Demon Slayer – Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train was the biggest film of 2020 and it's finally made its way from theaters into living rooms. Nick and Steve take on the monumental task of evaluating the blockbuster and whether its financial success reflects its narrative cohesion.
This movie is streaming on Funimation
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the movie ahead.
AY AY AY
Choo choo, Nick, all aboard the crazy boy train.
Be sure to check your ticket, properly secure your luggage in the overhead storage, and get your Blue Hearts playlist ready because this train is barreling onto streaming now that it's made its way through every single Japanese box office record imaginable. It's Mugen Train time.
You know, here at the humble This Week in Anime office, it's not often we can say that we're covering one of the biggest films in the world. But considering Mugen Train was literally the top-grossing movie worldwide last year, I think we owe it to ourselves and film scholars everywhere to take a careful, serious, critical eye to this phenomenon and—
haha funny bird man eat food
God, future film historians are going to be so confused when they reach this part of their textbooks, and I love it.
Honestly, even as a incorrigible anime fan, it baffles me. But Demon Slayer is the hot thing right now, and so is Rengoku. In a very literal sense.
To be honest, it is a bit intimidating to be covering this film. Like even when we're covering the other big shonen properties, it generally feels like we're still in our own wheelhouse. But Demon Slayer has effectively become a cultural phenomenon in Japan over the last two years, which is crazy when you remember it stars Inosuke.
Well he is the best boy, so that's not that surprising. And I'm glad he finally gets the opportunity to show off his impeccable leadership skills in this arc. Maybe that was the secret ingredient for international success.
But I totally agree that this is definitely the most intimidated I've felt doing a column. Which is why I'm going to try to make my jokes even dumber than usual.
So yeah, for the 12 people living in total media isolation who just clicked onto this article, Mugen Train is the film followup to the first season of Demon Slayer, adapting the, well Mugen Train Arc. It picks up literally right where the TV series ended, so I hope you're all caught up on that!
For those who aren't, here's the short version. This is Tanjiro. He's a very good boy who has to hunt human-eating Demons and kills them with his cool sword and cooler sword techniques. He has a sister in his backpack who should be more important than she is:
He also has two traveling compatriots who compensate for his unfettered goodness by being the biggest weirdos possible: Inosuke in an affably feral way, and Zenitsu in the worst possible way.
Inosuke is essentially the kid from Where the Wild Things Are if he never learned any lessons and then stole some cool swords off a random bystander. He has both the power and sanity of 40-50 feral hogs.
Zenitsu, meanwhile, has two modes: horny and screaming. Also those two modes are always both switched on.
What's fucked up is he's the one with super-hearing, yet somehow he doesn't drive himself to drink with his own voice. Thankfully, Zenitsu factors very lightly into this movie's story. He literally spends the entire movie asleep save for the first and last 10 minutes
The downside is that we have to look at his subconscious for a few minutes, which is far longer than I ever would have cared for, but I guess it's a fair trade.
I mean it could be worse. Zenitsu is basically this franchise's Mineta, so let's be thankful this glimpse into his mind was kept G-rated.
I'd probably bump that up to a PG-13 considering a later scene, but thankfully for nothing objectionable. Just some old-fashioned dream scissor threats.
Then there's Rengoku, who technically showed up before now but gets his proper introduction here. He's the Flame Hashira, which means he's a big deal in Demon Slayer. And boy do I hope anyone watching this movie loves Rengoku because this movie 1000% banks on that notion.
It's funny, because based on the hype, I was expecting him to be a lot more of a presence in the film than he ended up being. Like, he dominates the final act, no doubt, but he's really just a supporting character for most of the runtime. Although a very fancy-looking one, to be sure.
I'm gonna be honest—and also commit fandom heresy—by saying I don't really get the love for Rengoku. Going back even to the manga, I liked him well enough, but the fandom and subsequently the overall DS franchise has embraced him with a level of reverence usually reserved for some of the most iconic and classic characters in all of anime. And I just do not catch that vibe from this man and his loud hairdo.
