Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba recently had its greatest episode yet, and that means it’s time for a deep dive into its production: its core strengths, some recurring issues, but above everything else, the harmony between different creative departments that makes its highs so spectaculars.
Truth to be told, we’d been meaning to write about Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba for months. Ufotable’s first real foray into Weekly Shonen Jump adaptations isn’t only a stunning visual spectacle, it also happens to be quite the interesting project for an already special studio. And yet, for all the positive aspects we could isolate, it never felt like they truly came together in a way that lived up to the show’s real potential… until now, that is.
Which is to say that we’d refrained from writing about Demon Slayer because digging into the insidious details holding it back would have soured the tone, even with wholehearted praise of just as many impressive aspects. But now that we’ve been gifted the perfect excuse to give this piece a more positive spin and hopefully avoid raining on the parade of its fans, it’s finally time to tackle Tanjiro’s adventures: the good, the less so, and the astonishingly great highs it reached with episode #19.
But first comes the recap of what the series has been like up until the most recent episode. And even before that, what the production was like prior to the broadcast; even more so than usual, the end product we’re seeing here is inherently tied to the anime’s planning process, so we’ve got to do our homework as well as ufotable did if we want people to understand why Demon Slayer is the way it is.
To put it short and simple, Demon Slayer is a big deal. Not only is it the first Jump TV show for the studio – I see you, ufotable connoisseurs about to mention their sorta forgotten Toriko pilot – it also happens to be their first 2 cours production without a broadcast break in the middle. When facing a tricky challenge like that, most anime projects would… not do all that much different from usual, and likely crash in a nasty way halfway through. If that has conjured the image of a specific title in your brain, keep in mind that it actually applies to a depressingly large number of anime, and get just a little bid sadder.
Fortunately, Demon Slayer happens to be an exception to that sad routine. The parties involved had enough confidence in the project to give it plenty of time to come to fruition, hence why the production was already advancing in earnest in early 2018, essentially a year ahead of its broadcast. While we often stress out that pretty much all anime takes a long time to be made, it goes without saying that such a long span for hands-on production is outside the norm for a TV series.
For all of ufotable’s excellent practices, there’s no denying that they went through a rocky management period during 2015-2017, with certain projects being clearly sacrificed for the sake of other titles, and one particularly unfortunate show that crashed harder than anyone would have ever expected from an ufotable effort. The current peaceful era at the studio – with the FSN Heaven’s Feel movies marking some production highs for the studio, a spinoff as delicately put together as Today’s Menu for the Emiya Family still being recent, and Demon Slayer having been granted as much time in the oven as it needed – is well-deserved respite for fans and staff alike. This isn’t to say that this project’s circumstances are perfect, as we’ll see later when we talk about staff allocation, but it’s still important to note that it landed at a moment where things are going well for ufotable. Yes, in spite of that tax thing.
But before we get into the nitty-gritty of the team behind it, we’ve got to talk about the individual leading the project. Haruo Sotozaki, best known for his very extensive contributions to the Tales Of franchise, is honestly a series director that’s hard to feel enthusiastic about. While you might find some enjoyment in his works – a studio of ufotable’s caliber wouldn’t keep someone without basic anime-making fundamentals in their active director roster – it’s always hard to argue that his vision has a net positive effect. Rarely does it feels like Sotozaki’s truly ruining the work he’s been entrusted with, in part because his directorial personality isn’t bold enough to be that much of a roadblock either, but his approach tends to bum viewers who prefer to have a more inspired flavor to their cartoons. It’s quite telling that the most devoted ufotable fans, especially the more production & cinema literate ones, are the group that’s least pleased with his work.
Don’t get me wrong now: there’s plenty to like in Demon Slayer, including aspects that weren’t present in the source material, whether because they’re medium-specific qualities or because it was Sotozaki and his team that came up with them. And yet I’d still argue that the overall package still illustrates some of his failings as a director. So, why are people not all that fond of him?
On a macro level, perhaps the easiest way to sum up Sotozaki’s issues is that the Demon Slayer anime is almost too good for him. After reading a bunch of volumes of the manga – and enjoying them a fair amount – I felt like it was ideal for quick reading; a straightforward yet compelling revenge story that admittedly gets too heavy on the exposition, meaning that not only is it a good series to breeze through, it actually benefits from approaching it like that.
