Rating: 4 (of 5)
While I don’t plan to make a regular habit of providing long-form reviews of anime series/movies/novels, I will occasionally toss one out when something comes along that I find worth talking about. That happened this past weekend when I had a chance to see the Demon Slayer movie in theaters.
The movie probably needs little introduction, as I’m not sure how one can participate in the online anime community and not have heard about it sometime in the last few months. After all, it has only crushed every other title to become Japan’s #1 all-time box office champ; in terms of both box office revenue and tickets sold, it has sailed past even Spirited Away, Titanic, Frozen, and Your Name (#2-5 in the rankings, respectively, for revenue). Rather than just be a one-off adventure, like movies connected to shonen action series often are, the movie is a direct sequel to the smash-hit 2019 series from studio ufotable. Thus, it is not a standalone movie, which is what makes its box office success all the more amazing. But how much of its success is the movie itself, and how much is just fortuitous timing?
Without a doubt, Mugen Train was released under circumstances that anime movie makers could normally only imagine in their wildest dreams. It hit Japan in October 2020, at a time when theaters were finally coming out of COVID-19-related shutdowns. Because the American movie theater scene was still very limited, no major American releases were coming out at the time, so the movie essentially had no significant competition. Further, sales of its source manga had surged massively in the months leading up to the movie’s release (to the point of even beating out long-time champ One Piece) and the series’ OP “Gurenge” was also a massive hit on the Japanese music charts, so the title was familiar to the general public. That meant that there was nothing to distract even general audiences hungry for a theater experience from going to see it multiple times.
All of that probably had more to do with the movie’s runaway success than the quality of the movie itself, although the movie does have its selling points in qualitative aspects . Ufotable was much-lauded for its eye-popping work on the TV series, and that continues to show through here. The series’ signature visual style adapts well to (and is fully-retained for) the big screen, and that is the ideal way to view it. While maybe not the best anime movie ever on the presentation of its action scenes, the movie offers no shortage of highly-flashy fights that will not disappoint, except maybe in one aspect: the CG used to depict an amorphous demon with lots of pseudopods underwhelmed a bit. The 3D modeling and visual effects for the major power releases impressed much more, and neither of the climactic fight scenes lacked for intensity or energy; they are easily among the franchise’s finest action sequences to date, even considering the quality of the some of the battles in the TV series. As always, backgrounds also offer plenty of scenery porn and the design of the villains does not lack for distinctiveness. A solid musical score powers the movie throughout.
The story is less special, at least for the first two-thirds or so. Tanjiro, Inosuke, and Zenitsu (with Nezuko in her box) are sent to join Senjuro Rengoku, the Flame Hashira, on the Mugen Train over concerns that a rash of disappearances on the train could indicate a demon at work. The concerns prove to be founded, as one of the Lower Ranks among Muzan’s servants is behind it and has grand plans for the train, ones which involve putting everyone to sleep and offing the Demon Slayers while they are experiencing pleasant dreams. This plays out about like any other anime story where villains try to attack the heroes via dreams, including some humans who have been coerced into working for the demon. Once the demon slayers free themselves from the dreams, they must battle the demon more directly and in earnest. The only real twists in this part is the nature of the dreamscapes of Inosuke and Zenitsu, which are the movie’s prime source of humor. Along the way we learn a lot about Senjuro’s background and how he came to be such a firm, smiling guardian of justice and protector of the weak.
All of this may be typical fare, but the emotional stakes gradually build as a big plot twist gets thrown in late and Senjuro shows that he means every word he says from his heart and soul. While I found Senjuro rather one-note at first, the strength and depth of his convictions stand out even by shonen action standards, to the point that he can resonate cathartically with viewers; I seriously doubt that I was the only person in the theater getting a little emotional at certain points in the final quarter. And if one scene involving him near the end ultimately runs a little long, I can forgive the movie for that, given how well he is used overall. His popularity in the fanbase probably grew enormously in the wake of this movie.
The one significant negative about the movie is more of a personal one: not enough Nezuko! She plays a critical role at one point and has a nice action scene or two, but like with the TV series, she is criminally under-used. The end of the movie, while it closes out the arc, is much more a stopping point than a point of resolution; in fact, it is more of a springboard to future events, though it also rounds back to the movie’s opening scene.
Despite an ordinary start, the movie succeeds overall at what it tries to do, and in a way plenty entertaining enough that I can easily understand why audiences have flocked to repeat viewings of it. If you’re a fan of the franchise, see this one in a theater if you can.