[Hello all and welcome to Weeb Analysis: a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are truly the classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. Sit back, get some sushi or ramen, and get ready to learn about anime.]
Anime has, and always will be, a niche in America. Anime fandoms are usually quite small and insular and take an eternity to grow into a worldwide media franchise. Not every series can have the popularity of One Piece, yet there’s a relatively recent show has exploded onto the anime scene and has become one of the most popular shows of the past year. This anime has become a phenomenon within the anime industry and is quickly becoming one of the most critically praised shows in recent memory. This anime, is, of course, Demon Slayer.
As a manga, Demon Slayer has been around since 2016, but it never really caught anyone’s attention. It had its place in the Shonen Jump catalog, but it always paled in comparison to its contemporaries. That is until the anime premiered. Overnight, Demon Slayer went from just another Shonen series into one of the biggest hits of the year. Sales of the manga skyrocketed, outselling every other manga in 2019 in both Japan and the United States, cosplayers ran wild at New York Comic Con (no joke, I saw more Demon Slayer cosplayers in my four days covering the convention than any other franchise, anime or otherwise), a video game was announced, and it was hailed as being one of the best anime not just of 2019, but of the entire decade. To say that Demon Slayer exploded in popularity is an understatement. Overnight, Demon Slayer eclipsed any title that came before it and defined action Shonen anime in 2019.
For the uninitiated, if an anime or manga is classified as a Shonen series, it’s one that is designed to appeal to teenage boys, which contrasts with Shoujo titles being aimed at teenage girls. The tropes of Shonen titles have become almost synonymous with anime itself: young earnest protagonist, fights that can last for an eternity, a general focus on increasingly large scale fight scenes, secret techniques and moves, melodrama that wouldn’t be uncommon in a wrestling ring, numerous story arcs with constantly escalating stakes, and a length that would make reading War & Peace feel brief in comparison. For better and for worse, Shonen titles dominate the anime landscape and are usually focal points for otaku to analyze and parse over due to their accessibility.
In any form of media, the more accessible a product is, the more chances there are for people to gravitate and latch on to it. It’s the difference between summer blockbusters and prestige films. Sure, movies like Black Swan may be critically praised darlings, but audiences are more inclined to watch something simpler and easier to grasp like the Marvel movies that require very little effort on the audience’s part. That’s not to imply that the Marvel movies are basic or not as good as prestige films, but some movies are more focused on entertaining audiences than enriching them. On that note, it’s a lot easier for audiences to connect with watching Goku punch bad guys in Dragon Ball Z because the action is easy to understand and doesn’t require much thought. I’d like to think that’s why Shonen anime are still to this day one of the most dominant genres in the medium. On that note, Demon Slayer is probably the perfect gateway drug into anime and weeb goodness.
The series centers on one Tanjiro Kamado, a young man who sells charcoal that comes home one day to discover that his entire family has been slaughtered by demons, with the exception of his sister Nezuko. Unfortunately, Nezuko has turned into a demon from the attack and tries to kill her own sibling. She’s pacified by a roaming swordsman who is sworn to kill demons, who identifies themself as a Demon Slayer, and Tanjiro swears to find a way to reverse the demonization that afflicts his sister. The only way to do this? By becoming a Demon Slayer himself and killing demons that have a connection to the only demon who is able to convert humans into demons, Kibutsuji Muzan.
So what we have, at its core, is a simple story of revenge. While Nezuko is still alive, she has lost her humanity and Tanjiro wishes to not only seek to rectify what happened to his sister, but to avenge his deceased family. It’s certainly more complex than most Shonen protagonists who seek to become number one at whatever the goal of the series is. It’s a more human story, especially since we see in grizzly detail how his family were murdered and how Nezuko is constantly affected by the curse. She tags along with Tanjiro during his adventures but has to constantly deal with an animalistic rage that overcomes her whenever she fights a demon.
