Demon Slayer's Demons May Be Fictional, But The Slayers' Mental Health Struggles Feel Very Real

The world of "Demon Slayer" is populated by bloodthirsty ghouls with tragic backstories, ordinary people who have no idea just how perilous their existence is, and the cartoonishly muscular adolescents and young adults who serve as their protectors. 

On the surface, the violence and jacked warrior coeds are pretty par for the course when it comes to shonen anime, but what sets "Demon Slayer" apart from other shows in the genre are the elements of hope and humanity that are so prevalent throughout the series, making it relatable in a way that many other TV shows and movies of any medium sometimes fail to.

In "Demon Slayer" season 2 especially, I've noticed how each of the main characters struggles with their own personal demons and issues that are sometimes powerful enough to rival the actual, literal demons they're constantly battling. In particular, Tanjiro, Zenitsu, and Inosuke each symbolize various mental and emotional health struggles, and we see them play out through both their actions and their introspective scenes.

Tanjiro — Imposter Syndrome & Self-Doubt

After the events of the Mugen Train Arc, we see Tanjiro grappling with self-doubt and imposter syndrome as he grieves the loss of Rengoku. He decides that he must become stronger, pushing himself beyond his limits and throwing everything he has behind the water-breathing technique he has been wielding throughout the series, but he still struggles with feeling like he isn't enough despite his efforts and achievements. He blames himself for Rengoku's demise, and he wants to protect anyone from having to experience a fate similar to that of his own. 

At the start of Tanjiro's battle with Daki, we gain a lot of insight regarding his personal struggles. When she knocks the wind out of him, he immediately enters a defeatist mindset, deciding that he's too weak to take on such a powerful demon. However, he ends up countering those negative thoughts, remembers what's at stake, and talks himself down from what looked an awful lot like a panic attack brought on by self-doubt. As someone who struggles with anxiety, it was refreshing to see a realistic portrayal of having to calm yourself down in dire circumstances, because nobody else is there to do it for you.

Tanjiro also has a super relatable epiphany when realizes that he wasn't reaching his full potential with water-breathing because it wasn't what he was meant to do; he could only begin to tap into the full extent of his power and abilities when he switched to sun-breathing — his true calling. I relate to this in the sense that I am that one kid who changed their major like 4 times in college, and while I was reasonably adept at everything I tried, it wasn't until I found my "calling" by majoring in communication and media that I finally began to feel like I was working towards living up to my potential. Even so, I still have to fight self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and I sometimes struggle to acknowledge my own achievements. This means that I talk to myself. A lot.

For this reason, Tanjiro's moments of introspection and pep-talks feel a lot more human and relatable than the typical macho monologues that shonen anime protagonists are known for. He doesn't wax poetic about how great and powerful he thinks he is or aspires to be. Instead, he admits when he's scared, when he's struggling, and when he's tired, so a lot of his internal dialog is just him working through these emotions so he can keep going. Tanjiro isn't concerned with being powerful just for the sake of being powerful or any other selfish pursuits. He wants to protect people so they don't die like Rengoku, and so they aren't slaughtered like his parents and other siblings, because he doesn't want anyone else to have to experience the immense pain and grief he carries with him.

He just wants to be enough to do some good in the world, and he struggles with thinking he isn't good enough despite all that he's accomplished so far. Rather than having one victorious moment and never dealing with negative thoughts again, he repeatedly has to fight through them. This is a realistic depiction of the type of inner-battle that comes with imposter syndrome and other forms of self-doubt.

Zenitsu — Anxiety

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Zenitsu is anxiety incarnate. He starts out the series so paralyzed by fear that he can't even fight when he's conscious, and so he's only able to fight when he's passed out. It's like sleepwalking, but much cooler. By season 2, Zenitsu has worked on himself enough that he doesn't immediately run away or pass out when its time to slay some demons. He still acknowledges that he's terrified, but he also says "there's no point in cowering forever" in the very first episode of the Red-Light District Arc, and he sticks by that.

Zenitsu defends an innocent girl from Daki, whom he realizes is a demon, while fully awake. He fights through his anxieties because he has a job to do, and he realizes he can't let others suffer just because he was too anxious to act. Zenitsu from season 1 would have surely been too immobilized with anxiety to spring into action the way the new and improved Zenitsu of season 2 does. He's still an anxious motherf***er, but he's not letting it control him anymore. 

