Watching Demon slayer part 1: The Naruto Path and the Bleach Path
Today I wanted to write a more casual piece, to take the pressure off. After all, it’s been a while since I wrote on the blog, and Covid still rages on, meaning time is still broken and society is something that only exists on zoom. I teach, but often my open hours are empty and I become a professional Netflix watcher while I wait for students. If there’s a bottom to the Netflix que, I’m pretty sure I’m going to find it. Somewhat recently Demon Hunter appeared on Netflix, and I couldn’t help but watch it, intrigued by the next breakout anime hit (it even cracked the Netflix top ten).
While this is an oversimplification, two main schools have emerged in modern anime – the Naruto path and the Bleach path. While Bleach is just now experiencing something of a Renaissance – it’s image improving, its anime returning, and a follow up manga appearing in Shonen Jump – it seems to have been an influence on Mangaka for some time.
But first, let’s talk about the Naruto Path. Two main examples are Black Clover and My Hero Academia. In both, the protagonist starts the show powerless, and much weaker than everyone else, but then acquires an ability greater than most of his peers. There is a rival character who is more conventionally talented, there are also tournament arcs, and the hero’s goal is to be the best (whether it be Hokage, Wizard King, or Greatest Hero). I would also argue that these stories feature the more conventional a storytelling of the two paths.
Next is the Bleach path. For this we’ll use the examples of Food Wars and Demon Slayer. In both, the protagonist has spiky red hair, the enemy is an organization where the lower their number ranking the stronger they are, and the storytelling is more subversive. That last point I’ll get to in a bit. While Bleach did not get the warmest reception to its initial anime run, most Mangaka were probably exposed to Bleach in print, which is a much different experience than the anime. One of the strengths of Bleach is its sheer efficiency of storytelling. Because the characters have such distinct designs and personalities, they can be introduced and then exit in rapid succession. Bleach is a constantly churning vortex of ideas, ideal for the short attention spans of the twenty-first century.
But because Bleach was adapted at the alarming rate of an episode a week, that pacing was undermined considerably. Take the very first episode. The format is very simple. In the Manga, Ichigo, who can see ghosts, comes home one day. His eccentric family greets him and harasses him, then he goes upstairs where a soul reaper reaper finds him and tells him about the world of ghosts. The chapter ends with a monster attacking Ichigo’s family and Ichigo saving the day.
The whole first chapter takes place in maybe the span of thirty minutes. Part of what makes the sequence work is contrast. The beginning is full of goofy comedy with Ichigo’s family, but then ten minutes later one of his sisters appears at his door, bloodied and unable to walk, having dragged herself there. The night goes from light family fun to tragedy, and it’s this shift in tone that helps sell the scene. But in the anime, Ichigo simply goes to sleep and wakes up the next morning. On his morning walk he sees a hallow, a spirit monster, that Rukia, the soul reaper, kills in a single blow. Then Ichigo goes home after school and we pick up where the Manga left off. But wait, why did Rukia wait twenty four hours to contact him? And why should we take the hallow seriously when we just saw one defeated in a single strike. The fact that Ichigo kills a hollow in one blow is supposed to be a big deal, it shows that he’s special, but Rukia just did it earlier in the episode. Not only is the episode stretched out, but the internal logic is broken.
Let me give one more example before finally getting to Demon Slayer. In Ichigo’s first big fight against Kampachi, he’s horribly outclassed and runs away through a maze. In the manga, he seems to have gotten away when he suddenly sees a crack in a wall, and then the whole thing bursts open and Kempachi jumps through like the Kool-Aid Man. In the anime, the crack appears, and Ichigo stops and just stands in front of it, his weapon raised, waiting for Kenpachi. The crack slowly gets bigger and then Kenpachi eventually breaks through.
Again, the logic of the scene is severely undermined. Ichigo is scared shitless of this guy, yet he just waits politely for him to burst through a wall? Why would the guy cutting through a giant wall with a sword make you suddenly think you can take him on? But also, in the manga, the feat is impressive because Kenpachi breaks through so easily. Here he’s made less threatening. Fear, the key thread of this scene, is completely undermined.
Now we’re finally going to get to Demon Slayer. Demon Slayer’s first episode is actually quite similar to that of Bleach, if not more tragic – the hero’s family is attacked, a monster slayer appears to help him, and he must save his sister. But here, the twist is that the sister and the monster are one in the same, his sister having been turned. It’s funny, looking now, that the Demon Slayer that saves him even looks a little like Rukia from Bleach.
Much like Bleach, Demon Slayer takes a while to pick up. I struggled with the first two thirds or so of the show, mostly due to pacing. Most of the characters are very one-dimensional, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Like in Bleach, they’re written in a way that helps create the feeling of character depth, almost like an optical illusion. Usually this is done through contradiction, like Zenitsu, who is a hapless moron who is cool and powerful in a fight, or Shinobu, who is always eerily calm and smiling, but actually full of rage. These two extremes imply a world of depth in-between, but we seldom see the in-between, only the two extremes. To be clear, these are not bad characters. But the advantage of having so many simple characters is the ability to use them in an ensemble. Spending multiple episodes on one very simple character alone can start to wear.
One of the best parts of season one for me was when the various Demon Slayer captains assembled for the execution, in a scene very reminiscent of Bleach’s soul society arc. We are introduced to about ten characters all at once, and yet what should be a bit of a cluster fuck works remarkably well. The complexity naturally comes out of the character’s interactions, not the individuals. The last episode features a similar scene, where the antagonists meet and several of them are wiped out within minutes of being introduced. This could be considered a waste of characters, but this is the beauty of one note characters – they’re disposable, and can be thrown away for great scenes like this.
I hope to continue my thoughts on Demon Slayer later this week, as well as on the notions of different schools of Shōnen anime. Please stay tuned.