In fact, that’s something that Demon Slayer is surprisingly upfront about; it can be a pretty violent show, at least in comparison to its contemporaries. No, it never reaches the heights of ultra-violent shlock from the 80s and 90s like Devilman, Demon City Shinjuku, or even Fist of the North Star, but for a show aimed at teenage boys, it pushes the boundaries of just what is acceptable for that demographic ever so slightly. Decapitations, lacerations, blood, explosions, and nightmare fuel like spiders with baby heads litter the 26-episode first season, which creates some pretty engaging set pieces. This might be a Shonen action series, but it’s one with a distinct horror flair to it.
Speaking of, the animation that’s on display in Demon Slayer is just A+ work. The production studio, ufotable, who is best known for the Fate series, and director Haruo Sotozaki, who previously directed numerous Tales anime adaptations, know how to deliver stunning visuals. It’s not necessarily that the quality of the animation is particularly noteworthy (though it can be at times), but rather that the art style stands out from most other anime currently and elevates the material. When characters are performing their signature attacks, the animation style changes to a more painterly aesthetic not dissimilar from classic Edo period artwork. While in other Shonen anime you want to watch the fight scenes because of the high octane action, you instead want to watch the fight scenes here because they’re just so gosh darn pretty to look at. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention in particular the show’s nineteenth episode, which had such a gorgeously animated finale that it began to trend on social media for just how kickass and stunning it was to watch.
An unfortunate side effect of Shonen shows is that they’re usually made on the cheap, meaning the animation quality suffers greatly and can look outright terrible in certain episodes. It’s a recurrent problem within the industry where several studios have such tight deadlines to finish shows that it’s not uncommon for crunch to rear its head on a weekly basis, lest they miss a deadline. If they did, it would throw everything out of wack not just for them, but for dozens of other organizations reliant on a consistent schedule. Studios get around this by recycling animation if the project is meant to be released on a consistent basis and take any shortcuts to lessen the workload. What, you thought that animators created the “Naruto Run” because it looked cool? Nope, it just meant that animators didn’t have to worry about animating arms and could leave most of the upper body static.
At least from casual observation, Demon Slayer never once recycled any animation and there wasn’t a discernible dip in quality visually. If the series aired new episodes every week for over a year, like with One Piece, then there might be some issues that are more prevalent and easy to spot. However, that thankfully isn’t the case. But while we can talk about animation until the cows come home, Demon Slayer isn’t just about pretty visuals. It has a plot and several characters for us to get to know… or at least attempt to let us learn more about.
If there’s one notable weakness that plagues not only the anime, even including the manga to an extent, it’s how most of the main characters receive very little, if any, development. Outside of Tanjiro, who is painted primarily as a gentle and caring soul, even to the demons that are trying to kill him, the rest of the supporting cast receives virtually no development. Nezuko loses the ability to speak as soon as she turns into a demon, effectively making her a walking plot device rather than an actual character. Tanjiro is also joined by two other Demon Slayers, Zenitsu and Inosuke. Zenitsu can control lightning, but he’s a perpetual coward who cries at the drop of a hat and crushes hard on any woman that looks his way, while Inosuke is a feral man who prides himself on his hot-headed demeanor and punch first, ask questions later mentality.
It’s not that they’re bad characters, but they’re fairly one-note. If you’ve seen one scene with Zenitsu being afraid to fight a demon, only to become an uber-badass once he starts fighting, you’ve seen them all. Character development does occur, but it’s in between major action set pieces as breathers and doesn’t advance beyond “I need to be stronger to protect my friends.” This is fairly typical for Shonen anime since any character progress moves at the pace of a crippled tortoise. The status quo needs to be maintained for the main cast and it’s exceedingly rare to see any Shonen anime protagonist to go through legitimate character development that radically alters who they are as a person. That development usually goes to the villains they have to fight against. The villains can have fleshed out, tragic backstories that feel more dynamic because more often than not, storylines center on the villains more than the protagonists. But Demon Slayer’s villains don’t really stand out either. They function quite literally as monster-of-the-week threats for our heroes to overcome, though the series does attempt to flesh them out by elaborating on their backstories once they’re defeated. We’ll see the villains reflecting on their lives, usually rediscovering repressed/lost memories since becoming a demon that gives the audience a chance to sympathize with them. Sadly, it comes too little too late in most situations.
