First, a short story, which I promise will have relevance to my discussion of Goblin Slayer by the end of the post.
One of my friends works as a curator on a memorial submarine, a decommissioned WW2-era ship since converted into a museum. One day, he offered me a private tour. He was patient with me as I slipped a little on the deck and struggled to orient myself into the hatch and climb down the narrow ladder. But when I walked through my first round doorway, legs first and swinging my arms over and behind my head like a limbo, he laughed at me. He explained that that only happened in the movies. Normal sailors would just walk through the holes like any normal person. I’m sure I looked stupid, but how should I have known the truth before he corrected me? My only point of reference was the movies, and as such the action felt real as I swung through the door.
However, the submarine example has a well-documented historical truth behind it. How should we approach the issue of realism in fiction, which has no set truth to appeal to? I especially wonder what to do with titles that receive significant praise for their apparent “realism,” like this anime season’s standout series, Goblin Slayer. Can we call it realistic? I dunno. It depends. Who are you?
Let’s start with a simple hypothetical example. Since Goblin Slayer has pen and paper RPG origins (see the dice rolls in the opening song and the priestess’s character sheet in episode one), I’ll borrow some simple math from my favorite game system: three dice and nothing more.
The Dwarf asks the Goblin Slayer to play his civilization’s greatest tavern pass-time: dice poker. The Goblin Slayer says some comic-pragmatic line like “Goblins do not play dice” but agrees to play just one roll of three dice. On his first try, he hits the best possible roll: three sixes, a total of 18 points. The drunk dwarf falls backwards out of his chair in surprise and everyone else laughs at his expense. The priestess feels ever so slight admiration at the Goblin Slayer’s luck, but he does not react. Goblins do not play dice, and neither does he (but in another pen and paper RPG reference, episode three reveals that the gods of the universe do. If the universe is the game, the gods are the players!).
Should we call this scene unrealistic? After all, the probability of rolling a full hand of sixes comes out to about 0.5%. Would a more “realistic” story instead have him roll the most common hand, for a total of 10 points (about 12% probability)? What if the Goblin Slayer plays 10 hands, and hits 18 points every single time (with rounding, probability 0.0000000000000000001%)? That’s very, very unlikely and the dwarf might have a brain aneurysm, but it’s still technically possible. And if it is possible, can we call it unrealistic?
For me, this is where discussion of realism in fiction breaks down. No one can define a consistent threshold for what would violate their suspension of disbelief. In the probability space of “anything I can imagine”, well it’s just that… anything can happen! I can imagine the Goblin Slayer rolling a common 10, a rare 18, and an absurd 180 after 10 hands because those are all real possibilities. And, in the context of the fiction, I can even imagine him hitting impossible scores like 31, zero, or negative six. As a writer, I might make need to make some extra effort to explain why the impossible scores could exist in the fictional world (~magic~) but again: if I can imagine it, it can happen.
I suppose that’s all a rambling route to my thoughts on Goblin Slayer’s hot topic: the rape scene in episode one. The most common defense of the scene suggests that the series needed to depict the goblins raping a woman to establish the world’s realism and set a dark, serious, gritty <insert synonym for edgy> tone. But thinking about the uselessness of arguments regarding realism in fiction, I have to ask, why bother? Why does the goblin’s evil need a justification, so graphically depicted? Do the show’s fans have such a low probability threshold for their suspension of disbelief that they need to see a rape to accept the necessity of slaughtering hundreds of the monsters throughout the series? If anything can happen in fiction, why that?
With that said though, perhaps I am being too strict with my definition of “realism.” When most people discuss realism in fiction, I suppose they mean something closer to believability or “verisimilitude” (to use the academic word). Just because a writer can imagine an outcome does not mean that the audience will accept it, opening the discussion to issues like plot holes, internal logic errors, or inconsistent tone that might test a viewer’s suspension of disbelief regardless of any of my probability games.
