You’re either already on the “Demon Slayer” train or you’re not, and the hit Japanese feature — arriving stateside having surpassed “Spirited Away” as the highest-grossing anime movie of all time — is hardly the vehicle for the popular franchise to pick up new passengers. That doesn’t mean the action-packed toon won’t appeal to those curious to check out the sensation that has earned more than $415 million internationally. But it will be hard for newbies to follow a fan-service sequel that relies heavily on the complex mythology established by the 26-episode show.
Produced by the same team at Ufotable, “Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train” looks even more rudimentary than its small-screen counterpart, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” which has amassed a cult following among Funimation, Crunchyroll and Netflix subscribers in the U.S. The slight downgrade in quality may come as a surprise to those expecting slicker visuals from the theatrical blockbuster. At times, the imagery hardly qualifies as animation, coming across as a sequence of still drawings: fixed expressions and poses that suggest emotion or energy, even when nothing is actually moving in the frame — though this is hardly unusual in the manga-inspired medium, which relies on such tricks to tell elaborate stories on modest budgets.
“Mugen Train” is more than just a bridge to the forthcoming second season, due out this year. The film depicts an important step in the development of its four young protagonists — orphan Tanjiro; his demon sister Nezuko, whom he carries in a wooden box on his back; girl-crazy Zenitsu; and absurd-looking Inosuke with his bare chest and boar’s head mask (all voiced by the original cast).
“Demon Slayer” devotees swear by the characters and oddball sense of humor, but are most appreciative of the show’s dynamic fight scenes, which are frequent and creatively choreographed (those being key criteria for a genre whose essential raison d’être is action). There, the battles came at a fairly constant clip while leaving plenty of room for goofing off along the way.
This overconfident quartet spent most of the show nearly getting themselves killed as they tried to fend off low-level foes. Now, they face not one but two of the world’s most powerful demons, known as Kizuki, whose existence had long been rumored, though they did not reveal themselves until the final episodes of Season 1 (and even then, audiences never saw the six Upper Rank demons that are deadliest to humankind).
That’s a major selling point for the feature. The show has effectively been laying the groundwork for showdowns such as these — though the four aspiring demon slayers are so inexperienced they’d be toast without the help of a skilled mentor like Kyojuro Rengoku, a so-called Hashira (the top tier of demon slayer, or good-guy equivalent of a Kizuki). So after all those hours of watching Tanjiro and friends fumble their way through various skirmishes, fans will consider it a big payoff to see how veteran warriors from both sides throw down.
Director Haruo Sotozaki doesn’t deem it necessary to reintroduce the characters, nor to explain basic aspects, such as Inosuke’s strange appearance — he’s not a hog-headed mutant so much as an aggro dude in a crazy costume — or how exactly one slays a demon (simple: chop off its head or expose it to sunlight). Instead, the filmmakers assume a certain familiarity, getting right down to business once Tanjiro and friends board the titular Mugen Train: a cross-country transport whose 200 passengers become easy targets for the Kizuki who has commandeered the locomotive.
Demons, who are described as former humans who’ve turned evil in exchange for immortality, gain power by eating people, whereas demon slayers are mere mortals sworn to protect the world from the bloodthirsty creatures. Think of these four as amateur Ghostbusters, or a teenage team of vampire hunters, whose well-intentioned incompetence often proves endearing. But they’ve never faced adversaries as daunting as this, starting with the creepy Kizuki riding on the roof of the train.
“Lower One,” as he is identified by the kanji etched onto his aquamarine peepers, looks more like an androgynous Goth-pop star than a conventional villain, his scarecrow silhouette, pale skin and detachable hands all memorable touches in a production where design is often more important than execution (since the figures tend to strike a pose and hold it). In the cabins below, the kids manage to locate Kyojuro, who uses flame-based fighting techniques to dispatch a basic demon, but they’re caught off guard by a sleeping spell that puts all the passengers into a deep slumber.
The resulting dreams are tailored to each of the characters, with Tanjiro’s being the most touching, since it represents a fantasy version of what his life might’ve been like had demons never attacked and killed his family — the incident that launched his quest in the first place. While under, Tanjiro senses something off about this faux family reunion: His sister is missing, helping him snap out of it and rouse the others to duty.
Inosuke never met a living creature he didn’t want to fight, so together, he and Tanjiro set about looking for the demon’s head — no small feat, given the creative way Lower One has infiltrated the entire train, wrapping it in CG tentacles and dozens of hypnotic eyeballs. (Gaze at one, and you instantly snap back to sleep.) If all this sounds confusing, rest assured that there’s a wacky enjoyment to be had even when things don’t make sense.
Keep in mind too that no one has ever survived a fight with a demon from the Upper Ranks, which lends considerable excitement to the next encounter (between Kyojuro and a character best kept secret) — for the initiated at least, since the outcome has significant impact on where the demon slayers will go from here. Followers will find it essential viewing, while others may want to backtrack and watch the series first, lest this phenomenon pass them by.