Killin’ ‘Em With Kindness: The radical compassion of Kamado Tanjiro within the modern shounen landscape

By: Amaya Baptiste June 16, 20230 Comments
Tanjiro giving a sad, empathetic smile

There comes a time in every baby anime fan’s life when they are no longer a baby anime fan, and their emotional connection to young heroes changes from “cute crushes on character age-peers” to “who’s letting these children fight the forces of evil?! “. Kamado Tanjiro from Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba was my first post-shift adorable fictional son adoption. I love having adorable fictional sons, but not all of my sons are the same.

Sure, Tanjiro’s got that moralistic determination trait/defect common in many of my Shounen Sons (™), but what makes him different is a clear and consistent decision to choose kindness toward others, with a pang of deep sadness and forgiveness that outlines it. When holding it up against the other leading boys in the same genre, this particular “brand of nice” feels different. But what is the difference in Tanjiro’s “nice” compared to other shounen protagonists—and why isn’t it more common? 

The TikTok trend that inspired this article jokes about the idea that a magical girl  (often signposted by  a ribbon and bejeweled placeholder clearly inspired by Sailor Moon) would nuke you mercilessly while only leaving your congealing bones—sparkles included. Conversely, shounen protagonists (often exemplified by Son Goku from Dragon Ball or Naruto‘s titular main character Uzumaki Naruto) would at least try to talk to you first before kicking your butt. 

Neither of these are accurate portrayals of either archetype, but it’s not supposed to be. The joke is essentially a playground game of hypothetically pitting characters from various well-known stories against one another in fantastical make-believe one-on-one battles. But the fact that this gag has caught on—and seems to resonate with so many anime fans—does tell us something about these genre and character archetypes and what we’ve come to associate them with, memes or otherwise. 

In practice, most shounen protagonists usually aren’t genuinely mean-spirited. Sure, most may enjoy fighting to some degree, be narrowly focused in a way that accidentally causes more harm than good in the long run, and their morality might be a little fucked up and/or hypocritical, but it’s not intentional or anything. They’re probably trying to help you get better, like a therapist whose solution to stopping you from talking bad about yourself is to NERF gun your kneecaps. 

Combinations of violence and kindness are par for the course in shounen. Winning antagonists over is a landmark part of the shounen genre; the hero has a big heart, and people tend to be transformed by him. Goku’s villains go from leveling planets to babysitting his children while he goes off doing hero (?) stuff. Naruto and Luffy win people over with their dedication and enthusiasm once those people get past their outward personalities, growing their teams and introducing more and more characters to that “Power of Friendship” stuff that often drives the action. 

Even protagonists of the “gruff punks who secretly care” variety, such as Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist and Urameshi Yusuke from Yu Yu Hakusho, make it cool to care about others. Still, that’s often not the focus of the story itself. Introspection like that is often shrugged off or used as sad backstory during cool battles, once again not really offering shounen enjoyers other ways of dealing with problems outside of punching them. These characters may have a charisma that gets people on their side and the audience hype AF, but “are they nice?” is a separate question. And, if they’re too nice—do they even still count as a shounen hero? 

In truth, modern Shonen Jump’s protagonists aren’t all that different from their forefathers. Bleach‘s Kurosaki Ichigo falls into the aforementioned “gruff punks” category, and despite appearing on opposite sides of the “appears to be nice” spectrum, Naruto and My Hero Academia‘s Midoriya Izuku aren’t that different. This name drop fest serves for the introduction to another key point in this discussion (a surprise tool that we’ll use later):  the treatment by the narrative itself of their “nice” protagonist. 

Admittedly, defining what a “nice” protagonist …wait, actually… isn’t the easiest. Although popular fandom interpretations of a series and its characters (aka “fanon”) can be fun and even insightful, it can also get paradoxical and far from the source. In a lot of fanon, the depiction of Izuku’s character isn’t far from Tanjiro’s—i.e., as a Nice Young Man. But canonically, Izuku is just as DTF (down to fight) as any other shounen protagonists mentioned. Much of his early story arc is about overcoming his perceived mental and physical weaknesses and punching his way to success.  Again, as in the examples above, this bombastic charisma and violent determination is what always saves the day.

