Originality By Way Of Cliche: Kumo Kagyu’s Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1 (2016)

“Goblin Slayer was calm as he delivered this answer that was no answer. He daubed his gauntlets with blood, then pulled a liver out from one of the bodies.”

 

—Kumo Kagyu, Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1 (2016)

§.00 The first installment of the novel series Goblin Slayer, Vol.1 (2016), written by Kumo Kagyu (with illustrations by Noboru Kannatsuki), opens with a creation story; the gods of light, order and destiny are locked in a cosmic struggle with the gods of darkness, chaos and chance (how many gods attend each attribute, we are not told). In place of fighting each other directly, their contest is engaged by the rolling of die. After some time the gods tire of dice and create the world as their board and all the beings upon it as their pawns.

§.01 After the table-top inspired prologue, a knowing, introductory line, preempting the cliches to come: “You’ve heard this one before.” More likely than not, upon reading Chapter 1, a fantasy-versed reader will, indeed have heard the set-up before; a young, would-be adventurer known only as Priestess (no characters in the novel have names, only class-designations) joins a guild, receives “porcelain” rank (the lowest of the guild’s 10-teir hierarchy) and is met by three other, young, would-be porcelain adventurers—Warrior, Fighter and Wizard—who ask her to join their party on a quest to save kidnapped maidens from the clutches of a band of goblins (which are described as “-tall as a child, with strength and wits to match”). Priestess after some hesitation, accepts the offer. The party then tracks down the goblins to their lair in a gloomy cave. Venturing within the recess, the party is filled with confidence, save for Priestess, who urges caution, however, her chiding proves fruitless—shortly thereafter, a band of goblins blindside the adventurers.

§.02 In a more conventional tale, the brave wayfarers would have just barely defeated the goblins, rescued the maidens and received a bountiful reward for their pains. However, in Goblin Slayer, they all wind up dead, or as good as. Wizard is gutted with a poison blade. Warrior is slaughtered. Fighter is beaten and raped. Priestess is set upon and takes an arrow to the shoulder. Yet, just before Priestess meets the same fate as Fighter, a mysterious man appears who is “not very impressive” and donned in “dirty leather armor and a filthy steel helm.” The man, a silver ranked adventurer (the third highest rank within the guild hierarchy), decimates the goblins and introduces himself as Goblin Slayer. He then tells Priestess that Wizard is as good as dead, due to the workings of goblin poison that had lined the blade which skewered her. Wizard asks to be put out of her misery and Goblin Slayer swiftly obliges and slits her throat without compunction, much to Priestess’ dismay. Slayer then states that he is going to finish off the rest of the goblins; Priestess goes with him and together they destroy the nest and find a secret room filled with goblin children born from the wombs of human females the goblin horde had kidnapped. Priestess inquires whether or not Slayer will kill them. He says he will and she tries to stop him by asking if he would still be willing to slaughter them if they were good, to which the Slayer replies “The only good goblins are the ones that never come out of their holes,” before clubbing the baby goblins to death. After this grisly affair, the Priestess resolves (rather surprisingly) to become a proper adventurer by accompanying Goblin Slayer on his bloody, ceaseless missions.

§.03 The first thing that struck me about the novel was how original its execution, despite its abundant cliches. In GS, cliches are dutifully employed to be forthrightly subverted, but not merely for the sake of surprising the reader, as when, in a Hollywood horror film, convention dictates a cat or trusted friend be responsible for the first jump-scare so that the effect of the second may be heightened by causing the audience to question whether or not it will again be a harmless animal or friend, or some genuine threat. For example, Goblin Slayer, a skillful warrior and thoughtful tactician, would, in more conventional fantasy works, ladder his way up from the stock genre threats (such as bandits, goblins, trolls, etc) to ever greater challenges (such as dragons and necromancers) in tandem with a plot ever expanding in scope, from the local, to the demense, to the national, to the continental to, invariably, the world, and, perhaps, other worlds (spirit realms, etc). This, however, is not the case with the slayer, who adamantly refuses to engage in any activity not related to exterminating goblins. His idee fixe is so extreme that the co-inhabitants of the town near where he resides come to consider him eccentric, if not mad, and they might be right, for even when he is told that the world is imperiled by “an army of demons” he refuses to aid those who petition his assistance, saying only, “If it isn’t goblins, then I don’t care.” His proclivity, no matter how unhealthy, proves salubrious to those previously living in fear of the diminutive raiders, as the “military won’t move against goblins.” (p. 135)

Further, a character who is introduced in a like-manner to the slayer in a conventional genre-work would also be charged with the characteristics partial to fantasy protagonists; which are generally either sullen and given over to reverie (as in Twilight or Lord of the Rings), whimsical and optimistic (as the protagonists in the novels of Charles De Lint), or a straight-laced ‘chosen one’ (as in Harry Potter or Star Wars), however, the slayer bares no similarity to any of these archetypes, or the hero archetype in general. Rather, he is more akin to a professional shorn of all social ambition—a obsessive tradesman—than the prototypical knight-errant of romantic literature. This is demonstrated in the sedulous way in which the slayer’s tradecraft is highlight, as in the following passages, “‘Leather armor prizes ease of movement. Mail would stop a dagger in the dark… His helmet, the same. Sword and shield are small, easy to use in a tight space.'” Kagyu, p. 130… “‘Clean items reek of metal,’ Goblin Slayer said, a note of annoyance in his voice. Goblins have an excellent sense of smell.” p. 132.

