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‘Demon Slayer’ Review: The Anime Hit Arrives in American Theaters, but There’s a Major Catch

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” is the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, but newcomers need to do their homework first.

“Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”

Arriving in America after unseating “Spirited Away” as the highest-grossing Japanese film in history, the elaborately titled “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” isn’t ultra-accessible multiplex fare. It’s more of a “newcomers beware” hardcore extravaganza, as the two sets of colons in its title might suggest.

Not only is “Mugen Train” the offshoot of an action-packed manga and anime series with a complex lore and an arcane set of rules, it’s also a direct sequel to the show’s 26-episode first season (now streaming on Netflix). This movie is meant to serve as a bridge for the second season — common practice in the anime world, lest anyone think that Marvel and Disney+ invented cross-media homework. Worldwide, “Demon Slayer” fans have been perfectly happy to generate $435 million in box office for the chance to check in on their favorite characters, and it would seem as if most feel they got their money’s worth.

“Kimetsu no Yaiba” means “Demon Killing Blade,” but since I’m a franchise neophyte who doesn’t know his Nichirin Blades from his Curse of Kibutsuji, I’m qualified only to caution other newcomers who might expect something on par with the Studio Ghibli masterpiece that “Mugen Train” dethroned. While the film’s vivid animation and slick fantasy violence are a refreshing change of pace from the plastic kiddie fare that American moviegoers expect from big-screen cartoons, the first “Demon Slayer” feature quickly becomes an eye-glazing endurance test for anyone who hasn’t run the marathon it took to get here.

The film’s plot couldn’t be simpler or harder to follow for the uninitiated: Four wide-eyed teenage demon slayers board a train that’s been hijacked by Enmu, a veiny demon who manipulates his victims’ dreams and has a pretty stylish “Boy George meets ‘Kwaidan’” thing going on. Our heroes team up with the more experienced slayer Flame Hasahira Kyōjurō Rengoku, and fight Enmu. They fight Enmu on top of the train; they fight Enmu in the passenger cars; they fight Enmu in front of the train. And then — in a repulsively imaginative twist — they learn the full extent of Enmu’s power and fight him in those same places all over again. The end.

For a movie that’s on rails from start to finish, it’s almost impressive how fast “Mugen Train” is able to completely disorient anyone who doesn’t already know where it’s going. Figuratively and literally, the train has left the station by the time this thing starts; for those who have patience with the extended metaphor, no one driving it has any interest in slowing down for new passengers to climb aboard. There’s something to be said for a blockbuster that isn’t willing to dilute what its loyal audience already loves.

Directed by series veteran Sotozaki Haruo from a script credited to the entire staff of animation studio Ufotable, “Mugen Train” doesn’t bother to identify the sick old man who shuffles through a cemetery and mutters about “the bright embers of the human spirit” in the opening scene, nor why protagonist Tanjiro carries his little sister in a wooden box on his back. There’s no context when someone exclaims that they’ve “received seven reports of demon catastrophes this month” (is that a lot?), or why Tanjiro’s steroidal pal Inosuke never wears a shirt but always wears a hollowed-out bear’s head.  Many of the people reading this will wince at a review that suggests “Avengers: Endgame” written by someone who’d never seen a Marvel movie and doesn’t understand why the “good guys” travel halfway across the universe to murder a gentle space potato farmer, but here we are.

Far more confusing (and enervating) are the nightmares that Enmu uses to trap characters in abstract labyrinths of their core traumas. These sequences constitute a large percentage of the film’s two-hour runtime, and trying to sort through the slayers’ inner demons is too big an ask for those of us barely interested in watching them fight their outer ones. While Tanjiro’s eerie visions of an idyllic day with his family make it clear that some terrible fate befell them in waking life, the demon slayers’ dreamscapes compound each other in a way that makes it hard to distinguish between fantasy and reality. That may be Enmu’s modus operandi — he gets off on sadistically incepting people with nice dreams, then waking them up just long enough to realize they’re about to be killed — but it feels like we’re the ones who suffer the brunt of the consequences.

That being said, Enmu is an absolute ham and is one of the most amusing movie villains in recent memory. Introduced standing on top of a moving train and monologuing to no one about his fetish for snuffing out people’s spirits, this dude has teethy mouths on the back of both hands and rambles on about “whispers of ordained unconscious mesmerism!” like an androgynous Russell Brand. It’s hard to dismiss any movie where someone exclaims, “You’re wondering why I’m still alive even after you’ve decapitated me!” (Enmu isn’t wrong about that.)

Later, in a (spoilery) line of dialogue so beautiful that it will imprint your mind like a piece of beloved music, Enmu laments: “My plan to fuse with the train and eat everyone was a singular failure.” While the film’s English-language dub is flat enough to recommend that people opt for the subbed version that’s being released alongside it, voice actor Landon McDonald is clearly having fun with his work and it’s contagious enough to bring you back from the brink of boredom whenever Enmu starts yammering.

The only character aboard “Mugen Train” with anything close to the same charisma is the Flame Hashira, an eccentrically upbeat, Zac Efron-looking role-model type who sports a fire-emblazoned jacket and a pair of forked eyebrows sharp enough to seem forged. The Flame Hashira burns for life with an enthusiasm that galvanizes the film’s thematic focus on the inextinguishable human spirit. He also handles a lot of the lavishly animated fighting, which often spills into eye-watering overkill but is always bursting with kinetic energy and a fevered imagination. (Enmu claims a lot of the coolest effects, but there’s no topping how Tanjiro can slash ocean waves out of thin air with his sword.)

For all of its demonic decapitations, it’s worth noting that this movie doesn’t quite deserve the “R” rating assigned by the MPAA. We’re miles away from the envelope pushing of “Ninja Scroll” and its gratuitous ilk, and concerned parents should keep in mind that Americans have a long and possibly xenophobic history of mislabeling anime as taboo (as anyone who remembers the content-warning stickers that Blockbuster Video used to put on “My Neighbor Totoro” can attest).

It’s only toward the end of “Mugen Train,” when Tanjiro hits upon a rather alarming way of waking himself out of his nightmares, that anything here seems potentially inappropriate for a tween audience. Still, any young folks who drag mom and dad to the theater will only receive a Happy Meal-sized helping of what they’ve seen at home. Anyone who’s hacked through enough “Demon Slayer” to keep pace with “Mugen Train” can surely handle what this movie has to offer. It’s the rest of us who might want to think twice.

Grade: C

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” is now playing in select theaters in dubbed and subtitled editions. It will be available on VOD starting Tuesday, June 22.

As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.

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