Yuji lying on the sofa engrossed in a movie

Conversely, if we define “nice” by how the narrative frames these characters rather than by a personal judgment of how they act, Jujutsu Kaien‘s main protagonist Itadori Yuji is also a “nice guy.” Similarly to Izuku, Yuji is also given power at the start of the story, but forced to be a part of a magic superpower school, which creates an overall different vibe. Character trait-wise, Yuji isn’t the “punch first, ask questions never” type and doesn’t have inherent aptitudes before he gets his powers. And get this, unlike Naruto or Izuku, Yuji is well-liked by his peers! He has all the makings of a regular, likable, red-blooded shounen protagonist … until he switches schools. 

This shift in company pushes Yuji to become a sort of moral outlier because most people in the world of Jujutsu Kaisen are, to put it mildly, shit. But, and this is the important part, the narrative knows that they’re horrible and refuses to side with or excuse them. From the way his actions are framed, it’s clear that the narrative is placing a positive emphasis on Yuji’s emotions and reactions to the horrendous things that happen to him and others, and are inviting the audience to empathize with him and use his actions/reactions as a realistic guide for the audience. 

The storytelling  allows and respects him to have feelings even if the other characters aren’t treating his kindness  as a character strength. While he may be normal (by our standards), his “nice”-ness is heightened by his surrounding cast and his story context. (This contrast is even more clear by the main character of Jujutsu Kaisen 0, Okkotsu Yuta. He is also a counterpoint to typical shounen protagonists as a seemingly soft, nervous boy—though that’s a slightly different case, since those traits are kinda linked to mental health struggles and guilt he’s trying to overcome rather than being positive parts of his character.)

Despite mostly being on the nicer side of the spectrum, with many years of context behind them, these boys are still iron-fist-to-the-stomach types when it comes to conflicts. When they do defeat their rivals (doing 10 years’ worth of therapy per punch), the implications of these antagonists being beaten into kindness (or complacently subscribing to the order) and the emotional and social repercussions of such a sharp heel face turn are often left unexplored. Much like not judging a book by its cover, forgiveness isn’t necessarily a bad message to espouse to viewers, and atonement isn’t impossible, but atrocities being cast aside because you’re “good” now? Wack. It leaves holes in the emotional fabric of the narrative that are usually glossed over, again as just an accepted part of the genre. 

Yugi tearfully tells his friend he loves him

The framing of many shounen characters seems to imply that while it is cool to care, talking about your feelings, sordid past, or deep trauma is not cool; those are for flashbacks in the middle of the violence, and at the end of the day you’re still expected to punch your way out of there. Mutou Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh! is one of the few real predecessors to Tanjiro as a protagonist who openly cried and talked about his feelings, and even he had a cool alter ego to take the spotlight for a lot of dramatic battles. Not to say that Tanjiro doesn’t use violence (he is still a demon slayer, it’s in the title), but what sets him apart from the vast majority of male shounen protagonists is a focus on his emotional empathy.

There was a specific moment when I knew Tanjiro (or at least the way the narrative presented him) would be a bit different than other shounen protagonists’, but first let’s go back to the beginning. 

The plot of Demon Slayer (the anime of which released in 2019) builds on some standard-issue-story concrete, where Demons are bad, and Demon Slayers are aptly named. Tajiro, the main character, is no longer the oldest of five when the Demon godfather, Muzan, slaughters his family while he’s away doing helpful older sibling chores. Muzan (accidentally or for funzies, it’s unclear) turns one of the siblings, Nezuko, into a Demon. But instead of doing the usual thing and messily eating him, Nezuko attempts to protect Tanjiro from an attacking Demon Slayer, which identifies her as built differently and, therefore, possibly un-demon-able. So begins Tanjiro’s quest to travel around the story’s setting searching for a way to transform his little sister into her good old less-bitey self.

