A new anime sensation is sweeping audiences off their feet: Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. The series follows Tanjiro, a young man on a quest for vengeance against the demons who slaughtered his family. In his quest, he joins the Demon Slayer Corps—the force sworn to protect humanity from demons—and learns the way of the Demon Slayers through intensive training. Yet, the series is about so much more than vengeance: It is about found family, processing grief, coping with trauma, and inner strength. Amidst the beautiful battle choreography and animation are quiet, emotional moments that give the characters a complexity not often seen in male-oriented manga, or shonen.
Now, months after the end of the hit first season, American audiences can now experience the season-capping film, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train. When it was released in Japan last October, Mugen Train broke records and became the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, knocking Spirited Away out of the top spot. It is an incredible film that manages to capture that tenderness of the series while creating jaw-dropping fight sequences. But franchise novices beware: With no context or knowledge of the series, the film will make little sense.
Mugen Train begins with Tanjiro (Natsuki Hanae) and his companions Zenitsu (Hiro Shimono)—a perpetual scaredy cat—and Inosuke (Yoshitsugu Matsuoka)—who wears a boar mask and has an explosive temper—boarding the Mugen Train as part of their next mission. Once on the train, the trio find Rengoku (Satoshi Hino), a high ranking soldier in the Demon Slayer Corps with expert fighting techniques, to receive their next mission. There is something demonic on board consuming passengers and it’s up to this group of four to protect those on the train. This is unlike anything they’ve experienced before due to the tight and claustrophobic space of the train. With barely any room to move, plus people all around them, fights must be much more precise.
They also quickly learn this threat is more than just a regular demon, but a much more powerful one who can manipulate dreams. The demon puts Tanjiro, Zenitsu, Inosuke and Rengoku to sleep and attacks them in their dreams (not unlike slasher icon Freddy Krueger), where they are most vulnerable. Each character has a very specific dream that both matches their personalities and deepens audience understanding of their motivations.
Tanjiro dreams of his family before the demon attack. They are alive and happy, living their beautiful and quiet domestic life in their small, snow-covered home. Tranquil and idyllic, a place of presumed safety. While Tanjiro knows they’re dead, he can’t help but find comfort in their dream world existence. Major flirt Zenitsu, on the other hand, dreams of a romance between himself and Tanjiro’s only living sibling, Nezuko. They frolic through a bright forest as he showcases his strengths to his crush. Tanjiro’s grief-informed dream and Zenistu romantic fantasy showcase how much the tone of these sequences fluctuates both in subject matter and animation style. And yet, it all comes together as each dream—and their aesthetics—teaches the audience even more about these characters, their pasts and their deepest desires.
After 26 episodes of the show, the viewer becomes well-acquainted with the trio of newbies and their quirks. Yet, diving into their psyches in Mugen Train makes each of them all the more relatable and empathetic. This level of character development is a large part of how Mugen Train is able to walk a very fine line between heartwarming and devastating. Tanjiro’s own purity of heart, shown through his selflessness and dedication to humanity’s survival, is countered, but not overwhelmed, by violent eviscerations at the claws of demons. He is the quintessential action hero who is not afraid to be vulnerable, which makes the film’s saddest moments pack a massive punch.
Tanjiro’s vulnerability also allows for a discussion about the impact of violence on the psyche of the action hero. So often in previous shonen, such as massive hits Fist of the North Star and Dragon Ball Z, the very masculine protagonists barely show any moment of emotional weakness. Stoicism is the name of the game and there’s no insight into the emotional and mental aftermath of a battle. Mugen Train, and Demon Slayer as a whole, allows Tanjiro to grieve and shows his healing as nonlinear—particularly as he is confronted by his dream family and sinks away from his real-world mission. Hanae moves through a range of emotions, from kindness and patience to rage and devastation, as he makes Tanjiro into a sympathetic character. His tears and sorrow cut through you as his authentic voice acting makes you feel Tanjiro’s pain.
Hanae’s talent is supported by careful writing that focuses on this kind of character development, specifically achieved in Mugen Train through its dream sequences, as much as combat. With each character retreating into themselves, there is a purposeful lull in the action that focuses on beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and dialogue rather than intricately designed battle choreography. In these moments, characters are able to explain their anxieties and fears. Violence is not without consequence for Tanjiro or his group as they reflect on brushes with death, fallen comrades and their own mortality.
Mugen Train’s best asset, however, is its animation style that creatively combines hand-drawn animation and digital effects to create more depth in each fight sequence. As Tanjiro leaps through the air with his katana drawn, the 3D environment spins around him, the dynamic setting encouraging more complex camera movement that allows each fighting stance to truly shine. This combination of styles lets the hand-drawn beauty of each sword slash reach their aesthetic potential in digitally manipulated environments, such as the top of a train. Yes, Tanjiro fights a demon on top of a moving train using swords and demonic magic. Plus, there’s a pulsating flesh creature that looks like something out of a John Carpenter movie. Mugen Train is a feast for the eyes with its bright colors, meshing of animation styles and meticulously designed environments that emphasize the action.
Mugen Train is a gorgeous film that expands the universe of Demon Slayer. But because it is canonical and provides a bridge between seasons, it is not a film meant for newcomers to the franchise. You are meant to know who these characters are, what demons are, the hierarchy of demons and the Demon Slayer Corps, and why Tanjiro carries his sister Nezuko in a wooden box on his back. If you take anything away from this review, I hope it is the inspiration to watch Demon Slayer and immerse yourself in its world. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train continues to prove the power of animation and how it can make the story of a boy slashing up demons with a katana about more than sleek fights, but also about how violence affects its characters.
Director: Haruo Sotozaki
Writer: Koyoharu Gotoge, studio ufotable
Starring: Natsuki Hanae, Akari Kito, Hiro Shimono, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka, Satoshi Hino, Daisuke Hirakawa, Hiroshi Kamiya
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freelance film journalist with a love of all things horror. She’s written across the Internet about found footage, extreme horror cinema, and more. You can follow her on Twitter to read more of her work, as well as her hot takes about her favorite cryptid, Mothman.