My Demon Slayer hot take is that at least 60% of its renown and success stems from the core appeal of its exceptionally strong character designs. And I don't mean that as a slight! Every important character in Demon Slayer just pops with color and personality. That's a hard thing to do, especially this consistently. And Rengoku's fiery hair flambe is one of the better ones.
Then I'd say another 20% is the fighting animation—specifically the ridiculously pretty effects work that basically made DS's animation exemplary.
It's got the same ufotable polish that made the TV series a success, that's for sure. It's not my personal favorite aesthetic, and I don't think they upped the animation ante for the movie as much as I hoped they would, but I'm not gonna complain about that considering last year's extenuating circumstances. It still looks neato.
There are a few issues exclusive to this movie, though, mostly to do with the titular train, but that's getting ahead of ourselves. First, we have to see how our determined and diligent protagonists will take on their mission of hunting down the demon preying on the train's passengers.
Not entirely their fault, considering our demon du jour Enmu, while taking the overnight train to the Mugen Steampunk Convention, attacks his victims Freddy Krueger-style via their dreams.
Honestly that's giving him too much credit. He puts his enemies to sleep and then has OTHER people kill them in their dreams. My dude's super power is being a walking bottle of melatonin gummies.
And it's also not super great that he manipulates dying tuberculosis victims into doing his dirty work, but that turns out for the best, because they're all really bad at their jobs.
This is one of those parts where adapting a manga arc into a movie kind of runs into a problem, in that the first act of this film is basically self-contained character vignettes that largely don't effect the second half, as we get a look into each of the cast's deepest desires.
The result is really disjointed and tonally unbalanced too. Tanjiro and Rengoku get these solemn and psychologically tortuous dream worlds that inform some later character development, while Zenitsu's and Inosuke's fantasies are both stupid gags.
You'd think with these two largely being comic relief this would be a good time to give them a little bit of depth, maybe tease out some details about Inosuke's largely unknown past or play around with some of the stuff from Zenitsu's character stuff from the Spider Mountain arc. But nah, springtime of youth and cave train fighting is what they get.
Sad part is I think Dream Nezuko gets nearly the same amount of screentime as the real one.
Probably more, considering she also shows up in Tanjiro's dream, although in more heart-rending circumstances.
Yup, Tanjiro is the one to figure out they're trapped in dreamland, but that just makes trying to escape the thing he wants the most all the more miserable to consider.
These aren't exactly novel story beats either, of course, but Tanjiro being the goodest boy in the world really does go a long way towards making these idyllic scenes—and his eventual rejection of them—genuinely affecting.
I think it's the way he starts apologizing that makes it work. Wanting to see dead loved ones is well-trod ground for this kind of lotus eater setup, but expressing Tanjiro's lingering survivor's guilt does a lot to give this one texture.
That said, I did find the part where Tanjiro's wouldbe assassin was so moved by his kind a pure spirit that he gave up on murder a tad overwrought.
Lol can't blame you, but it was an acceptable amount of cheese for my palate. More importantly, though, that scene confirms Jung's theory of a collective unconscious that is shared between all characters voiced by Natsuki Hanae.
OK I would accept this plot point much more easily if the guy ran into a bewildered walrus man who healed his spirit instead.
Hey, as of writing this, Odd Taxi has one episode to go, so I'm not counting anything out.
But yeah, while effecting, Tanjiro's dreamscape is mostly a reminder of his personal emotional stakes. The only person who really gets developed here is Rengoku when we get to look into his Anime Dad Issues.
Anime Dad Syndrome claims yet another victim. Through the same dream, though, we see Rengoku defy his dad's behavior and choose to be role model for his younger brother instead. Again, broad strokes, but they're better than nothing.
This is still shonen storytelling, so broadstrokes are often the only ones allowed, but it gives us some idea of how he ticks and why he's an admirable person. He got into the Demon Slaying business to do the right thing, and that defines every decision he makes for the rest of the story. I may not get the sheer intensity of fandom's affection for him, but I do like Rengoku overall.
Yeah beneath that unsettling unblinking stare is a warm heart. You can understand why Tanjiro gets attached to him, and vice versa.