This adaptation is a different beast, however. There’s no way to blast through anime short of heretical acts like increasing playback speed, so the TV show needed to find a way to communicate everything the manga struggled to through its delivery. For example, with exceptionally sharp character art that captures everyone’s feelings even without much acting to speak of. Or downright breathtaking scenery, bathed in lighting unmatched in pure beauty by any other ufotable production, both coming together to set the right mood at any moment. Aided by a soundtrack that’s equal parts haunting and blood-pumping, of course. Perhaps some inspired storyboarding to position all those pieces perfectly, as well as smart action choreography that would render the constant narration during the fights moot. These are all ingredients that an ideal adaptation of this series would have.
Except those aren’t hypotheticals. Demon Slayer’s got all of that – some aspects on a consistent basis and others less so, but it’s all still there. And yet, Sotozaki’s conservative mindset stops him from capitalizing on all that goodness. This isn’t necessarily to say that he had to change the source material, but I definitely think like it’d have greatly benefited from very extensive trimming of the exposition, especially during tense moments. While it’s not as much of a big deal in the original comic, the juxtaposition of excellent production values and occasionally inspired direction with very inelegant, verbose description of things we’re already seeing on the screen with much more grace than the dialogue creates that awkward je ne sais quoi that made some viewers give up on the series early on. I personally don’t subscribe to show don’t tell as dogma, but situations like this are akin to admiring an inspiring painting while someone recites its Wikipedia page to you.
That’s the crux of Demon Slayer’s direction as a whole, but what about its execution on a more moment-to-moment level? Well, the reason why I wasn’t so enthusiastic just now when praising the storyboards as I was with other individual elements was that once again, the specter of Sotozaki is inescapable; that’s not a manner of speech, seeing how he’s personally handled 9/19 episodes so far, with more to come for sure. And while he’s certainly capable of boarding neat sequences – look no further than how his compositions cornered Tanjiro in the first episode, or Kyougai’s bitter breaking point in the thirteenth – as his workload piles up it becomes the uninspired reenactment of the manga panels that some people feared. Often lacking in charm, and sometimes frankly unreadable during action moments despite fighting being supposedly his forte. More of his trademark 3D rotations of the battlefield, less of whatever this is.
You might think that this is the exceptionally good schedule we’ve been talking about before weirdly biting the show in the back, as that’s what’s given Sotozaki time to do such an incredible amount of hands-on work for a series director, but that’s not quite the whole story. The truth is that Demon Slayer is being made by a fairly small crew, and as gorgeous as it is, it’s hard to argue that ufotable is prioritizing it much anymore; time does wonders when it comes to the polish, as does having some of their best supervisors, but it’s not a coincidence that there are this many outsiders assisting on direction and even storyboarding duties – including Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Madhouse’s expert on churning out workmanlike storyboards – while ufotable’s own directors are conspicuously missing.
Incidentally, that makes it easy to draw parallels with another gorgeous series made by a surprisingly small group of people over a long period of time: Violet Evergarden. The circumstances aren’t quite the same, of course. KyoAni provided that series with plenty of exceptional directors but had a small team of animators handle almost the whole project, hence why its acting was stiffer than the studio’s golden standards despite the (and because of) the gorgeously detailed art. Meanwhile, Demon Slayer fulfills its animation goals, but has been denied the directors that could elevate it further. Similar root problems, different aftereffects.
And as another addendum, since I imagine people reading this are fond of ufotable’s work, it’s worth noting that some signs point at the studio having another project in the works besides the final Heaven’s Feel movie. Comparing the lineup of directors that Emiya had access to while overlapping with previous films and Demon Slayer’s current limitations, and considering that important HF animators did eventually join this show, it really seems like there’s a staff bottleneck on the upper levels. Whether that’s an entirely new project or a previously announced one coming to fruition still remains to be seen. Either way, don’t be too surprised if an announcement happens within the next few months.
If you’re an avid fan of Demon Slayer, congratulations on having made it through all the criticism – here’s hoping I made good enough of a case so that you don’t feel like grabbing your pitchforks. The reward you’ve earned is some more of that unabashed positivity I promised at the start. Because for all these gripes I have with the show, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said there are just as many positive aspects to rave about, even if we focus exclusively on what the anime is bringing to the table.
