Imagine you have a dream you want to achieve one day, and you’ll work as hard as you can to make it happen. Not just any dream, though: you want to be the best like no one ever was, and no matter what kind of trials you face—be they family turmoil or a world-dooming evil—you will make that dream of yours a reality, no matter how much screaming or dumb muscle it takes. That’s the root of many successful shonen battle anime, from Dragon Ball Z to My Hero Academia. But then you have something like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, which puts a fresh coat of paint on the genre’s “go big or go home” energy and turns it into a refined tale you do not want to miss.
In Taisho-era Japan, the stench of tension flows through the air; stories are told of man-eating demons lurking in the darkest woods, waiting to consume the next travelers foolish enough to venture out in the middle of the night. For many, it’s just an old wives’ tale. For young charcoal seller Tanjiro, it is an awful reality; the loving warmth of home he’s known his whole life disappears just like that when he finds the slaughtered remains of his family. To make matters worse, his younger sister Nezuko, the sole survivor of the massacre, has been turned into a demon—almost, actually; she still has some humanity left in her. What’s a kindhearted chap like Tanjiro to do? The only thing he can do: become a “Demon Slayer” to find a cure for his sister and avenge his fallen loved ones.
So begins the tale of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, the anime adaptation of the manga by Koyoharu Gotoge that’s been making waves since its premiere in the 2019 spring season. At first it doesn’t seem that special; it just seems to have more moments of blood loss than your average shonen. Yet what appeared initially as the standard shonen formula set in ancient Japan has slowly but surely become the most talked-about anime of the season. What happened? Surely Demon Slayer has to have something big up its sleeve to have to it placed next to the likes of One Piece and Naruto in terms of jaw-dropping action.
Well, as it turns out, that “big thing up its sleeve” is no other than Tanjiro himself. Right away, his character and mission are pretty straightforward: become a Demon Slayer, slay demons—especially the one that killed his family—and find a cure for his sister. That’s it. Tanjiro is not out to be the Demon Slayer, but rather a Demon Slayer, but he’s nonetheless committed to his cause. Being the number-one whatever means nothing to the established tension of protecting the only family you have left. That alone is a nice change from your average one-track-minded shonen protagonist.
But Tanjiro’s strongest asset is not his determination, but rather his empathy. It’s one thing to be a good friend—after all, this is a shonen—but it’s another thing to be considerate of enemies you know are beyond redemption, much less providing them some form of closure in their dying moments, especially considering that the show makes it pretty clear just how dangerous demons can get. Yet Tanjiro pulls this off with a level of sincerity rarely seen in shows like this, because he just has that strong a code of respect. In a genre flooded with talk of being the strongest fighter and showing no mercy to villains while constantly shouting, Tanjiro is a fascinating breath of fresh air—just a thickheaded (quite literally) kid who knows what has to be done yet still bothers to give a crap about his enemies. Not to mention, much of the standard shonen shouting he does only comes out in the fights; he always talks at a reasonable volume. For what it’s worth, though, Whiny Quick Attack Wally (Zenitsu) and Manpigman (Inousuke) seem to have the Screaming Lunatic Department covered swimmingly, both with impressive (not to mention hilarious) results. It’s like the three boys have a total of three brain cells, and Tanjiro has all of them.
Of course, we can’t talk about Demon Slayer without talking about Nezuko, Tanjiro’s sister-turned-demon who’s just as atypical to the genre as her brother. She’s become something of a spirit animal to most fans, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s not just her adorable design and faces that have got fans hooked; once again, Demon Slayer breaks from its genre conventions by making her both as compassionate and badass as her brother. And there’s no romantic subplot or anything resembling romance, either; Demon Slayer is all about their precious sibling bond. Although Tanjiro and Nezuko can’t speak to each other anymore, they still know each other quite well, and it’s that unbreakable link that transcends just about everything that goes on around them. I must admit, though, it would be nice to get some form of explanation regarding how Nezuko managed to retain a shred of her humanity despite no longer being human, given that we’ve seen what demon blood can do to people. While I hope this gets explained at some point down the road, there’s no doubt that what we’ve seen so far is a much better showing than most other female characters you’d come across in a shonen anime.
Of course, no discussion of Demon Slayer would feel complete without praise for its artistic side. This show has some gorgeous visual work and choreography, thanks to the good animators at Ufotable. They’ve proven their chops before with their adaptation of Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works, and it’s just as loud and clear in Demon Slayer. The bright animation and scenery scream “traditional Japanese art” no matter where you look; and a lot of the Breath Style sword techniques are simply freaking cool to look at, with many of them taking visual cues from ancient ukiyo-e paintings. The final clash with the spider demon Rui in the 19th episode, in particular, certainly needs its own article to articulate all of its stylistic glory, because it’s just that freaking awesome to see in motion.
Demon Slayer is by no means a lighthearted shonen story; it doesn’t pull any punches with the demon threat, and it’s got more seinen blood loss and body horror than a Mortal Kombat game. What it is, however, is a much stronger shonen story, thanks primarily to its great leads in Tanjiro and Nezuko, its visually engaging action sequences, its well-written character chemistry, and most importantly, its deep emphasis on empathy even toward the cruelest of beings.
It’s nice to know that Tanjiro has got someone watching his back, and on his back in most cases, and I can’t wait to see where their journey goes from here.
Demon Slayer is available from Crunchyroll.