Ach ja, I genuinely think Demon Slayer is pretty good. I could never really warm up to Shounen classic like Dragonball, Naruto and Bleach (though I am currently reading One Piece), but I am really enjoying the new era of titles like My Hero Academia, Jujutsu Kaisen and The Promised Neverland. However, one aspect of Demon Slayer I noticed, though not necessarily criticism per se, is the tendency to sideline the agency of its female characters.
Now, by all means, this is by far not problem specific to Demon Slayer. Ignoring the many anime I have seen, where the female characters often boil down to trophies collected by the main character, even favorites of mine like Attack on Titan and Pokémon sometimes drop the ball on giving their female characters the spotlight they deserve. This isn’t even an issue about representation or a wish for more female characters in important lead roles, but about female characters seemingly getting the short end of the “Get to do cool stuff and be a great character”-stick.
Again, it is not like Demon Slayer has no female characters or treats them actively bad (one exception may apply), but rather puts them in a more passive role, keeps them in the background or simply didn’t give them the time to shine just yet. I have watched everything up to including the Entertainment District Arc, which comes down to 44 episodes and around halfway through the entire story, so you can not blame me for not giving Demon Slayer enough time to prove itself. Although, as one of the upcoming arcs to be adapted focuses on Mitsuri, this side-comment may solve itself in the near future. It does not, however, solve the thesis of this post.
I do not want to sound like a white knight here. I think this is an issue addressable by anyone, no matter the demographic, even if the topic at hand is clearly shifted towards one. Looking back on the story, I can’t remember a lot of scenes where a female character actually made the moment, where a female character was truly allowed to shine at their best and the scenes I do, are mostly occupied by Nezuko, though more on her later.
I like Shinobu, especially from a thematic standpoint, but if you compare her to the other Hashira outings like Kyojuro and Tengen, she hardly compares. I also like the bit where Kanao actually decided for herself, instead of relying on a coin flip, to save Aoi and Naho, though it also just leads up to the resolution of a joke misunderstanding. Even Tengen’s Wives unfortunately end up as just damsels in distress, despite being clearly capable on their own given other circumstances. Hinatsuru carrying this huge box that shoots a barrage of kunai laced with poison was pretty damn cool though, even if it doesn’t necessarily add any depth to her character.
I fully understand that the story is just written that way and it also logically justifies these decisions and I also know that the absence of agency is not a dismissal of its female characters, but at the end of the day, we end up with a story where the female characters are often not allowed to prove themselves, which I think is greatly hindering Demon Slayer’s story impact overall and the most glaring character to see this in is Nezuko.
I gotta be honest, Nezuko barely counts as a character for me. A symbol? Absolutely and an effective and resonant at that as well, but not a character. Due to the premise of the story, Nezuko is robbed of all agency, is unable to speak and can only express herself via concerned “hmpf"s. The only time she s allowed to act on her own is in flashbacks and these are far and few between. Beyond that, she is literally locked away in a box. She is also arguably a bit infantilized by being treated more as a little child than as a young adult similar in age to Tanjiro and while the series doesn’t make it weird, she does posses a Loli mode. Nezuko is to be protected, even if she could so herself.
It still baffles me that Nezuko was nominated as best girl in the Crunchyroll Awards 2020, though part of me also knows exactly why this was the case. When Nezuko is allowed to leave the box, things tend to look different. Even if her impact on the fight against Rui was relatively small, thematically speaking, this was one of, if not the best moment in season one. A true display of the bond between the two siblings and a stark contrast to what Rui considered family. Then there was the confrontation at the headquarters, where she was able to hold back her demon instincts and earned some of the Hashiras trust.
Nezuko has her moments… just not enough for my liking. While, again, mostly in the background during the Infinity Train Arc, she was finally able to go all out in a fight against Daki during the Entertainment District Arc and I cheered for her all the way. Genuinely a big fan of the brutality on display in her fighting style. I really hope that she will be able to control her demon state in the future and take an active role in the fights to come and doesn’t need to be calmed down by Tanjiro again.
In hindsight, this might be a strange topic to talk about, as it is simply something I noticed while watching Demon Slayer. Its female characters are not actively bad, just underutilized in a way that can be explained away by the story, which makes it hard for me to criticize it in a way that matters. Nevertheless, the end result is a story where the female characters fall flat and are often not given the opportunity to express themselves to the extend most of the male characters can.
In conclusion: Let Nezuko out of the box!
Demon Slayer is available on Crunchyroll.