Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba recently wrapped its second season, and the Entertainment District Arc was filled with animated extravagance the likes of which are rarely seen in contemporary anime. I have often struggled with understanding the appeal of Demon Slayer despite being impressed by its visuals. It is narratively unremarkable, deploying clean and clear shounen tropes in the telling of its story, but despite this it is held up as something worthy of endless praise. What was I missing?
Then I chanced upon Roland Barthes’ 1954 essay on “The World of Wrestling,” and suddenly everything about Demon Slayer made perfect sense. This series lives almost exclusively in The Spectacle of Excess, where the narrative is worn on the faces and bodies of the combatants, exaggerated to the extreme in a battle between Good and Evil.
To say that Demon Slayer is a cultural phenomenon is somehow still an undersell, as this franchise continues to lay waste to records. In 2020 (and into 2021), the movie Demon Slayer: Mugen Train became the highest grossing animated film of all time in Japan, dethroning Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 classic Spirited Away by raking in a colossal $503 million worldwide. There are 23 volumes of the manga, with 150 million copies sold, putting its per volume sales at around 6.5 million—the highest average of any of the best-selling manga in Japan. The list could go on, as Demon Slayer is a nearly $10 billion franchise when merchandise, manga sales, and box office numbers are pulled together. When the Los Angeles Times and Forbes start writing about a series, there is something magical going on.
So how does an essay about wrestling from the 1950s help make sense of a shounen battle anime in the 2020s? Let’s get into it.
Barthes begins: “The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theaters… wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bull-fights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.”
While shounen anime have long featured heightened, exaggerated emotional states played out to the audience through long-winded screams and displays of physicality not of this world, none have done so with the same degree of spectacle that Demon Slayer has. In battle, every movement, every facial expression is telling the entirety of the story between Good and Evil precisely in that moment. The overall narrative hardly factors in the grand scheme of things. It holds the weight of a wrestler cutting a promo to set up a fight—which can certainly be entertaining when it’s the Macho Man—but what really matters is answering the question of “will Justice be served in the ring?” Will the Good Tanjiro strike with his Hinokami Kagura and defeat the Evil Gyutaro?
Further to that point, because Demon Slayer is so simplistic in its presentation, it is a foregone conclusion that somehow Tanjiro will prevail, but fans accept this. Much like a wrestling fan is aware that a fight is scripted—save for the Montreal Screwjob—there is no concern given to the notion that a result is rigged; rather, fans of Demon Slayer abandon themselves “to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what [they] think but what [they] see.”
Barthes compares wrestling to boxing, wherein he sees boxing as a story constructed before the eyes of the spectator. The logical conclusion matters not to a wrestling fan, while the boxing match always implies a science of the future. There must be a conclusion and it must track with what has been constructed before us. If we compare Demon Slayer to its closest rival, the bombastic boxing match that is Attack on Titan, we see the wrestling and boxing metaphor laid bare. While Demon Slayer can almost exclusively live in the moment-to-moment of battle, Attack on Titan does rely on “the passage of time” and “the rise and fall of fortunes” that Barthes ascribes to boxing.
In Attack on Titan, the combatants present differing philosophies that do not immediately and insistently declare their Good or Evil intention. There are ups and downs. One side might have an advantage on the Tale of the Tape, but how it plays out in the ring could be different. To further the boxing analogy, Attack on Titan’s story construction before the eyes of the spectator is certain to go the full 12 rounds. Neither side will land the KO punch. The shifting fog of morality that shrouds the world of Attack on Titan means that even at this late stage of the series (it is in its final season) we are unsure who Good and Evil are. When the final bell rings, the scores will have to be tallied by the judges to determine the winner. There can be disagreement about whether Eren is justified in his ambition, but the series could end in a split decision.
Demon Slayer offers none of that. Good must beat Evil. Tanjiro will somehow succeed, and we know this, yet we want to get lost in the spectacle of him achieving this feat. That is the only narrative that matters.
This is possible because the evil that Tanjiro faces is telegraphed to us as being evil of the highest order through the voices, faces, and bodies of the villains our hero faces. Barthes describes a wrestler known as “Thauvin, a fifty-year-old with an obese sagging body who displays in his flesh the characters of baseness, the bastard appears as organically repugnant.” From first sight, the audience recognizes this character as evil, the “viscosity of his personage” one of pure malevolence.
In Demon Slayer, there is no need for the audience to be told that Gyutaro is evil, he embodies it. His corporeality is that of dying, decaying flesh, his face hideous, his eyes menacing. Before he says a word, as he enters the ring, it is clear that we will root against this character. We need not judge him with our minds, for our physiology has already bestowed a response that our own bodies are repulsed by the figure before us. Though not essential to Barthes’ wrestlers, the taunts and condescension that ooze from Gyutaro, courtesy of voice actor Osaka Ryouta, gives the character an even more affecting aura of evil. His stellar performance makes Gyutaro a great villain.
