When Tanjiro first got his Nichirin Sword on Demon Slayer, and it changed color to match the personality of its user like all Nichirin weapons do, many fans were surprised that Tanjiro’s katana turned black. Here was a gentle and self-sacrificing orphan who only picked up the sword in order to save people from demons. An obsidian blade wasn’t exactly a personality fit.
But those facts are precisely why we should have expected the young Demon Slayer’s weapon to turn black (besides the fact that the “tan” in his name is written with a character for “charcoal”). In fact, the complex symbolism of the color in Japanese culture matches perfectly with the values exhibited by Tanjiro, and other black sword users throughout all of anime.
Black Sword Users Are Usually Loners and Orphans
When you look at it closely, the clearer it becomes that the darker an anime character’s sword gets, the fewer parents they have and the more solitary they tend to be. On the surface, this might seem obvious due to the association of black with mourning and formality, which is present in Japan where black was and still is the color of funeral kimonos (though it depended on the color of the accompanying sash and other accessories). But the symbolism of black is more complicated than that. For centuries, one of the most celebrated bridal dresses in Japan was the black Kuro-bikifurisode, because it symbolized the bride’s intention to “not be dyed by anyone else.” It really wasn’t such a big leap from that to anime, where black sword users are often strong-willed individualists or people who lost their loved ones.
Tanjiro is a prime example as he only became a Demon Slayer and got his black Nichirin after a demon Human Slayer-ed most of his family. Then you have Asta from Black Clover, an orphan with the ability to summon swords made from darkness-colored Anti-Magic. We also can’t forget Bell Cranel from Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, an anime named after a question posed to exasperated D&D dungeon masters the world over. Like Asta, Bell also wouldn’t be able to ask his parents for help if he ever lost his black Hestia Knife in the dark, since they died kind of unceremoniously off-screen. And even he is out-black-sword-ed and out-orphaned by Guts from Berserk who carries the black, surfboard-sized Dragon Slayer sword, and who lost both his parents before being born (for more details/nightmare fuel, check out the anime or manga).
But having more black metal than a Norwegian record store doesn’t always mean getting to save money each year on Father’s Day and Mother’s Day presents. Sometimes it just indicates that the character works alone, which actually applies to Bell Cranel, initially the only member of the Hestia Familia centered around the goddess Hestia. Another example is Dracule Mihawk from One Piece, the owner of the giant black sword Yoru (literally translated: “Night”) who for most of the story lives alone in a giant castle and travels in a single-seat, coffin-shaped ship.
Interestingly, the loneliness of black sword wielders in anime often has a social ostracism element to it like with Crona, the reclusive owner of the black longsword Ragnarok from Soul Eater and the volatile, psychologically-damaged child of one of the series’ main villains, who used to believe that needing other people made one weaker. We can also mention Sasuke Sarutobi, an outcast feared by society because he grew up in a forest mastering his fighting skills, and wielder of the black Shibien blade from Samurai Deeper Kyo. Perhaps this too has basis in historical fact as black is the color of Nara ink that’s been used in the past to tattoo and, consequently, ostracize Japanese criminals.
Black Swords Are the Weapons of Protectors
Tanjiro only joins the Demon Slayer Corps at first to protect his sister. But throughout the series, he risks his life not just for her but also complete strangers. The fact that he protects them from evil demonic forces seems almost a little too on the nose, given the color symbolism of Japanese talismans: Japanese lucky charms like Daruma dolls or Maneki Neko waving cat figurines come in different colors, with black varieties said to protect their owners against evil. It works similarly with black anime swords, which often belong to protectors.
In Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?, the goddess Hestia begs the goddess Hephaestus to create a black weapon for Bell specifically to protect him and for him to protect others. Then you have the black sword-wielding Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach, who is such a protector, he literally has the character for “protection” in his name.
According to his father, the name was supposed to help set Ichigo on a path towards helping others, and he really took it to heart by deciding from an early age to protect his mother. Then, when his sisters were born, he took up martial arts to live up to the ideals of his name, and later used that desire to risk his life hunting evil spirits. Even when the manifestation of his power wanted to unlock more of Ichigo’s potential, he did it by trying to get him to think about what he really wanted to protect. Basically, the longer you talk about Ichigo, the more the word “protect” starts to sound off.
