After months of trying, I recently convinced my wife to take up Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. We made our way through the initial episodes, which she enjoyed, but I became more and more excited for her to meet one character in particular—Zenitsu. I was anticipating how she would react to seeing his extreme cowardice, and then the reveal both of his inner character and his capabilities. Hints of this are first shown as he battles a demon in the tsuzumi mansion, but it’s all fleshed out during the Natagumo Mountain arc. It’s because of his story there, as portrayed through a flashback showing his training, that Zenitsu became my favorite character.
Zenitsu’s battle against the spider demon on Natagumo Mountain is as unusual as one would expect, with the demon slayer running from his enemy as much as possible. But when he can no longer flee, and is on death’s doorstep, he remembers his training as given by “Gramps.” It’s as pathetic as one can imagine—his sensei must set traps that prevent Zenitsu from escaping the training, and literally drags him back to the dojo at which he practices. When first introduced in the series, Zenitsu appears to have become a coward after facing the reality of fighting demons; the flashback makes it clear that he was this way even prior.
At one point, Zenitsu is bullied by by Kuwajima’s other student, Kaigaku, who berates him for his cowardice and even physically assaults him. Kaigaku says that any time sensei spends on Zenitsu is wasted—he treats his comrade as worthless, as nothing—a feeling, I think, Zenitsu knows all too well.
Unlike Inosuke, Zenitsu is incredible self-aware—more so even than Tanjirou. At one point, he explains that he’s the one acting normal in all this craziness, which makes much sense—who would willingly fight these awful creatures and endure “hellish training”? He also plainly knows he is a coward. Zenitsu’s actions, his sleep-induced berserker quality aside, are done with foresight. He complains because he feels that the situation calls for it, but also understands that the way he acts is miserable. Nothing Kaigaku says is news to Zenitsu—they’re precisely how he feels about himself.
I’ve felt that way, too. I’ve been cowardly like Zenitsu, but my pain comes mostly from different places—my hypocrisy, my pride (Am I Inosuke?!), and most of all, the scheming and devious way I approach people and life, a quality that though tempered by my faith, still exists, still feels a part of my very being. When combined altogether, these vices and others make me feel guilty and sick, a man who is more expert at ruining others’ lives and taking them for granted than at living to love them, as I purport to do.
But there is hope for me. And there’s hope for Zenitsu, too—and that hope is connected not to our own abilities, which are lacking, nor even to who we are, as devious or cowardly as he and I might be.
As Zenitsu travels closer and closer to his foe, the memories of Gramps become even stronger. He recalls the training, and especially the pain. Funny enough, many of the “beatings” which he suffers don’t seem like beatings at all. They look more like love taps.
Gramps was once a hashira, a pillar among the corps. We’ve seen the power of the hashira already, and its frightening. And yet this powerful man has the patience to train Zenitsu day after day after day, from dusk until dawn, when someone as patient as Tanjiro loses his head after spending two minutes with him. How can Gramps possibly do that?
The answer is simple and clear: It’s love.
When I first watched this episode, I thought that “Gramps” was literally Zenitsu’s grandfather. Zenitsu had become orphaned and I thought that Gramps had taken him in. It made sense to me—why else would Kuwajima train Zenitsu and display such patience with him unless he was a blood relative? The feeling was confirmed to me when Kaigaku tells Zenitsu he shouldn’t refer to him as Gramps, that it was too intimate—it seemed to be a way of saying that you must see him as a sensei and not let him treat you with the familiarity of family.
But perhaps only to my surprise, Gramps—Jigoro Kuwajima—is not Zenitsu’s grandfather. He rescued Zenitsu after taking compassion on the boy, who was about to come under servitude due to debt. Kuwajima took him in, fed him, trained him, encouraged him, and helped him become far more than he was destined to be. In other words, Kuwajima took this boy, who was an orphan, and brought him into a household filled with his love. Kuwajima functionally became Zenitu’s adoptive father. In an arc about artificial family, one where Rui forcibly and fearsomely (the use of spiders and their webs is perfect imagery) establishes family bonds, Zenitsu and Kuwajima stand next to Tanjirou and Nezuko as examples of what family is meant to be.
Indeed, there is perhaps no greater demonstration of love than that of adoption, to take someone who is not your own and give him the love and blessings of your family. It’s an intimate connection, both the most intimate one of family and one of grace that can’t even be experienced by blood ties. As lovely and powerful as the bond between Tanjiro and Nezuko (also orphans, it should be noted) is, the decision to take someone and make him part of your family is to travel one step further.
Have you ever felt that kind of love from someone not bound to you in any way? I have, in bits and pieces—the young man who played basketball with me when I was a youth; the friend who chose me me first for his team rather than one of the athletic kids; the mentor who invested what little time he had in helping a young man who complained too much (maybe I’m Zenitsu after all!) grow into an adult. But I’ve also experienced this love in all its fullness. My faith paints the picture of adoption, of a God who chooses to bring us into his family at great sacrifice: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Like Zenitsu, I flounder each day. My problems remain and my character improvement is a slow process. But when I become a son, I’m given that which I do not deserve. And like Zenitsu as well, in one moment all that love poured into me leads to transformation, and like a flash of lightning, I can change into all that which otherwise I never would have become.