The truth is that I already mentioned many of its core strengths earlier, but it’s worth noting how much of a choral success it’s been for ufotable. During its peaks, Demon Slayer is stronger than the sum of its parts due to the synergy between the studio’s departments and the individuals in charge of them seeing eye to eye. The portrayals of the special powers remain some of the most memorable sequences in the entire show, not just because of the animation itself, but due to the stylish marriage between that traditional work and the VFX; Tanjiro’s Hokusai-inspired Great Waves are the most obvious example, but even minor villains got an equally eye-catching treatment.
Similarly, it’s hard to dissociate the gorgeous background art from not just the lighting work but Sotozaki’s decision to set the series more tangibly – at least when it comes to the aesthetics – in the transitional, contrast-heavy Taisho era. There’s a feeling of cohesion between its natural vistas, many settings that feel straight out of a gory samurai film, the emerging metropolis, and even the otherworldly sceneries that no one should take for granted.
While it’s not as if everything’s in perfect harmony like that all the time, the exceptions are few and far apart, and honestly don’t seem like much of an issue in the first place. The photorealism instilled in the CGi and compositing by Yuichi Terao clashes a bit with the bold character art, but both are very attractive so I found myself quickly getting used to it. The slightly more solemn tone, also a consequence of Sotozaki’s decisions, makes the goofier sequences that have managed to sneak through feel fairly abrupt, but I won’t be the one to condemn fun animation like this. All things considered, and leaving aside the aforementioned conflict between the confident presentation and Sotozaki’s conservative approach, I believe that Demon Slayer’s individual pieces strengthen the whole.
And speaking of the character art, it’s worth reiterating just how wonderfully polished it is. Akira Matsushima being a beast of animation is nothing new: he’s been inspiring others to seek a career in this field ever since his days as a Hunter x Hunter (99) supervisor, and nowadays he’s just as influential within ufotable – both as a mentor and as the studio’s most trustworthy animator. Even during the stretches of episodes where the series was frankly starved for staff, Matsushima’s chief supervision ensured that not a single shot looked off, while correcting more directly the episodes that introduced important characters. That’s a feat in and of itself, and even more so when you consider not just the level of detail inherent in his designs but the tricky approach with variable lineweight that shifts with the movement of the characters. Perhaps Sotozaki’s greatest decision was once again relying on his old pal to command the animation process.
Despite Demon Slayer having had a more limited access to the studio’s personnel as one might have expected when looking at the quality of their work, it goes without saying that Matsushima is far from the only animator whose work has managed to stand out. When it comes purely to the timing of the motion, none of ufotable’s main assets are as snappy as Mitsuru Obunai, whose drawings are far apart enough to constantly carry a feeling of forcefulness. If animation had volume, however, then the loudest sakuga star at the studio would be an easy choice: Masayuki Kunihiro.
Don’t take that as an implication that he’s a brute with no nuance, though. For all of Kunihiro’s flashy flair, his bold poses very deliberately emphasize how superhuman the combatants can be, and his excellent usage of anticipation before clashes and the lingering immediately afterward make his work viscerally satisfying. As you might have been able to tell from that description, it’s as if he was born to animate Inosuke’s reckless acrobatics; it’s those inhuman poses that made him into the most recognizable in-house ufotable animator, and there are few better applications for them than this feral child – and he’s not the only animation maestro who got clearly typecast, as we’ll see around the end.
In the same way that they’ve stood out on the animation front, a few directors and storyboarders have stepped up to shine in between Sotozaki’s less graceful outings. Despite having to deal with a bunch of exposition, one of the episodes that left the strongest impression in that regard was #05, in no small part due to Takashi Suhara’s leadership. You might have heard of Suhara’s reputation as that one director all fans of the studio pray that he gets to lead a project someday, as well as an avid period drama fan; and even if you hadn’t, the striking B&W sequence portraying the demon’s final moments will clue you in, on both fronts. The episode is very telling about Suhara’s composition quirks, his fondness of racking focus, as well as his careful choreographies – extending beyond combat itself – but ultimately it’s his warmth managing to reach the bleakest depths that makes it quite memorable.
Other directors have had their brilliant little moments throughout the series as well. Masashi Takeuchi and Yuuki Itou exploiting Sotozaki’s 3D environments to their fullest and definitely-not-a-pseudonym-for-you-know-who Junichi Minano‘s genuine horror movie abduction in #06 immediately come to mind… and yet if you asked right about anyone acquainted with the team who the directorial ace has been, they wouldn’t hesitate to give that honor to Toshiyuki Shirai, especially after the entire show peaked with episode #19 by his own hand. So, who’s that exceptional man?