What I can't understand is why Nezuko's entire role in this story is go wake up, get angry about her brother sleeping through Head Pat time, and then pratfall her way into waking him up.
We don't have to relitigate how disappointing her development in the first season was, compared to my expectations, but she really is even more of an afterthought than usual in this arc. Like, I think the last time we see her in the film, it's in this one jokey cutaway. That's it.
It's just baffling to me because Nezuko is the entire inciting incident for this series. She's the most important character to our protagonist and is literally always with him, yet she still gets sidelined. And here it's especially egregious because we see what she was like pre-demonification, so it contrasts especially badly with this weird, feral toddler she is in the present.
And if the whole conceit of this arc was using dreams to explore and flesh out our main characters' psyches, why not let Nezuko have a little subconscious adventure of her own. Maybe reclaim a fragment of her humanity on the way? I don't know, maybe anything at all?
Nope, no time for that. Gotta get to Tanjiro fighting the Goo Train demon.
Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to complain about the animation quality, but the CG in the second act looks SO BAD.
Ivan Ooze looked better than this.
It's weird because ufotable has a pretty solid in-house CG team. They've made some very good looking CG creations that meshed perfectly fine with their 2D animation. But for whatever reason this overly shiny goop is all over the final version of this film and it never stops being distracting.
Yeah it's not even that it's animated poorly either. That part's fine. They just needed some different/better shading that doesn't resemble prolapsed Nickelodeon Gak.
It's especially noticeable when it's next to the digital effects work. It's like Tanjiro is cutting through a Windows 98 screensaver.
It kills a lot of the momentum of the second part of the Enmu fight, which is a shame. Tanjiro's one-on-one against the pre-goop demon is one of the film's highlights, not just for the fight choreography, but for the incredibly ridiculous shonen battle of wills.
Oh right, turns out the way to wake up from demon sleep is to fucking off yourself. Tanjiro's Ghost Dad drops that little tidbit on him which is technically the most positive thing a father does in this whole movie.
And that in itself is gnarly enough, but of course it escalates to the point that Tanjiro is killing his dream self every few seconds, until Enmu just can't put him back to sleep fast enough. Take THAT, Inception.
Meanwhile Inosuke also gets up, and it turns out being an absolute weird little dude is the key to avoiding a Sleep status effect.
That's why Tanjiro is the goodest boy, but Inosuke remains the best boy.
I just appreciate that Inosuke hates magic anime eyes as much as I do.
The sentiment of a gamer who has faced one too many Zelda bosses.
Anyway, offputting CG aside, the shiny tentacles are there because Enmu fused his body with the entire dang train, and beneath the goop, we get some neat train body horror as a reward.
Would've liked for them to get even more Cronenbergian with the whole "living train" thing, but alas.
They probably would have, but Tanjiro remembered learning the Safety Dance from his dad and uses that power to cut off the head of..a..train...yeah not gonna ask about those logistics. And along the way he gets stabbed by one of the train demon's thralls for his trouble.
I know this is Tanjiro's whole thing, being so selfless in the face of so much adversity, but this is still an objectively funny line of dialogue to me.
Like I said, Tanjiro being a good boy is fine, but it can be a bit much at times. Dude gets his leg crushed by a train and our hero's first reaction is:
It's no matter anyway, because Rengoku is back! He always has the best advice.
Damn, why didn't I think of that?
I genuinely think Koyoharu Gotouge doesn't understand how breathing works. Or biology in general.
But hey, the demon is slain, nobody died, and the day is saved! So all-in-all a mixed bag of a movie, but overall a fun enough ride, even if it's on the short side at just 80 or so minutes.
Ah yes, the traditional Third Act New Antagonist. Always a good idea to end a story with 30 minutes of fighting a guy we've never seen before.
It's the kind of thing that wouldn't matter as much if this weren't being packaged as a movie, but because it is, and because it's supposed to be this big showcase for Rengoku, it just feels weird that his time to shine arrives courtesy of a random extra bad guy who just shows up because he felt like it.
