Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train – All Aboard

In 2020, and what I believe to be the first time ever, the highest grossing film of the year wasn’t American. It wasn’t Chinese, either, which one could reasonably expect to be the first non-American film to take the crown. No, it was Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train. That’s an achievement that may never be matched. It also broke the record for home box office gross, now reigning over both Spirited Away and Your Name.

$500 million gross is a lot of cash to rake in, especially during a global pandemic. But after finally getting around to watch Mugen Train, which is essentially “Season 1.5” of the series, I totally understand why: it is an absolute crowd pleaser stuffed with action, comedy, and drama. I laughed; I cried; I may have pumped my fist and shouted “Fuck yeah!” once or twice.

But! Mugen Train is merely a very good movie. It is certainly a very good movie watching experience. What it is definitely not is a great film, and falls far short of the masterpiece status of the anime films whose records it broke. There is no single big reason for that, but several smaller ones which become evident throughout its prestigious 117-minute runtime.

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First, as we know from the end of the first season (yes, you really should watch it), a Kasugai crow ordered Tanjirou (with Nezuko on his back), Zenitsu, and Inosuke to join Flame Hashira Rengoku Kyoujurou aboard the titular Mugen Train, which has a demon problem. Rengoku is, as most high-ranking warriors in these kinds of shows, a bit of an eccentric, but has heard about Tanjirou and Nezuko and is even willing to train him.

Their demon opponent is Enmu, a member of the Lower Six and the group’s resident “gross body horror” expert, a niche occupied by the likes of Bleach’s 12th Captain, Kurotsuchi Mayuri (or more recently, Jujutsu Kaisen’s Mahito). Enmu spends much of the movie standing atop the front of the train, talking about how much he’s looking forward to devouring its 200 passengers but never actually doing so despite having ample opportunity. Ya know, typical big bad behavior.

Enmu’s preferred way of rendering his prey helpless is by putting them to sleep. He has made four regular human passengers plus the conductor into his minions: the tickets the conductor punches contain a bit of his blood which is used to put the slayers to sleep along with everyone else. In exchange, the minions are promised wonderful dreams in which to lose themselves.

With all the demon slayers asleep, we take a look into the dreams they’re having, none of which come as much of a surprise. Tanjirou’s is a very happy dream in which he’s reunited with his family, who act like they were never slaughtered by a demon. Suffice it to say, it’s an easy dream to get lost in.

Zenitsu’s dream involves frolicking through forests and fields with Nezuko, which would be touching were his relationship with her in the show not so easily boiled down to “one-sided obsession” or simply “toxic.” Inosuke’s dream is aggressively weird and surreal, like him, but like Zenitsu and Tanjirou’s doesn’t offer any further insight into the character.

Rengoku’s does, but only because aside from a couple of brief scenes last season, we don’t really know who the guy is. What we do get is pure hero boilerplate: following in the footsteps of a former Hashira father who gave up the life and doesn’t care anymore, while having to be both big brother and father figure to his younger brother to keep him from falling into despair. Also, their sainted mom is dead.

Ultimately the dreams aren’t supposed to be particularly enlightening to us, as long as they keep the dreamers occupied and distracted. The minions then go in, find the edges of their dreams, tear them open with what look like icepicks provided by Enmu, and pass into the subconscious where their spiritual cores lie. Obviously, none of the minions succeeds.

Tanjirou already has an inkling he’s in a world of illusion, since his default thoughts are that his family is dead and Nezuko is a demon, so his senses must be wrong. His subconscious actually reaches out to him through a reflection in the water, telling him he needs to wake up, even if it’s being made very difficult to do so because it means running away from his confused and upset family.

His minion, by the way, sought relief in his dreams because in the waking world he was wasting away from Tuberculosis. When he reaches Tanjirou’s gorgeous (and very Spirited Away-esque!) subconscious, he doesn’t have the heart to go through with destroying his core. Tanjirou ends up waking up by slashing his neck with his own sword—call it the equivalent of the “kicks” in Inception that wake you up from dreams (or dreams within dreams).

Tanjirou is the first to wake up. Rengoku’s survival instinct kicks in and he chokes his minion before she can destroy his core (a very graphic depiction of violence against a woman that’s very oddly scored as triumphant) but he remains asleep. Tanjirou sees that Nezuko burned away the rope connecting him to his minion, and asks her to burn away the others’ ropes while he goes topside to meet the boss.

After exchanging some standard big-bad/hero dialogue, Tanjirou manages to behead Enmu, but of course his head isn’t really his head, nor his body his real body. Turns out he’s merged with the train, meaning the entire train his his body, with his head hidden…somewhere (the head of the train).

