Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 19 of
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba ?
There's no denying that “God of Fire” is a thrilling showstopper of an episode, showing off ufotable's considerable skills as producers of nearly unrivaled action spectacle. Outside of two brief check-ins with Inosuke and Zenitsu that exist primarily to remind us that they aren't going to die, the entirety of this week's story is dedicated to the showdown between Tanjiro and Rui, who we learn is the true bearer of the Twelve Moons' title. Rui has apparently been transforming people into a makeshift demon family with specific roles to play, based on his warped notions of such bonds, but in Nezuko and Tanjiro, he sees real family bonds in action, and he wants them for himself. With his sword broken and his sister being slowly torn to pieces by Rui's razor-sharp webs, this is without a doubt Tanjiro's greatest challenge yet.
Amazing spectacle does not a perfect episode make, however, but before I get into why I still walked away feeling slightly underwhelmed this week, I have to give credit where it is due. The animation and direction of episode 19 is absolutely incredible. Rui's deadpan menace is perfectly captured, making the relatively diminutive demon boy seem impossibly foreboding compared to Tanjiro, who is pushing himself to the limit just to survive. Every swipe of Tanjiro's broken blade and every deft movement of the two opponents' bodies is superbly conveyed. What's more, there's a tangible aura of danger to the faceoff that hasn't been present since the two-on-two bout at Tamayo's hideout. Poor Nezuko's first act in months is to leap from her box to protect her brother from Rui's lashes, which cut her so deeply that her limbs are hanging together by literal threads. It's only a moment later that she's suspended aloft by those same webs, bound and bleeding with a pain that seems very real; Akari Kitō has been given virtually nothing to do over the past 19 weeks, but she once again proves that she can make the most of every brief grunt and growl she delivers – she even gets to speak a line of dialogue just before the credits roll.Still, for as elated as I was to see Nezuko finally use Blood Magic to help Tanjiro behead Rui with that final fiery blow, the path the episode takes to get there is bumpy. Specifically, the reveal of Tanjiro's new powers, which come courtesy of some last-minute flashbacks to his family's hitherto unmentioned connection to the titular God of Fire. The family's frail father also knew the secrets of using breathing techniques to achieve extraordinary feats of strength and endurance, and memories of his ritualistic kagura dance give Tanjiro the inspiration to swathe his trademark Water Breathing attacks in flame. Given that we're almost five months into Demon Slayer's run, it's possible that this backstory for the Kamado Clan was mentioned earlier and I've just forgotten it, but the fact remains that this critical information being presented in such a convenient way stops the otherwise thrilling fight with Rui dead in its tracks.
It's the typical shonen formula at work, but it's also one of my least favorite tropes, where incessant monologuing and extended flashbacks are needed just to explain why a character can suddenly use a new power we've never heard of before. I have similar feelings about Nezuko's big hero moment, which would have been even more awesome if the show had built up to it better. Her development still feels undercooked compared to Tanjiro's, because instead of the focus being on how her new powers represent a significant moment of evolution and growth for the character, the event is merely a last-minute save so Tanjiro can finish the fight himself. I like how the siblings' bond is the crux of their strength, at least in theory, but that bond is starting to feel more and more sidelined by the show's other plots. At this point, we've been given more substantial and dynamic material on how Tanjiro relates to Inosuke and Zenitsu; I'd even argue that Zenitsu's harried bird has had more character development. Nezuko started the series as an animalistic husk of her former self, more of a weapon to be used sparingly than a character in her own right, and over the course of the last 19 episodes, she has barely had any opportunity to evolve.
These are all macro issues, more to do with the overall structure of the story than “God of Fire” itself. Do any of these qualms keep it from being a good episode of Demon Slayer? Not at all, but I do think they keep it from being a great episode, because so much of its emotional impact is rooted in the bond between Tanjiro and Nezuko, insisting that their bond is incredibly powerful and meaningful, despite not having earned those descriptors. With Nezuko now being able to form somewhat complex sentences, maybe Demon Slayer will start to double back and afford its sole heroine the attention it's given to our other three main heroes. But we've only seven episodes to go, so maybe we'll just get more Zenitsu and Inosuke shenanigans instead.
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