Who is Allowed to Speak Their Pain? Demon Slayer, empathy, and Nezuko

By: Trevor Richardson November 22, 20190 Comments
Nezuko with the bamboo gag in her mouth

SPOILERS: General discussion of events from the first season of the Demon Slayer anime.

Who would cry for a demon? Who would reach out their hand to offer some small comfort as they fade away? With Demon Slayer, mangaka Gotouge Koyoharu offers an answer through series protagonist, Kamado Tanjiro. 

Tanjiro is a young man fighting alongside his sister, Nezuko, to reunite her with her humanity after she’s been transformed into a demon during a vicious attack that kills the rest of their family. Together they slay many a demon in their quest to find the progenitor demon who robbed Nezuko of her humanity, engaging in high-stakes battles not unfamiliar to fans of shounen battle manga. 

Nezuko and Tanjiro lie on the ground side by side in the snow

However, what makes Demon Slayer unique is the way it deeply commits to centering empathy in its conflicts. To accomplish this, the series grants the audience access to the feelings and traumas endured not only by the human characters, but by the demons as well.

My only wish is that same access extended to Nezuko. Though she is the female lead of the series and the locus upon which Tanjiro’s motivations hinge, Nezuko remains the most inaccessible character to the audience throughout the anime’s first season. 

Demon Slayer’s commitment to empathy thoroughly impressed me from the beginning of the series. However, Nezuko’s infantilization, objectification, and silencing throughout the season makes me worried the series may fall into the same traps as its shounen predecessors and contemporaries. Tanjiro and Nezuko share the same trauma, but only one is allowed to speak it. 

Tanjiro holding a demon's hand to his forehead

Reaching Out to Hold a Hand Drenched in Blood

From the beginning of the series, Tanjiro is characterized as incredibly kind and radically empathetic. During the exam that determined whether he would be admitted into the Demon Slayer Corps, he fights a monstrous demon who oozes through the woods as a pile of tangled arms with no other features beyond a ghoulish face leering out of the mess. The demon gloats about gorging himself on not only fifty aspiring Demon Slayers, but several children who trained under Tanjiro’s teacher, Urokodaki. 

Though this demon has taken dozens of lives—and Tanjiro cannot forgive him that—in his dying moments, Tanjiro senses the demon’s profound, underlying sadness through his superhuman sense of smell. The audience sees a flashback into the demon’s childhood where he mourns the brother he killed in an uncontrollable frenzy after being turned into a demon. The child who would become a mass of flesh and fury at the end of Tanjiro’s blade cries out for his brother to hold his hand. No answer comes. 

Tanjiro looking sad

Back in the present, as the demon’s body burns away, Tanjiro empathetically considers an open-palmed hand reaching out from the mass of arms and grasps it, gracing the demon with another person’s touch as it crumbles into nothingness. 

Scenes like this establish that empathy is a central idea to Demon Slayer. Tanjiro cannot forgive the demons for the people they’ve killed, not only abhorring the waste of life, but also knowing firsthand the trauma of having loved ones violently ripped away. 

However, though the demons may no longer be human, to Tanjiro, they retain personhood. He recognizes the pain they’ve endured as people whose humanity was stolen from them just as his sister’s was. Whether granting a spider demon a painless death when he senses her abject suffering or offering a prayer for the spirit of a tsuzumi-playing demon who ached for his creative talents to be recognized, Tanjiro always empathizes with his enemies’ pain just as he does that of his fellow humans. 

Nezuko coming out of the box on Tanjiro's back

Straining to Hear the Demon in the Box

Gotouge’s writing seeds that empathy in the audience as well by allowing us total access into Tanjiro’s thoughts and feelings. Through dialogue both internal and external, the audience never lacks insight into Tanjiro’s pains, motivations, or joys. This makes the comparative drought of access to Nezuko’s thoughts so frustrating. 

Nezuko is both the only woman among the central cast and the focal point of Tanjiro’s motivation. She is also the character who (within the first season of the anime) speaks the least, is seen the least, and is developed the least. 

Though she shares in Tanjiro’s trauma of having their family violently ripped away, that pain can only be verbalized by Tanjiro. Though she shares in the demons’ trauma of having her humanity taken from her, we are never allowed insight into how that change has affected her either physically or emotionally. 

