By Andrew Osmond
Demon Slayer’s hero is a boy, Tanjiro, in Taisho-period Japan – in other words, the reign of the Taisho Emperor (1912-26) – Japan’s “Edwardian” era. However, Demon Slayer often feels like a story of a much older Japan – centuries older, even. Tanjiro is visiting town to sell charcoal, which his humble family makes from gathered wood at Tanjiro’s remote home on a snow-covered mountain. It’s a hard life, but the show makes clear the boy’s family is warm and loving… so clear that most viewers will guess what’s coming.
Tanjiro is delayed getting home by the snow, spending the night with his townie grandfather who warns of demons prowling the night. The next morning, Tanjiro is returning home when his freakishly acute sense of smell picks up the scent of blood. Sorry, you guessed right.
Devastated at the sight of his loved ones reduced to shredded corpses, Tanjiro discovers one survivor – his younger sister, Nezuko, who’s badly injured but still breathing. Frantic, Tanjiro picks her up and heads down the mountain, only for Nezuko to wake, grow fangs and utter a guttural snarl. The demons of this show operate like vampires or zombies; if the victims aren’t consumed, they become monsters like their attackers.
But now comes the real twist. As his sister attacks, Tanjiro screams at her to stay human, stay strong, and not become a monster… and suddenly Nezuko starts shedding tears, exaggeratedly huge in anime fashion. A moment later, a strange youth attacks them both. He declares that Nezuko must be destroyed like any other horror-film monster, while Tanjiro desperately defends her. The stranger overpowers him, intent on slaying the girl… till he sees her standing over Tanjiro, protecting him in turn. Finally convinced there’s something special about these siblings, the stranger lets them go, though not before he “muzzles” Nezuko with a bamboo tube. He bids Tanjiro to travel with Nezuko to another mountain, and seek out a teacher…
From this point, the show rapidly gets much more Shonen Jump-ish – no surprise, as Demon Slayer is based on one of that magazine’s manga. Tanjiro finds the teacher and also the prospect of a new life, hunting demons with other warriors while he continues to care for his sister. By the time that Tanjiro is into his first phase of training, dodging tree-trunks and leaping pits, it feels very like Shonen Jump. Still, the start is twisted and tragic enough to raise memories of bloody flesh-eating anime like Claymore and Tokyo Ghoul – especially as Tanjiro’s Japanese actor, Natsuki Hanae, voiced Ghoul’s hero Ken Kaneki.
The most eye-catching thing about Demon Slayer is its background world – stark yet gloriously beautiful, especially the thick snow-draped woods full of hidden life and mystery. The images of zombie-like creatures charging through snow are inevitably reminiscent of Game of Thrones. Credit for the visuals goes to the Ufotable studio, which is already famous for followers of the Fate franchise, but should broaden its fanbase with this series.
The source Demon Slayer strip began in 2016, created by artist Koyoharu Gotouge. However, its success is closely tied up with the anime, and that’s according to Shonen Jump’s own editor-in-chief, Hiroyuki Nakano. As reported by Anime News Network, Nakano gave a magazine interview in Japan in which he said the manga’s sales shot up massively just after the end of the first anime season in mid-2019. By the end of the year, Demon Slayer’s manga sales were second only to One Piece among Shonen Jump titles.
The reason, Nakano suggested, is that many viewers who hadn’t encountered Demon Slayer before waited until all the anime episodes were available on streaming services, then binged through the lot and then went to the manga. The vital word-of-mouth fan buzz came from the anime, Nakano suggested, not the manga.
“The way people interact with anime has changed, and I feel like we’ve entered a new phase,” Nakano said. “There are more manga publications and digital outlets these days, so there are more channels to find manga to your taste… No matter how great a manga it is, it won’t become a hit just because it ran in Jump.” Coming from the editor-in-chief of the most famous manga magazine in the world, it’s a remarkable admission of how much today’s manga is driven by anime.
And it’s driven far, particularly in pandemic times when there isn’t so much competition at the box office. The Demon Slayer movie spin-off, Infinite Train, has taken pretty much everybody by storm by hitting number one at the Japanese box office. Despite being a relatively obscure anime, it has somehow become the tenth biggest movie of all time at the Japanese box office, last week edging ahead of James Cameron’s Avatar with takings of 15.6 billion yen. Its success has become such a symbol of the times that it has even been quoted in the Japanese government. New prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, on asked if he was surprised at being propelled into his role, answered with a quote from Demon Slayer.
“I will reply,” he said, “with Total Concentration Breathing.”
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.
Demon Slayer is released in the UK by Anime Limited.