When the immensely popular and critically acclaimed ufotable series Demon Slayer aired between April and September of 2019…I missed out. Being highly susceptible to FOMO, when it first appeared on my Netflix home screen, I decided to dive in, buoyed by going back and catching up on the currently airing Jujutsu Kaisen.
With the first episode in the bag, I can confidently say that this is right up my alley, and I really should have cracked it open back in Spring 19. In my defence, back then I was busy watching the excellent Dororo reboot, Part 2 of Attack on Titan’s third season, and the second cour of the promising Rising of the Shield Hero, so I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs.
That said, I’m glad I went back to check this out. While the number of characters and storylines are sure to balloon before long, I loved how simple it starts out: a boy carrying a wounded girl through a bleak wintry forest. I can’t stress that “bleak” part enough—once Kamado Tanjirou returns home to find his entire family slaughtered but one sister, I couldn’t help feel like we were entering Grave of the Fireflies territory.
I won’t spoil Grave for those who haven’t seen it; suffice it to say it’s by far the darkest and bleakest Ghibli film and one of the saddest films ever, and things don’t end well for its pair of siblings. Demon Slayer differs in that while Tanjirou and Nezuko suffer horrendous tragedy, the opening episode ends with a spark of hope that breaks through the unyielding cold.
Granted, that hope is a spark and only a spark, made possible by a titular demon slayer named Tomioka Giyuu staying his hand when it comes time to execute Nezuko. Did I mention demon blood got into her wounds, thus transforming her into a demon? Well, that’s the sitch, because it wasn’t enough that Tenjirou lose his mother and other siblings.
While this could easily have descended into tragedy porn, there’s a sense that things can’t get any worse, and that it’s always darkest before the dawn (though Tenjirou is warned to keep Nezuko out of direct sunlight). That fact is reflected in the stunningly gorgeous wintry mountain landscape, which at least started out bright and cheerful before the clouds amassed.
Tomioka admits he shares part of the blame for Tenjirou’s plight; if he’d arrived a few hours earlier he could have stopped the demons before they attacked. But he didn’t get where he is today by dwelling on the past. What keeps him from killing Nezuko is that despite most likely starving for human flesh, rather than eat her knocked-out brother, she shields him from Tomioka. Instead he places some kind of pacifier in her mouth that seems to calm her (and give her a very cute surprised expression).
So the story so far is simple and familiar: kid loses almost everything, and seeks to find and kill (or…slay) the demons responsible, and save his sister. Naturally, he’ll need to become stronger to do that, and Tomioka tells him to head to Mt. Sagiri to find a man named Urokodaki Sakonji.
ufotable, renowned for its action sequences, wows with the landscapes first, but is no slouch when it comes to the showdown with Tomioka and the Kamado siblings. The action is beautiful and precise, but not overly flashy or show-offy. Tomioka is so quick it’s as if he can teleport. Tenjirou is a lot more clumsy in his movements, as befits his desperate mood, while the demonic Nezuko is both beast-like and balletic in her strikes, leaps and lunges.
All in all, Demon Slayer is off to a stirring, enticing start, front-loading the tragedy but also presenting its hero with a chance to claw back from the brink and salvage what remains of his shattered life. I’m glad Tenjirou isn’t left all alone, and while Nezuko is a demon, and that sucks, there seems to be enough of her left that she’s not an immediate threat to him. As their quest begins, so does my quest to cover it. Better a bit late than never, eh?