Demon Slayer: Mugen Train
Demon Slayer: Mugen Train is a 2020 adaptation of a Japanese anime serial, which I havenít seen and which Iím not sure Iíd heard of before seeing an ad for this film at my local cinema. I decided to see it because it looked like fun and its overwhelmingly positive critical response (97% on Rotten Tomatoes) indicated that it wasnít just fan service for those whoíve seen the serial.
Which it isnít, quite, but if youíre going to enjoy this as a newcomer youíll probably need at least some familiarisation with anime and its tropes. I can see this film baffling and annoying newcomers to the genre, let alone this particular franchise, although if youíre completely ignorant of anime itís unlikely that youíd pick Demon Slayer: Mugen Train as a starting point.
Though the details of its world eluded me (I spent the longest time wondering why a little girl character wears a kind of horseís bit clamped across her mouth), the general outline of the plot was clear and characters sharply drawn enough that I could follow along without trouble. A trio of young swordsmen board a train on which an older and more experienced warrior is travelling, and together they must fight a demon who, like all of his kind, seek to torment and destroy human beings.
The main character is Tanjiro Kamado, a boy of pure heart who must learn discipline, and the older swordsman (or slayer) is Rengoku, who offers the boy an apprenticeship. These elements will of course be familiar to anyone who knows anything about classical storytelling and the Heroís Journey, or has just seen a movie before, from Jason and the Argonauts to Star Wars and Spider-Man.
The animation is glorious, alternating between colourful 2D, and 3D camera movements. Though most of the story physically takes place on the train we see a lot of different landscapes via memory and symbolism, including a beautiful depiction of a heavenly realm which represents a characterís soul. The filmís antagonist does battle in dreams, tempting its victims with nostalgic reverie before twisting the mental thumbscrews.
What surprised me was the level of compassion and emotional engagement in the plot. Iím not sure that I was expecting anything more than a slash-Ďem-up, but Demon Slayer explores love, loss, and grief with heartfelt sincerity. Tanjiro and Rengoku must each come to terms with their childhoods, regrets, and the responsibilities they bear because of their power. Thereís a point where pity is evoked even for the demon, who ultimately just wants what the young slayer wants: to be elevated among his kind.
The broad style of franchise anime represented by Demon Slayer isnít particularly to my taste. Characters narrate everything they experience (Ďitís pitch-blackí says one character helpfully, after we see him appear in pitch-black), so that even fight scenes are filled with dialogue, and emotional moments are drawn out long past the point at which they should have ended. (The old Shakespearean thing of characters monologuing at the point of death, with most of their innards now outards, makes an appearance.) Certain practicalities of the plot are ignored (what happened to the passengers on the train?) and thereís a framing device which Iím sure makes sense to fans of the serial but seemed pretty pointless to me.
Yet Demon Slayer: Mugen Train stands out as a thoughtful and engaging (if minor) work of the imagination. Its heroes are loveable and villains memorable, while its violent and macabre aspects are effective without being too gross or sadistic. It isnít complete in and of itself enough to rank alongside the great Heroís Journey films, but for a franchise affair itís refreshingly accessible. 3/4