily bureaucratized. Adventurers have to go to the headquarters of the adventurer’s guild for quests, in order to get ranked and paid. Furthermore, the names are of generic character – Priestess, Elven Ranger, Hero, Scout, Sword Maiden etc. – that indicates their combat skills, rather than personality. Even the world outside the guild is not spared by this bureaucratization: the childhood friend of Goblin Slayer is simply called Cow Girl (which conveniently fits with her lifestyle – she lives and works in her uncle’s farm).
In this bureaucratic environment narcissist behavior is being encouraged and nurtured. Adventurers seek quests that will help them elevate to higher rank and economically profit, while mockery towards lower ranking characters is an often occurrence. In this system fighting goblins is just not worth it. Although they are the menace to society that is actually being felt by common people, adventurers avoid dealing with them since this will not bring them prestige and elevate them in the guild’s hierarchy (and there is always the risk of messing up and getting killed by them). Instead we constantly see characters in expensive equipment and high status boasting about their achievements in quests that does not have real effect on society. This highly reflects the narcissist attitude members of political parties, NGOs and other bureaucratic organizations adopt. The status in such organizations means economic and political power and becomes an end in itself, like celebrity politicians who avoid mundane and tiresome tasks, while boasting with achievements, which have no real effect on the oppressed and exploited.
The Goblin Slayer, on the other hand, transcends this narcissist attitude and the bureaucratically imposed roles. At the season’s finale he rallies other adventurers around humane values like trust and mutual aid. Even Guild Girl (the main staff of the Adventurer’s Guild) breaks the bureaucratic rules and helps Goblin Slayer’s egalitarian request. He continues his struggle against goblins, knowing that this will not elevate his rank in the guild’s hierarchy nor his economic wellbeing. The bad shape of his equipment is constantly being remarked by other adventurers, while his sword skills are being questioned due to his refusal to engage in more “prestigious” quests. But as a victim of goblin violence himself, he is conscious of the threat that they represent, even to the elite ranks (whose fear of them is being revealed by the Sword Maiden, the defeater of Demon Lord, in Episode 8), and that sooner or later, one will have to face them.
His character could be understood as a metaphor for the thousands of grassroots activists that refuse to act according to the rules of the nation-state and the capitalist system, fighting instead oppression and injustice “from below”. Goblin Slayer represents this enraged multitude that is the biggest victim of the structural violence of the dominant order. Although at times we see him without helmet, his eyes remain hidden until the very end of the season, something which comes to suggest that his personal identity is of no particular importance in this struggle, since he is not some superhero but an everyday person – one among the crowd. Goblin Slayer is even depicted, in the very end of episode 12 as just another pawn they could find anywhere else. What makes him different (or even heroic) however is his decision to not allow the gods roll the dice, and take his destiny in his own hands. By being described simply as pawn, which however could decide to defy its tormentors and transgress its predetermined role, the show suggests, everyone can join the fight against oppression, regardless of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and most certainly, without the need of specific expertise or superior skills.
The GS series carry a powerful political message for us today. Fighting the injustices that torment us cannot be done through the mechanisms of bureaucracy and electoral spectacle. If we get tangled with high status and wealth, the show suggests, we will become too comfortable with our position and too afraid to face the real incarnations of oppression. Social movements seem to be learning this lesson too. From the Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, through the Indignados and Nout Debout, until the recent Yellow Vest mobilizations, growing amount of people are deciding to face their problems in a horizontal manner, instead of relying on representatives or cumbersome bureaucratic mechanisms. They seem in line with the show on the idea that the only way to improve our lives is to do it on grassroots level – to get our hands dirty. There will not be a single epic battle, just as there won’t be a grand revolution, after which a happily-ever-after scenario will follow. Instead, GS suggests, life is a struggle. Forms of domination, discrimination and exploitation will be trying to sneak upon us and our communities even when we have supposedly installed a more just system (one without Demon Lord). The history of humanity is filled with examples that support this suggestion.
Just like the Goblin Slayer continues, day after day, to kill goblins, so we too must continue to organize democratically and face oppression in a patient manner. Even if at times such an approach might seem mundane, tiresome or lacking of fame and glory, it surely is a recipe for long term improvement of the human condition.