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Film Review: Demon Slayer – Mugen Train

29 May 21 words: Jamie Morris

All aboard – Screen Co-Editor Jamie Morris reviews this runaway anime sensation…

Director: Haruo Sotozaki
Starring: Natsuki Hanae, Akari Kitō, Yoshitsugu Matsuoka
Running time: 117 minutes

The past year has been a challenging time for the film industry, and yet it appears that the Demon Slayer movie has been all but exempt from these hardships. Not only has it managed to dethrone Spirited Away as the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time – during a pandemic, no less – it’s on track to become the most successful traditionally-animated film since 1994’s The Lion King, and is still making its way around the global box office.

Serving as a continuation of the hit anime series, Mugen Train adapts two volumes of creator Koyoharu Gotouge’s source manga into what is essentially a feature-length episode. That being said, it’s undeniably cinematic in its presentation and makes a strong case for showcasing more animation for mature audiences on the big screen.

In this instalment, young swordsman Tanjiro and his curse-afflicted sister Nezuko board a locomotive to help a senior demon slayer take down a powerful new foe. Joined by returning comic relief characters Zenitsu and Inosuke, they realise they’ll need all the help they can get when it becomes clear that their target lurks much closer than they originally thought.

Every action scene in Mugen Train is animated with grace and vigour. Each character’s movement is suitably weighty, and the various ukiyo-e–style fire and lightning effects are a sight to behold. Almost the entirety of the film takes place aboard the dimly-lit vehicle, which itself is depicted with CGI to allow for dramatic pans and zooms.

Of course, with the exception of Snowpiercer’s assortment of colourful carriages, a narrow train can be quite a monotonous setting. The film circumnavigates this by having the slayers plunge into a deep sleep, induced by the demon’s abilities – Tanjiro dreams of his former home in the snow, Zenitsu is whisked away to a serene riverside stroll and Inosuke explores endless caverns. 

While all of this provides some much-needed visual variety, it’s one of the film's slower and more predictable segments, as the narrative device in question has been used countless times since its appearance in the classic Superman story For the Man Who Has Everything. It hasn’t been given much of an update here, and weighs down an otherwise ergonomic story.

A robust and ritzy anime blockbuster

Verging on a full two hours, the film is slightly longer than your average TV anime tie-in – Dragon Ball Super: Broly, for instance, kept to a tight 100 minutes. You can certainly feel the extra running time, but nevertheless the pacing is pretty solid considering how faithful it stays to the original manga storyline.

Mugen Train really kicks into gear once the gang are back awake and begin to learn the true scale of their opponent’s abilities. Tanjiro comes up with a brutally expedient method of overcoming the hypnosis, while his colleagues search for a means of rescuing the 200 helpless passengers. There’s some interesting body horror in this act too, although an over-reliance on CG animation somewhat detracts from its impact. 

The film’s pinnacle, without question, is its final battle. Each clash between demon fist and samurai blade feels like it reverberates through the screen. Flames roar and blood is shed while wounded allies watch with bated breath. 

To be frank, it’s typical action anime melodrama, and it’s hard not to instantly draw parallels with similar moments from the likes of Naruto and One Piece – but Demon Slayer’s strong characterisation and rip-roaring set pieces make this a fond association rather than a claim of appropriation.

Gotouge’s franchise is already a runaway hit, and with a second season of the TV series scheduled for broadcast later this year, the announcement of another feature film or two seems just over the horizon. Mugen Train is a robust and ritzy anime blockbuster, and future Demon Slayer movies of this calibre would be more than welcome.

Did you know? The Demon Slayer manga sold 12 million copies in Japan in 2019, and over 82 million copies in 2020, making it the best-selling series two years in a row. This title was previously held by One Piece for eleven years.

Demon Slayer: Mugen Train is out now in cinemas

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