Picture this: you’re returning home from a long, hard day’s work. You’ve run errands through the village, sold your whole bundle of charcoal, and at long last you’ll get to see the smiling faces of your family. A sweet reprieve after hard labour and a treacherous hike.
When your cabin is finally within view, you quickly see that something is horribly wrong. There’s blood painting the walls, and your mother and siblings are laying motionless in the snow.
Someone or something came here and took everything away from you, ruthlessly and violently.
This is the premise of Demon Slayer; a manga that first debuted in February 2016 as part of Weekly Shōnen Jump, before taking the anime world by storm when its adaptation premiered in 2019.
It is intense, heartfelt, tragic, beautiful, charming and unique. As the eponymous Demon Slayers perform brutal acts of violence with the calm elegance of an artist, so too does the narrative paint its beautiful picture from start to finish.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and probably throwing too many adjectives out there. Let’s dive into what Demon Slayer is all about.
Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba in Japanese) was the brainchild of then-26 year old Koyoharu Gotōge, a manga artist who had been rapidly rising up the ranks with a series of one-shots that had garnered a great deal of attention.
It would eventually prove Gotōge’s most lucrative work, and in a few short years, the franchise has garnered an estimated ¥270 billion in revenue (approximately $3.4 billion in AUD). It only enjoyed moderate success at first, but through word-of-mouth and an electrifying first anime season, it caught fire in 2019 and has been experiencing a meteoric rise ever since.
It is set in Japan during the the Taishō era, a time when the rural economy would go through great turmoil and eventually, a depression. The Kamado family were hit harder than most; with the head of the family no longer around, the modest Tanjiro must step up to become the breadwinner and keep his mother and siblings happy and fed.
He frequently ventures into the nearby town to make money, where his upbeat and sedulous nature make him a popular candidate for odd jobs here and there. One such day, which seemed just like any other, he returns home to find his family slaughtered.
His younger sister, Nezuko, appears to have been maimed, and he attempts to whisk her towards safety. Midway through the journey, however, Nezuko suddenly turns on Tanjiro, snarling ravenously and clawing at him like a wild animal. Whatever happened that day has left Nezuko a powerful, speechless monster.
An encounter with a mysterious assailant reveals that she has been transformed into a demon, and that it is his job to slay creatures of her ilk. Upon seeing a glimpse of humanity left in the young girl, he begrudgingly reconsiders, leaving her alive under her brother’s care.
Having now made some sense of this cruel development, Tanjiro sets off to cure Nezuko of her ailment, while also seeking out whoever was responsible for his family’s demise.
Demons and those who slay them
The demons roaming the plains of Japan are noteworthy for their incredible strength and a singleminded taste for flesh. Though many of them resemble the human beings they once were, some have morphed into hideous, garish beasts.
Their weaknesses are limited only to exposure to sunlight or decapitation from a specially crafted blade. Considered merciless, soulless ghouls, they take pleasure in the suffering of innocent people, and their growing numbers have placed humanity on the brink of disaster.
Despite these primal behaviours, demons are often highly intelligent, establishing a hierarchy under one all-encompassing leader. Their secretive ways are complex, and as they consume more lives, they gain foul, supernatural techniques known as Blood Demon Arts that can quickly overwhelm their prey.
In order to succeed in this profession, one must master the art of Breathing Styles. By controlling their breath and achieving a constant state of balance, practitioners can not only increase their physical abilities, but even imbue their strikes with elemental powers. These range from Water, Flame and Thunder, to curious offshoots like Serpent and Insect (trust me, those last two are a lot cooler than they sound).
To help them fulfil their duty, Demon Slayers wield Nichirin Blades, made from an ore that is constantly absorbing sunlight, and therefore, lethal to demons. Upon drawing their sword for the first time, the Demon Slayer will find it takes on a unique hue, each with their own properties.
When a Nichirin Blade and Breathing Style are used in tandem, it’s quite the beautiful display. And if not, well… it probably won’t end well for the hapless slayer in question.
The Kamados and company
At the heart of our tale, of course, is Tanjiro. Determined and indomitable he may be, he’s otherwise fairly unspectacular in the beginning. He’s never had a reason to fight, much less fight demons, so he quickly finds himself in far over his head. He’s only able to escape an early demise thanks to his resolve; it drives him to keep on pushing past his own limits.
He eventually proves to be an adept tactician, adjusting to situations in the blink of an eye in order to achieve success, and despite what the demons have taken from him, he still views them as equals; to be dispatched with honour instead of malice.
By employing the Water Breathing style, he is capable of pulling off graceful attacks that are excellent for both offence and defence. Demon Slayer is noted for its bold art direction, and this is apparent whenever Tanjiro takes action with his blade. It’s quite the spectacle!
His newly transformed sister, Nezuko, is rarely far from his side. She has the same weaknesses as her demonic brethren, and must be kept away from sunlight (or particularly keen slayers), all the while clinging desperately to the last throes of humanity left within her. Her love for her brother combined with innate vigour makes her a formidable fighter.
Their travelling companions are certainly an odd mix of personalities; the reluctant Zenitsu lives in constant fear, and doesn’t appear to possess any particular combat prowess. It’s unclear exactly how he managed to successfully pass the entrance exam in the first place, could it have perhaps been a technicality of some kind?
Their other ally, Inosuke, is another matter entirely. As the hollowed out boar’s head he wears as a mask would suggest, he’s a wild man who flings himself into any fight with reckless abandon. His dual Nichirin Blades have been heavily modified (or broken, depending on who you ask) to better tear through flesh.
A tale of wandering siblings
Demon Slayer is an absolutely fascinating story of juxtaposition.
It sets the stage early with an utter gut punch of devastation, and in doing so, creates a tangible connection between viewers and the Kamado family. You truly feel for them, longing for them to exact justice upon the reprehensible savage that disrupted their humble lives of tranquility.
Tears will be shed. No shame in admitting it.
The protagonists are colourful and light, both aesthetically and in their demeanour, struggling to survive in a world so bleak. These are characters who jump off the screen (or the page, if you venture towards the manga (and yes, double bracket, you really should!!)), be they virtuous, wicked or somewhere in between.
It’s certainly no coincidence that it has become so incredibly lucrative in such a short span of time — it struck our imaginations with its thrilling premise and flawless execution, and merely a brief glimpse is enough to get you hooked. It starts on a high and never lets up for a moment.
The most obvious solution, then, is to dive right in and find out for yourself just what wonders are on offer. …A more obtuse solution would be to master the art of total concentration breathing in order to unlock your own sense of balance, obtaining a Nichirin Blade and then ridding the world of all demonic forces, thereby gaining a true understanding of the work on display here.
You know what? Watching is probably much easier. You should just watch Demon Slayer, I think.