Having read through the first volume of Koyoharu Gotouge’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, the best way I could describe it is “a battle-focused The Promised Neverland set in Ye Olde Japan.” True, there’s no soul-destroying conspiracy involving dead kids – at least, not yet — but while the demons of Gotouge’s debut series devour both kids and adults alike, it takes a page from its fellow 2016 Shonen Jump contemporary and pulls at our heartstrings with dead kids. But can shock value alone provide for a good story?
Let’s look at the premise: we’re introduced to Tanjiro, a boy in a family of seven who travels up and down the mountain road to make ends meet. Arriving home one day, he finds his entire family slaughtered by a demon attack – his sister, Nezuko, is the only survivor, but having contracted demon blood, she has become a demon herself. Her affection for her brother remaining the only link to her humanity, Tanjiro sets out not merely to find a cure, but to become a bona fide Demon Slayer.
While the first chapter doesn’t waste time in setting up the plot, its brevity may be this opening volume’s biggest weakness: note how we are given precious little introduction to Tanjiro’s family before their slaughter – in particular, Nezuko, the sister we’re meant to care for, is only given one page of dialogue before her transformation. This is hardly to say it’s a bust – it’d be silly if I expected every one of Tanjiro’s siblings to possess an elaborate background – but that they’re fridged so quickly leaves little time to mourn for both Tanjiro and us readers.
Still, that’s hardly to say it’s a bust – if anything, I must commend Gotouge for getting to the point. It’s a trademark of many failed Jump series’ opening chapters to gradually unveil a hook – as in, they mistakenly rely characters and world-building as opposed to an actual plot or established goal, as evidenced by last year’s U19 — or merely rely on shock value (Ziga being the latest example), so it’s easy to see how Kimetsu no Yaiba made the cut. If I must point out one successful bit of storytelling, it’s his encounter with a Demon Slayer set on eliminating Nezuko, wherein the assassin’s harsh speech cements Kimetsu no Yaiba’s tonal identity as a largely serious work: very little jokes are pulled at Tanjiro’s expense, choosing only to highlight “chibi” faces when illustrating light-hearted curiosity.
Whether that works is something we’ll get into later, but the question is, how do we end up caring for Nezuko? While Tanjiro’s year-and-a-half-long dedication in life-or-death training is certainly inspiring, her pitiful bamboo muzzle and adorably distant eyes are what ultimately win us over. Perhaps it’s not character that’s immediately necessary, but of our instinct in protecting something so fragile? The key, then, currently lies within Koyoharu Gotouge’s art: echoing traditional Japanese art – the exact style escapes me, but look above to see what I’m talking about – it allows for Gotouge to implement creative techniques for his designs and action sequences. It’s no coincidence this ties into when the story picks up, too: from the third chapter on: just observe how he weaves those iconic Japanese waves into Tanjiro’s sword-swings, or the tengu/fox-masked strangers that serve as Tanjiro’s masters that immediately immediately instill a stern aura of mystery and authority, even when one’s a boy of Tanjiro’s age. Some have dismissed this style as too sketchy, but I found it rather authentic for a distinctly Japanese tale such as this.
Perhaps Kimetsu no Yaiba’s biggest roadblock lies in its current one-track framing as a revenge story? To claim Gotouge hadn’t planned for the story to develop beyond Tanjiro’s initial goals would be a lie, but in the chapters provided, there’s little else to chew on outside of his isolated mountain life. Again, that’s how the last couple chapters end up being the most interesting — for instance, does his newfound master’s confession/his implied disdain for child soldiers hint at a corrupt government? Was Tanjiro’s training with dead children merely a hallucination, or implying something more? Will the purported lifespan of a demon ever come into play? Is there a connection in demon hunters sharing a fantastic sense of smell, the very first distinguishable trait we learn about Tanjiro?
Those are the questions that keep us coming back to shonen manga such as this, and while Kimetsu no Yaiba is a slow burn in this regard, that it’s already shifting gears is a good sign. With an anime adaption by Ufotable on the way, surely it must’ve settled into a comfortably engaging niche. We’ll be keeping an eye on this one.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
This review was based on a review copy provided by VIZ Media.