Greetings, all! I apologize in advance that this “review” is going to less of a thorough review than a rambling series of connected thoughts. I just got out of the movie theater from watching Demon Slayer -Kimetsu no Yaiba- The Movie: Mugen Train and had a couple of insights I wanted to share about Demon Slayer in general and Mugen Train in particular.
When it released in Japan in 2020, Mugen Train pulled off the amazing feat of becoming the highest-grossing film of all time in that country, dethroning Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which had held that title since 2001. If you haven’t hopped aboard the Demon Slayer train in the metaphorical sense and aren’t already deeply invested in the adventures of Tanjiro and his sister Nezuko, you may wonder how this film pulled this off. If you’ve been watching this anime, though, I suspect you may have a good idea. Now that it’s receiving a limited theatrical release in the United States, it’s time to catch everyone up!
What’s the big appeal of Demon Slayer?
Demon Slayer is a shonen martial arts / battle anime in the same vein as Dragon Ball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, Naruto, My Hero Academia, and Fire Force. This particular anime is set in Japan in the very early 1900s in the Taisho era, so you’ll see electric lights coexist along samurai-era architecture and rural peasants and semi-modern city-dwellers intermingle on the streets. It stars a young man named Tanjiro who lives in the mountains with his family. One day, a demon slaughtered his entire family while he was away in town, leaving only one sister, Nezuko, who becomes “infected” with their blood and transforms into a demon herself. However, Nezuko’s inner goodness and her love for her brother allows her to resist the bloodlust that normally accompanies demonhood. Tanjiro pledges to protect her, to find the demon who did this to her, and by killing him, avenge their family and restore her to normal. Along the way, they meet plenty of horrific demons and quirky, lovable allies who help them in their fight.
What follows is one of the best-realized anime of this subgenre that I have ever watched. Ufotable, the anime studio behind Fate Zero and Fate/ stay night: Unlimited Blade Works does the honors with Demon Slayer as well, and they live up to their usual high standards and thensome. I actually think they do a slightly better job with Demon Slayer, in fact, because certain “shonen anime” things they did in Fate that felt like awkward fits with its high fantasy style (such as “faster than the naked eye” combat, “Naruto runs,” and so forth) come across much more naturally here. The series is absolutely gorgeous, with each episode easily the quality of a feature film in terms of its animation and artistry.
Good as they are, though, the production values aren’t what has made this series a cultural phenomenon. It’s the anime’s heart and heartfelt-ness. Most modern shonen anime do a good job of including drama and emotional moments as the characters grow, get stronger, fight, and win or lose high-stakes battles. What makes Demon Slayer a bit unique is that those moments aren’t the icing on the action cake – they’re swirled all through the cake. Demon Slayer is at least as much about its cast’s mental, emotional, and spiritual growth as it is about their ever-increasing ability to kick ass. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s even more about that. You get more tearjerker moments in the first 26 episodes of Demon Slayer than you probably get in the entirety of Clannad, and the fact that this doesn’t seem to hurt its amazing action scenes one bit is an incredible achievement.
I seldom watch shonen action series like this anymore because they always seem to be a million episodes long with 75 out before I even noticed the show, so it always feels too daunting to leap into. I was fortunate to finally get in on the ground floor for once with Demon Slayer. Watching it has been a treat and something I fully intend to keep up with. Even at present, it’s only 26 episodes and this one movie in, so it’s not too late if you want to try it out yourself. Catching up right now isn’t too tall of an order… though I can’t promise that will be the case several years from now.
So how was the movie, Mugen Train?
To answer very briefly, Mugen Train was very solid without completely knocking my socks off. I’m not going to go into a full summary or review, but rather wanted to hit upon a few key thoughts I had about the movie.
Mugen Train felt like watching three seamlessly sewn-together episodes of Demon Slayer in a movie theater, which is either its biggest weakness or a saving grace, depending on how you look at it. Ufotable’s incredible job on visuals and sound in the normal TV series mean that there was really no way for this feature film to look better than its television counterpart, but it does look every bit as good as it. In terms of its pacing and structure, it also feels like three episodes with no break rather than a self-contained movie. The only aspect of Mugen Train that truly felt “film-like” was the last-second appearance of an extra villain. That was not a strength, though, as it felt like he appeared just to fulfill a certain job in terms of a mood the movie wanted to create, rather than feeling like his appearance there made sense or flowed naturally from the narrative. He literally came out of nowhere, with no prior mention in either the movie or TV series. There was also zero hand-holding in terms of introducing any character or piece of the story to those who haven’t been faithfully following the series up to this point. Structure-wise, as a self-contained feature film, Mugen Train was a bit of a mess.
On the other hand, I just got to watch three episodes of Demon Slayer on a screen the size of my entire living room with booming movie theater speakers. It was not a bad experience in any sense of the word. I thoroughly enjoyed it! All of the good features about Demon Slayer in general that I mentioned earlier were present here in full force: kick-ass action, beautiful art, great emotional moments, and just an excellent viewing experience all around.
One last minor gripe that applies to the series as a whole, but perhaps to this movie in particular: it reminded me that as much as Demon Slayer is a breath of fresh air in its willingness to dive deep into heartfelt drama, it’s an absolutely by-the-book representative of its shonen action subgenre in other ways. Once I figured out which shonen-anime role or trope certain characters fulfilled in this movie, I was quickly able to predict the general arc of the entire film. I didn’t see every tiny detail coming, mind you, but I easily divined where the general arc of it was heading, and I was not one bit mistaken. Certain things were going to happen with (or to) certain characters to produce a certain emotional result in the audience, and it played out so predictably that I felt a little disappointed in its lack of originality in that regard.
It also failed to blast the anime’s stellar opening tune (“Gurenge” by LiSA) through those booming movie theater speakers, which I thought was unforgivable. What the hell, Ufotable? It would have been the easiest and most effective moment of fan service they possibly could have provided, and would have had that whole theater full of weebs and otaku out of their seats and cheering. Ah, well.
If “really fun” rather than “mind-blowing,” what’s behind the hype?
Mugen Train’s breakout success was not due to the quality of the movie itself (respectable as that was), but due almost entirely to the sky-high quality of the TV series that preceded it. As I mentioned, the Demon Slayer TV series was absolutely outstanding, and after 26 riveting episodes, it ended on a cliffhanger leading directly to the events of this movie. Mugen Train is also an integral part of the overall narrative of Demon Slayer. Unlike, say, the Dragon Ball movies, it’s 100% canon and key to following the story moving forward. It was also the first direct continuation we’ve had of the story in general after a silent year where the COVID pandemic has given us viewers plenty of time to wonder how things are going with Tanjiro and Nezuko.
Should I watch Mugen Train?
You get two answers on this one.
If it’s your first introduction to Demon Slayer, then no, you shouldn’t just yet. You will be as lost as you can be, because the movie ain’t stopping its train (literally or figuratively) to explain jack-shit to you.
If you’ve watched the first 26 episodes, then absolutely go watch it. It is as vital to the broader story as any episode and serves as a mini-arc within the series as a whole. It was also an absolute blast to watch, and if you get the chance to see it on the big screen in particular, you should do it. If you’re in the USA, check here on Fandango to see if it might still be showing in a theater near you. If not, keep an eye on the Funimation Channel streaming service for a home release later this year.