Review of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (2019)
Seen in 2022.
This review refers to the first season of the TV series.
In the Taisho era, ca. 1920, a family of charcoal burners live peacefully on the margins of traditional Japanese society. They know nothing of the rapid changes happening in the cities. They are also ignorant of an ancient, evil presence in Japan. A vampire, called an oni or “demon”, almost wipes out the family while prowling the wooded mountains for blood.
Only two members of the family survive. Tanjirō, the eldest son, is resourceful and empathetic; he was everyone’s favourite. Nezuko, the eldest daughter, was bitten by the vampire and has become one herself. Tanjirō swears to restore her humanity, though the preservation of their bond will cost him dearly and take them both into the heart of an ancient secret society.
The Demon Slayer adaptation, particularly the feature film that followed the first season of this TV series, was a big hit in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was based on an ongoing 2016 comic which reproduced a tested commercial recipe, building on familiar broad-audience shōnen manga tropes mandated by the editors. It is most directly inspired by JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure (1987) (initially-ordinary people battling vampires in historical settings) and Bleach (2001) (modern Japanese teen battling morbid and hierarchical secret societies of superheroes) but also resembles 3×3 Eyes (1987) (close relationship where one party is cursed with immortality) among others. Demon Slayer is set about 100 years back, in a recognizable Japanese society. It is more wholesome than those predecessors, heavily featuring empathy for some of its vampires, yet it ranges slightly farther into the dark fantasy genre which was the original author’s real passion.
The protagonist, Tanjirō, is not brash and boisterous like Naruto (1999) but wholly sympathetic, even saintly like Rurouni Kenshin (1996). The combination of unusual wholesomeness through Tanjirō with unusual cruelty and gruesomeness produces tonal whiplash, contained mainly by a narrative compartmentalization borrowed from video games. Specifically, after the opening set piece of Tanjirō and Nezuko having their family killed, the narrative proceeds quickly to Tanjirō’s training in seclusion with a masked old master, in the manner of a video-game tutorial, after which Tanjirō is sent to complete an exam and a couple of solo missions. His instructions are delivered by talking crows and backstory is supplied by cutscenes of other people’s experiences. This all minimizes the number of NPC interactions and thereby the scenario’s complexity until the main characters are firmly established. When he is severely injured, Tanjirō gets some downtime, but is again secluded from any possible interaction with the normal society that “demon slayers” supposedly protect. Along the way, the siblings’ motive to make Nezuko human is modified in such a way that they are incentivized to battle increasingly powerful opponents, so they level up continually and make friends as heroes do in shōnen tournament shows and video games.
In the denouement of the first season, episodes 22–26, Tanjirō and Nezuko finally meet the only leader of their own organization, but even then, there is no real briefing and indeed very little organizational structure beyond the mere fact of hierarchy. The most accomplished slayers each have their specialty, like “love” or “snakes”, but their various schools of fighting, like the spectacular arts of the vampires, are so loosely structured that the basic formula of the genre—a treadmill of continual improvement to defeat progressively stronger foes—is always front and centre. The sincere familial love between Tanjirō and Nezuko, not the superhero action, provides the necessary narrative strength to keep the show together. Nezuko’s contributions, in particular, always mark a fine dramatic apex. There is also plenty of comic relief and kinetic action, but on a basic level it’s almost as campy as JoJo.
The vampires of Demon Slayer are inherently much stronger than all normal humans, get stronger still by killing people, reproduce easily, are essentially impossible to kill with non-magical weapons (though harmed by direct sunlight), and are generally driven by hunger with little remorse for their victims. Since they are also difficult to find, vampires would naturally multiply exponentially, not linearly. Meanwhile, the master of the “demon slayers” is the 97th at his post. Evidently the organization has been trying to wipe out the vampires for a long time, without ever succeeding but also without ever failing so badly that its cause is lost or even forgotten. That long-term balance makes even less sense than Vampires (1998).
Despite the premises, neither the existence of vampires nor of slayers is known to the general public or to law enforcement, and possibly not even to government or religious authorities. These are plot holes that add nothing to the show, but they are deliberate plot holes. Secrecy keeps the historical setting more recognizable and is narcissistic. It is assumed, by editors of the genre’s comics, that more self-consistent worldbuilding should be secondary to spectacular characters. Indeed, episode 22 introduces a slew of visually distinct, stylized, one-note new characters for the commercial industry of character goods to process, and they’re fun.
Demon Slayer is fun. The writing cuts corners but also plays well to the strengths of the classic shōnen epic. The animated adaptation is a notch above average, ranging in style even to something like Western cartoons for comic-relief sequences. There is a lot of limited animation, necessary to control costs with complex character designs, and there are recaps that open most of the episodes. The recaps serve a purpose on TV because the narrative is heavily serialized, both in the inferior sense of using cliffhangers and in the superior sense of telling a coherent story, despite all the formalist shortcuts. The music to the opening and ending credits is boring numetal and the post-credit previews are chaff, but the actual content is solid. I just hope it doesn’t go on forever.
References here: Dorohedoro (2020).