The Spring 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
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Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba ?
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How was the first episode?
I'm always down for a dose of slice-and-dice action from ufotable, who have been the reigning kings of fantasy spectacle since they got their hands on the Fate/stay franchise (and their work on The Garden of Sinners wasn't half bad either). They have even managed to make series like Touken Ranbu appealing, which I might otherwise might not have been drawn to without the studio's pedigree. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is a Shonen Jump tale about a young boy named Tanjiro, whose entire family is slain by demons, save for his sister Nezuko, who is transformed into a flesh-eating oni herself. The material seems perfectly suited to the ufotable touch, and while this premiere suffers from some kinks that need working out, the story has enough style to pique my curiosity.
For the first half of the episode, I'll admit that I was uncertain about Demon Slayer. The art was stylish but lacked a certain dimensionality, and the plot was serviceable without being especially riveting. Tojiro is the kind of protagonist that's always a gamble for me too, being generally nice and dedicated to his family and morals, but largely defined by characteristics that are easy to boil down into useful skills and simple emotions. The emotions in this premiere largely serve as functional melodrama to motivate the characters and get the story moving. When Tanjiro is laughing with his family and doing odd jobs around his village, I didn't feel attached to the characters or this world, nor was I particularly moved when he found his whole family lying in pools of their own blood. I simply thought, “Yup, this seems like the kind of thing that would get him started on some kind of revenge quest”.
The episode picks up much more when Nezuko awakens and reveals her demonic form. This isn't a novel twist, but it's an effective ingredient to add to the shonen swordsman formula, for the secondary protagonist to be a formerly innocent sibling now torn between her humanity and a new state of monstrousness. This is also where the demon hunter arrives to cut Nezuko down, which injects some much-needed tension into the episode. The fight itself is brief, and the directing is straightforward ufotable fare, but it works to establish Tanjiro as a battle-worthy hero in his own right. It was still a mite too predictable for my liking, but it was entertaining.
Now that the show has gotten the necessary exposition out of the way, I'm hoping Demon Slayer picks up steam and gives its protagonists more to do emotionally, as well as in regards to action. With Nezuko having the fangs and superhuman strength of a demon, I can only imagine how great the conflicts will be when both siblings get in on the bloodshed together, and the capacity for their dynamic to grow into something interesting motivates me to check out more. I don't know if this will be one of the season's best, but it has plenty of potential.
I had high expectations for Demon Slayer once I learned the same studio that brought amazing battles to the Fate franchise would be handling it. Those expectations were well met in this opener as humble young charcoal salesman Tanjiro finds himself facing a demonic little sister and an adept swordsman sent to slay her in the snowy mountain foothills he called home. The camera whizzes around trees and circles back as a hatchet is flung through the air before lodging in a tree. Tanjiro's attack failed, but the talent at ufotable had me glued to the screen the entire time.
The episode plays out in three small arcs as the audience gets to know Tanjiro's sizable family. They're modest people living above a remote village. The older siblings and Tanjiro's lone mother are hardworking, and each family member seems affable. Tanjiro's the kind of kid who thinks of others and how he can help them first. His sister Nezuko helps rear her younger siblings in the hopes of easing the burden on her mother. The episode wants us to get to know each of the Kamado family members well before it rips them away from one another. This episode is called “Cruelty” after all.
It's a masterful move because it's not like orphans are hard to come by in Shonen Jump works. Most of the heroes are abandoned kids with no proper homes to return to from their adventures. Tanjiro's tragedy works efficiently because his family doesn't feel faceless. I have plenty of praise for Demon Slayer, but I feel that the script could still have been tighter. It falls into the trap of excessive exposition narration in the last third when the swordsman Giyu Tomioka begins explaining at length why it's amazing that Nezuko didn't eat Tanjiro. I don't think anyone in the audience was confused about what Nezuko's actions represented at that point, but this is a pretty common pitfall in both shonen works and anime in general.
Demon Slayer is not to be missed. If the recent premiere is any indication, ufotable already has the first five episodes prepped and, barring interfering legal trouble, should be yet another stellar production from the studio.
Demon Slayer was one of the most noteworthy projects coming into this season, being both based on a popular Shonen Jump manga and also earning an adaptation by the consistently impressive ufotable. Due to the interplay between these features, I was personally worried about the project's fortunes. ufotable productions have a tendency to rely heavily on CG and post-processing, and their works have a similar sheen that I wasn't necessarily sure would work with Demon Slayer's unique art design. Fortunately, this first episode put nearly all my worries to bed, offering possibly the strongest premiere of the season so far.
Demon Slayer's appeal begins with its premise, which feels much more novel than your standard Jump setup. The protagonist Tanjiro lives with his poor family up on a snowy mountain, until a demon attack leaves everyone but his sister brutally murdered. As he soon learns, his sister has actually been turned into a demon, leading into this episode's climax - a frantic negotiation with a Demon Slayer to spare her life. Ultimately, he sets off with demonic sister in tow, hoping to somehow reverse her condition.
