When an anime movie, seemingly out of nowhere, dethrones Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and freakin’ Titanic as the biggest box office success of all time in Japan in just six weeks-during a pandemic, no less-it’s probably time to pay attention to that anime movie. That’s exactly what Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (phew) accomplished in late 2020, the feature-length follow-up to the first season of the most popular new anime in recent memory.
Airing from spring to fall in 2019, Demon Slayer set off a new wave of obsessive fandom and shot the source manga into the upper tier of all-time best sellers, with more than 100 million copies bought, alongside the endlessly running One Piece and practically ubiquitous Dragon Ball. It’s even bested its modern peer Attack on Titan, easily the most popular series in the last 10 years, on sales by about 50 million copies with fewer volumes available. In late January 2021, the first season of Demon Slayer finally became available on Netflix, after previously sitting on Hulu and Crunchyroll, introducing the existing 26 episodes to a whole new audience on the streaming behemoth and finding a brief spot amongst the front page Top 10 in the US. If you’ve been meaning to take the plunge, and curious about when you can actually see the record-breaking (and Oscars-submitted) movie Mugen Train, read on.
What is Demon Slayer the anime all about?
A boy, Tanjiro Kamado, and his younger sister, Nezuko, travel around Taisho-era Japan as part of the clandestine Demon Slayer Corps after his whole family is killed one night, save for Nezuko, who turns into a half-demon. Aside from demon slaying, Tanjiro’s ultimate goal is twofold: turn Nezuko back into a human and kill Muzan Kibutsuji, a super-evil demon, passing in society as a human who looks like the early 1900s-era version of Jack White, and who can create new progeny by injecting people with his very potent demon blood.
As with all the great shōnen anime, it’s not about the destination, but the friends you make along the way, and Tanjiro, always the peacemaker, befriends many. But his eventual core crew becomes fellow low-level demon slayers Zenitsu Agatsuma, a girl-obsessed ball of anxiety who loathes all of the bloodshed of their trade, and Inosuke Hashibira, a feral boar head-wearing, fighting-obsessed foil. Together, they traipse around Japan, negging each other and cutting the heads off of demons, while managing the politics of the Hashira, the nine most-powerful swordspeople of their organization.
Why is it so popular?
The story, its themes, the character design, the animation: Pretty much everything about Demon Slayer works in tandem to create a holistically excellent series. Ufotable, the production studio responsible for other visually stunning work like Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, melds traditional techniques and a sparing use of CGI that exploits the best parts of the technology to enhance key parts of the animation instead of sending its characters into the bobble-headed uncanny valley. Focusing the computer generation on natural, full-body movement renders many, many gorgeous frames and kinetic fight scenes that make the demon slayers’ sword techniques (which call upon elements of nature like water, fire, and lightning), the freaky supernatural demon powers, and the head slicing look incredibly badass.
Cool fight scenes alone wouldn’t translate to major success; the narrative is another major factor why the series is so celebrated and beloved. Demon Slayer‘s world is mired in tragedy, centered on Tanjiro and Nezuko’s earth-shattering loss of their family, and they become each other’s protective shield, which occasionally calls Nezuko to the front lines with her otherworldly strength and blood magic. Even in a shit world, Tanjiro exhibits an immense amount of kindness and empathy, even toward the demons he slays, choosing to acknowledge they were once human and helping them to reclaim their humanity in death. His compassion guides the core message of the series, avoiding the easy traps of all-consuming ugliness and evil, that has resonated with fans.
Counter to this, however, is its cheeky side, where jokes (both stupid and pretty good) are plentiful and push exactly the correct buttons of specific characters, like Zenitsu getting assigned a tiny sparrow as his communication line where everyone else in the Demon Slayer Corps gets a crow. Calm Nezuko makes adorable affirmation noises and can shrink to fit inside Tanjiro’s wooden box backpack and grow back at will. It’s so cute! Through the good and bad, you’re rooting for these deeply driven characters to succeed.
It also has a very dope opening theme (maybe you’ve heard it on TikTok, if you’ve gone deep enough into AnimeTok) that should absolutely not be skipped.
Is there a Demon Slayer Season 2?
There will be! Just recently, a second season was confirmed for 2021, along with a short trailer previewing the Entertainment District Arc around Yoshiwara in Tokyo, a historical red-light district: The premiere date is TBD, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see this out in the summer or fall anime season. But (hopefully, sensibly) before then: We’ve got a Demon Slayer movie to watch!
Well, when can I see Demon Slayer: Mugen Train?
If you’re in North America, sometime in the first half of this year. Considering its massive success in Japan, the hype abroad is verging on rabid, and fans are champing at the bit for an official release date. Still, it should be sooner than later, given that we now have confirmation on a Season 2 and the chronology of the relevant arcs. How it will be released, given the state of movie theaters in the United States, will be the next big question.
Do I need to have watched the series before watching Mugen Train?
Honestly, yes. Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train is a continuation of Season 1’s final arc, counter to many other movie adaptations of anime series that tend to recap the important points of the previous season(s). And unlike, say, Pokemon the First Movie, which is an original story but tangential and ultimately inconsequential to the central plot, Mugen Train is a two-hour stop-gap that bridges the narrative between Season 1-with the final episode putting Tanjiro, Nezuko, Zenitsu, and Inosuke on the titular train and setting up the powered-up big bad, courtesy of Muzan-and Season 2. Since we’re still waiting on the next season’s release date, you might as well binge what’s available to rile yourself up for the big showdown on a moving locomotive, and beyond. Need help finding something to watch?
Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.