Does fantastic animation trump mediocre writing? When it comes down to it, can you ignore one to enjoy the other?
As for Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, most of the anime community falls into one of two extremes. Either they love it for the amazing animation, an abundance of horrifying villains, and incredible fight choreography—or they hate it for subpar storytelling, shallow character writing, and unfunny comedy. The truth is somewhere in between. Demon Slayer has some of the best animation of this generation, but I can’t recommend the entire show because the writing is… pretty bad.
Our hero, no older than fifteen, carries his dying sister as he trudges through a snowstorm, crying out in anguish. Soon after, we flashback to before everything went wrong. We are greeted with a loving family. The scene is saturated with brilliant light reflecting off the snow-covered ground, angels singing with hopeful music. They are going to die. All of them. The cold-open is completely unnecessary, it is obvious this family with zero characteristics other than ‘happy’ will be killed. Violently. The lone survivor, Tanjiro, inevitably leaves them; now that his father is deceased, he is the designated man of the family. Upon his return, he finds his family viciously murdered. Demon Slayer never shies away from violence, and we learn this immediately. Blood soaked with horrific expressions, children protecting one another in their final moments, it's all the more effective because their deaths are left to our imagination. Tanjiro stares in terror, speed lines on either side of the screen. Aside from the maximum shock factor of a happy family being slaughtered, there’s little reason to care. If you need speed lines to convey the severity of the protagonist finding his family violently murdered, then you need to rewrite the scene and start over. It plays out so predictably, and we still know nothing about him other than he was part of the happy family. He carries away the only survivor, his sister Nezuko, barely clinging to life. Soon she becomes the monster that killed her—a demon. Tanjiro vows to avenge his family and cure his sister, by becoming a DEMON SLAYER!! It practically writes itself; a horrific monster-of-the-week for the heroes to fight off, and it works. As the demonic threats become bigger threats, Tanjiro becomes a more capable fighter. There’s a real sense of progression.
Before his family was killed, Tanjiro hadn’t fought at all. Somehow he barely knew what demons were. Demons are enough of a threat in this world that there are demon-hunting squads, yet this family didn’t know about them. Thankfully through a chance encounter, Tanjiro is directed towards a ninja master. Nezuko sleeps for two years because reasons, in the meantime he has a training montage. There’s lots of pretty animation. Then one time skip later, his hair is twice as long and he is a ninja. The training arc concludes with little character progression; he screamed Nezuko’s name a whole lot to persevere (that shit got annoying fast), and that’s about it. After she finally wakes up, the master trainer has hypnotized her to believe ‘humans good, demons bad’. Not only is this a cheap way to avoid writing character development, but it also raises even more questions with the internal logic. If people can hypnotize demons to be good, why is this the only time we see it happen? Rather than integrating this information into the story, it is dumped onto us during an action scene as if the author forgot to mention it in a prior chapter.
Time after time, the action is undercut by the awkward dialogue. For example, a disembodied head demon ties it’s hair to Tanjiro’s weapon, then it is flung away and gets stuck to a tree. It struggles, then it says aloud exactly what we saw happen “I wrapped my hair around his hatchet to grab it but it got tangled up!” We could easily assume this from the shot composition and body language. Constant inner monologues, flashbacks, unnecessary comments, and awkward pauses bring the action to a screeching halt. One of the most egregious moments is when Tanjiro angrily stares at his friend being beaten up to protect his sister, two minutes later he finally yells and runs to save his friend in slow motion, cut to the ED before anything happens. They’re like five feet apart for two whole minutes and then it just ends. Early on, this was one of the main reasons many people dropped Kimetsu no Yaiba. Show don’t tell is a rule that Ufotable can follow; their staff is loaded with talent and an unlimited budget. Being a manga adaptation, the moment to moment descriptions are necessary to supplement what the paperback art can’t depict. However, a high budget adaptation like this does not need the superfluous descriptions. I frequently felt like I was watching an action movie with someone who pauses it once a minute to comment on what's happening.
About two-thirds of Demon Slayer is action scenes and one third is jarringly out of place comedy. When it works, it is a stunning spectacle; the heroes run through the dark moonlit forest chasing after vicious demons, orchestral music excellently hypes up any scene, then the breathtaking fight choreography. The background art is beautiful, occasionally the CGI backgrounds are jarring. Thick lines around the character designs make them (usually) feel suited against the realistic backgrounds. Both the demons and heroes have iconic designs with distinct color pallets. I didn’t notice a single shot with off-model character art. The use of CGI character models during action scenes allowed for dynamic 3D camera movements, unlike anything I’ve seen since Ufotable’s Fate/Zero. Occasionally, CGI models were unnecessarily used at a distance, it was still distracting.
Suspension of disbelief is bent to the point of breaking in many of the action scenes, but many find it hard to criticize them because they’re so damn entertaining to watch. Every time he unleashes his water breathing technique I was always in awe; the painterly ink-like waves with lush blues juxtaposed against the photorealistic background look cool every single time. He has tons of different water breathing styles, each with different animations and usages. A basic slash, then combos, a 360-degree slash, and a mercifully quick painless slash to name a few. The whole water breathing technique that he uses to fight is awesome, even if the logic behind it is a bit vague. As it is described in the show, you inhale deeply and it gets your blood excited! So what does that really mean? Even he says, “I still don’t get it.” On the other hand, what’s less forgivable is Tanjiro’s super-powered nose. Even before he trains, he has this unbelievable ability. He smells emotions, he smells demons from a mile away, and he smells the invisible thread that allows him to make such accurate attacks. There are other unexplained abilities like super hearing; these kids are essentially the lamest heroes from My Hero Academia, except with no in-world explanation for their powers. Demon Slayer takes many shortcuts when writing its story and characters. If only those flaws didn’t permeate through the best part of the show, I might have been able to recommend it.