This movie is basically paced like 4 or so episodes of the TV anime stapled together, and I won't be surprised if they repackage it like that in some form later on. It'd still be an abrupt way to conclude this arc, but it wouldn't feel quite as disorienting when this guy shows up out of nowhere and takes over the narrative for the rest of the runtime.
It's also strange that the conflict (outside the flashy physical component) is that Akaza here really wants Rengoku to become a demon like him, but Rengoku doesn't. Because of course. Literally everything we know about Rengoku leads us to believe he wouldn't give up on his humanity like that. There isn't even the veneer of temptation. So despite the escalating physical stakes, the emotional ones just aren't there.
It's funny when this happens once, not so much when it keeps happening for the entire fight.
Like the least you could do is have Akaza try to tempt Rengoku in some personal way. Tell him becoming a demon is the only way he'll be strong enough for his father's approval. Threaten Tanjiro or the others to blackmail him into becoming a demon. SOMETHING besides asking politely.
To be fair, as the battle wears on, he does get a bit less polite.
This actually kind of feeds into my overall biggest issue with Demon Slayer. It likes to bring up some interesting big ideas—here being the importance and value of a finite lifetime and passing things on to the next generation—but it all comes about without any buildup or connection to the preceding story.
Like that's a nice sentiment, but what does it have to do with anything that came before it in this arc?
In the first season, I got pretty tired of Demon Slayer always dumping a bucket full of pathos onto each of its demon victims right before they died. Without any buildup, and without really careful writing, it just feels like a cheap emotional ploy. And turns out, it's not a whole lot better when that same narrative philosophy is applied to one of the heroes.
And that brings us to the conclusion of this whole thing. So quick question Steve, you've seen both versions of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime right?
I went to high school in the mid-2000s, so yes, obviously.
Alright so then you know about the big death that happens in both versions, and how in Brotherhood they really ramp it up, make it into like a whole episode beyond what it was in the manga, because of how effecting it was in the '03 series?
Yeah, because it occurred at like the halfway/turning point in the '03 series, so we had plenty of time invested with that character beforehand, and it made sense there.
So that's basically what's happening here. In the manga, Rengoku's big fight and subsequent death are important, pivotal even, but they're still relatively par for the course. But somewhere between then and the manga ending, Rengoku took on an almost holy level of reverence and adoration in fandom, and this movie seems to have been made precisely to reflect that. The final 20 minutes of this movie are The Apotheosis of Rengoku, complete with heavenly choir.
I can't say I really get the Rengoku fascination either, but the emotional climax of the film did mostly work for me. Even shallow story beats can be fleshed out in adaptation, and I think they lay on a tasteful amount of schmaltz here. The mom ghost got me pretty good.
It works as spectacle, but I'd be lying if I didn't get a little tired of literally ever character talking about how cool and great he is for the entire denouement. Zenitsu says this despite only sharing 1 line with the guy through the whole movie.
The movie feels like it ends on an inconclusive note too. I get that they need to tease the second season, but I almost feel like Tanjiro visiting Rengoku's family would have provided more closure, and might have better supported Rengoku's stature as a character. And I don't know if that's actually what happens next in the manga anyway, but I do know I wanted a bit more.
Instead the ending is basically just every named character reacting and crying to Rengoku's death. Which is, again, a tad much.
Both a tad much, and also a tad empty.
Look, this film was obviously made for diehard fans, and judging by the box office it absolutely delivered for them. But as a casual Demon Slayer enjoyer I was mostly here for the pretty lights show, and looking forward to Season 2 covering a much better arc. But as for this train ride on its own?
I mean, in my perfect world, the anime film to break all box office records would be the similarly vehicular-focused The Adolescence of Utena. This isn't my perfect world, but it's still pretty neat/wild to see an anime movie blow up so big. I had a good time with it, even if, for better and for worse, Rengoku's character can be summed up in this one line.
So yeah, if you are one of the small population of fans who haven't already watched this, it's probably best seen in (virtual) company of big fans. For more casual people it may still be of interest to you, but just be prepared to run when the Nezuko Stans start coming for your head.
Haha you've got that ri— oh crap they've found me. I'm taking the next train outta town. Bye!!!