Enmu then continues to put Tanjirou to sleep, taking the same route as the Farscape masterpiece “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, turning the dreams into increasingly disturbing nightmares to throw the hero off his game. Tanjirou counters this by continuously slashing his neck as soon as he enters his dream.

With every surface of the train suddenly erupting with reddish-purple goo, suddenly all 200 passengers have to be protected at once. Fortunately, thanks to Nezuko burning their ropes the others start waking up, starting with Inousuke, who is ready to rumble. Nezuko slashes at the tentacles attacking passengers, but is quickly overwhelmed and restrained.

Enter Zenitsu, who gets to have a seriously badass moment with his thunder breathing assault, rescuing her from her doom. Let it be said this film does nothing to make Nezuko more than the bit character/mascot she devolved into in the anime, and outside of Tanjirou and Zenitsu’s dreams, she never speaks, which remains odd as there are plenty of demons who can talk.

All the commotion caused by Zenitsu’s thunder and lightning finally wakes up Rengoku, who has does his whole “how have I been sleeping through all this” line, and fills the cars with tentacle-burning flames (which naturally don’t affect the passengers). He orders Tanjirou and Inousuke to find Enmu’s head while he protects the passengers in five of the eight cars and Zenitsu and Nezuko handles the remaining three.

When his best water breathing technique can only tear away the flesh of Enmu’s “neck” to reveal the bone, Tanjirou employs his dad’s Hinokami Kagura breathing, which does the trick. Enmu’s real head is separated from his body (the train) and in his death throes, the train is derailed and crashes…which really should kill a lot of the passengers, yet doesn’t.

During his struggle with Enmu the minion conductor stabbed Tanjirou in the abdomen, but Rengoku quickly teaches Tanjirou how to use Total Concentration, Constant to staunch his broken blood vessel. Even so, Tanjirou is in no condition to fight anymore, with more than forty minutes left in the film. Enmu slowly disintegrates after lots of whining, including about how he was never able to enjoy his meal (which was all his fault) or rise to the ranks of the Upper Ten.

Right on cue, one of the members of that Upper Ten shows up completely out of the blue: the Upper Three, Akaza, covered in tatts and slightly resembling an evil Tanjirou with his short-cropped red hair. And while the ensuing duel between Akaza and Rengoku is pretty cool, the combat animation isn’t appreciably better than that of the TV show. More importantly, Akaza and the battle feel tacked on rather than a natural escalation of the conflict.

It also begs the question of if an even bigger demon big bad could show up willy-nilly, why couldn’t the same be true of other Hashira? The answer is, because the movie needs Rengoku to die, even though he was being set up as Tanjirou’s new mentor and big brother figure. At the end of the day, Akaza can regenerate almost instantly, while Rengoku is a mortal human of flesh and blood, and the wounds he suffers prove fatal.

The climax of the film also plays with the timing of the rising of the sun, which begins to light Akaza’s face as Rengoku tries to hold him in place so he’ll disintegrate. Instead, he flees into the forest to fight another day and provide Tanjirou with a future opponent with whom to avenge Rengoku. Like Demon Slayer reinforcements, the sun doesn’t show up when you’d think it should.

The final act consists of Rengoku providing Tanjirou the same encouragement as his little brother in his dream (and presumably in real life), as well as meeting his force ghost sainted mother, who tells him she’s proud of him (he did reject Akaza’s repeated offers to turn him into a demon, after all). Tanjirou is naturally very upset over losing another important person in his life.

As for the impact it had on me…the film just didn’t do the adequate legwork to make Rengoku anything more than a passing guest star. He had a few goofy moments, a few badass moments, and a very long and melodramatic death scene, and then he was suddenly gone, seemingly as soon as he arrived.

So as much of a funny, thrilling and sometimes genuinely moving crowd-pleaser as Mugen Train was, as a sequel to the series it fulfilled a merely utilitarian role, establishing how tough the Hashira can be, while establishing that the most powerful demons are even tougher, on the biggest screen possible. There’s not much else that’s new here.

It also gave Tanjirou both further motivation to fight the demons, though considering what he’s lost so far, I’d say he already had plenty, as well as the direction to the next nugget of info about his pop’s Kagura, which he’ll surely pursue in the second season. Mugen Train had no shortage of faults to go with its merits, but one thing at which it unassailably succeeded was making me excited for the second season, for which my ticket is already punched.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kemono Jihen – 03 – Good Fox Girl

This week Inugami sends Kabane to the woman he spoke to at the end of last week: Police Superintendent Inari Yoko, performed by Kana-Hana in her most imperious ojou-sama voice. Inari may as well be Empress of the Police, as she has every officer in her thrall.

