*This review contains spoilers in a marked section*
One common misconception among the anime community is that sales and profit are proportional to an anime’s quality. Is a film that sells millions of tickets objectively better than one that sells fewer tickets? Demon Slayer: Mugen Train’s record-breaking box office performance may lead you to believe it is one of the greatest films ever made, but the truth is... the writing is no better than the anime.
Three-quarters of the two-hour-long film takes place on the titular Mugen Train, a brave choice for one of the least interesting settings the series has to offer. Each train car is similar; historically accurate wooden interiors, passengers conveniently sleeping while the bloody and stunningly animated fights rage on in the center aisles. While it does not quite deserve the R+ rating, the detailed animation and fight choreography will surely impress even the most cynical viewer. Aside from the hideous CGI creatures and tentacles, it is visually excellent.
Unlike prior horrific villains in Demon Slayer, our central antagonist is solely motivated by sadism. He desires to send the demon slayers into pleasant dreams just before killing them. There’s no real reason for these reality-altering powers within the narrative; it’s transparently a plot device made to give us character development and insight into Tanjiro and our new supporting character, Rengoku Kyoujurou: a compassionate high-ranking Demon Hunter with firey-hair and forked eyebrows. Once again, our villain pointlessly explains his motivations and powers unprompted. Script troubles like this aren’t simply a side effect of being a manga adaptation—it’s poor writing. They could introduce clues at the start and later reveal the twist once we understand how the demon powers work: The writer could do this through context clues rather than overly literal dialogue.
The antagonist, an androgynous demon, sends Tanjiro and friends into a deep slumber. In the meantime, he guides his minions to invade the demon hunters’ dreams, similar to a sci-fi flick like Inception. These dream sequences take up most of the first third of the film, with flashbacks scattered throughout the runtime.
(Minor spoilers below)
In Tanjiro’s dream, we return to his home in the snowy forest, seen at the beginning of the TV series. His family is alive and well. For the first time, we get to see their interactions. Seeing them reunited is emotional, but it quickly set in that it was all a dream, and thus none of it mattered. The purpose of his dream sequence is for him to reconcile with a past I didn’t care about because it has never been relevant or exciting. Their unceremonious death in the first episode indicated how much I should care about them and their 1-dimensional characters. Once again, his family’s gory murder is used to make us sympathize with Tanjiro. Through his flashbacks, there was a significant chance to develop Tanjiro before leaving home: Showcasing his relationship with one or two siblings, or even his mother, would’ve added layers to him. Instead, the film blends all of his many family members together with a couple of boiler-plate personality traits like “Happy” and “Concerned” for Tanjiro.
The demon-induced dreams were adequately explained and logically coherent at first. Then they added new aspects such as “Destroying the subconscious” and “Incarnations of the soul.” These concepts are more suited to a film like Inception or Tenet than a Taisho-era demon-hunting plot.
Zenitsu and Inosuke’s dreams are fluff filler more suited to a non-canonical OVA or a fan-fiction. If you were annoyed by their loud voices and obnoxious personalities, this film will not change your mind. Most of their dialogue is delivered in screams, like in the anime. Yelling still isn’t a joke, nor is it funny. At least their scenes are few, and they’re reserved for sudden appearances to support Tanjiro in battles. On the other hand, Nezuko was almost entirely irrelevant. Unfortunately, she does not get a dream sequence—which would’ve provided much-needed character development. At least she’s not stuck in a box for the whole time.
Rengoku’s dream is perhaps the only one of interest because it develops his backstory and motivations. There’s a clear emotional connection between him, his anguished father, and his plucky younger brother. Seeing him inspire his little brother with pep talks and training made him all the more likable. Even though the dialogue was your average lines like “Do your best,” it was effective. He was genuinely my favorite character thus far. I would say his scenes, while simplistically written, made up for Tanjiro’s tedious dream sequence. Unlike Tanjiro, Rengoku’s flashbacks zeroed in on his relationships with individuals, like his mother, rather than grouping them all together. With this minimal background information, the emotionally charged climactic battle earns its spectacular pay-off.
The third quarter flies off the rails and contains the film’s best fight scene. You can easily sit back and enjoy the top-of-the-line animation quality for this part since it boils down to a battle between good versus evil. After twenty minutes of appreciating Ufotable’s magnificent artistry and LiSA’s emotional insert song, the climax lasts much too long. The hero’s foe, another seemingly invincible demon, gives his big bad speech multiple times before the battle finally ends. They aimed for an emotional gut-punch, and it would’ve worked had the film concluded 30 minutes sooner. Unfortunately for us, the final fight ends on a disappointingly inconclusive note. In an attempt to stick the landing, Tanjiro lets out a long blood-curdling scream which I can only describe as obnoxiously unnecessary. His voice actor Natsuki Hanae put his heart into the performance, and his passion for the character shines through—despite the lackluster script. I watched both the Japanese version and English dub, and they’re well-acted. The English version casts each character appropriately.
The overlong and incomplete ending can likely be attributed to the manga chapter ending on a cliffhanger. The material was stretched thin already, with no time to tackle the rest. Until the second season arrives, we’re left with a hollow sensation that serves as a reminder: This must convince us to watch the sequel. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train is an amazingly successful product, and no criticism I levy at it will change this fact. Worldwide it has made hundreds of millions of dollars and broken box-office records. That’s a landmark worth praising the film for.
The question is, does profit decide if a film is good or not? That's for you to decide.