Take Rui, one of the demons that Tanjiro and crew have to take down. Rui is a direct underling to Muzan, therefore giving him incredible powers and a more ruthless persona. Rui creates a surrogate family around him of other demons that he converts into spider demons. He makes a fake mom, dad, sister, and brother to play family with him, even if they don’t want to. He tortures family members who misbehave, kills them when they talk back to him, and abuses them to the point where some even try to escape him at any cost, choosing to take their chances with a Demon Slayer than Rui. That’s all before you take into account that he murders indiscriminately and has no remorse for any of his actions. Does that make him a good villain? Yes, since we learn to hate him and also realize that he can back up his claims with legitimate strength. However, any attempt to humanize him comes after he’s defeated and after we witnessed him commit atrocity after atrocity. Does that make us feel sympathetic towards him? Kind of…? Sure I feel bad for him, but it’s nothing that changes my opinion on the character in any meaningful way. He was a monster through and through and no amount of dramatic flashbacks can change my mind.
It’s the same as learning about Darth Vader’s time as Anakin Skywalker. Does what we know about Anakin refute his actions as Darth Vader? Not really, no. Vader still committed unspeakable deeds that aren’t negated just because we learn that he had a thing for Padme. Sure, we can view him as a tragic figure because of his fall from to the Dark Side, but it doesn’t excuse his actions, especially given how those character changes were only revealed after we learned about him after his arc as Vader concluded.
But despite the lackluster character development, that’s not the focus of Demon Slayer. Remember, Demon Slayer is an action series aimed at teenage boys. It’s meant to be entertaining and cool. Watching powerful samurai defeat monsters with awesome super moves is thrilling to watch, plain and simple. What’s not to love about it? But there’s one thing that’s truly shocking about Demon Slayer that is very hard to explain and rationalize; its explosive popularity.
Make no mistake, it’s because of the anime that Demon Slayer was catapulted into the stratosphere. No one cared about the franchise before the series aired, and now it’s the talk of the town. Publisher Viz Media decided to release new manga volumes of the series every month rather than every three months to capitalize on the recent success of the series, especially because the manga has just recently concluded. People only care about the manga now because the anime was such a major hit. If you were to ask me why Demon Slayer, as an anime, reached the heights that it did, I would say because it’s the perfect distillation of what a Shonen action series could be.
It’s a jack of all trades, master of none scenario. It doesn’t do any one element better than any other, outside of a gorgeous art style. In terms of fight scenes, My Hero Academia delivers more wonderful fights with plenty of scope and scale to them. Dragon Ball Z has given us some of the most fully fleshed-out characters in all of Shonen anime that have become industry icons. Even the horror and demonic elements feel like they were executed better in classic titles like Yu Yu Hakusho. But Demon Slayer arguably combined all of those elements into one accessible package that anyone could get into. At only 26 episodes, it’s easy to approach (for now) and has a concept that anyone can understand by the end of the first episode. The characters are basic, the action is always at the forefront, and the show has a unique charm that sets it apart from other anime of its ilk.
Demon Slayer’s meteoric success took a rather modest manga and brought it kicking and screaming to the front of the anime pack. Expectations are higher for the next installment of the anime, which is set to be a feature film covering the next arc that is slated to be released in Japan sometime this year and eventually in the West. Demon Slayer is the textbook example of a Shonen anime and is probably the most accessible show to any anime newcomers. There aren’t hundreds of episodes to wade through and it’s great right from the start. No waiting dozens of episodes for it to “get good.” It’s fantastic right from the very beginning as Tanjiro is trying to protect himself from his feral sister while simultaneously trying to protect her from her new demonic self. It’s basic action melodrama at its finest.