I’ve had a bit of a rocky history with typical shounen anime. While I am most definitely a fan of Bleach, and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood worked a treat, most of the other big names never struck a chord with me and a lot of the standard protagonists make me wince (or in the case of Asta from Black Clover they make me hurriedly reach for the mute button before finally walking away). In that sense, it is no wonder that I originally approached Demon Slayer or Kimetsu no Yaiba with a little bit of wariness.
Seven episodes in to the anime, even if my review of episode 7 has yet to be published, and I’m really happy with my choice to watch it. That doesn’t mean the story won’t go off the rails, become bogged down in side-missions or character developments that make no sense, or generally leave me wanting to walk away further down the track. Nor does it mean that Demon Slayer has nailed every aspect of its story and characters. To be honest, there’s plenty that’s pretty easy to criticise without getting into the nitty-gritty.
However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Demon Slayer has been a lot of fun to watch.
So before the story decides to tie itself in convoluted knots or the protagonist decides to become so overpowered that the story lacks any tension, or so whiny that I can’t handle them anymore, I decided to look at these first seven episodes a little more closely and really think about what Demon Slayer has gotten right. Largely because I am really enjoying watching it. But likewise I want to think about those aspects of the story and characters that are less admirable because for some this anime is another swing and a miss and there’s reasons why it won’t work for everyone.
That said, clearly there are spoilers for the first seven episodes here if you haven’t watched them. However as I have no knowledge of this series outside of the anime, please refrain from throwing any thing that hasn’t been revealed in the anime into the comments.
Starting with the pacing of the anime, viewers will immediately divide on whether or not Demon Slayer has good pacing. I’ll be clear, I love it. In seven episodes we’ve had the angsty back-story and the initial crisis that has spurred our hero into action, gained a mentor, completed a gruelling training sequence, taken on a test, achieved the goal of becoming an actual demon slayer and completed the first mission as a demon slayer. Plus, we’ve already met a character who has kind of been set-up as the ‘big bad’ or potential nemesis, though perhaps this is just a red-herring (though given the artwork for this series I kind of doubt it).
That’s a huge amount of ground to cover and if we compared this to Bleach it is incredibly fast paced. I mean, the ‘big bad’ wasn’t even in our field of view until season two in Bleach and the reveal didn’t come until near the end of season three and the whole getting a mentor and training took a long, long time. Full Metal Alchemist wasn’t as drawn out but even there it didn’t cover this much ground so quickly.
Now, if we were just being catapulted forward without any way of orientating ourselves or without any kind of decent character work in a rush to cover plot this pace would be a huge negative. But, this is where being reasonably generic and treading a well known path helps. The plot isn’t confusing or baffling in any way. We know this story. Everyone knows this story. These opening events have been presented to us in a thousand different ways right from the earliest of children’s stories. The audience can follow this, even at this pace, and it means long exposition isn’t needed as we move through each sequence because we mostly have known what the next step is going to be.
In amongst the events Demon Slayer has sprinkled sufficient character development for Tanjiro, our protagonist. He isn’t growing in leaps and bounds, but we’ve learned of his quiet determination, his compassion, and resolve. We see his love for his sister, his desire to get stronger, and the weird quirk with his sense of smell which I’ll get back to soon.
Outside of Tanjiro and his sister Nezuko, very few characters have gained any real screen time or exploration, but that’s fine. We’re setting up this hero and this pair right now and with events driving forward as they are I’m not sure I wanted to spend ten episodes getting to know the wizened mentor for him to simply see them on their way again. The time he got was enough to set up his relationship with the pair.
So for me the pacing has been spot on. It is moving quickly enough that I’m not even slightly bored or wanting things to move along. I don’t feel like any fight or conversation has lingered too long. The few points I’d like to know more about I’m confident enough will eventually get their time so for now I’m happy to wait. I really feel this story has found the right speed for what it has tried to accomplish.