Tanjiro is a good person, his ideals are unshakable. He fights for his family, he throws himself into danger to save total strangers, he even comforts the demons’ tortured souls after slaying them. The problem is, he’s too good. His ideals rarely come into question. After seeing a few randos get murdered, he learns that not everyone can be saved. However, nothing breaks him. Unlike most monster-slaying main characters, his morals never blur the lines between becoming what he is fighting against. As a shounen hero, he is what you expect, an unequivocally good person. That’s why he’s such a boring protagonist. Motivated solely by his desire to slay demons and save his sister, his personality is essentially a blank slate for the audience to project onto. Unfortunately, he’s the best character we’ve got. Nezuko as adorable as she is, has next to no lines of dialogue. Other demons can speak, for some reason, she is gagged with a stick. During the daytime she waits within Tanjiro’s wooden box to avoid being burnt, only coming out when it is convenient for the plot. When her brother is outnumbered against stronger foes, she jumps out and decapitates demons with a dive kick. It’s badass… but their unlikely partnership doesn’t make much sense within the story’s internal logic. In the first episode, Nezuko is a vicious demon, prepared to eat her brother, and somehow unlike any other demon in the show, she can stop herself. Not even four episodes later we see another kid-turned-demon immediately forget about his siblings and eat them (and he’s also able to speak immediately). She exists solely to motivate Tanjiro to save her, and that constantly made me think “Why?” Why does he need to make her human? She’s in full control of her demon form, she’s insanely powerful, she doesn’t need that gag, and if she was a human she would have died fighting alongside her brother. There are kindhearted demons in this show, people who were saved from death by being turned, so why is it such an issue? All I ask for is a story remains true to its internal logic. She’s lobotomized and nonverbal, but look at this cute demon girl crouching in a basket!
The emotional payoffs lack the impact the visceral presentation deserves. Right before or after a ‘boss’ demon is killed we always see a flashback to make us sympathize with them. Trying to get the audience to care about a villain minutes (sometimes seconds) before they die just doesn’t work. They have already lost the fight; who cares if they had a tough childhood if we’ll never see them again? Like most of the emotional payoffs in this show, there is beautiful background music to carry the lacking script, most notably the insert song in episode nineteen. Without the music, the writing isn’t enough. All of the ‘development’ for the main characters happens in flashbacks too. Nezuko gets next to nothing. In the latter half of the show, the script has less time to be redundant. Instead, it’s replaced with comedy. I hoped the other characters shown in the OP/ED would be a lot better, oh how I was disappointed once Zenitsu was introduced. If there’s anyone who likes Demon Slayer for the humor more than the action, violence, artwork, and music, I’d sure like to ask them why. The characters are around fifteen years old, and that's who the humor would appeal to. Over exaggerated reactions, crying, yelling. So. Much. Yelling. Zenitsu almost exclusively speaks with a shrill yelling voice. The few battles he fights alone are so frustrating that I was rooting for the demons. His defining character trait is ‘coward’. He does get a flashback eventually that still does nothing to explain why he is so annoying. Nearly all of the humor in Demon Slayer is jarringly placed right next to series moments. People are violently killed then within seconds cut to the main characters in a cartoony art style doing a slapstick routine. In a series as dark as this one, levity is necessary to a certain extent; however, it feels like the author tried to make the mature themes more accessible to a younger audience by using drastic tonal shifts from horror to humor. The maligned tone made the show less scary to me, but only because it was so all-over-the-place that I could barely tell what tone they were aiming for most of the time.
Tanjiro sees his family in flashbacks when he needs motivation in a fight. In the climactic moment of the entire show, he gets a new ability retconned into the story through a flashback. Many argue it was foreshadowed in the ED—however, the flashback explains a new storyline that gives Tanjiro a new power—a retcon. Inosuke is here too, he doesn’t do a whole lot but he has more relevance than Nezuko at least. Zenitsu and Inosuke are the most expendable characters. In the final arc, we get the most stilted dialogue in the entire series. A dozen new characters are introduced, each with one gimmick to their personalities. Overly cute, overly angry, completely nonverbal, they added nothing but fluff. Demon Slayer began with a roar but ended with a whimper. Even though it was poorly written, the stunning animation and grimdark aesthetic kept me entertained; it’s a shame they threw most of that out the window for filler and unfunny comedy in the final few episodes.
Either you will think this is one of the best shounen anime ever created, or you will think it has some of the worst writing in a big-budget anime to date. Perhaps even somewhere in between. You could skim a Wikipedia summary of the story, then watch all the action scenes on YouTube and you’d lose nothing. I’ll ask you one more time, are you willing to deal with bad writing to enjoy fantastic animation?
When it comes down to it, you’ll know what to do.