Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Japan’s Runaway Box Office Smash ‘Demon Slayer’

'Demon Slayer' Koyoharu Gotoge / SHUEISHA, Aniplex, ufotable

After breaking all-time box office records in Japan late last year, the anime adaptation Demon Slayer – Kimetsu No Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train hits North American cinemas on Friday via Aniplex of America and Funimation. Based on the Shonen Jump manga and Ufotable/Aniplex 2019 anime TV series, it picks up where the first season left off and takes place chiefly on a train — although an Inception-flavored plotline gives added dream action. 

There’s little chance for the uninitiated to catch up before being thrust into the Haruo Sotozaki-directed story. Demon slayers Tanjiro Kamado, Zenitsu and Inosuke join upper-rank slayer Rengoku on board the mysterious Mugen Train. Their hope is to find a destructive demon who’s targeted slayers in the past. The passengers are at risk, each falling asleep when their tickets get punched by the guard, and the slayers aren’t immune to a similar fate. 

As each one falls into a feverish dream, we gain an insight into their characters. Tajiro experiences an alternate reality where his family are no longer slain, while Inosuke — who, by the way, wears a pig head mask throughout — has a surreal experience in underground caves. Tanjiro’s demon sister Nezuko is also on the scene, but like most female characters, she’s sidelined, and in this case literally gagged. Other women are usually dead, appearing briefly in dreams to communicate wisdom to their relatives.

These dream sequences may have less impact if you don’t know the backstories, but this explores engaging territory regardless. The story effectively communicates the confusion of a nightmarish state where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are unclear. There’s a subplot that explores the question of killing oneself in a dream, and the impact this may have on reality. It’s disturbing, but aids suspense and captures the sense of a high-stakes, terrifying dream. 

The antagonist, Enmu, has little depth. “What I really like is to show people nightmares right after a happy dream,” he reveals, in the grand tradition of movie baddies who announce their intentions. Most other characters are fond of narrating their actions, which helps from an exposition perspective, but gives little room for reflection, especially given the busy score. And while it’s not quite at Avengers levels, the final battle is protracted, eventually delivering an emotional payoff for fans.

Visually, this is ambitious in terms of the fantasy action it depicts, but it sticks to the established anime style of the TV series. It’s not the most obvious candidate for the big screen experience, though one can see the appeal in watching beloved characters in a different environment. There’s also the allure of watching this cult content along with other aficionados, perhaps after a long time starved of the communal experience. Still, while Demon Slayer has some intrigue and entertainment value, it lacks the poetic magic of the film that previously held the top box office spot on home turf: Spirited Away.

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