When watching Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, it’s never apparent at any time that you’re watching the most successful film, animated or otherwise, in Japanese history.
I don’t mean that as a sledge against Demon Slayer the series, Mugen Train specifically or the financial success of other films. In the spirit of shonen movies past, Mugen Train is very much a successful extension of what is currently the most popular anime going around.
And sure, there’s been big anime movies before. But squaring off the fact that Mugen Train has already made $140 million more than, say, Your Name? Or nearly twice as much as Princess Mononoke? Howl’s Moving Castle? And more money worldwide — even though almost all of it has come from Japan — than Tenet or Sonic the Hedgehog?
That’s harder to fathom.
Mugen Train serves as a direct sequel to the Demon Slayer anime series and is a full adaptation of the manga’s seventh arc. And if you’re unfamiliar with that, Mugen Train doesn’t do a lot to catch up. It’s not difficult to follow per se: you’re quickly given the names of Tanjiro, Zenitsu and Inosuke, but the audience is never told why Inosuke is wearing a boar’s head for the entirety of the movie.
Or, later on, why Nezuko, Tanjiro’s sister, is being carried around in a box. (Nezuko has actually been converted to be a demon, but again, this information is just something you’re supposed to know.)
But apart from some basic introductions aside, the rest of Mugen Train is pretty translatable if you’ve seen a shonen series or read any shonen manga before. And Demon Slayer follows on from a lot of major shonen series — Bleach is a good parallel — where you have a group of kids battling demonic foes, hitting barriers or enemies well beyond their measure, just surviving, then learning new techniques before finally conquering their challenges/fears/the obstacles in front of them.
What’s made Demon Slayer stick has been its animation style, more so than the success of the manga. It’s clean and crisp style with a great use of high contrast, which really helps the series’ visibility given that most of it takes place at night and in dark environments. (Demons in Demon Slayer, akin to vampires, burn to ash when exposed to the sun.)
Coupled with the static visual nature of a train, where the entirety of Mugen Train takes place, might lead to a fairly uninteresting environment. But it’s developed cleverly enough. The trio of demon slayers are supported by Kyojuro Rengoku, one of the Demon Slayer corps’ most powerful soldiers, to investigate a string of disappearances.
There’s a small segment towards the end where the protagonists get off the train. But for about 95 per cent of the movie, everything happens within the confines of eight carriages. But what carries the film through is the flashbacks and dream sequences — many in brighter, lighter environments — in the movie’s second act.
The antagonist for Mugen Train‘s proceedings is the demon Enmu. Hoping to move up in the demon hierarchy, Enmu cons the human passengers into helping them kill the Demon Slayers. If Enmu’s successful, she’ll receive more blood from Muzan, the creator of all the Demons.
Her powers of remote hypnosis let her control people’s dreams, positive or otherwise. For the purposes of this plan, Enmu sends the protagonists back in time to when they were younger. It helps Tanjiro and Rengoku reconnect with their families, but there’s also a secondary benefit: if you have no idea who any of these people are, then these sequences offer enough backstory to get you through the rest of Mugen Train.
Fights in Demon Slayer: Mugen Train are, unsurprisingly, well done. It wouldn’t be a shonen movie without a major battle towards the end featuring powers well beyond the capabilities of the main protagonists, and Mugen Train doesn’t disappoint.
But it’s not as if the battles or the voice acting — which will all be in Japanese for Mugen Train‘s initial release in Australia on February 25 — are light years ahead of what we’ve seen in other animated films. Something like Your Name, or Studio Ghibli’s work, is far more translatable across wider audiences. Mugen Train doesn’t really try to bridge that gap. Like the One Piece movies, or the Naruto movies, Mugen Train is directly for Demon Slayer fans.
It’s absolutely helped by the fact that it’s a story from the manga, and not a filler arc like so many spin-off movies are. But I don’t think Mugen Train would have pulled in almost as much money as every One Piece movie combined if it wasn’t for COVID. The impact of the coronavirus absolutely crippled the regular cadence of new film releases, not to mention the cinemas themselves. And it probably would have made more money had more cinemas been able to stay open — Mugen Train‘s release in Hong Kong was hurt by the closure of cinemas there, although it still managed to become the country’s third highest-earning film last year, and Japan’s second most successful worldwide release. (Spirited Away has made more money internationally for now, although Mugen Train is only just coming to Western audiences, and it has vastly outstripped Spirited Away at the box office within Japan.)
Mugen Train can’t stop a global pandemic from limiting competition at the box office, though. And the situation around its success shouldn’t detract from the fact that it’s a fun, well animated, racy 90 minutes. There’s a good balance of fighting, exposition and humour, not unlike the anime series itself. It’s mandatory watching if you’ve enjoyed the series at any point, and while you’ll certainly get more out of Mugen Train after watching the anime, you can also enjoy proceedings coming in totally fresh. You’ll miss some references, a few in-jokes, and it’ll take a little bit for some characters to fall into place, but it all still works.
And look on the bright side: Australia is getting more anime in theatres. Getting anime into a major Australian cinema is tough, especially for films that don’t have that mass market appeal like a Studio Ghibli release, or in-built nostalgia like a Neon Genesis: Evangelion marathon. But Demon Slayer has been popular on local streaming services for a while, so who knows? If Mugen Train pops off here, maybe we can look forward to even more big screen anime in 2021.