There are many ways to execute a plot twist in a visual medium. It could be from a spoken line such as, “Luke, I am your father.” It could be the result of an action such as a companion stabbing a character in the back. It could come from the simple sight of something, such as stumbling upon a murder scene. To make an effective plot twist, however, requires more finesse. One such way, in parallel to the vehicles presented above, is to align the viewer’s emotions with the emotions of the character(s) experiencing the plot twist, and that is something the latest episode of Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer, particularly its ending, has accomplished to a terrifying degree.
Spoilers for the seventh episode to follow.
The scene starts with Tanjiro catching the scent of the demon who supposedly killed his family, Muzan Kibutsuji, and chasing after it. Genre conventions of long-running anime series dictate that 1) the primary antagonist of the overall plot is very rarely encountered early on in the story in a meaningful capacity and 2) similar scenes of a character thinking they have serendipitously found someone they have desperately been searching for all too often turn out to not actually be the person in question. The more anime one has watched, the more these conventions become cemented in the mind.
Those conventions were smashed when Tanjiro actually did find Muzan at the end of the trail. While this doesn’t put the viewer on the same emotional wavelength as Tanjiro quite yet, it does throw them off kilter, setting them up for what’s to come next.
With the viewer lightly shaken up, Kimetsu no Yaiba immediately follows-up on the offensive by dropping its primary plot twist: Muzan turns around and is holding a small, human girl, presumably his daughter. Immediately afterward a human woman is shown next to him, innocent as can be.
Bewilderment. It’s at this moment that the viewer’s emotions instantly come in line with Tanjiro’s. In the span of fifteen seconds, everything we thought we knew about demons was called into question. Does Muzan have a family? Does he actually have feelings for humans? Is he the only one who has blended in with humans? Questions like these begin to swirl around.
In retrospect, there’s any number of plausible explanations for this situation that doesn’t turn our current knowledge of demons upside down but in the moment the viewer isn’t given the chance to consider them. That’s because of how quickly the feelings of shock and confusion Tanjiro and the viewer experience evolves into sheer dread.
As nonchalantly as swatting a fly, Muzan mercilessly turns a random passerby into a demon with a simple snap of the hand. As the turned man bites into the shoulder of the woman he was with, the horror of the situation settles in. This horror is amplified by three different factors.
The first is that the viewer was already heavily sensitized to the scene thanks to the family reveal immediately prior. Emotions have already spiked and this scene aimed to capitalize on that.
The second factor was that Muzan sacrificed innocent people without any hesitation with the sole intent of intimidating Tanjiro. This act of aggression is even further effective due to the fact Muzan carried this out in the middle of an extremely crowded street with no one but Tanjiro the wiser, the third factor in play.
At no point during this scene was there ever something in the way of a traditional show of force. Muzan never caught Tanjiro’s sword between his fingers or knocked him away with a flick of the finger or anything like that. In terms of raw power, we still don’t know what Muzan is capable of. Yet despite that Kimetsu no Yaiba has established him as an extreme threat worthy of the primary antagonist title in just two short minutes, a task many shounen series take episodes upon episodes to accomplish.
This scene was so effective in establishing Muzan’s position because of how excellently it escalated in tone, stakes, and meaning. Kimetsu no Yaiba was very particular in weakening the viewer’s defenses then striking when they were vulnerable, leaving a lasting impression that carries well throughout the week until the next episode airs.