Of further interest is the fact that his trade is not a vaunted one, but is, instead, looked down upon as the preoccupation of an amatuer (the consensus in the story is that real heroes should always seek greater glory). One can see parallels between the snobbery of the guild adventurers, and the differential treatment by real-life society between the man who goes to college so as to become a doctor, and the man who goes to trade-school so as to become a lineworker. In recognizing this, Goblin Slayer Vol.1, functions as a cleverly disguised social satire as much as a RPG homage or action-adventure.


The novel series had its origins in a online thread posted by Kumo Kagyu in October, 2012; the story was later re-edited into novel-form and picked up by GA Bunko. On February 15, 2016, the first installment of the novel series was published via SB Creative (in Japanese). A few months later, in December 20, 2016, Yen Press licensed the novels and released the first volume in English. Both a comic (written by Masahiro Ikeno) and an animated adaptation (written by Hideyuki Kurata and Yosuke Kuroda) have been made in the interim since the initial publication of the novel series, which is, presently, still on-going (with ten volumes released in Japan as of 2019).


 

FILM REVIEW – LE SAMORUAI

Spoiler warning.

[Editor’s note: This article was previously published to my personal blog, thus if you have already read it there and recall it’s contents you might wish to skip it. Thank you for reading.]

If formalism was gold Jean-Pierre Melville might have just been the richest filmmaker to ever live and none of his works more aptly demonstrates this than the cold, calculated crime classic Le Samourai. Though the film is now hailed as a masterpiece (so much so that it has been adopted into the Criterion Collection – which you should check out) this wasn’t always so; indeed when the film was first released there was a great divide between critics, one praising, the other side decrying. It is easy to see why; minimalist to the extreme, there isn’t any dialogue until about ten minutes into the film.

The plot is generic and straightforward, Jef Costello (portrayed with immaculate, eerie reserve by a young Alain Delon), a mysterious hit-man, is contracted to kill the owner of a popular, ritzy Parisian nightclub. He does so but is caught in the act by the establishment’s pianist, she says nothing when questioned but the police aren’t convinced. His alibi is air-tight, too air-tight. When the criminal organization whom contracted him realizes that he might be ousted they turn against him; putting out a hit on the hit-man. The rest of the film is a cat and mouse game between the police, the crime syndicate and Jef.

This sounds rather uninspired and somewhat bland but when you see the film you will realize it isn’t so much the plot itself as it’s execution, that really stands out. Details are the overlords of this film, from Jef’s seeming pathological perfectionism (ever straightening the brim of his hat just so and always ritualistically putting on white gloves before a kill) to the tight, glacially paced camera work and immaculate and strangely barren landscapes. The fact that I was never once confused within the film, even when near fifteen minutes go by without a single piece of dialogue, is a testament to the director’s mastery of the medium. We have it easy these days, what with Michael Caine ever popping up and banging on and on about the plot, page after page of heavy handed exposition (I swear Caine is in everything these days and always as nothing more than a exposition vessel). It is as if Hollywood believes that their public is so stupid that they can’t go ten minutes without the writer holding their hand through the events there unfolding.

More than being a mere highly stylized aesthetic exercise or ruminations on crime character study (both of which it certainly is) the film posits a view of life from the point of view of a dreamscape that is, in my opinion, exceedingly admirable. Here I’m talking about Jef the not quite human, the dream’s fell harvester. He has no fear of death, indeed he seems as inexplicably drawn to it as to the pianist who spared him. In one scene a man sticks a gun in the samurai’s face and Jef not only doesn’t flinch but then promptly bitch slaps his foe to the ground (with such banal ease that it always makes me chuckle). He also is emotionally aloof; in one of the character’s early establishing shots he is driving down a abandoned street (it seems all the streets of Le Samourai are ever abandoned which adds a unearthly, surreal vibe as if to say “This isn’t real, would you want it to be?”) and stops at a sign. A beautiful woman pulls up beside him and smiles flirtatiously, he looks at her as if she were just another signpost along the way and then icily returns to his work. Another scene has him caressed by a woman who is so madly in love with him that she’s willing to take the fall for complicity in his crimes if it came to that; he merely looks away, disinterested in her romantic overtures. He also kills without compunction – His first assassination scene has always been one of the comic highlights of the film to me:

Club Owner: Who are you?

Jef: Doesn’t matter.

Club Owner: What do you want?

Jef: To kill you.

Delon says this last line with such drab flatness that the subsequent gunshots which blast the club owner into oblivion are both jarringly horrifying and completely hilarious. But that could just be me. Either way the scene is indicative of Jef’s amorality – but is he a sociopath? My answer is no – he kills because he is paid (he says as much himself) and, more simply, because he’s good at it. He’s almost elemental in that regard (much like his arch-nemesis, the enigmatic art collector-gangster, Oliver Rey {played by Jean-Pierre Posier}). He’s not so much evil as he is beyond humanity, similar to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (without all the effusiveness). He also isn’t without principals – indeed there seems to be nothing more important to him than his principals (which he describes as his “habits”). This shows that so dedicated is he to these principals that they have become second nature, instinctive but not dogmatic. He also isn’t without compassion, for though it would have been easy for him to let his accomplice take the fall he sacrifices himself instead (though this is also likely due in part to his seeming obsession with the nature of death and a understanding of it’s inevitability). This non-moralizing, distanced self overcoming is, when taken in gestalt, a cohesive philosophy and one which holds, for me at least, as much amusement as wisdom.

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Jef, fatalistically fearless in the face of a confederate assassin.

The film doesn’t preach, it doesn’t paint it’s characters as good or bad, the characters do that. It doesn’t posit fate or tell you that everything is going to be fine or that everything is terrible and that it always will be. It is as pragmatic and logical as it’s protagonist’s tactics and, to me, immensely inspiring.

A final word of parting: I highly recommend the Criterion Collection version of this film, expensive as it is – well worth the money for the pristine restoration.

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