'Demon Slayer' is a Visually Remarkable Action Anime About Not Losing Your Humanity, and Also Killing Monsters
(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)
Because battle shonen anime is arguably the most popular anime genre there is, it is bound to become a bit formulaic. Just like superhero movies can at times feel like they’re just following a series of checklists, too many battle shonen anime feel like a repeat of things you’ve already seen. This is to say that, whenever something even remotely fresh comes along, it feels like a remarkable achievement, even if it still mostly adheres to the tropes and conventions of the genre.
Demon Slayer is one of those battle shonen anime. Sure, it’s still about a young boy joining a group of elite warriors and training to become the very best that ever was. Set during the Taisho era (roughly the 1910s), we follow young Tanjiro Kamado, whose entire family gets murdered by a demon one night. Well, everyone except for his younger sister, Nezuko, who suffers a different fate. Tanjiro then sets out on a quest to become a Demon Slayer, part of an elite group of swordsmen, in order to find a way to bring his sister back to being human.
The show starts out quite conventional, as it eases the viewer with familiarity before throwing unfamiliar things at them, like how the show places a greater emphasis on empathy and compassion than many other similar shows. Demon Slayer may be about killing tons of creepy monsters, but it’s also about how we demonize others. Oh, and the animation is simply outstanding.
What Makes It Great
Demon Slayer doesn’t really stray far away from the genre conventions of a shonen anime, and that’s alright. In fact, the show is incredibly straightforward and to the point when it comes to the tropes of the genre it mostly skips through it. There is a sort of tournament arc where Tanjiro proves his worth as a warrior, but it’s over in barely one episode. He’s spent most of the first season learning the ropes, but we don’t spend several episodes with Tanjiro and a trainer, instead, he’s ready to go out into the world in only one episode.
The show may have Demon Slayer in its title, but the show is really about family, specifically the bond between Tanjiro and Nezuko. Even though Nezuko, now possessed by a demon, can’t really talk and spends most of her time tucked away in a box that Tanjiro carries on his back, she is still a fully fleshed character with agency and motivation. Their dynamic is not entirely unlike that of Ed and Al in Fullmetal Alchemist, with only one of them being human, and their story revolving around their desperate quest towards becoming whole again. What makes the Kamado siblings unique is how they’re equally as qualified and eager to jump at the chance to support the other.
Nezuko may behave and look innocent, but the show takes the effort to give her just as big an arc as Tanjiro, with Nezuko growing in her fighting skills and often joining in the fight to save Tanjiro from certain death. Likewise, Demon Slayer makes a point to show the siblings had already taken on major roles for their family long before Nezuko became a demon, with the two supporting their mother and taking care of their younger siblings after they lost their father.
Demon Slayer is also a show that feels deeply grounded in Japanese history. Unlike many popular shonen shows like Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist, or even My Hero Academia, who are heavily inspired by Western aesthetics and culture, Demon Slayer relies on the imagery of its time period. The show’s very specific setting comes into play a couple of times in the season, and seems to be a huge part of the upcoming feature film. The Taisho period was one of great transition and divide, where the traditional aesthetic of Edo Japan began clashing with imported aesthetics of the West. All of our main characters dress very traditionally, and Tanjiro especially wears a checkered haori jacket on top of a more traditional gakuran uniform when he joins the Demon Slayer Corps (there is a fantastic, and much deeper article on the fashion of the show right here).
When Tanjiro first arrives at a city, however, we see a much more modernized place compared to everything else we’d seen to that point. As many people walk around in business suits as they do in traditional kimonos. There are street lights, buildings, and even automobiles! The show doesn’t draw much attention to this, but as an outsider, it feels special to see a show so unapologetically Japanese that uses its specific time period to create a unique aesthetic that is slowly becoming important for the story itself.
What It Adds to the Conversation
Tanjiro is a different kind of protagonist than we’re used to seeing in battle shonen anime. Sure, he’s still sporting the spikey hair and the will to become the very best, like no one ever was. But what makes Tanjiro special is how pure-hearted and compassionate he is. Like Deku in My Hero Academia, Tanjiro is not motivated by revenge or a quest for power, but have a deep desire to make the world better, which is what makes them powerful. The two of them also show great emotional intelligence, unlike comparable anime protagonists like Goku or Naruto. Not like they’re child-like or naive, on the contrary. Tanjiro shows no mercy when he has to fight or kill a demon, but he still finds a way to sympathize with them, treating the demons peacefully even weeping when some of them die. Likewise, the show makes a point to show the backstories of its demons, how they were like, and what their aspirations were before turning into monsters, often making them remorseful.
This column usually places some mention of a show’s animation in the previous section, but ufotable’s animation for Demon Slayer is such an intrinsic part of the show that it deserves a bit more attention. This is an action show, so there are bound to be plenty of fight scenes. Yet few anime make their fight scenes feel as unique, as beautiful, and as essential to the show’s experience as Demon Slayer. The show features a unique aesthetic overall that feels like classic ukiyo-e paintings, with a near-perfect blend of 2D animation and 3D CGI backgrounds to allow for dynamic and complex camera movements that simply couldn’t be replicated in live-action. It’s a bit weird to consider sword fights peaceful, but this show manages to make every swing of Tanjiro’s sword feel almost like anime ASMR, particularly when coupled with the show’s phenomenal sound design. Because every demon having their own distinct power that doesn’t get repeated, every fight feels unique, like a phenomenal Inception-like fight scene in a rotating room. The fight in episode 19 in particular is such a whirlwind of emotions, a perfect blend of camera work, animation, sound design, character development, and a great insert song, that you shouldn’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing out just because of the overwhelming rush of emotions.
Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out
There’s a reason why battle shonen anime remain so incredibly popular nearly 60 years after Astro Boy. They have relatively simple concepts, relatable characters and themes, and exhilarating fight scenes. Demon Slayer doesn’t necessarily break the mold, but it uses decades of history and tropes and refines them, presenting them back to the audience in some ways you maybe don’t expect. Its unique setting, compassionate characters, and jaw-dropping animation make this a show you shouldn’t miss. That it also features plenty of gore, disturbing creature designs and creepy imagery also makes Demon Slayer a fantastic Halloween binge while we wait for the film, Demon Slayer: Infinity Train.
Watch This If You Like: My Hero Academia, Fullmetal Alchemist, Blade
Demon Slayer is streaming on Hulu.
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