Tanjiro touches his forhead to a demon's hand

I kind of get the feeling that if it weren’t for Muzan’s shenanigans, Tanjiro would have been perfectly satisfied living a simple NPC life. He takes to be a hero well enough, capitalizing on common shounen traits like a strong work ethic and determination—but rather than a more nebulous Shounen Protagonist goal like “prove my worth” or “get the treasure” or “fight my way to the top”, his focus is always squarely on saving Nezuko. Even when it’s unclear if Nezuko is going to eat him or not, Tanjiro repeatedly implores and begs her to come back to him, whereas it may be assumed that most heroes would have elected to immediately throw down with the things they were taught their whole life to hate. 

Tanjiro’s gentleness and hesitation to judge extends to all characters—humans, like his exasperating besties Inosuke and Zenitsu (who are also my adoptive sons, but keep acting rambunctious in the Walmart); and demons, like Lady Tamayo, a former doctor who escaped Muzan and aids our heroes. And, of course, that treatment extends to strangers. 

The “moment” I’d mentioned before happens in Episode 7 when Tanjiro is helping a boy search for his missing fiancé. They are too late in the end, though, and when Tanjiro tries to comfort the boy, the boy, in his grief, snaps at him, saying that Tanjiro couldn’t possibly understand such a loss (in a bitter spoonful of dramatic irony). Instead of snapping back (like I would’ve) or solving this conflict with a fight (as some other heroes might’ve), Tanjiro simply takes his hand and gives him a small, gentle smile edged with deep melancholy—eyes overflowing with quiet sympathy and kindness. 

Tanjiro giving a sad, empathetic smile

Tanjiro only gives the proverbial stink eye to one person (uh, demon): Muzan. Given that Muzan’s tomfoolery kicked off the whole story, put Nezuko in a crate, and put Tanjiro in the hero role, this seems somewhat justifiable. It’s necessitated by the narrative that Tanjiro has to fight someone, and big brush emotions are common in the shounen framework. Muzan being a cold-hearted and ruthless asshole who murdered his whole family certainly doesn’t help. Other demons, however, are free real estate for Tanjiro’s compassion.

That isn’t to say that this brand of said compassion doesn’t involve a shiny sword—this is still a hype action series, after all. One of the more GIF-ed shots of Demon Slayer is a scene where Tanjiro is committing an act of violence – beheading a Spider Demon in Episode 16. But, considering that she was being held captive in a twisted nuclear play family by an emotionally stunted overpowered child, the kill itself is  almost merciful. She notes as much—touched by how Tanjiro’s eyes hold no malice or hate and how peaceful and painless her death is.  The narrative clearly frames this mercy as a strength of Tanjiro’s, something that saves the day and resolves the conflict—in the same way that his compassion and protectiveness over Nezuko drives the entire plot, and in the same way that Tanjiro being kind and nice, even when it’s not the easy option, drives so many of the shorter arcs.

Tanjiro lands in a forest clearing; the demon he cut through is reaching out to him for a release from her pain

Surprising absolutely no one who has been an anime fan for the last decade, shounen anime is the most widespread, popular, and well-known in the medium, full-stop. The main language in shounen is still, unfortunately, violence. Even with the added deconstructions of heroism, modern shounen still has a way to go in teaching empathy through its main characters. While I adore Tanjiro, I think that for the time being, he will be an outlier in his particular niceness, and in the way that the narrative of Demon Slayer is built around that niceness. 

The good news, though, is that he might not be alone for too long: other recent series like Chainsaw Man have proved that you can deconstruct and contest traditional forms of masculinity and still be a shounen blockbuster; and because of the quick, tightly-written turnover of these newer shounen series, the next cycle of protagonists isn’t far behind, meaning we’ll get to see how the trend will continue to pan out sooner rather than later. While the gag about shounen protagonists punching therapy into their villains will no doubt stick around, I, for one, hope that we get more stories that give their heroes the space to be kind and sweet, and to be motivated by their compassion even if it goes against the “rules” of their world and of their genre. 

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