Sequels are beautiful, dangerous things. More often than not you already know what to expect. Is it a series you enjoyed? Then it’s a guaranteed good time. And if it’s something you didn’t? Then you can skip it without having to worry about what could have been. Indeed, it’s rare that a sequel goes off and does it’s own thing, that it wildly changes from whatever formula made it successful before. Why would you when it can bring you the sort of success Kimetsu no Yaiba is experiencing right now? That’s right, Directed by Haruo Sotozaki and animated by studio Ufotable, Kimetsu no Yaiba: Yuukaku-hen takes everything you loved about the first season and doubles down on it. Love the fights? The entire season is one big one. Love the visuals? I dare say this season has some of the best yet. And the narrative? We will get to that.
Be warned, this review contains minor unmarked spoilers for Kimetsu no Yaiba Seasons 1 and 2. It also contains major spoilers in some sections however these will be heavily marked to avoid accidents.
Right off the bat, we can’t talk about Kimetsu no Yaiba without talking about the visuals. Some would say that these are all Yaiba has going for it! That the narrative, music, characters, all of that is mediocre. That the series is carried by the efforts of animators such as Nozomu Abe, Masayuki Kunihiro, Makoto Nakamura and many, many others besides (On a sidenote I highly recommend you checkout Sakugabooru for their stuff, the animation rabbit hole is a good one). Personally I’m somewhere in the middle, and we will get to my feelings on the narrative later. What I’m trying to say though is this: Even people who hate Kimetsu no Yaiba have to admit it’s pretty. That, whatever their feelings on the narrative, Yaiba has some of the best, most hype action scenes of whatever year it airs.
With that established we have a very important question to answer: What makes Yaiba’s fights, and its visuals in general, so appealing? There’s the really basic answer of “It’s animated well” and while this is true, I don’t think it gives us the whole picture. Lots of shows are animated well, such as this seasons Ousama Ranking. If you ask me what sets Yaiba, and Ufotable shows in general, a part though it would have be the 3D camera. Ufotable as a studio appears to have taken a liking to the dynamic movement that a 3D camera allows. This has resulted in a lot of sweeping shots around characters or through the middle of fights, which turn causes the background to to get moved around with it. In general I think this makes Yaiba appear a lot more dynamic in some viewers eyes than many other anime.
This isn’t without a cost of course. Sometimes Yaiba, and Ufotable in general, can go overboard. The sweeping camera can make fights difficult to follow as characters swap sides of the screen, breaking the 180 degree “rule” of cinema, or make movements hard to follow as both the character and backgrounds move at the same time, fighting for attention. On top of this Ufotable also has an incredible reliance on special after effects. You can see it in a lot of their lighting and fire/spark effects, their backgrounds and some of the filters placed over scenes. This is fine, some people like the really sanitized style these digital effects bring. Personally, I’ve always preferred the full body wide shots where we can see everyone’s movements myself. But when the camera is moving so much these can cause the screen to become cluttered, once again making fights difficult to follow.
Aside from concerns of readability though, I think Yaiba looks great. In particular I think an entertainment district was the perfect place to set an arc for Yaiba to show off it’s strength. The local is bright and colorful at night, allowing Ufotable’s lighting to take center stage against the dark sky, creating an almost oppressive atmosphere. Sure, you can sometimes see some CGI jank in the smoke sims or 3D crowds in the background of wide shots. And yes, sometimes the composite looks a bit off. But don’t think any of those are particularly noticeable nor do I think they really impact your enjoyment of the show. If you liked Yaiba’s visual style from season 1, then you are going to like season 2. It’s the same stuff at just as high a quality as what you got before, if not better.
This brings me to the narrative. And if my opening lines in the last section didn’t tip you off, I have… opinions about the narrative. First though lets establish what that narrative is: As the name implies, this season we watch Tanjiro and co get dragged off to an entertainment district of Taisho era Japan. There they hunt for an Upper Rank demon, find them, fight them, and inevitably win. And if you think’s a spoiler then you haven’t read enough Shounen to know “The good guys always win”. The only real uncertainty is the journey. Now all that said, I don’t think this is a bad premise. I’ve already said the location plays well to Ufotable’s visual strengths and I think a more mystery focused arc where our heroes are the hunters would do us well after the Mugen Train. Sadly, we don’t get a mystery focused arc.
What could have been an arc full of investigation, of hunting for a creature that doesn’t want to be found in a populated space ala Vampire: The Masquerade quickly turns in to your standard Shounen fare of “Fight the monster”. In fact the very pretense of this being a mystery only lasts maybe 3 episodes before Yaiba abandons it completely. And that’s including the introductory episode where we meet Uzui and learn what this arc will be about to begin with! To call this a waste of potential would be an understatement in my eyes. Yes yes, it’s very pretty, we established that. But I want it to be substantive to. This was an opportunity for each of our leads to show what they can do outside of combat. To face a foe they can’t predict striking silently from the shadows. Instead they all but blow up a town!