For example, the Goblin Slayer shouldn’t suddenly travel 200 miles in a minute without a good explanation (teleport scrolls). Or, if the writer establishes that he is a stoic, human brick of a character (god he’s so boring!), he shouldn’t suddenly burst out singing and dancing for joy. And, if the premise requires that the parasitical goblins rape human hosts to bear their children, they shouldn’t suddenly begin reproducing by asexual budding (unless an ogre magus shows up I guess?). It would diminish the story’s sense of verisimilitude and shatter the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.
But even on that more specific question of verisimilitude, I feel like the realism debate becomes pointless. No matter how well the writer builds verisimilitude with gritty details or intricate magic systems, some viewers will reject all of part of the show’s reasoning. To return to my question in the title, is Goblin Slayer realistic? I dunno, who are you?
For example, a doctor (hi mom) might reject the show for the impossibility of the blood and gore explosions that burst out of the goblins in every fight scene. Meanwhile, this reddit thread questions the authenticity Goblin Slayer’s vision of medieval combat by demonstrating that heavy plate armor would not actually restrict movement like the Goblin Slayer claims. Put one hundred people in a room, and every single one will find some flaw in any piece of fiction’s verisimilitude.
However, to the show’s hardcore fans, none of those flaws will matter. For example, the reddit thread linked in the previous paragraph is full of people making “~well~actually~” arguments about the armor, because the Goblin Slayer couldn’t afford it or the plates would make too much noise in the dungeons or the metal would smell funny (?). Meanwhile, even on the blood issue I’m sure some head-canon hero will try to explain that it’s so simple: goblins have highly pressurized blood and a sword puncture to the skull at this precise angle would cause a rapid release and… you get the point. If you can imagine it, it can happen. Some credulous portion of the audience will fall for any plot convenience while the skeptical sticklers won’t budge in their disbelief.
So, who do we believe? Is Goblin Slayer realistic?
To me at least, the answer is no. Despite my ongoing fascination with pessimistic writers like Emil Cioran, the show’s general bleakness just doesn’t speak to my experience of reality. When I play the pen and paper RPGs that Goblin Slayer frequently references, I prefer absurdist comedy campaigns to dark and gritty fantasies. I don’t even care much for verisimilitude: some of my all-time favorite anime like Humanity Has Declined, Space Patrol Luluco, and Nichijou throw internal consistency out the window in favor of unapologetic absurdities. To return to the rape issue, my lax stance on verisimilitude means that I don’t really see the point. A simple statement like “Goblins are evil because they are” would satisfy me. If JRR Tolkien can get away with calling orcs tautologically evil in Lord of the Rings, why can’t Goblin Slayer?
I suppose though, I’m just stating a genre preference. I don’t care much about verisimilitude, and as such, don’t see the appeal of dark fantasy in general. But then someone who plays a “serious” RPG system like D&D instead of my darling “anything goes” style might say that Goblin Slayer feels more “real” because it resembles their lived experience. I can’t agree with them, but I can’t call them wrong either. If they can imagine it, it can happen, even if they have to imagine up a gross rape scene to justify it.
Even then, verisimilitude has less to do with experienced reality than it does with expected reality. Remember my submarine example? I expected the limbo-style method of moving through doorways because the stupid Hollywood movies had taught me that. Meanwhile, the historians on board just laughed at me. But before my embarrassing correction, I thought the limbo-walk was real. And that’s the problem: “realism” in fiction has nothing to do with reality, only what individual audience members expect of it. And like I was on the submarine, they can be very, very wrong.
So, is Goblin Slayer realistic? Who cares!
Over a thousand words of discussion later, I can only conclude that discussion of realism in fiction is pointless. I don’t even think it’s an ideal worth striving for. The rape scene does nothing to establish realism because the concept doesn’t even matter. I suppose it helps set the cynical tone, but otherwise it just peddles in shock value to draw publicity. And ehhh… I’m not sure it’s worth it when a tautology would have sufficed. Praise Goblin Slayer because you enjoy the dark fantasy genre. Just don’t bother calling it realistic.
But whatever, who am I?