Presented in this way, a backstory is almost unnecessary. Gyutaro’s heinous past is assumed (he is a demon after all), and we the audience know that what we will see is all of the trickery, cruelty, and sadism we expect of a character like him. As he is a formidable foe, he will deliver this to us in an excessive—at times beautiful—display that will be tough for Tanjiro to overcome. We expect to be entertained by this spectacle. We see in the body of Gyutaro the seed of the fight, from our first look at him, the fight can be read on Gyutaro’s physical body, but as the fight goes on, the seed can blossom in ways that might seem unexpected, yet ultimately fall into the familiar. What plays out are the three tenets of any good spectacle: suffering, defeat, and justice.
As the fight against Gyutaro goes on (totaling over 100 minutes of screen time), there are swings in the balance between Good and Evil, but it is when the fight nears its conclusion, we see the three tenets really take shape.
In Episode 10, “Never Give Up,” we see Tanjiro at his lowest point. Suffering takes center stage. Barthes says: “Wrestling offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. In wrestling, a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness.” In this penultimate episode, he would surely see in Demon Slayer precisely this as Tengen, Zenitsu, and Inosuke—Tanjiro’s allies—all fall in spectacular fashion. Valiantly protecting a self-doubting Tanjiro, all three appear to suffer fatal damage in the fight against Gyutaro: Tengen felled by poison, Zenitsu lying beneath burning rubble, and Inosuke stabbed through the heart. The fallen heroes are a spectacle of powerlessness.
With the upper hand, Gyutaro begins to mock Tanjiro, something commonly seen in evil characters that make up Barthes’ World of Wrestling. “The wrestler triumphs with a repulsive sneer while kneeling on the good sportsman…” a move that would make it seem as though evil had won, with the good hero powerless to fight back. We see this on Tanjiro’s face. His teeth gritted, his eyes quivering, “he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction.” Which is all part of the story we expect to see in wrestling (and Demon Slayer). “The ostentation of the spectacle is what matters, the Exhibition of Suffering is the very aim of the fight. That is why all actions which produce suffering are spectacular.”
But the fight cannot end like this. Good must prevail. “What wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The crowd asks for it, there is an imminent justice that pervades wrestling.” And here is where Demon Slayer delivers the euphoric satisfaction of justice delivered, in the way it builds our heroes back up after their suffering. After animation studio Ufotable brilliantly showcases how powerful Gyutaro is, the crowd then thirsts for revenge that will match the level of power shown by the villain. Wrestling thrives on this “eye-for-an-eye” mentality, and Demon Slayer is masterful in its presentation of overcoming a villain’s evil. After being thoroughly mocked, and defeated physically and emotionally, Tanjiro concocts a plan that takes advantage of his opponent’s smug carelessness. Gyutaro, so certain that he has won, lets his ego get the best of him, allowing Tanjiro an opportunity to counter. “The greater the contrast between the success of a move and the reversal of fortune, the nearer the good luck of a contestant to his downfall, the more satisfying the dramatic mime is felt to be.” Tanjiro turning the tides when all seemed lost, and with such astounding visual flair, makes his (and his allies) recovery all the more powerful.
These moments are why Demon Slayer is so popular. It scripts its fights to perfection, and while we know what the outcome will be, we watch anyway. The spectacle of excess has us entranced. There is just enough narrative tissue to hold the entire thing together, much like the soap opera-esque writing of products like the WWE. By the time we reach the conclusion of the arc, the third tenet—that of defeat—is clear for all to see. Gyutaro has personified evil exactly as he was meant to, and when Tanjiro finally lands the blow that ends Gyutaro’s life, Barthes would likely say that Gyutaro has been “deprived of all resilience… with flesh no longer anything but an unspeakable heap out on the floor.”
Barthes may have been writing about wrestling in the 1950s, but his framework can be applied to shounen anime like Demon Slayer, an anime that is pure spectacle. There are faces and heels in Demon Slayer, there are steps our heroes must take to reach the title fight against Muzan at Wrestlemania (was this arc the Royal Rumble?), there are loosely sketched backstories to put characters over the top, but for the most part, we know who is going to win. It’s basically predetermined. The spectacle of it all is the magic. We’re just here to see Tanjiro wind up and deliver a Sixth Form: Whirlpool, fly off the top rope and claim the belt.
Michael Lee is a writer who might take anime and videogames a little too seriously. For more musings on animation, fandom, and game worlds, follow him on Twitter @kousatender.
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