There are three types of anime feature films based on massive properties. The first kind (which happens to the majority) are meaningless spin-offs that contribute nothing to the series’ overall plot. They are just there for fan service and to make a quick buck without much effort. Dragon Ball Z, for the most part, follows in this mold, as does My Hero Academia. The second kind is recap films of their respective television series. These are usually reserved for smaller franchises that tell the entire plot of the show almost verbatim, just as a feature film.
And then there are the sequel films. These have become more and more prevalent in recent years, with several major franchises continuing their stories via essential films. These aren’t meaningless spin-offs, but rather material that fans NEED to see to understand the story. The closest comparison I can make for Western media would be how Breaking Bad and The Sopranos have films (El Camino and the upcoming The Many Saints of Newark, respectively) that continue the story of their respective series. Even then, I would argue that those films aren’t essential and only serve to enhance what’s already there.
If case you’ve been living under a rock, or never read any of my Weeb Analysis pieces, Demon Slayer is a mega-popular franchise whose first feature film, Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, finally released in the West after becoming the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. It firmly plants itself in the third camp of being essential viewing for fans of the TV show. To those hardcore fans, you’re going to see the movie regardless of what I say. To everyone else, is it worth seeing Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train?
Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train
Director: Haruo Sotozaki
Release Date: October 16, 2020 (Japan), April 23, 2021 (US)
I’m going to say this right now before we really dive into the movie, and I cannot stress this enough: This movie is made solely for people who are actively following the Demon Slayer series. The movie picks up immediately from the ending of the TV show and does not stop to refresh anyone on what’s happened leading up to this. If you are going into this blind, you are going to have no idea what essential terminology like the Twelve Kizukis, Hashira, or Niichirin swords mean or why there’s a guy with a boar’s head. Newcomers can follow along pretty well with what’s happening, but you’ll be missing a lot of the finer details.
Thankfully, Mugen Train isn’t exactly the most complex story to follow. Our samurai demon slayers Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae/Zach Aguilar), Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono/Aleks Le), and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka/Bryce Papenbrook) have been given a mission where they must kill a demon who has been killing and devouring civilians onboard a train. While there, the three meet up with a fellow demon slayer, Rengoku (Satoshi Hino/Mark Whitten), who is also there for the exact same reason, but all of them must contend with the demon’s strange abilities to force people to sleep and manipulate their dreams.
The goal is stated pretty clearly from the beginning of the movie and it hardly changes throughout. Our heroes need to kill the bad guy and then the day is saved. I kid you not, that is as in-depth as the plot can and will go. Instead of fleshing the story out with new twists and developments, we instead spend the first half of the movie delving into the dreams and psyches of our main characters. To fans of the show, there’s really nothing new these dream sequences portray that we don’t already know, with the exception of Rengoku.
Rengoku is introduced as a side character at the beginning and he’s almost immediately likable. He’s honest and noble to an absurd degree, always speaking forcefully and being direct and to the point at every opportunity. He’s the kind of guy who will say directly to your face that he doesn’t like you and tell you why. His attitude can be a bit grating at times, but his earnestness will eventually grow on you, especially because he’s the lynchpin of the film… or at least he becomes the lynchpin of the film.
70% of the movie is centered on the initial premise above. Tanjiro and company need to defeat the train demon, but the other 30% of the movie feels entirely removed from the action that took place during the majority of the film. It’s almost to the point where you could argue that nothing leading up to the finale matters. Rengoku takes the full spotlight and the rest of the film goes into fleshing out his character and backstory in more substantial detail. Realistically, if you don’t like Rengoku by the halfway point, you’re probably not going to like this film. In fact, the last third feels tagged on for no other reason than to offer an intense, climactic action sequence.
It’s all the more bizarre because both portions of the film feature entirely different antagonists, both of whom are woefully underdeveloped. The train demon that our heroes spend the majority of the film fighting isn’t even named in the movie itself (at least in the subtitled version), while the new threat that appears at the end has zero build-up or prior interactions with any of the characters. They have some cool designs and powers behind them, but for a series that traditionally excels at fleshing out its antagonists, these two are by far some of its most basic and barebones.
To the film’s credit, the antagonists basically exist to give our heroes opportunities to get into explosive sword fights. If you’re just watching Mugen Train for the action setpieces, then I’m fairly certain you’ll be entertained. Ufotable is continuing their animation duties from the TV series and they bring their A-game to here. In fact, they even go beyond their A-game into S tier. The entire last third of the movie is just one gigantic duel and it’s animated immaculately. I have never seen animation that looks quite as fluid or as thrilling as here, confirming that if you’re going to see this movie, you owe it to yourself to do it in a theater. Fans will probably be roaring in their seats over what they’re about to witness.
Mugen Train also doesn’t skimp away from its violence, showing off its well-earned R rating. Yes, this is an animated film with an R rating and the action and violence on display meets that caliber. Honestly, I suspect the movie got this rating due to the method our heroes discover to escape the train demon’s dreams. Even without the R rating, there are plenty of edge-of-your-seat moments to keep you glued to the screen.
For newcomers to the series, while I wouldn’t say that Mugen Train is a great place to start, it captures exactly what makes the Demon Slayer series as popular as it is. There’s gorgeous action, a swelling score to heighten the tension, and fun characters all presented in a wholly unique visual aesthetic. It’s the kind of movie that I can see getting people interested in watching the first season of the show, especially in anticipation of the second season set to debut later this year.
The ultimate question is, “did Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train need to be a movie?” Honestly, I don’t think so. Yes, the higher budget allowed for much better animation, but it sacrifices a lot of the pacing of the TV show. This is a two-hour movie and it can drag a lot throughout. If this was broken down into five or six episodes, I don’t think I would have this much of a problem, but as it stands I was checking my watch more times than I care to admit.
As a fan of the series, I couldn’t be happier with Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train. It gave me more of what I love about the series. I just couldn’t scratch the feeling that it could have been better. I’m of two minds about this being a film in the first place, which only serves to exacerbate a lot of the problems with this story arc from the manga.
Still, even though it clearly could have been better, I still found myself pleased and can easily recommend this to anyone looking for a slick action movie. I would actually recommend this to non-fans it’s that entertaining and enjoyable, despite some obvious gaps they may have in comprehending everything. That alone is pretty high praise.