To be clear, this arc is not without its merits. As I said above, I think the fight itself is a grand spectacle. And I especially liked how Yaiba got the civilians involved. This is a very populated location after all, people would get caught in the crossfire, and I think Yaiba handles that well. Early on in the fight there is a definite tension caused by civilians and Tanjiro’s split focus between protecting them, protecting himself and defeating the demon. On top of that Yaiba also explores a bit of its own lore and wider meta-narrative surrounding the breathes, Rengoku, Muzan and Demons in general. This is much appreciated, I’m glad Yaiba hasn’t forgotten about that! But at the end of the day it reverts back to your standard beat-em-up. And while that is indeed fun… It’s not something I haven’t seen before. Or seen done better.
Next up are the characters! This is where the real meat, and disappointment, of the season lays for me. Because it is here we have both my favorite, and least favorite, parts of the season existing simultaneously. Sadly though if I want to talk about them in any meaningful way I will need to dive into spoilers. For a quick tldr: I love Tengen Uzui, I think he is easily the best part of the season, and I think the antagonist of this arc is a complete narrative letdown. Beyond that our main leads are exactly as they were before: Tanjiro is wholesome, Inosuke is amusing and Zenitsu is actively a better character when asleep and unable to talk. So without further ado let that be your warning. Past this point I hold nothing back!
I think the best place to begin is with my favorite new character that Yaiba introduced this season: Tengen Uzui. I wasn’t to fond of Uzui when he was first introduced. He was brash, arrogant, sexist and generally kind of an ass. He had all the hallmarks of a one-note side-character. But as the season progressed he grew on me. We learned that he was brash and rushing them out of concern for his wives. That despite his arrogance, he is actually deeply concerned about his ability. Comparing himself to other Hashira, to the “Talented”, hoping he can put on as reliable a front as them. Uzui also keeps his criticism private. Critiquing our trio when alone and talking them up, bolstering their confidence, when in front of the enemy. All of this and more is sprinkled through Yaiba’s season. Shown through his actions and words, rather than lore dumps.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for out villains.
Everywhere Uzui succeeds, Gyutaro and Daki fail. That isn’t to say they don’t have a backstory or characterization, they do. It’s just not nearly as well presented. Where Uzui’s is drip-fed to us across the season and his many interactions with the rest of the cast, Daki and Gyutaro’s is mostly dumped on us in a single 15 minute segment in the final episode. Where Uzui is shown to have complexity to his character, treating the cast differently based on the situation and their actions, Gyutaro is presented as almost irredeemably evil until his last moment. As if we are suddenly supposed to feel bad for him after everything they have done without any remorse. What I’m trying to say is that Gyutaro and Daki have a story. It’s just presented in the most lazy, standard, tropey Shounen way you can imagine.
As an example lets talk about one of their primary themes: Siblings. Daki and Gyutaro are often compared to Nezuko and Tanjiro. We see how both big brothers care deeply for their sisters, how the sisters support them, etc etc. It’s good stuff! I like this connection! But where it falls short is with how Gyutaro explores this connection. In the final backstory dump, Yaiba tries to connect him to Tanjiro. To show that behind his monstrous appearance, he was still an older brother, he still had humanity. But this is never shown prior to this. Every opportunity Yaiba has to explore this humanity, Gyutaro just doubles down on being evil. He’s never allowed to connect with someone on his terms. Instead it’s always Tanjiro who has to bridge that gap. Only Tanjiro can bring out his humanity, like Jesus Christ himself. And I think that’s a missed opportunity.
This brings me to the rest of the cast and there honestly isn’t much to talk about here. Like I said above, Tanjiro, Inosuke and Zenitsu really don’t change at all. One could argue they have some new motivation after the Mugen Train, and that does reflect a bit in their actions. But at the end of the day each of them is still the same stereotype they were before. The only one worth calling is Zenitsu because I can’t help but feel this arc solidifies him as the worst of the three. You have to work really hard to make a character who is more tolerable asleep than awake. If it takes a major personality shift for me to like your character, something is wrong.
So yeah all in all Yaiba is pretty hit or miss with regards to its characters for me. I really like Uzui and everything Yaiba did with him but the villain fell flat. About the only thing of value they brought to the season was a 6 episode long fight to death. And a cardboard cutout could have done that if you slap enough animators on it. It’s one of the biggest failings of Shounen writing I feel. The format makes it really easy to drop new characters in or out without much care for how well they are written or affect the larger narrative. This often results in some lazy writing. The best Shounen out there are able to get around this problem by, well… being well written. But that’s few and far between.
Finally we come to the OST and Sound Design section of the review! At the time of writing this is actually a tad difficult, as the OST has yet to be released anywhere that I can see. Top that off with me not being musically trained in any way and you can see how this might prove difficult. Never fear though as I have a full proof plan for how to judge it: By telling you how much I liked it and posting links to songs. So lets jump into it!