Since this piece is already too long as it is, I’ll spare you a full profile in his career. So instead, let’s keep it as simple as possible: Shirai is ufotable. Quite literally. While his origins lay elsewhere and his experience at the studio isn’t as extensive as others, very few individuals if any at all have managed to absorb the versatility that defines ufotable; let’s not forget that, while they’re not at the same level, the studio is only behind KyoAni when it comes to in-house, multi-department prowess. Having grown in that kind of environment, Shirai is a good animator, qualified supervisor, capable of drawing art designs, and honestly, he’s probably a good cook as well. That man’s got everything.
As you’d expect with someone that talented, Shirai’s previous appearances in Demon Slayer had already been among the best moments in the show. Though he only storyboarded it, #04 was gorgeous even by this show’s standards, and featured a bunch of Shirai’s characteristic grand layouts. While held back a bit by Zenitsu’s loud introductory antics, #11 had a fair share of Shirai goodness as well. I find it particularly interesting how once again he comes across as a mixture of ufotable’s best traits, even on an individual level. For one, his approach to horror has both the quietly unsettling atmosphere you’d expect from Takuya Nonaka‘s works – though still filtered through Shirai’s own fondness of dutch angles – as well as the more cinematic yet just as unnerving shots that feel more like Takayuki Hirao‘s legacy.
After a couple of months of silence since that last appearance, Shirai returned to direct and storyboard Demon Slayer #19. And it couldn’t have been any other way: a director who’s inherited the spirit of the studio, including the techniques of those who are gone now, handling the episode where the two siblings at the core of this tale awaken to their family’s legacy. A masterful effort that could only be pulled off by a director like Shirai, who’s dipped their toes in so many of the aspects that go into making anime.
Where to even begin? A feeling of danger that’s not conveyed by the script but by Shirai’s storyboards. Layouts that accentuate that imposing presence, juggling the duty of giving visual form to the character standings with the equally tricky task of establishing recognizable space in a setting without easily identifiable landmarks like a forest – no wonder Shirai decided to draw all animation layouts himself. Even if we look beyond the areas that are supposed to be his forte, everything remains at an exceptional level. Compositing is one of the few anime production roles that Shirai has no experience with, and yet #19 wasn’t only the prettiest episode yet, it also made the animation easier to read than ever despite all the conceptually busy shots. And of course, there’s no writing a post touching on this episode without mentioning the sound direction: the way the insert song kicks in tickles the exact spot in the brain to get you all fired up, and the segue into the special ending with Matsushima’s family illustrations is the most touching part of the show altogether.
With every technical and emotional aspect coalescing to reach new heights, the animation couldn’t afford to lag behind. And that it didn’t! It’s hard to pick favorite sequences in an episode this strong, but one of the more overlooked details that stuck with me is the dance-like quality to Tanjiro’s final flow, which feels deliberate once his origins are finally revealed; we seem to be in the golden era of referenced kagura performances, by the way, since this enchanting dance isn’t the first one in recent times. Though of course, the sequence everyone is freaking about is Nozomu Abe‘s glorious reappearance. I skipped him earlier when talking about the ace animators who’ve caught the most attention because I knew I’d be ending this piece by talking about him, but the most perceptive among you likely noticed that he’s been showing up once his Heaven’s Feel work was done as the Zenitsu specialist, playing to his 2DFX strengths.
As good as Abe is, I feel the need to point out that he can be troublesome to deal with, albeit for good reason. There is no active action and effects animator that can match the sheer density of Abe’s work. It’s become integral to his appeal as an animator and the very reason why he gets so many high profile requests, but it also means that the coloring and photography team need to also do an exceptional job… unless you want to want to end up with incomprehensible (albeit still kinda cool) pieces of animation. While ufotable’s digital team have earned a reputation for intrusive postprocessing that regularly obscures the original key animation, the ultimate goal in Demon Slayer is clarity, so even in scenes as hectic as this it’s very easy to interpret what’s going on – without sacrificing beauty!
And that about sums up Demon Slayer: a bumpier ride than I’d like overall, but when everyone’s efforts are coordinated towards the same goal, the result is simply spectacular. And if you can’t believe that, catch up to episode #19!