Women in battle shounen manga rarely receive the chance to show off their true badass potential, and in many cases are denied the right to a personality, period. In my last article, I focused more on the classic example of Haruno Sakura from Naruto, a healer with a killer punch that could have punched a whole lot more. This time, though, I want to take a closer look at Gotoge Koyoharu’s Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. The story centers around the siblings’ journey to restore Nezuko’s humanity and to take revenge on the man who stole it from her, demon progenitor Kibutsuji Muzan.
It’s a story not unlike that of Fullmetal Alchemist, where two siblings set out on a journey to return their bodies to their normal state, encountering a whole world of complications in the process. But where Fullmetal Alchemist dedicates an equal amount of development to both siblings’ experiences, Demon Slayer predominantly focuses on Tanjiro’s struggles while shoving Nezuko off to the side in a tightly locked box (like, literally, an actual freaking box).
While we are on that topic, let’s start with said box. Despite being a story centered on Nezuko, we sure don’t see a whole lot of her. In Demon Slayer, one major weakness for demons is good old-fashioned sunshine, kind of like vampires. In order to protect Nezuko from burning to a nice, crispy pile of ashes, her older brother kindly provides her a too-tiny box (or, if we’re going with the vampire theme, coffin) to chill out in while he’s off slaying demons for an organization called the Demon Slaying Corps. The box is genuinely a reasonable enough solution to daytime travel. Yes, she’s a demon, but there are plenty of vampires in fiction that chill in a box for twelve or so hours to wait out the day. And who wants an overcooked sister?
But for some reason, Nezuko spends all her time in there, both day and night. In fact, she almost exclusively comes out when her brother is in trouble, kicks some ass for maybe ten minutes tops, and then passes out from the injury of the day. And even then, Tanjiro still manages to do a whole lot more of the ass-kicking before she can make an appearance. This doesn’t even come close to matching her older brother’s screen time, nor is it conducive to any character development. How are we supposed to know anything about Nezuko while she’s tightly locked on her brother’s back? Readers hardly have an opportunity to see her, let alone get to know her.
Even if Gotoge did allow Nezuko a little more nighttime freedom, there’s one other pressing issue that limits her ability to participate in the story. To keep her from snacking on any unsuspecting humans, Tomioka Giyuu, a high-ranking member of the Demon Slaying Corps, muzzles Nezuko with a piece of bamboo and a ribbon. She continues to wear this muzzle for the majority of the story, even after she’s proven herself perfectly capable of resisting the temptation of tasty human limbs. It’s a little hard to speak with a giant stick in your mouth. In fact, it makes it so hard that we can count the total conversations we’ve had with Nezuko on one hand.
Being incapable or unwilling to speak isn’t the end of the world though — writing, sign language, gestures… all of these could paint a picture of just who Nezuko is. She could try to speak through the muzzle, perhaps taking it off herself to get the final word in (because, hello, she is fully capable of doing that). We could have seen her arguing with her brother in grand gestures, reminiscing about her favorite human meals in funny little drawings, maybe mourning the loss of her humanity with expressions alone. Hell, a little internal thought process would be nice even. It would at least give readers a glimpse at her thoughts, feelings, and personal struggles, just as much as we see her brother’s. There are plenty of other demons in the series with an enormous vocabulary. But Nezuko hardly gets a word. When she does communicate, it is through expressions or animalistic noises that indicate either anger and aggression or complete apathy. Even in the rare moments we see her without the muzzle, she only growls angrily, painting a less than human picture.
Part of developing a character involves addressing how and why they interact with the people around them. Like any adventure shounen protagonist, Tanjiro is depicted as a young man full of kindness and empathy, garnering respect and friendship with relative ease. We see his blooming friendships with two other Corps recruits, Zenitsu and Inosuke, and the resulting shenanigans that can only come from one of his friends being “part” boar. And like any shounen protagonist, he finds a master to train him in that of Urokodaki Sakonji, forming a near-familial bond in the wake of Tanjiro’s biological family’s death.
Nezuko, of course, accompanies him every step of the way, watching and listening to the team’s various antics… from inside the box. It’s hard to truly point out a single solid relationship she forms with any of the cast members, despite being in their presence exactly as much as her brother is. Sure, Zenitsu confesses his undying love and affection for her, and yes, it’s without question that Urokodaki sees her as a daughter just as much as he sees Tanjiro as a son, but none of these relationships were formed on her terms, or with any substantial reciprocation.
A Nezuko with the desire to speak her mind (or a Nezuko with… a mind at all) might have asked for some distance a little more forcefully. A Nezuko bonding with her comrades might have tended to her more fragile teammates. A Nezuko pursuing her own found family might have bonded with the only other good demons in the series, Tamayo and Yushiro. And if we’re really going for the gold, she might have confided any inner conflict about losing her humanity with them both. It’s in moments of vulnerability like this where characters are fully brought out of their boxes and step into the light.
For supposedly being a story about two siblings’ journey, we don’t see much of the younger one. Tanjiro’s journey centers around Nezuko’s entire existence, predicated on her loss and the ideal return of her humanity. But despite her importance, we are denied any glimpse into who Nezuko as a character truly is. Sure, in the moments we do see her, she’s on par, if not more powerful than the other protagonists, but do we know anything else about her? She could have struggled with the implications of possessing that demonic power, struggled with the constant hunger for human flesh, and hell, maybe even make a friend. We could have had it all, if we could just open that box for a few hours longer.