Story Shots: Better Mary Sues with Tanjiro Kamado

Hello and welcome back for another story shot, this time looking at Tanjiro Kamado from the mega-hit anime/manga series Demonslayer (Kimetsu No Yaiba), particularly from the swordsmith village anime arc. As ever, spoilers ahead.

What it is

Demonslayer follows Tanjiro Kamado’s mission to save innocents from demons and to turn his sister Nezuko—who has herself been turned into a demon—back into a human. Tanjiro’s efforts come through his work as a member of the Demon Slayer Corp, where he works alongside fellow corp members and high-level members called Hashira to complete demon-slaying missions assigned by their leader. I’d definitely rate it R for gore and horror, so be warned if you check it out.

How it works

The main thing about Tanjiro Kamado is that he’s good. As in, really, really good. A selfless, dedicated brother; brave and talented swordsman; and clear-spirited and encouraging friend, he basically starts the show without any real flaws other than inexperience and the inability to make rapid decisions when there are too many people to save. Basically, he’s almost perfect, the hero they need to take down the demons’ evil and selfish leader, Muzan Kibutsuji.

The other thing about Tanjiro though, is that despite how amazing he is, he’s not afraid of other people being good. There are multiple examples throughout the show, but as I’ve just finished the latest season, we’ll focus on the swordsmith village arc.

In it, Tanjiro visits the swordsmith village (go figure) to get a new sword. During his stay, the village is attacked by demons, leading to multiple battles between the demons; Tanjiro; and Tanjiro’s allies: Nezuko, Genya, Tokito, and Kanroji. As initial tensions or flaws within or between these characters start to lead the team towards inevitable destruction, Tanjiro’s persistent dedication to encouragement, positivity, grit, and teamwork bring them back from the brink, ultimately leading to several major blows against the highest ranks of the demon hordes and multiple personal breakthroughs for his compatriots. Tokito regains his memory and realizes how much stronger he becomes when fighting for others. Genya gains confidence and the courage not to give up even in the face of near impossible odds. Even side characters like one of the boys in the village grow, with the boy going back to repay a debt of kindness to the Hashira he formerly couldn’t stand. Basically, Tanjiro’s persistent kindness changes and helps the other characters (functioning as the “wedge” that opens everyone else up as my friend Joseph would say), giving them the tools they need to grow enough to stem the collective tide. Go team.

Why it’s effective

In writing, there are characters known as “Mary Sues.” These protagonists, usually young females, are the superstars of their universes. Attractive; fit; brave; adored by peers, mentors, and love interests; and for all intents and purposes actually flawless, they cruise into any plot with the competence and confidence to know they’ll kick the butt of whoever dares to come their way.

The problem is, because of their unrealistic flawlessness and sheer center-of-the-universe-ness, they’re also often boring, annoying, flat, and shallow.

Given the above description of Tanjiro’s many good qualities, one might think him a prime target for this label, but he’s also ultimately different for two reasons: One, Tanjiro is sincere. Two, Tanjiro’s efforts are not ultimately focused on himself or his goals, but other people.

Mary Sues often come across as annoying or shallow because everything is about them. They seem nice because the plot needs them to be nice or because they’ll seem more sympathetic if they’re the nice girl in the midst of the teenage shark tank, and the end result of their niceness is that all of the good people in the story eventually recognize their greatness and bow down at their feet. The universe has decided they are worthy of being the center and so everything—the plot, swoony crushes, and jealous girls—points to them being so.

The thing about Tanjiro, though, is that to him, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether he’s in the center or not, indeed, whether he even lives or dies. The point is the team, the corp, making sure that the Demon Slayers have what they need to do what they need to do. As an example, at one point, Tanjiro and Genya—a particularly combative fellow corp member—are chasing down a demon. Genya, obsessed with proving himself, shouts at Tanjiro, howling about how he won’t let Tanjiro land the killing blow and won’t stand for Tanjiro stealing the glory. Tanjiro’s response? He beams. He literally beams, encouraging Genya to follow his dreams and even going so far as to step into a different combat role to afford Genya the opportunity. Does Tanjiro ultimately need to step in to help? Sure, but not before encouraging Genya to never give up and having Genya decide to take up his own more effective team position first. The end result is a story where the hero is not just one person, but a group, all working towards a common cause. Tanjiro may land killing blows, but he rarely does so by himself, and while he may still ultimately (and rightly) be the hero at the center, at least it’s a little bit more crowded there.

Characters like these are a hard line to walk. It’s easy to slip into sycophancy for our creations and flawless characters can be boring or annoying when ill-handled. But, as Tanjiro shows, putting a little more emphasis on the victories and talents of others can help offset this, leading to an awesome team instead of just a boring one-shot wonder.

So, what about you? Any ultra good guys that you love? Guilty pleasure Mary Sues? Let me know in the comments below (make sure to exit mobile only mode), and if you want more mini craft lessons like this, make sure to sign up for my newsletter in the appropriate sidebar.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: