“Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” (2020) is a Japanese anime movie about the journey of a younger apprentice demon slayer as he confronts demon after demon on a train.
This is my first anime movie ever. My total anime experience is from a few childhood shows like Star Blazers or Tranzor Z (also known as Mazinger Z). Some of the animation style and effects seem similar to those old shows but things are radically different now. These are not children’s cartoons but cartoons for adults, in the similar way Robot Chicken is in the US. Going into it though I had no idea what to expect. I liken this to my experience with the opera: I enjoyed the show, the plot was cool, there were some things that have me scratching my head, I would see another one, but I’m not in love with the medium.
We start off with an old master walking through the graveyard of defeated demon slayers. We then quickly cut to the scene of three young demon slayers (Tanjiro Kamado, Zenitsu Agatsuma, and Inosuke Hashibira) jumping onto the Mugen train. They have been sent by their master to meet up with Hashira Kyōjurō Rengoku to help him slay demons that are taking people off the train. There is a brief interlude where the characters are discussing their background and Kyōjurō agrees to train these young demon slayers, including Tanjiro’s demon sister who had been carrying in his backpack. That quickly ends when Tanjiro smells demons so the lot of them go off to slay one after the other. That was a mere diversion created by the real demon on their trip: Enmu. This is one disturbing looking creature with eyes and mouths in her hands and an overall ghoulish look. She sends four zombie-like children under her spell to kill the demon slayers in their dreams. While all fail they do get disturbingly close. It was through this process that Tanjiro discovers the secret of escaping the dream that Enmu tries to lock people in: killing yourself in your dream forces you to wake up. When it comes time to do real battle with Enmu he uses this trick again and again, literally throughout a battle scene, to make her sleep spell last only a few moments.
Eventually they destroy Enmu but not before she derails the train in the process. While they are attempting to save passengers another demon, Akaza, appears to try to turn Kyōjurō into a demon or kill him trying. A great battle ensues that ultimately leads to the demise of Kyōjurō. It is through that battle that the young apprentices, who consider themselves pretty bad ass, see how much more they have to learn and how ill equipped they are to handle these powerful demons. They go on with the encouraging words of Kyōjurō who says he has faith in them though.
In terms of the overall movie I found it very enjoyable. The plot works well and kept me engaged. Anime now is this mix of photo-realistic CGI backgrounds and background props with traditional anime drawn characters and foreground props. It creates a very interesting effect I’ve never seen before, although this may be very common in present day. I wasn’t expecting there to be essentially two story arcs, with one epic battle after another in the fighting of the two high ranking demons. So after Enmu was slain I thought it was time to wrap up the movie, yet there is a whole other act to the movie. Once that is done I was expecting it to end but there are more scenes of the news of Kyōjurō’s death being propagated throughout the country. Outside of the core parts which I like there are some anime specific features which I wasn’t expecting and kind of threw me for a loop.
A lot of the character reactions are over the top. When these happen it often goes to these “emotion cards” I call them which seem like slightly animated player cards complete with back drops and poses. Other times they dramatically change the animation style of the facial expressions from something photo-realistic to being very video game like, especially with the eyes. I remember them doing something similar in the older style anime as well but not as dramatically. To someone like me who isn’t used to those transitions it took me out of the movie a bit. Once I saw a few of them I rolled with it more but it still never became second nature to process them. Another thing that happens a lot more than I was expecting is exposition. When they are fighting they announce what “move” they are going to do. “Fire Breathing technique fifth form” or “Water technique second form” are announced as they do their movements in battle. It is reminiscent of a video game in some ways but since I’ve seen homages to it in movies like Kill Bill I’m guessing this is just an extensions of the media style. It doesn’t take anything away from the movie at all. In some ways I could see it drawing people in more as they gamify it to some extent. I don’t play video games enough for it to have that effect to me. Beyond that sort of exposition there is literal exposition. For example while Enmu is battling Tanjiro we hear her saying or thinking something like, “What amazing concentration he has realizing he is asleep when I put my spell on him. What bravery he has to kill himself again and again to break my spell. But he is growing more and more fatigued as I entrance him over and over again!” Again, it is a stylistic technique I am not familiar with so found a little off.
I very much enjoyed the movie. A lot of the things that didn’t sit well with me entirely are from lack of familiarity with the medium. They are things though that I could see not having problems with as I watch more and more anime. Will I grow to love anime like some of my friends? I don’t see that happening but you never know. For this particular movie though, grading on the core of the movie and my enjoyment of it I’ll give it a score of 7/10.