In 2020, the first feature-length film from the manga-adapted anime Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, Mugen Train, released in Japanese theaters and absolutely dominated to the point where it was the highest-grossing film of the year. After some time, Mugen Train would release internationally where it took theatrical audiences by storm, taking the #1 spot for North American audiences two weeks in a row. Frankly, it’s a tad surprising that Mugen Train would claim and hold such a spot seeing as the film is a direct sequel to the anime series’s season one finale, therefore requiring the audience to know the characters, their relationships, and other details in order to feel the full emotional weight present in the dark fantasy spectacle. It’s not that Mugen Train is inaccessible otherwise, but there’re a lot of beats in the action-packed tale which lack the emotional wallop without the details from the 26-episode season (streaming on Netflix and Hulu). But if you’re ready to thrown down with Muzan Kibutsuji’s minions alongside Tanjiro Kamado (voiced by Natsuki Hanae/Zach Aguilar) and his friends, snag yourself a ticket on the Mugen Train. You can select from, thanks to cooperation with Funimation, a limited edition or standard edition physical release, either of which will set your heart ablaze anytime you like.
After rumors of several assaults by demons on the Mugen train, Tanjiro, his sister Nezuko (voiced by Akari Kito/Abby Trott), Zenitsu (voiced by Hiro Shimono/Aleks Le), and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka/Bryce Papenbrook) are assigned by the Demon Slayer Corps to assist upper-level Flame Hashira Demon Slayer Corps member Kyojuro Rengoku (voiced by Satoshi Hino/Mark Whitten) as he attempts to dispatch the demon responsible for the deaths of so many. What they don’t realize is that they face a newly-minted upper-level demon, Enmu (voiced by Daisuke Hirakawa/Landon McDonald), whose ability is to put his targets into a deep sleep. With Rengoku, Tanjiro, and the team quickly lost within their own dreams, it’s only a matter of time before their lives and the lives of the other 200 passengers are little more than a snack to Enmu.
Be advised that what follows doesn’t not include a review of the home release in either format, nor will it include any discussion of bonus features as none were available at the time of this review.
Speaking as someone who finished season one ahead of the digital release in hopes of covering, Mugen Train is not the least accessible film directly connected to a serial anime. You may not get to know the characters in any deep way, but you’re given enough, either through dialogue or context, to understand what’s happening and enjoy yourself. If, however, you’ve been following the series, there are some moments in Mugen Train that will cut you to the quick. That Enmu’s ability sends its victims into their dreams (he usually makes them pleasant in order to keep them compliant) requires each Demon Slayer to break free of what they consider a happy period. For the versed, this means that Tanjiro is reunited with the family that was decimated by demon leader Kibutsuji in the series premiere. To witness Tanjiro come to the realization of the fantasy and making the choice to pierce that veil is ordinarily painful. In contrast to profound sadness, the look into Zenitsu’s and Inosuke’s respective subconsciousnesses is as deliciously ridiculous as you’d expect, offering a wonderful tonal balance. This, of course, is really only hilarious if you have the prior 26 episodes to give you the context to understand why, for instance, Inosuke sees his companions as animal/human hybrid’s in his subconscious as we know he was raised by animals (specifically boars) after the murder of his mother. That last bit is not funny, but the depiction of the three others with animal ears and teeth is. Strangely, the newest character to the series who was only partially introduced in season one is Rengoku, but his presentation follows the general rules and characteristics of shōnen manga where the highest ranking heroes are noble, strong, and pure of heart. Rengoku is the weakest element of Mugen Train for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
The biggest strength of the series, even more so than the fascinating and complex central characters, is art direction — mixing together CG drawing with hand-drawn flourishes on the characters (accentuated by moments that are clearly ripped stylistically from the 2D manga source) and incorporating hints of the gongbi style of Chinese watercolor in the Demon Slayers sword styles of water, flame, thunder, and wind. You’d think that the mixture of styles would dilute the impact of one over the other, yet the heightened reality of the Demon Slayer world is only more extenuated, infused with dynamism, via the overlapping styles. In a medium where the entire story is often told front to back in one artistic style, something like Demon Slayer stands out for embracing divergent art styles that represent different aspects of the period and culture. There’s not a single fight sequence which isn’t gorgeous, drawing you in where the emotional elements may falter.
Accessibility only goes so far with a story, original or connected to something else, when trying to keep the audience invested. Running 117 minutes, Mugen Train moves quickly to get the audience onto the train and into the action, as in most of the credits run over scenes in the introduction rather than containing a more traditional anime intro sequence. This works in the film’s favor as it never really slows down for anyone to feel like either the characters aren’t as skilled as believed or to notice just how much time is passing for the audience. The thing is that this means the film really ends its story with close to 30 minutes left, shifting gears into a completely different direction that offers little in connection to the previous 90 minutes in narrative or emotional payoff. Does it look cool? Absolutely. But it’s difficult to care about anything that happens within this period, rapidly losing all the goodwill built up within the new audience and struggling to keep the old ones. This isn’t to say that you won’t want to care, you will, but it’s pointless to the larger story of the film and doesn’t expand upon or otherwise deepen anything the characters already knew. I’d liken it to the attempted transfer of power between characters Midoriya and Bakugo in the 2019 film My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising. It’s a bold move that leads to a gorgeously composed final fight whose implications are huge only to be washed away in the final moments. In Mugen Train, rather than happening to a character we’re invest in, thereby deepening our emotional concern for what occurs, it happens to someone we barely know and the film doesn’t focus on. Looking cool is great, but meaning something makes it resonant.
Whether Mugen Train sets your heart ablaze or not, there’s enough to entertain newbies and delight fans of season one. For those who wish they could enjoy it, but missed it in theaters, having the option to watch anytime via purchase will quench that particular thirst. There is another option, though, as the Demon Slayer anime returned on October 10th with the Mugen Train arc, breaking down the film into literal episodes. My guess is that the events of the film carry more weight within the overall arc of the manga and anime series, so Mugen Train the film will become more enjoyable in the future, which is a shame as what works now is awe-inducing, offering some of the most unique uses of animation of 2021.
Available on digital June 22nd, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from Funimation December 21st, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Demon Slayer – Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.