Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train (2020), a Return to Big Screen Shonen Action

When the news hit that Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (yes this is the full title) had overtaken Hayao Miyzaki’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Spirited Away (you can read my column on the film here) at the Japanse Box-Office, a record it had held onto for over a decade, it felt weird but made a lot of sense to me. Since the anime released in late 2019 it took the anime community by storm, you could barely avoid the memes, fight clips, merchandise, and fan-art as you scrolled the internet and while I never started watching the show at the time, it’s popularity can be demonstrated by the fact that in 2020 the Demon Slayer manga outsold the entire American Comic book industry (or at least came close too, I think there was some disagreement on the actual numbers). All of this to say that when I found out I had the opportunity to see this film on the big screen, I knew I had to take the opportunity to see this new pillar of anime film history on the big screen…the only issue being that I hadn’t watched or read any of Demon Slayer and even worse, the film is a direct continuation from the TV show.

Now this may raise some questions, I’m guessing the main one being: why bother? Well as I said the sheer popularity and growth of the franchise, coupled with it’s record breaking box-office numbers, intrigued me so in preparation for the film I started watching the TV show, but I only reached episode 11 (out of 26) before my screening. So I understood the basics of the show (something that greatly helped me appreciate the emotional climax of Tanjiro’s dream sequence), but some of the side characters were new to me (I’d literally only just met the boar-headed dude in the episode I watched right before leaving to go to the cinema) and this definitely worked against me for the end of the film.

To give a basic summary of what Demon Slayer is about, Tanjiro lives an ordinary life in a rural Japanese community alongside his mother and siblings, but one day after leaving to see charcoal in town Tanjiro finds his whole family slaughtered and his sister turned into a flesh-eating demon. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in the hopes of finding a way to transform his sister back to a human meanwhile his mentor brainwashed and hypnotized his sister into wanting to protect humans instead of wanting to kill them (a minor plot macguffin to allow Nezuko to not be a constant plot annoyance admittedly). So by the time of Mugen Train, Tanjiro is experienced in his fights against demons but still a far cry away from mastering his skills and proficiency. Alongside his friends Zenitsu, a cowardly fighter who is infatuated with Nezuko, and Inosuke, an orphan that was raised by Wild Boars and wears a boar-head mask , Tanjiro is tasked with travelling on a train to assist the Flame Hashira Kyōjurō Rengoku in investigating the increasing number of mysterious disappearances aboard the train. 

Essentially, and quite cleverly, Mugen Train feels like a handful of 24 minute anime episodes just edited into one long two-hour movie, and it really works for the plot. The plot of the film spans the story arc following the end of Season 1 of the show and you can easily imagine the events of the film being chopped into 5 or 6 anime episodes, but but condensing and distilling it into one long film it really elevates the plot and removes a lot of issues that come with weekly broadcasting. Anime fans often lament the feeling of watching 12-episodes of Dragon Ball Z just to watch one fight play out, and with the way this arc is structured it’s usually obvious where each manga chapter would end but without the cliff-hanger endings and 5-minute recaps that plague modern anime, the events of the arc unfold with full, uninterrupted tension. Once the character board the train they are put into a deep sleep where they live out their deepest dreams, and the way this sequence unfolds is superb with a wonderful balance of exposition, emotion and tension, and with the darting between the main cast of characters trapped in their own dream the continuous narrative really makes this engaging. In the same way there are arguably three main fights in the film, with a handful of minor engagements on-top, and again there are moments in these fights where it’s clear where the “come back next week” moment would be, but watching them unfold from first blow to the final breath is such a breath of relief. I think part of what makes this so great to watch is that in recent years we’ve seen breakout anime films like A Silent Voice, Your Name and Promare, but it’s felt like ages since there’s been a big-budget Shonen film in a long time.

For anyone who doesn’t know what a Shonen is, it’s a type of anime/manga that follows a pretty typical formula: man (it’s usually a man but obviously isn’t exclusively gendered) has and/or gains power, trains to grow power, and defeats a steady stream of villains of increasing power/ability as they develop their power/gain new ones. Think Naruto, Dragonball, Bleach, My Hero Academia, One Piece, etc. Understandably, Shonen media live and die by their fight sequences, if a Shonen series looks bad during a fight scene it can be the first and last nail in the coffin. But from what I’ve seen in the show, even on TV Demon Slayer had some superb fight animations and the quality was also top-tier especially amongst it’s contemporaries. But much like with the stop-and-start issue of weekly broadcasting, the TV format also requires that the animation staff are limited in time and budget. But much like the pacing, the film format offers significantly more opportunities for the animation staff to flex their ability and put their all into the fight sequences. And I can happily report that they do so in abundance. 

The animation in Mugen Train is superb, not only does it have some of the best blending of 2D and 3D animation that I’ve ever seen (the 3D animation only looks janky a handful of times and only once in a way that is obvious noticeable) but the sheer visual flourish that is on display as we see the Demon Slayers collide with the monsters is sublime. The series has this concept where depending on the type of elemental breathing the Demon Slayer is using they leave a trail of water/fire/thunder from their strikes, and this was the aspect that really sold me on the TV show and in Mugen Train it looks even better. Watching the entire frame become enveloped in this beautiful trail of water or fire, before watching the devastating blow explode the demon’s into smithereens was so fun to see on the big screen. Each strike has a dynamism that is elevated by the detailed animation, and similarly the striking character and monster design and expert use of frames make all the fight scenes so visually bold and appealing. 

While Mugen Train doesn’t entirely justify it’s run-time and the final fight feels awkwardly placed in the context of the film (although understandably it’s too close to the events of the film to have been left to season 2), and it is a film that is incredibly tied to the story of the series making it very inaccessible to anyone not a fan of the show (although my limited watching proved enough to enjoy the film without major issue). But if you happen to watch the show or are interested in starting it, it’s a fantastic film and does anime action justice on the big screen in a way that is rarely seen nowadays. While I don’t think it has as much artistic sincerity or importance as a film like Spirited Away, what is on show is powerful, moving and most of all entertaining. Regardless of the franchise implications, if we start to see more films like Mugen Train getting popular releases in the West I struggle to see it as anything but a positive for the animation industry at large. While this didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, it was submitted, and while I still think Soul was the correct choice for the win, it’s certainly leagues ahead of Onward and Over the Moon which were also nominated. All of this rambling to say that I hope Mugen Train ushers in a new niche of animated films, and if you haven’t already you should think about starting Demon Slayer (there’s still time before season 2 airs).  

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