“Protection” is also a big theme with Berserker from Fate/Zero, a “Servant” spirit and owner of the demonic, pitch-black sword Arondight. The sword was once called The Unfading Light of the Lake, and it only turned from silver-and-gold to black after being filled with Berserker’s madness and resentment over not being able to protect King Arthur and Guinevere, since Berserker was once the Sir Lancelot. Berserker is an especially interesting character because, on the outside, he looks like your cliche “badass demonic knight;” in reality, his black color scheme hints at his tragic history as a fallen protector, making him much more complex than what meets the eye.
Black Swords Often Tell Stories of Redemption
Throughout Japanese history, many good things tended to be dark-colored, like formal samurai dress, amulets for warding off evil, or black cats, which Japanese sailors considered lucky due to their supposed ability to predict the weather. (By contrast, orange cats with long tails were considered malicious, which means that Japan basically predicted Garfield.)
Yet today, “black” is more often used negatively like in “kuroboshi” (“black star”), meaning “black mark/defeat,” or “burakku kigyo” (or “black company”) describing a business that exploits its employees. But in anime, the historical association of black with luck and other positive aspects hasn’t been lost entirely thanks to characters who embody the color’s dual nature through stories of redemption where bad things are turned good.
Look again at Guts, who spent most of his life murdering demons and maiming humans to avenge his dead friends. But as time went on, his purpose in life changed to protecting the new, alive friends he made during his journey. True, he mainly protected them by ripping his namesake out of demons and humans alike, but, you know, baby steps.
Redemption is such a common theme with anime black swords that they can sometimes tell you which “evil” characters will eventually chill out. That’s what happened when Crona broke free from the control of their evil witch mother Medusa and almost died trying to save a friend on Soul Eater. In the anime Yaiba, you have Takeshi Onimaru, who becomes a horned demon through the cursed Fujin Sword. If he’d stuck with that non-black weapon, chances are he’d have stayed a villain until the end. But, nope; by seeking and obtaining the black Devil King Sword, he ended the anime series as a … maybe not the nicest guy, but at least no longer a complete monster.
Sometimes, though, it’s not the person that gets redeemed but the sword itself, as is the case with Sasuke’s Shibien in Samurai Deeper Kyo, which was used in the past to slaughter innocents. But after it turned black from the blood of its victims, it found its new, less-bloodthirsty owner who put the newly-blacked blades to less-psychotic uses.
Black Swords Symbolize Overcoming Unfair Limitations
In Soul Eater, the main characters’ weapons are actually transformed demons, with the black Uncanny Sword being the form taken by the evil Masamune Nakatsukasa, the big brother of the demon weapon Tsubaki Nakatsukasa. However, a katana was the only form Masamune could ever take while Tsubaki was able to transform into a variety of armaments. The resulting jealousy eventually drove Masamune mad, resulting in him consuming souls to gain more power, which made his weapon form darker and darker until it became a pitch-black symbol of him trying to overcome his limitations.
You see similar themes in anime all the time.
As mentioned before, Nichirin Swords from Demon Slayer like Tanjiro’s black katana are one of the few ways for humans to take on the superpowered Demons. Same goes for Guts’ giant Dragon Slayer, whose first kill was an unnamed, demonic “Apostle,” and which slowly becomes the only human weapon capable of hurting the dark “gods” the Black Swordsman is hunting. We see something similar with Asta, whose Anti Magic black weapons are a way for him to overcome his lack of magic abilities in a world built on magic. And on One Piece, Kozuki Oden’s black katana known as Enma was the only weapon capable of hurting the nearly invincible Kaido who gets his powers from a magical Devil Fruit.
Simply put, black anime swords are often the great equalizer, leveling the playing field for an unfairly disadvantaged character or group. In a way, this trope almost feels like a culmination of all the above-mentioned rules. Whether wielded by people without a community support system or raised for protection or trying to make up for past sins, these black blades are great at fighting otherworldly threats that regular people could not handle. Star Wars has taught us that the color of a sword can say a lot about a person, and black swords in anime are not different. Perhaps more than anything else, they teach us to not judge a book by its cover. They may look sinister, but often tell stories of people who went through hell yet retain a spark of goodness inside them.