Story Pile: Demon Slayer

Up front Spoiler Policy is that I’m not really going to spoil things in this series I’m just going to tell you broadly about the tone.

There’s this phenomenon in the conversation around pop music where all the best-selling artists of all time were born after like, 1985, a fact that makes a lot of boomer music fans kinda bummed out, because it’s a sign that the musical culture is no longer a sign of how they are the ones who dictate what is and isn’t popular. It’s okay, it’s just how time advances, but it’s also a function of how the technology for making music has just kept getting better. It’s easier to get the best version of any given performer’s art, it’s easier to distribute it faster and it’s easier to express a wider variety of ideas in a lot of different ways. Simply put, it’s possible to make things better these days.

Demon Slayer is a genre perfected.

It took me a while to give Demon Slayer a chance. Partly because when I saw the name being discussed, I assumed any name so simple had to be the title of some ancient, primordial anime that everyone had already watched fifteen years ago. Plus, when you describe the concept, it really does feel like an anime I’d already seen. You have a protagonist who comes home to find almost all his family slaughtered by demons and his remaining sister struggling to hold onto her identity. He has to learn to fight, climb a mountain, find a demon lord, surpass his masters and defeat the final boss. Along the way there’s a training bit, then a train bit, then another training bit, then his little sister’s training and bit.

I felt like this whole series, narratively, could have happened while Inu-Yasha was on TV. If you’re not aware of when that was, it was 2000-2004. There were a fair few anime around that time that kinda looked like they were meant to get marketed in the shadow of that behemoth; a number of shows that used some mix of period fantasy and aesthetics. Surely one of them was this ‘Demon Slayer’ show.

What finally motivated me to watch Demon Slayer was, as weird as this may sound, the Disney Animated Canonball podcast. In that podcast, at times it was necessary to know where movies stood in the historical landscape of Winning, ie, which movies made the most money of all time. And that meant not just comparing them to themselves but also comparing them to their own place in history, and eventually to movies in general, and that meant looking at a list of the five highest-grossing animated movies of all time.

One of them was the Demon Slayer movie, Mugen Train.

And at that point I figured an ignorance of this franchise was demonstrative of an ignorance of a meaningful piece of international culture, since it’s a movie for what I’d consider a niche audience that was hanging around The Lion King, Frozen 2 and The Simpsons Movie. Just engaging with Demon Slayer at that point was a matter of modern media literacy, really.

The impulse to consider Demon Slayer an old anime felt strangely prescient, though; there were anime of its type I watched growing up, anime which could be seen as having the same fundamental building blocks. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the work at all — really it’s much more like Demon Slayer being something that feels timeless.

There’s nothing in Demon Slayer that feels like an evolution of an idea, or even much like it’s trying to respond to something immediately current; it doesn’t feel immediately timely (to me, outside of Japan and its place in the zietgeist), but similarly it doesn’t feel like it’s chasing trends in particular. I don’t find myself looking at Demon Slayer and think ‘well, this could only happen now.’

Maybe it’s because some of the ways it tells its stories are kinda classic in my mind. There are little omake theatres at the end of each episode that do lore explainers, for example. The anime storyline takes these big skips like I’m used to old anime doing when they want to skip boring bits of the manga. Even shots and combats feel like they’re trying to build on the visual language of the older style of fights…

but.

See, Demon Slayer takes a lot of anime tropes that you might be familiar with as ‘ways to extend the budget’ and doesn’t do them too long. You get the seized moment, you get the back-and-forth, you maybe get the hero and villain pushing beyond their limits over and over again but it’s all brisk, it’s all done in a way that avoids dragging things out. That means that there are plot arcs across three or four episodes that feel like they take up a whole season in that classical form.

It’s anime how you remember it not how it was.

And what an anime! Positioned proudly here in Dread Month, Demon Slayer is a rendition of ‘horror action anime’ the likes of which I saw when I was definitely too young. Setting aside technical details, like how every scene is crisply shot, linework is consistent, cinematography takes advantage of its 3d technology and the woodblock ink-like special effects weave together beautifully with the animation, Demon Slayer tells a story which mixes together the elated highs of combat shounen anime and the genuine dread of horror anime.

It’s a genre wedding that can look kinda fundamentally impossible; after all, shounen fight anime are classically about people with heroic powers overcoming impossible odds and horror anime are about people without powers succumbing to impossible odds. If the tension point of the series is ‘when do the main characters die’ then the genre full of last minute heroic saves kinda deflates that.

What Demon Slayer builds on instead is not so much the question of ‘will our heroes beat the villain’ because yes, of course, they will, that’s obvious, but rather turns the screws on the question what will it cost you. It does this through two major story devices: Horrifying villains, and Horrifying heroes.

When I say ‘horrifying heroes’ understand I do not mean Inosuke, who is perfect. I mean rather that in this setting, every heroic character we meet, and learn about, is someone with a hole in their soul. The task of Demon Slaying is one in which you are required on a daily basis to face the potential for death and everyone who’s survived has had multiple Worst Days Ever. The trauma gives them drive to succeed but also may have made them seem like oh, you know, immense assholes.

These heroic characters can all impart lessons to our protagonists, but every single one of them is doing so in a way that risks replicating the trauma they have. Whether it’s a wish to keep someone safe or a desire to make demons suffer more, every major character we meet who can help our heroes progress through the story tells part of their story in recognising the thing that’s wrong with them all while I get to home that this won’t impart itself in a messed up way on the heroes, who are largely doing their best.

And the villains, well, they’re just as bad, because whether cosmically true or just practically so, given the traumatising way in which demons are formed in the setting, with origins of deprivation and abuse, they’re all in some way represented by abuse patterns. They all ask questions of emotional problems and replicate that in their powers and relationships. It’s often a question about what’s left when your emotions ruin you; when you’re too lonely, when you live with your worst failure, when you need something so badly you’ll force the world to give it to you.

It is about people of principle — good and bad — who cling to that principle, because life has broken their ability to make judgments.

I’m honestly shocked at how good Demon Slayer is. The central principle seemed boring, the girl who can’t talk felt like a kink being smuggled along, and the whole grisly aesthetic of villains felt like it was overkill. After watching it, though, I was surprised to find how much of what made it up is just refined versions of things I already loved.

Nothing new, just everything excellent.

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