It's clear from the start that Tanjiro's family is being established only for tragic purposes, but I still found both his concern and his despair convincing throughout this episode. I also appreciated the story's unique setting, and how efficiently the demonic folklore informs the story's clear and compelling conflict. The moments of each of these siblings shielding the other were some of the episode's best, and I'm already intrigued to see how the demonized Nezuko develops as a character. This episode is full of compelling hooks, and by the end, the conflict with the demon hunter demonstrated that this story is also perfectly capable of tactically satisfying shonen action.
The show's visual design is solid as well, though perhaps not quite up to ufotable's usual standard. The highlights are the character designs and backgrounds, which do a great job of emphasizing the frantic emotions of the characters and the savage beauty of the wilderness. I was less enthused to see the show already relying on some unconvincing CG models to convey Tanjiro's flight through the forest. Additionally, there weren't any major animation highlights this episode, which felt disappointing for what's presumably intended to be a major action vehicle.
That said, Demon Slayer's execution is still perfectly capable of conveying this story's strong appeal. I'm guessing the show's true strength will be in the relationship between the two siblings, and I'm already excited to see how that develops. Demon Slayer gets a recommendation from me!
One of the most fun things about doing these Preview Guides is discovering the shows that totally blow away your expectations. This is one such case. I went into Demon Slayer fully expecting it to be just another Shonen Jump action series and was blown away by the first episode. Whatever else the series might end up becoming in the long run, it's off to a terrific start.
A lot of the credit for that goes to the spectacular production effort by ufotable. If a better-looking and better-sounding debut comes along this season, I will be incredibly surprised. It's not just the uncommonly strong animation effort, either. All of the character designs are gorgeously-designed and richly-realized in one of my favorite anime visual styles, background art, especially the wooded mountains, is wonderfully-detailed, and CG-enhanced scenes of running through the woods are far smoother than the norm. But beauty also comes through in the way the scenes are staged. Shot selections in action scenes and even little details like the exact way that Nezuko poses defensively over Tanjiro or the way snow blows across a scene show a keen director's vision, and the graphic scenes effectively portray the gruesomeness of the situation without being sensational. The musical support is also impactful for every scene.
The premise is more typical: Tanjiro loses most of his family to a “demon” attack (“vampire” seems more appropriate) while he was away selling charcoal, and his only surviving sister has been infected. A hunter comes to kill the infected sister, which Tanjiro won't allow, and even though he's ultimately not up to the task, he impresses the hunter enough with his effort to spare his sister's life. It's the way he does this that impresses, however. Tanjiro has few of the goofball qualities that are all too common in shonen action heroes and makes excellent use of his distinguishing gimmick: an uncommonly-strong sense of smell. He's creative in the way he fights and perhaps most importantly, his seiyuu Natsuki Hanae (Takumi in Food Wars!) gives an outstandingly passionate vocal effort.
The song used for the closer, which is probably going to be the regular opener, is also a strong one that suggests he's eventually going to fall in with other colorful demon hunters, and I'm now seriously looking forward to how that develops.
While it's kind of early in the season to be declaring much of anything, I still think it may be a safe bet to call this the dark shounen series of this spring. Based on the manga of the same name (currently being published in English by Viz), Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba pulls very few punches in its introductory episode, not just killing off hero Tanjiro's entire family (which consists of mostly of young children), it then also takes the time to show us how horribly they died. This is largely done by allowing our own febrile imaginations to do their worst rather than giving us a play-by-play, and that's a good move. Just showing us their bodies where they lay, covered in blood and with final expressions of horror on their faces, is very effective, especially when you consider that according to their positions the entire group died protecting each other. “Awful” isn't a strong enough word, and in order to truly understand Tanjiro's next moves, it's important that we fully understand that.
Fortunately for the episode's continued credibility, that's the only time it truly delves into the horrific, at least visually. By the time Tanjiro is sprinting down the mountain carrying the lone survivor, his younger sister Nezuko, we understand his desperation, and when she begins her transformation into the very monster that killed the rest of the family, it isn't hard to see why Tanjiro wouldn't want to comprehend what's going on. Sure, the claws, growling, and way she keeps going for his throat are good indications that something not right is happening, but Tanjiro is by this point so upset and wracked with survivor's guilt that all he can do is try to see past all of that. He needs to believe that Nezuko's human self is still in her new monstrous body because she's all he has left.
Whether it's that desperate belief that does it or there really is some of the old Nezuko there, hope does pay off. That's what allows Nezuko to live, not just because her older brother believes in her, but because he does so to the degree that he's willing to go up against one of the eponymous demon slayers, a kid about his age named Giyu, in order to keep her that way. When Giyu also observes Nezuko trying to protect Tanjiro, he realizes that maybe there's something more going on here, and that perhaps turned humans can be saved. The degree to which he's frustrated with Tanjiro and wants to believe him capable of returning Nezuko to her human state seems indicative of some similar tragedy in his own past, and that's probably why he sends the siblings on to someone else. That means that even though this is a dark story, it's not one without that seed of hopefulness, and that's something that can make the difference between a good series and one that's just overwhelmingly depressing. It's going to be worth seeing if this can work through its more melodramatic airs and pull it off.
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