You’ve heard it before. I lamented that you can’t go five minutes on the dumb bird app without someone saying Demon Slayer would be forgettable if not for Ufotable’s work on the series. I’ve pushed back against that line of thinking pretty much for the entire time I’ve spent writing on this blog, in an old essay decrying the idea that shonen is bad if it’s not revolutionary.
To restate what I said…gosh, back in November of 2020, shonen manga does not care about reinventing the wheel, especially over at Shonen Jump. Deconstructions and parodies like you’ll often see with isekai and rom coms are much rarer, because we’ve already settled on a great formula that just plain works. Series like Mob Psycho 100 and One Punch Man subvert our expectations, but even they revert back to to formula often enough.
The formula lies in simplicity. At their heart, Dragon Ball and Naruto are pretty simple stories when you get down to it, both in execution, powers, and so on. Manga like Jujutsu Kaisen and Chainsaw Man have refined that plain appeal into the ultimate popcorn anime.
Rather than cut out the accessibility of big magic fights and relatable characters, the writing surrounding those fights and characters have become more sophisticated. We’ve moved past soft magic systems where power levels mean nothing to the complexity of JJK’s curses, or how CSM’s lore is more on par with the Silmarillion than anything previously found in the pages of Shonen Jump.
But Demon Slayer is…not like those manga. Its power system is as simple as Pokémon types, all of its fights come down to who can yell the loudest, and its characters are based on fundamental archetypes. But it’s that last word, fundamental, that I want to focus on, because yeah, Demon Slayer might be mid, but it knows the basics, and plays to them all as core strengths of its appeal.
Tanjiro Kamado is a kid who lost his family to demons, except his sister got turned into a demon, and joins the Demon Slayer Corps to cure her condition. It’s kind of like Koyoharu Gotoge took the building blocks for Naruto, Bleach, and Fullmetal Alchemist, mixed them all together, tweaked the setting, and bam, brand new hit manga. But that’s got to be because its protagonist is super relatable or funny, right?
Is he a himbo, like Yuji or Denji? Er, no. Maybe he’s got a knack for strategy like Deku! Ah, he solves most of his problems by using his head…as a means of inflicting blunt force trauma to beat his foes into submission. He’s not an underdog, a prodigy, or an everyman. He works hard to get where he’s at and is amply rewarded in proportionate skill.
Okay, well, it doesn’t have to be the main character. A lot of shonen excel in their supporting casts, and have compelling deuteragonists like Fushiguro or Bakugo. I mean, Demon Slayer doesn’t, but a lot of them do. Zenitsu is a whiny crybaby, and Nezuko is a top tier imouto, but she can’t talk. Inosuke is a brash rival type, but he’s an actual idiot and doesn’t stop picking a fight with Tanjiro when they first meet until his broken ribs pierce his lung.
And don’t forget; I read the manga, so I know that this is pretty much as deep as they get. Rengoku is probably the closest that the series has to a stand-out character, but he stars in one solitary arc. The other hashira are endearing for the most part, but they’re just an accessible vehicle for the same shonen tropes, albeit in a gorgeous coat of paint.
Let’s be fair; from the first season, Ufotable knocked it out of the park with Demon Slayer. The manga is solid, but Gotoge’s art has a rough aesthetic that makes its battles impossible to keep track of. Obviously, the author is a competent character designer and consistently puts out good art, but the clarity of Demon Slayer’s fights leaves a lot to be desired.
So when they adapted the manga into the first season, they mostly just took the solid base of the manga’s story and polished it up, with Haruo Sotozaki’s competent direction. Gotoge is really good at coming up with demon powers, but I don’t think a studio without Ufotable’s resume in CGI could handle a fight where the demon flips the orientation of the room, or Muzan’s sprawling ever-moving castle.
And then the Mugen Train move came. Demon Slayer just needed to be clear in its fights to succeed, and then Ufotable had a movie-level budget to work with. It was an understandable step-up in quality, but I expected the second season’s Entertainment District Arc to give us more of the same as the first season.
Holy crap, was I wrong. Like, people love to say that Demon Slayer is mid except for the animation, but guess what? The second season blows most anime movies out of the water, and I can count the number of TV anime that come close on one hand.
Fight choreography and intricate storytelling is great, but the Entertainment District Arc is an utter masterclass in animation, and Ufotable and Demon Slayer deserve credit for that. Animation is a visual medium, so when we say something isn’t good or it’s mid without the animation, it’s like saying the Godfather is mid except for the acting.
When you say that animation is all Demon Slayer has going for it, you’re just admitting that you don’t understand the medium you’re pretending to talk about, and especially the genre of shonen battle anime.
Shonen isn’t my favorite genre of anime, but there is a dark corner of my lizard brain that sees these characters screaming and fighting for their friends and it goes brrr. It’s not just power systems and fights; there’s a methodology at work here, otherwise I’d care about every shonen, and I don’t need to tell you that Fire Force and Black Clover are boring.
But shonen stories function on different principles than dramas or comedies. Whereas Blue Period has its characters express themselves through their art, or Dance Dance Danseur’s cast can only work through their feelings in ballet, a fight is the avenue for a battle manga’s story.
Fights aren’t just for easy conflict or showy beam clashes. A fight tells you about the people participating in it: what are their beliefs, why do they hold them so tightly, why is this clash between ideologies inevitable? A fight is to shonen as a conversation is a drama, and each attack is a line of dialogue. You understand Tanjiro not because he says everything on his mind, but because his actions demonstrate his thoughts and feelings.
So yeah, Demon Slayer has its moments of lazy writing. Inosuke gets whatever power he needs based on the situation and the reasoning is always “he was raised in the mountains”. He’s able to dislocate every joint in his body, move his organs to avoid stab wounds, and he’s resistant to poison just because. It’s a bit much, but it’s not the point.
You can’t strip away Demon Slayer’s presentation to say the show is bad. You can’t remove the music in Beck or the gut-wrenching emotions in Anohana, because that’s how they were made. If you don’t accept that a battle anime use fights and visuals to present their stories, then sorry, you don’t understand shonen.
I’m not saying you have to like shonen, but let’s stop acting like your inability to appreciate the way a story elaborates on its themes or characters is in any way its fault. You don’t like the story, that’s fine, but you can’t take Demon Slayer’s feet and mock it for not being able to walk.
Not every anime is meant to be loved by everyone, but there’s a difference between shrugging and saying it’s not for you, and griping that this anime doesn’t deserve its popularity because it’s a gorgeous adaptation of a decent manga. At the end of the day, anime is judged by the sum of its parts, and by trying to remove one of those parts to make your point, you just show the weakness of your criticism. Rather, you should learn to appraise these parts individually and then compare them to see how they add or subtract to a series’ quality.
I probably could have written this about a lot of things, because it’s an unfortunately common take. Demon Slayer is just a good example because Koyoharu Gotoge clearly understands the formula to a manga’s commercial success, and there were a few moments where they stumbled in the execution. Ultimately, Gotoge made an icon of the industry, and that wasn’t by accident. Now Ufotable’s talented team has worked their butts off to give that story a fantastic second life as an anime.
So, this is usually the part where I tell you to give me your thoughts in the comments or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, but let’s be fair, the opposing side has already said their piece and then some. So…tell me your favorite flavor of ice cream or suggest an anime I should talk about. Until next time, thanks for reading.