Chibified Nezuko in her box

That access is restricted in a number of ways, including silencing her with a bamboo gag Nezuko must wear at all times. The gag prevents the improbable but not impossible event of her losing control of herself and biting a human. This not only physically restrains her teeth but also serves as a comforting sight to Tanjiro’s human allies who may be wary of her. Unfortunately, this plot device also restricts Nezuko from speaking, disallowing her the use of words to express her feelings and connect with the audience through dialogue.

Even when the gag is removed, Nezuko is kept silent through her inexplicable infantilization. Her demonic transformation has robbed her of her language skills which, considered alongside her often-used ability to shrink to the proportions of a toddler, lead her to act and be treated as a person much younger than she is. She often elicits nonverbal vocalizations comparable to those of an infant, if she makes any noise at all. This often positions Tanjiro as interpreter, explaining her feelings and intentions to the audience and other characters.

By the end of the first season, it’s unclear if she’ll eventually gain back her communication skills, though nearly every demon they encounter is able to communicate. Both her stolen words and bamboo muzzle leave Nezuko unable to use language to express herself, and she must rely on her brother to speak for her.

Nezuko running happily in the woods

Of course, verbal speech is not the only way for a character to convey their feelings, as not everyone uses speech to communicate. However, the series also doesn’t allow Nezuko an internal monologue the way it does Tanjiro, nor does it employ any visual imagery from Nezuko’s own perspective (divorced of Urokodaki’s influence)—both of which would go a long way in centering Nezuko in her own trauma and healing process.

What’s worse, because exposure to sunlight is deadly for demons, Nezuko must spend her daytime hours tucked away in a wooden box Tanjiro carries on his back. To fit inside it, she must shrink herself down to toddler size, infantilizing herself before becoming akin to an object to be tucked away until she can spring to Tanjiro’s aid in times of peril. 

These moments are often emotionally satisfying beats during a fight, and Gotouge makes it clear Nezuko can hold her own alongside her brother in battle. Nevertheless, the amount of time she spends inside her box not only objectifies her in a literal sense, but keeps her unseen and unheard. For the audience, the less she is seen, the less time there is for connection and empathy, which runs counter to one of the central concerns of the series.

Close-up of a bleeding Tanjiro. Subtitle: Because demons were once human, too!

Owning One’s Words, Speaking One’s Pain

Thankfully, the series does not keep Nezuko completely tucked away from the audience. Urokodaki, Tanjiro’s teacher, placed a hypnotic spell on Nezuko so that when she encounters other humans, especially those in danger of becoming dinner for the damned, she perceives them as her killed family members. This inspires within Nezuko a desire to protect other humans. 

Though a touch macabre, these encounters are sweetly melancholic and recenter Nezuko’s trauma at the front of her and the audience’s mind. Thankful as I may be for this affecting display of Nezuko’s pain, my gratitude only runs so deep. 

Though the spell invokes empathy for Nezuko, it is empathy conveyed through Urokodaki’s hypnosis, not Nezuko’s own agency and intention. Even when she is seen, even when her feelings are being conveyed, they are either through Urokodaki’s hypnosis or Tanjiro’s interpretation.

Nezuko glaring and drooling

Nezuko’s infantilization, objectification, and silencing is not only frustrating, it’s thematically inconsistent. Restricting access to Nezuko’s feelings and trauma runs counter to the central idea of imparting empathy towards the characters of Demon Slayer, human or otherwise. The audience cannot connect with a character with whom they have no access. 

What’s more, it’s that deep commitment to empathy that sets Demon Slayer apart from other battle manga and makes it so special to me. When singing Demon Slayer‘s praises, I don’t want my anthem to sigh into a dirge as I warn potential viewers of how wasted the female characters are—the same sort of thing I feel the need to do for other battle manga like Naruto, Bleach, or My Hero Academia.

Nezuko should not join the ranks of women like Sakura, Orihime, or Uraraka, shining in brief flashes of brilliance before politely stepping into the wings so the male characters can take center stage. She should not need to rely on men to interpret her feelings to the audience. 

Comforting hands touching young Tanjiro and Nezuko's faces

Though it is only one of the many steps towards healing after trauma, one can find power in naming that trauma. By communicating that pain, either verbally, visually, or through internal monologue, one can wrestle with it, even as that pain works to silence.

As audience members who lap up the spilled blood of fictionalized trauma for entertainment, Nezuko should not be held at an arm’s length from us, silenced and shut away, inaccessible to empathy. She should be able to communicate for herself and further deepen the empathy already invoked by her tragedy and circumstance. She should be able to speak her pain.

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