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‘Demon Slayer: Mugen Train’ kills its action sequences, falls short everywhere else

| Monday, September 13, 2021

Douglas Abell

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” is a TV adaptation of a manga that first aired in 2019, and the success of that adaptation led to a meteoric rise in the popularity of the original manga by Koyoharu Gotouge. At the height of the pandemic, studio ufotable, which is responsible for animating “Demon Slayer,” released a sequel film titled “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train.” This movie has since become the highest-grossing film of 2020. After its international release this summer, “Mugen Train” is now the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, passing even Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away.”

The first season of “Demon Slayer” was one of the most frustrating anime shows of the past five years. This isn’t to say that it was awful. “Demon Slayer,” after all, is an action anime, and it has a few strengths that set it apart from the rest of the genre. The most immediately noticeable strength, for both the manga and the anime, is manga artist Koyoharu Gotouge’s character design work. Gotouge’s designs not only look awesome but also function as a means of characterization. But this extra characterization is actually pretty necessary, because “Demon Slayer”’s writing is its weakest point. Unfortunately, the rest of the film’s strengths can be boiled down to the fact that it looks cool. The credit for this can be directed to ufotable, a studio that has spent the past fifteen years producing anime showcasing the height of digital animation with shows that prominently feature magic.

Ufotable’s action animation ethos puts an equal emphasis on “coolness” and beauty. The movie’s action sequences are certainly its highlights, and what brings them to life is ufotable’s approach and the animation of different characters’ magical abilities. This feat is best demonstrated in Tanjiro’s water-breathing techniques, around which the ufotable animators have built gorgeous sequences inspired by classical Japanese art. The stylistic contrast between the hyper-realistic backgrounds and these brightly colored animations of elemental powers is gorgeous in a way that is truly unique to “Demon Slayer.”

Despite its impressive animation, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” is a veritable tour de force in all of the aspects of “Demon Slayer” that drag the franchise down and make its offering so frustrating. The film’s writing is by far its most prominent weakness, and having read much of the manga, I can guarantee that the arc adapted here is the worst the series has to offer. The arc focuses on five characters, protagonist Tanjiro and his two cohorts, Zenitsu and Inosuke, and their senior in Demon Slaying, Rengoku, who specializes in fire. As is the case with the series proper, Zenitsu, the cowardly demon slayer whose obsession with Tanjiro’s sister Nezuko is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, is the weakest link in the cast. That being said, “Mugen Train” contains Zenitsu’s best content in the series to date, as he spends most of the film asleep.

The emotional core of “Mugen Train” is the dream sequences in which the characters find their greatest wishes granted and must abandon those fantasies to awaken and defeat the demon. This is a trope that is basically synonymous with anime at this point, and I’ve seen at least a dozen variations of it in my time watching anime. As a narrative device, it’s a perfect way to challenge a character or to cause them to realize how much they’ve changed over the course of a journey. “Mugen Train” does not do any of this. The supporting characters are ignored, and rather than having Tanjiro come to the full realization that something isn’t right on his own, his subconscious self tells him that it’s just a dream and that he must wake up. The process of realization is what makes these sequences in anime so compelling, and while I’m always interested in seeing it done differently, the film’s approach simply eliminates any opportunity for further substance. The fact that Tanjiro must kill himself to wake up is pretty raw, though. As is often the case with “Demon Slayer,” what stuck with me most is what makes it cool.

The failure of the dream sequences to deliver a compelling emotional arc caused the fight that took up most of the second half of the film to fall flat. It doesn’t help that it also contains the most garish CG that I’ve ever seen in an ufotable anime. Not even the soundtrack, provided in part by Yuki Kajiura, the best composer working in anime, could get me hyped up for the final fight. Given all of this, the fact that “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” is the best-selling anime film of all time is frankly depressing.

Title: “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”

Starring: Natsuki Hanae and Satoshi Hino

Director: Haruo Sotozaki

Genre: Action anime

If you like: “Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works,” “Katanagatari” and “The Case Study of Vanitas” (currently airing)

Shamrocks: 1 out of 5

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