Yaiba’s OST was once again made by Gou Shiina and Yuki Kajiura. And one again, as if they could produce anything else, there is a certain degree of quality to it. The two of them generally nail all of the basic motifs for the series. Their battle themes and songs sound suitably heroic, rising and falling as who has the upper hand in battle shifts. The demons themes are suitably horrific and monstrous, with ominous vocals and discordant melodies telling us that something is wrong. And this sort of standard applies across the series OST as a whole. Want a somber track because someone got hurt? It’s there. Need something hopeful or a piece for a bittersweet flashback? Those exist to. However there’s one problem with all of this: Absolutely none of it is memorable.
What do I mean by that? To put it simply, Yaiba’s OST feels like a paint-by-numbers Shounen soundtrack. It sounds like a bunch of stuff I’ve heard before. And when coming from two musicians as talented as Gou Shiina and Yuki Kajiura, people who I know for a fact have better stuff than this, that’s a tad disappointing. On Gou Shiina’s end, Yaiba’s OST lacks the kind of energy and variance found in say, Dimension W. Meanwhile for Yuki Kajiura, I’m sorry, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the same soundtrack from her for the last 20 years ever since .hack//sign. Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Yes. Does the fact remain that her best OST was 20 years ago and she’s been trying to recapture that since? Also yes. But at the end of the day, does Yaiba’s OST accomplish it’s jump? Another, final, yes.
And ain’t that the story of Yaiba as a whole? Narratively, musically, character…ly, everything does their job. And nothing more. The only aspect of the show that I would say goes above and beyond what is expected of your average Shounen adaptation is the visuals.
Pretty Fights Can Still Be Shallow
And with that the review is done! All that’s left is this little person section of mine. It has no baring on final score nor is it an in-depth look at any one part of the series. This is just my spot to take off the reviewer hat and ramble about my personal experience with the show. If that doesn’t interest you, or you haven’t finished the show, then feel free to skip! This will 100% contain spoilers after all. But if you want a peak into my head before you read the final conclusion than read on.
Recently when I was criticizing this season of Yaiba I had someone ask me why I watch it if I hate Shounen so much. And that’s stuck with me because, believe it or not, I actually love Shounen. I know just how great they can be when they are on the top of their game. How engaging and emotional a battle against a well constructed villain with well built leads, relationships and plot can be. You need look no further than the greats like Hajime no Ippo, Haikyu and Mob Psycho 100 as proof of this. These are some of my favorite anime, my favorite pieces of media in general. And all of them are Shounen! The reason I criticize Yaiba as much as I do is because I know it can be better. I see so many opportunities to become something more than the standard tropes it currently is.
Lets look once again to Daki and Gyutaro as an example. These characters have a lot of potential! Daki could have made for a very interesting cat and mouse game leading up to the big fight. Someone who doesn’t actually want to fight head on, a type of opponent our gang hasn’t seen yet. Meanwhile Gyutaro could have become the heart of this entire arc. A brother who became a demon to protect and care for his little sister. Someone who sees that same kind of attitude in Tanjiro, connects with him and actively tries to spare/convert him. He could have become the humanity of this little duo. Instead, Yaiba takes the most straightforward and simple route it can: They are both very evil, they both want to fight head on, and the fight is one by DBZ-style asspulls like rearranging organs sudden Godspeed. You know, normal Shounen stuff.
None of this is to say that you can’t enjoy Yaiba. I certainly did! Not every show has to be some deep philosophical think piece, sometimes you just want to watch a Marvel movie. There’s a lot of fun to be had in watching well animated people beat the crap out of each other. I watch UFC and Boxing for that exact same reason, because watching skilled combatants go at it is fun. And I want to make this very clear: I had fun watching Yaiba. I think its a fun show. But just as people can enjoy shallow but well animated stories, they can also try to encourage them to be better. To become well animated action set pieces and to find that emotional core that makes them timeless. Not every superhero movie has to be The Dark Knight. But there’s a reason people will remember that one forever.
Oh and one last P.S. before the conclusion: Feel free to skip the Mugen Train section of this arc. Just go watch the movie. It was not built to be cut up into 6 separate 23 minute episodes and you can feel it in the TV version. Just watch the first episode of this season, watch the movie, then skip to the new stuff. You’ll thank me later.
So all in all, summarizing everything I said above, how was Kimetsu no Yaiba: Yuukaku-hen and how does it compare to the previous season? Well to sum it up in a word, I think Yaiba was “fine”. Visually it’s just as beautiful as ever and if that’s what you watch it for then you will have nothing to complain about. But narratively this season feels a tad less substantive than the first. There was very little ambiguity in the demons, no real humanity. Where the first season succeeded in portraying them as both villains and victims simultaneously, this one doubled down on them being just villains. For some that’s probably ok. But for me, and for others I’m sure, that safer narrative play made it harder to engage with what was happening on screen.
Still, at least I had a good time watching the pretty colors go brr.