By Tom Wilmot.
The unprecedented success of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba continues to perplex spectators, with the franchise’s film entry, Mugen Train, shattering records to become Japan’s highest-grossing film of all time. Much of the attention on the property is paid to the stunning animation and action-packed narrative. However, there is something to be said about the historical era in which the show is set. While the series protagonist Tanjiro Kamado and his merry band of demon slayers would easily slip into an anime set during the Edo period (1603-1868), the story instead takes place during the short-lived Taisho era (1912-1926). Although the setting is not the focal point of Tanjiro’s journey, several aspects of this fascinating era are wonderfully realised in Demon Slayer.
The Meiji restoration of 1868 drastically change Japan’s global standing over the next half-century. It overthrew 250 years of rule by the Shogun, “restored” the teenage Emperor Mutsuhito to power, and saw an end to Japan’s isolation from the outside world, during which foreign visitors were effectively illegal. This same seclusion meant that Japan was seriously lagging behind the West in terms of modernisation. Determined to avoid the balkanised fate of China, Japan underwent massive reforms and modernisations, secured shocking military victories abroad, and had established itself as the imperial power in Eastern Asia.
This modern Japan was the one that Emperor Yoshihito came to rule upon his accession to the throne in July 1912 – “Taisho” was his reign name and posthumous title. A sickly man who suffered from meningitis-induced brain damage, Yoshihito was shielded from the public and played little role in governing the country, which was instead unofficially handled by a group of elder Japanese statesmen known collectively as the genro (“the original old men”). Yoshihito’s reign saw a continued influx of Western ideas and philosophies, notably individualism and democracy. This came as a result of newfound political relationships with Western powers, growing access to foreign books and art, and the return of Japanese scholars who had studied overseas.
The country’s path for modernisation was based on Western models, with the Meiji Constitution of 1889 establishing the Imperial Diet, a legislative body similar in structure to the Houses of Parliament. However, it was only during the first decade of the Taisho era that popular protest against the prioritisation of military funding led to governmental changes that saw the Diet take greater control. This power shift, along with the General Election Law of 1925 that granted suffrage to all males over the age of 25, led to a period of liberalism often referred to as “Taisho Democracy”.
Alas, this democratic period would not last, as loopholes in the Meiji Constitution gave way to the hard-line militarism that would inevitably lead Japan down the war-path in the 1930s. The Taisho era concluded with the death of emperor Yoshihito in 1926 (his son, Hirohito having already been regent for five years), making its 14-year span the briefest of periods in the country’s modern history. Short though it may have been, the culture cultivated during this era came to refine Japan as a modern nation and further lay the foundations for what the country would become in the 20th century and beyond.
So where then does Demon Slayer stand in this fleeting period of Japanese history? For most of the first season, the placement of the show in this era seems only incidental. However, there are nods as early as the first episode as to the modernity of the show’s setting, particularly regarding technology. During Tanjiro’s visit to a nearby village to sell charcoal, we can clearly see electricity lines running above the street. Electricity had first made its way to Japan in 1878, but it was only after the development of long-distance transmission technology in the early 20th century that the commodity began to find its way into the countryside. Until then, it had only been a feature in major cities where, by the dawn of the Taisho era, it had become a vital part of everyday life.
It is during Tanjiro’s trip to Tokyo’s Asakusa district in episodes 7 and 8 where we see the real explosion of Taisho period technology. Lined with blinding electric lights, the city streets are bustling with urbanites who, when not on foot, get around via car or tram. Such transportation was a crucial addition to an ever-growing population, with Tokyo being home to two million people in the early Taisho era. Another advancement in transportation that appears later in the anime and prominently features in the record-smashing film is the steam train. Upon encountering the hulking locomotive in the season finale, the impetuous Inosuke is convinced it’s some kind of monster. As humorous as the boar-headed demon slayer’s misconception may be, his reaction echoes that of the contemporary rural population, who would occasionally refer to these unfamiliar vehicles as karyu (fire dragon). These new technologies were initially imported, yet by the Taisho era, continued industrialisation meant that Japan was comfortably producing steam trains and other such vehicles on its own.
This autonomy rang true as well for new styles of architecture, which are also featured during Tanjiro’s trip to Tokyo. As our wide-eyed hero takes a breather by an udon stand, we can see in the background a notably tall building that looks distinctly Western. This structure is the Ryounkaku, which was opened in 1890 and was essentially Japan’s first skyscraper. Designed by a man from Edinburgh, reaching twelve floors and featuring a fancy new electric elevator, the building was one of the most popular landmarks for Tokyoites. Unfortunately, the Ryounkaku was irreparably damaged during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and subsequently demolished. Nevertheless, its presence in Demon Slayer helps to narrow down when exactly the show takes place.
Poor Tanjiro looks as though he’s landed on a different planet given the way he gawks at these new developments, and he may as well have, considering that many of them had not yet made their way to rural Japan. As well as contributing to new technologies, rapid modernisation had also resulted in the growth of an urban middle-class. The cities afforded more opportunities for wealth, notably for many women. However, this comfortable urban lifestyle highlights the growing disparity of wealth and technology between the cities and the countryside, as much of the rural population was still living an existence similar to that which they would have had in the Edo period. As much is made plain in Demon Slayer by the modest home and lifestyle adopted by Tanjiro and his family.
With greater wealth in the cities came more disposable income, and naturally, a larger consumer market. A trendy investment for many of the Tokyo citizens shown in the anime is Western-style clothing, which was very much á la mode during the Taisho era. Even series antagonist Muzan Kibutsuji has a sense of style, what with his sleek black jacket and white fedora. Similar garments can be seen on many of the background characters during Tanjiro’s encounter with the villainous Demon. It would appear that the Demon Slayer Corps have also made room for modern fashion with their uniforms. Underneath his green, checked haori (robe), Tanjiro wears an outfit strikingly similar to a Prussian military uniform, the style of which was adopted for school uniforms during the Meiji era. Tanjiro himself is a quintessential Taisho citizen, with his mix of traditional and Western clothing representing the synergy of styles that typified the era.
The Taisho era is often looked back on as a golden period in Japanese history, as it was a time of relative peace compared to the war-driven Meiji and Showa periods it is sandwiched between. As far as Demon Slayer is concerned, the rose-tinted spectacles through which people tend to view the era may have contributed to the franchise’s popularity. Yet, there are reasons aside from the nostalgic why the Taisho era proves to be the ideal setting for the show’s narrative. Tanjiro and his band of demon hunting pals are a dying breed of sword-wielding warriors that are being left behind in this modernising Japan. Dismissed by the authorities, corps members cannot even legally carry a sword anymore, something that would have been a non-issue in the age of samurai a mere 50 years earlier. They clutch to traditional values in a world where they are becoming has-beens.
You could even go as far as to speculate that the flesh-eating demons represent a form of Westernisation that is literally devouring Japan. After all, Kibutsuji seems rather at home in the bright Tokyo streets with his slick Western attire, while Mugen Train antagonist Enmu has a special bond with the titular locomotive. The idea of an impossible coexistence between demons and humans seems to reflect the contemporary criticism of the blend of traditional and Western values from Taisho era naysayers. When looked at through this lens, the relationship between Tanjiro and his demon sister Nezuko embodies an unlikely yet fruitful cross-culture coalition. This central conflict makes the Taisho era the perfect setting for Demon Slayer to unfold and provides a welcome excuse to explore this often-overlooked chapter of Japanese history. With the return of Demon Slayer slated for some time in 2021, we can look forward to delving further into this unique period of time.
The Demon Slayer TV series is released in the UK by Anime Limited.