In 2019, Demon Slayer took the fandom by storm. What with its excellent animation, beautiful music, and angst-filled storylines, it’s no surprise that this shounen series rivaled even the most popular titles. But although it was commended for the reasons above, the backlash against Demon Slayer has also been aggressive, with a common refrain being that the aesthetics are great, but the story isn’t. Those critics are right, but they’re also obviously not reading the manga.
Warning: spoilers up through the current chapter of the manga ahead.
One of two things that Demon Slayer excels in (the other being bringing a sense of humanity to the enemy) is creating stakes so high that many, maybe even most, of the heroes will die. In fact, it’s more than just the possibility that they’ll die—the final villain and his top assistants are so incredibly strong that unless the pillars fight knowing that they’re going to die, with such abandon, they can’t possibly succeed, and even if they do, they still may not.
It’s an incredibly sad situation. Unlike many other shounen series, the revelations that the supporting characters have in Demon Slayer aren’t long-lasting; epiphanies and life-changing moments may last only weeks, and in some cases, merely minutes. Genya Shinazugawa is an example of such brevity. We’re introduced to him near the beginning of the story during Final Selection. He is ill-mannered, violent, and impatient. He’s also weak, with an untrained Tanjirou easily being able to handle him when Genya attacks an innocent Kanata. That weakness is what drives Genya in his attempt to support his older brother, Sanemi, to the point that he does something quite taboo—consuming demon flesh to briefly gain demonic powers in battle. Genya seems to be a hard, perhaps evil character.
It’s quite touching, then, when we discover that Genya is actually sensitive and kind. During his mission with two of the series’ most compassionate characters, Tanjirou and Mitsuri, Genya learns how to work in a team and that together, they can be strong, when apart they may be weak. Interestingly enough, this lesson makes him far stronger and more able to fight during the last arc, where his contributions are critical to defeat an enemy perhaps stronger than three or four pillars combined in Kokushibo, and which results in Genya’s death, one of the series’ most violent.
Muichiro Tokito also participates in the battle against Kokushibo, and his transformation beforehand is just as impressive. As a child, Muichiro was caring and compassionate, but became cold, matter-of-fact, and quite flighty after losing his memories following his brother’s death. Later, he regains both his memory and his expressiveness. The strength of his resolve combined with a newly found admirable personality makes Muichiro just as likeable as Tanjirou, and a character that’s easy to root for. Unfortunately, like Genya, he loses his life in the battle against Kokushibo. It’s an incredible and unexpected final scene for the young pillar, whom the mangaka had previously set up in such a way that it felt he would live through it all—after all, Muichiro had finally just found himself. Even as he’s being torn in half, Muichiro keeps his blade deep inside the demon Kokushibo, playing as important a role as any in defeating the strongest of the Upper Moon Demons.
As the pillars sacrifice their lives to stop demonic forces, I’m reminded of real life martyrdom. Last week, during the daily devotional times we do as a family, my wife brought up the example of Jim Elliot, who with his four companions was killed in an initial encounter with the Huaorani, a people that other missionaries had known to be particularly violent. Even so, Elliot had written in his journal the famous words that have motivated so many Christians since: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” He went knowing that death was a possibility, perhaps even imminent.
Missionaries have always been held in high esteem, as they should. The world continues to be a dangerous place for those that evangelize around the globe, with The Voice of the Martyrs noting that every six minutes, a Christian is killed in Jesus’ name. Such love for Christ, such wherewithal to go to the ends of the earth and meet any danger has often developed a feeling of great guilt in me, of knowing that I don’t have the faith to do the same. Subtly, that kind of guilt can be crippling, though if I listen close enough, Jesus’ words (Matthew 16:24-26) speak much louder: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?“
Wherever I am, whatever I do, whatever my shortcomings, I can still live for Christ. And I can still die for him—whether it means at the ends of the earth should I have the calling and faith to go, or in my daily tasks, given over completely for him rather than done for myself. And that’s the mindset I seek to have, the one that I want more of, to crucify all that is myself and let Christ reign in every bit of my life. I want to have the mindset of Genya or Muichiro, to go into battle intent on death. If I’m not in Ecuador facing a possible end to my physical life, I can still let my old self die, battling my own pride and sense of comfort as well as a demon stronger even than Kokushibo, stronger even than his master, Kibutsuji—Satan himself. And if those are the antagonists—the devil and my own ego—I cannot enter the fight lightly. I must go in each day prepared to die.
But my advantage is this. Unlike the demon slayers, I can rest upon one that they do not have on their side. I have Christ. The war has already been decided and the ending is not in doubt. I only need to have the faith to fight. He has already won, and thus, so have I.