The Japanese Box Office-Breaking 'Demon Slayer' Movie Has Finally Made It to the US
The hype for 'Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train' is absolutely massive, and the anime could slice straight through the US box office.
To get something out of the way: The (lavishly titled) Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train is, essentially, more Demon Slayer. Instead of the usual practice of animated series tie-in movies telling an original story designed to be unobtrusive to the main plot, Mugen Train picks up the story of Demon Slayer directly after the end of the first season, moving its violent, emotional spectacle to the big screen. What also sets this particular movie apart is the multi-record-breaking hype that has preceded the film’s highly anticipated release in the US, having surpassed Spirited Away, Titanic, Frozen, and Your Name. as the highest-grossing film at the Japanese box office within just six weeks, even earning it a submission to the Oscars. (When ambushed for comment, Hayao Miyazaki said, “that's got nothing to do with me… I’m just an old man picking up trash.”) It would be surprising, to say the least, if North American anime fans didn't react in kind upon its theatrical release this weekend, or its VOD drop on June 22.
As for the story, Demon Slayer is about, in short, a young man who slays man-eating demons. Set in early 1900s Japan, Tanjiro Kamado joins the mysterious Demon Slayer Corps after his family is slaughtered and his sister Nezuko is turned into a demon herself. The series is an adaptation of the 2016 manga written and illustrated by Koyoharu Gotōge, who finished their work on the series in 2019. Mugen Train fits a small arc of the manga into its two-hour running time: Tanjiro and his comrades Inosuke (a wild boy who wears a boar head) and Zenitsu (a coward), along with Nezuko, embark on a mission to slay the demon Enmu, gifted with an extra dose of powerful blood from the ultimate big bad Muzan Kibutsuji at the very end of Season 1, hiding on the eponymous coal-powered locomotive. Once aboard they rendezvous with Rengoku, an elite warrior known as the Flame Hashira, a man with “gaudy hair” and a persistently boisterous attitude, and team up with him to find and kill the invisible menace.
An arc of the manga adapted as a feature film instead of a series of episodes, the appeal of Mugen Train is more or less the same as the series with little in the way of added complications or twists on the tried-and-true formula in the lead-up to Season 2 release later this year. Of course, for many, that’ll be fine. It begins quietly but drops viewers in the thick of it, picking up more or less immediately where the first season of the show left off. For new viewers looking to drop in on the fandom, this may be a little disorientating, but the story isn’t particularly difficult to pick up; there are some bad demons on a train, and they need to die.
As with the series, the action and Ufotable’s animation production are still the selling points here, with a frequently astounding level of detail. Its mix of traditionally drawn 2D characters with fluid 3D environments, and digital compositing makes the action scenes flow like water. The character drawings themselves are lush, and consistently lovingly detailed, and drawn with bold and chunky but elegant outer lines. Rengoku and his luscious mane of hair are especially nice to look at, even though it feels like something of a shame that the character doesn’t have much going on beyond that striking appearance. Some of the fights still feel wanting, however—not especially for a lack of visual dynamism but for any real emotional involvement. It feels unfair to say, but it seems as though the series will remain chasing the soul-stirring heights of its landmark 19th episode, where Nezuko and Tanjiro awaken each other's true powers to stop a powerful demon, to which the film’s narrative recalls in places.
Mugen Train runs into some of the usual problems of moving a TV narrative to feature film as it feels unnecessarily decompressed, luxuriating in scenes that don’t add much to the atmosphere, characterization, or even the visual spectacle. It also leans a little too hard on expectations of the audience’s meta-textual knowledge of the series, using that to forgo character development. It’s not inherently less engaging for being quieter—some of the more introspective moments are its most engaging—but there’s no real exploration of these characters beyond Tanjiro.
Even with its macabre premise and visual execution to match, as always, Demon Slayer goes heavy on the comic relief. But it leans in too far, and as a result the supporting characters feel one-note, feeling like pieces to move around on a board rather than people with genuine agency, as evidenced by a narrative conceit in the film’s first act. Deceived and dropped into a dream world, the characters each get a brief “For the Man Who Has Everything” storyline where they’re shown their innermost desires as a distraction. It’s a direct and honestly pretty effective way to quite literally dive into the psychology of the characters, Tanjiro’s lasting survivor’s guilt over the massacre of his family embodied by idyllic reunion scenes turning on him, the film’s most horrific moment coming from their disparagements, more painful than any flesh wound. These sequences for the other characters are mostly played for laughs, with Rengoku, Inosuke, and Zenitsu immersed in more self-aggrandizing visions. It can’t help but be a little bit disappointing, with Tanjiro’s comrades (and Nezuko) once again denied any meaningful introspection. Zenitsu is still cowardly and crushing on Nezuko (too much, one might add), Inosuke is still loud and borderline feral, and that’s about it.
Even though the use of 3D environments and digital compositing is overall pretty slick, as the train itself predictably and inevitably becomes the enemy, it’s realized by some uncharacteristically ugly CG work from Ufotable. It feels unfair to point at some less-than-ideal animation considering the global circumstances under which this film is being released, but there’s no getting around the fact that the film’s computer-generated meat train is incredibly ugly, a visual decision that would derail its climactic fights if not for the continuing finesse which Ufotable interpolate their 2D drawings with 3D environments (and the simple pleasure of seeing Tanjiro trying to decapitate a whole train). It doesn’t help that the antagonists of the piece are less sympathetic than the rest of the show's villains, typically revealed during their death; these bad guys are just sadists who love violence for violence’s sake. For all its simplicity, one of the main things working in the Demon Slayer show’s favor was that unexpected touch of empathy, when Tanjiro toiled against seemingly unbeatable foes, only for his victory to be complicated by the truth of their tragic stories.
All that said, the climactic fight is undeniably satisfying, an all-out brawl conducted with the blinding speed of fighters well beyond Tanjiro’s station, a high-ranking demon, and Rengoku duking it out among conversations about human impermanence and life’s ephemeral beauty. At this point, Rengoku is still little more than a symbol of the Hashira, a body rather than a fully fleshed-out person. His boisterousness masks insecurity, but it’s one mostly explored in the film’s margins. He’s mainly there to slash things real good. His characterization comes too late in the game to truly feel meaningful, though it does give the narrative a bittersweet sting.
Even as one of the biggest films of the year, (*deep breath*) Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train likely won’t mean much to people not already fully invested in this particular story and its continuation, and even for those who are, there isn’t much in the way of twists and turns on this particular track. As with the series, it’s a straightforward tale elevated by the strength of its visuals, and while it’s often one-dimensional, it still hits its more emotional beats with verve. But it makes for an exciting stopgap between the first and second seasons, plainly enjoyable if all you want to see is a very nice boy slay some evil demons.