Demon Slayer: Mugen Train
Directed by Haruo Sotozaki
Starring: Natsuki Hanae, Satoshi Hino, Daisuke Hirakawa, Hiro Shimono
It was the top grossing theatrical film of 2020 worldwide and is the top grossing film of all time in Japan. While some of this success is due to fortuitous release timing during the COVID pandemic, three other anime films in the last two years have held ranks in the American Box Office top ten, each lasting for consecutive weeks. A decade from now, Demon Slayer: Mugen Train could be viewed as a cultural shifting point.
I was familiar with the source material and fascinated by its growing foothold in the American zeitgeist (not to mention its explosion in east Asia). This month has quickly become Western themed, and I wanted to include a more modern entry in the genre. Enter Demon Slayer: Mugen Train— an Eastern Western.
Tanjiro is a devoted son and brother living in the rural mountains of Japan circa 1912. He lives a meager but honest life until his family is massacred by Muzan Kibutsuji, the oldest and most powerful demon in the world. His younger sister Nezuko survives, but has become a demon herself. Fortunately, through her sheer will power, Nezuko doesn’t drink human blood. With the help of the Demon Slayer Corps, Tanjiro and Nezuko join them to destroy the demon who slaughtered their family.
The movie picks up after Tanjiro has had training and gained a few allies. They’re dispatched to investigate a train where many previous slayers have gone missing. They believe that Enmu, one of Muzan’s henchmen, is responsible. Should they slay Enmu and harvest his blood, the Demon Slayer Corps may be able to synthesize a cure for Nezuko. Things… don’t go well. Without giving too much away, don’t buy a sleeper car on the Mugen Train, and definitely don’t look behind the wood paneling.
Make sure you know what you’re getting into before you punch this ticket. Firstly, the film is based on a franchise and is a continuation of that franchise. Viewers CANNOT go into this movie cold or else the weird blind guy and his creepy twin attendants are going to confuse everyone in the first scene. Secondly, the source material is a weekly serialized comic, meaning that the story covered by this movie doesn’t neatly fit into the structural conventions of film.
Most hero’s journey movies involve an A story being established first, followed by a B story. The B story’s conclusion either propels the A story to its climax, or the two stories dovetail together into one final showdown. No, not every movie is like this, but so many are that audiences worldwide subconsciously treat it as the norm. If a movie breaks this pattern, the audience MUST see why the rule was broken. Demon Slayer’s pattern introduces the A story, then the B story like usual, but then strangely resolves the A story BEFORE the B story.
In a comic book series, this isn’t a big deal because a new problem will be introduced next week. In a movie with a definitive end, though, the audience may feel like the B story is tacked on, seeing as the A story is the bigger climax. Sandwiching this film between two seasons of the TV show also gives viewers more context, but the people solely watching this movie will likely leave confused and emotionally unsatisfied, regardless of the film’s many merits.
A common misconception that presents itself when regarding Westerns is that they must include cowboys. While many do, the bones of the genre deal more with law versus outlaw, good versus evil, honor versus greed, or quests for revenge prompted by dead family members. Demon Slayer delivers these attributes in spades.
An “Eastern Western” is an Asian film (usually Japanese or Korean) that borrows these motifs and changes the setting. Many of Kurosawa’s samurai films (Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, The Forbidden Kingdom) deal with Western tropes. They actually execute them so well that European and American filmmakers straight up copied sections of those films and made them Spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven) or Sci-Fi Westerns (Star Wars: A New Hope).
While I still have reservations about viewers going into this film cold, given the number of genre boxes Demon Slayer: Mugen Train checks, Western fans will find both the show and the movie highly rewarding.