That does bring me to the next point though and that is Tanjiro as the protagonist. Honestly, while we’ve learned enough about him that he serves the plot well enough, to call him a strong protagonist would be a lie. He’s largely being swept along by one event to the next and while he is determined to achieve his goals it doesn’t really feel like he’s driving this story.
When his family are killed he coincidentally runs into a demon slayer who sends him to a mentor. The mentor trains him but sets him an impossible task to avoid him taking the final test. The test has him encounter a demon that knows his mentor who targets him. The demon slayers send him on the mission that has him encounter a demon before sending him to the city where we end episode 7. While at no point does Tanjiro give up or surrender, other than the decision to hunt demons the vast majority of events have kind of happened to him and he’s had to react or deal.
He also doesn’t have a particularly strong presence. I’ll admit, his compassion toward others, including demons, is probably a defining trait of his and one I quite appreciate in this kind of story, but outside of that I’d be reaching to really note any other traits. He’s protective of family and a hard worker but really we know little of Tanjiro as a person and only real know Tanjiro the guy the plot keeps pushing around. While there’s plenty of time to develop him, when you think about Ichigo, Edward, Gon, or so many other shounen protagonists they have so much more presence and features that really stand out.
Tanjiro has a sense of smell.
You know this because we’ve been told, again and again and the plot has found various ways, some more contrived than others, to bring Tanjiro’s sense of smell into relevance. I’ll admit, his use of it while fighting the demon in episode 6 was quite effective and visually kind of awesome, but at other times, like when choosing the ore, you just have to wonder what the point was and whether there’s something missing from the anime or whether they intend to fill in the details later.
That and his smelling the winning blow in a fight is just plain ridiculous no matter how you want to slice it.
But while we’re looking at things the anime is telling rather than showing, or shoving into the story rather than letting naturally develop, the introduction of Muzan Kibutsuji needs to be mentioned as a counter point.
There are very few anime that could claim such a solid introduction to a character and regardless of what mis-steps the anime has made and may make, episode 7’s end has bought Demon Slayer a lot of goodwill from me.
First we were given a name by the mentor. A name of a demon that can make other demons that Tanjiro will clearly have to eventually track down and deal with in his quest to save his sister. It is a little trite and fairly standard for this sort of story and yet it sets the scene for what happens next.
Tanjiro fights his first demon as a demon slayer and instead of delivering the killing blow interrogates him about the location of the demon Muzan Kibutsuji.
The demon responds by refusing to speak and completely freaking out before blindly attack Tanjiro and getting cut down. The demon knew it would be killed at that moment but it gave the audience the impression that being sliced and killed by a demon slayer was preferable to what Muzan Kibutsuji would do if the demon betrayed him. That’s a powerful first impression and it is the first thing that audience really know of this demon outside of his name. It is simple and yet very affective.
What surprised me was that Tanjiro then ran into said demon on his next mission. Despite the fast pace of events I honestly didn’t expect it so soon but it was a really brilliant introduction.
Everything about Muzan Kibutsuji is menacing and off-putting, including the presence of a human daughter and wife (maybe).
With only one line Muzan sends chills down our spines, and it isn’t even a threat, yet.
With a simple action Muzan proves exactly what he is capable of doing and leaves Tanjiro mostly open mouthed in shock and frozen as he does not know how to respond to the developing situation.
In this sense, Tanjiro really reflects the audience as this came so quick and hit so hard we’ve hardly had time to get our feet underneath us.
Sure, things may go south from here, but watching episode 7 was a delight. The standard demon fight conclusion that began it was entertaining, even if there are some questionable choices about Tanjiro entering the swamp going on. The progress from the end of that fight to the end of the episode was spot on and really made me sit up and pay attention.
Demon Slayer isn’t perfect. Not by a long shot. But it is getting a lot right and at the very least it is finding a way to enter an already crowded field and make its presence felt. Whether it ends up staying the distance and leaving a lasting impression will remain to be seen but this opening salvo is nothing to sneeze at.
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