I identify with that as a fellow anxious motherf***er who used to let anxiety keep me from doing things that I wanted or needed to do. As silly as it may sound, there was a time when I couldn't even make phone calls due to the severity of my anxiety. Now ... I still don't like to call people, but I can do it when I have to, even if I still feel nervous sometimes. My anxiety and the various ways it manifests are no longer too great for me to handle; it is a demon I can face and overcome, the same way Zenitsu isn't letting his own anxiety control him anymore.

Inosuke — ADHD and Autism

As an autistic person, I don't consider my autism to be a "personal demon" so much as I understand I'm living in a society that wasn't built for people like me. I am fine with the way I am, but I understand others may not be, and that there are unique challenges I face because of it. I also have ADHD — you know, because it's not enough to be anxious and autistic, and I am nothing if not an overachiever. I bring these traits up to say that I see a lot of my struggles and experiences reflected in Inosuke. 

Inosuke is impulsive, put off by large groups of people, and doesn't necessarily trust or relate to others as easily as his peers. He also forgoes societal expectations concerning behavior and appearance. All of these are things I deal with as a result of my ADHD and autism.

A perfect example of this is when Inosuke first arrives in Yoshiwara. Having lived most of his life outside of society, he is immediately overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people gathered in the red-light district. "What the heck is this?! It's teeming with people!" he remarks, and then we see how everything looks from his perspective: blurry and disorienting. It definitely reminded me of times I've experienced sensory overload in loud, crowded areas. For those who aren't familiar, sensory overload is:

When your five senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste — take in more information than your brain can process. When your brain is overwhelmed by this input, it enters fight, flight, or freeze mode in response to what feels like a crisis, making you feel unsafe or even panicky. 

This sounds a lot like what happened with Inosuke, and he exhibits "flight" mode by running through the crowd in a state of panic.

Another way Inosuke's experiences mirror my own is the fact that he wears the boar mask. According to the "Demon Slayer" manga, he wears it partially because he was raised by boars; however, he is also clearly very attached to it because it seems to bring him a sense of comfort and protection. Examples of this protection include how it makes him invulnerable to Enmu's attacks in "Mugen Train," and how it keeps people from being distracted by his physical appearance. 

While I don't walk around in a literal mask, masking is a coping and survival mechanism for some individuals on the autism spectrum. It's basically the act of hiding or minimizing autism traits to fit in with the neurotypical world. In unfamiliar settings or in the presence of people I'm not comfortable around, I tend to be hypervigilant in making sure I don't draw attention to myself by making an effort to "hide" the telltale signs of autism and ADHD that I experience. I force myself to make eye contact even though it makes me uncomfortable and doesn't come naturally to me, and I may not talk as much out of fear of saying the wrong thing or coming off as too enthusiastic about topics people don't care about or find controversial. 

There are other times where I've found myself subconsciously mimicking the mannerisms of whoever I'm speaking to so that I don't draw attention to all the ways I'm "different" because, unfortunately, I've been in situations where my failure to do so led to being ostracized or mistreated. There are still a lot of unfair assumptions and stigma associated with being autistic, having ADHD, or showing obvious signs of being neurodivergent. My "mask" helps me function in a world that tends to be hostile or invasive for people with autism and ADHD, the same way Inosuke's mask serves as a form of protection and comfort for him in potentially hostile or unfamiliar settings.

Without his literal mask, Inosuke goes through the figurative process of "masking" when he's undercover at the beginning of the Entertainment District Arc. He's instructed by Tengen not to talk at all because his voice will give him away, and he has to work to suppress his "unusual" behaviors. He can't fully be himself, and it's harder for him to fit in and fly under the radar than it is for Tanjiro and Zenitsu, because Inosuke is so fundamentally different from other people. 

Despite these differences, he is still a valuable member of the team, and he does make friends and learn to trust people while still being true to himself. Similarly, despite whatever unpleasant and ignorant assumptions exist about individuals with ADHD and autism, I'm still a good friend, a good mom, and still capable of accomplishing things. My differences don't stop me; they just mean I navigate the world in a way that may be foreign to some. I have learned that it's not always necessary to hide or minimize who I am because there are people who love and accept me, the same way Inosuke is loved and accepted.

Overall, I think the depictions of mental health struggles and other issues in "Demon Slayer" are realistic, well-done, and relatable. It's encouraging to see an anime — or any piece of entertainment media — depict these experiences in such an honest and respectful way. Seeing a group of powerful main characters deal with, and overcome, the same struggles I face gives me hope, and I think that's part of what makes "Demon Slayer" so special for other people as well.