Shiki and Akira escort Kabane to the Shinjuku police station, but the desk officer claims not to know about their appointment. Then a blonde girl their age with a fox-ear hoodie comes for Kabane and only Kabane, then takes him to a waiting Inari, who immediately asks to see his lifestone necklace.

Once Inari has the stone, she has the girl, Kon, slice Kabane’s head off, then has police officers seal the head in a case and take the body away for disposal. When Kabane returns to the lobby with the case, Akira and Shiki sense something is off about him.

Kon, voiced by Hanamori Yumiri (who often voices maids or other dutiful characters) lives only for Inari to tell her she’s a “good girl”, disguises herself as Kabane to shoo the other boys away. But when Shiki insults her beloved Inari-sama, she drops the disguise and prepares for a fight.

Because Kon, like her mistress, is a kitsune, she can shoot fireballs from her tail, and does so…a lot. Shiki uses his silk to pull a bunch of furniture together to form a shield, then snatches the case from Kon, who’s too concerned with burning everyone and everything to keep a firm grip on it.

Shiki opens the case to reveal the real Kabane’s head, the shock of which causes Akira to faint. Kabane instructs Shiki to throw him at Kon, and he’ll deal with her. Shiki is dubious, but sure enough Kabane is able to disable the enraged fox girl with a bite to the shoulder.

With Kon out cold, the lobby returns to normal; all the fire was just an illusion. Free from the case, Kabane grows his body back from his neck down in a very cool (but far more casual) Titan-style transformation. Shiki can’t deny Kabane got the job done and saved him and Akira, and after giving him his jacket to cover up, offers his fist for Kabane to bump…which he does wrong of course.

Inari, who thinks she just pulled off a neat little theft, watches the lifestone transform into a tanuki figurine in her hand, then gets a call from Inugami, who has just picked up the kids. He’s not surprised things went down like they did, and says she owes him for her treachery. He also warns her that the lifestone is Kabane’s, and if she tries to take it again she’ll have to deal with him.

I for one like how Inari and Inugami never got into a fight, or even showed their true forms; handling things on the phone like regular humans and threatening with words is enough to maintain their territorial balance. That said, Kon didn’t get the memo, and is still wandering the streets trying to retrieve Kabane’s head for her mistress.

Kon ends up approaching the others after they have a Kabane-welcoming meal of Chinese and pancakes, only to immediately pass out from exhaustion and hunger. Inugami brings her into the agency and feeds her pizza, but at the first sight of Kabane she lunges at him with a beheading strike.

Inugami, realizing the proper way to deal with her, tells Kon that Inari wouldn’t be happy if she knew her “good girl” wasn’t minding her manners. No standing on the table, no leaving leftover food out, and no beheading hanyos. While not technically in her thrall, Kon’s daughterly devotion to Inari is absolute, and so she behaves herself.

This episode was a lot of fun, giving the three kids more time to gel in both casual and hectic situations, introducing the adorably dutiful Kon (who is a lot like Kabane) and her haughty mama figure. I like how Shiki is slowly warming to Kabane, and if Akira had a real Twitter I’d definitely follow. This is the kind of show where your protagonist gets beheaded one afternoon, but you know he’ll probably be fine and ready for pancakes that evening.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Owari no Seraph – 09

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Owari no Seraph brings the action this week, starting with a gloriously ridiculous cold open in which a squadron of Vampire Apaches are taken out by a line of Demon Army archers, before two higher-ranking Vamps fly a C-130 into Shinjuku’s barrier wall, blasting a huge hole in the humans’ defense.

It looked for all the world like a suicide attack, but not only do the two co-pilots survive without a scratch, but they even carry on a casual, Joss Whedon-style dialogue, like it’s just another day at the office.

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Things are a bit tenser for our young Moon Demon Company members, as the war literally comes to them and doesn’t ask if they’re ready. Thankfully, they are, and we get to see the whole gang flying and slashing through the air in a brilliant sequence that captures the tense chaos. Unlike many action blockbusters, the relatively steady camera makes it pretty easy to see what’s actually going on, which I appreciated.

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As I said last week, the setting of all this fighting couldn’t be more gloomily appropriate: the ruins of Shinjuku are a constantly unsettling reminder of what’s already been lost and how little is left. Particularly striking is the shot of a school—once the site of silly clubs and laughter and columns of teammates chanting “Fight-o”—converted to a field hospital. Even if all the vampires were to drop dead, we’re not even sure humanity’s gene pool is diverse enough for the species to survive. And many humans will die before this new offensive is over.

I also liked the contrast between the urgency of Yuu & Co. with the relative calm of Guren and his immediate subordinates. They’re veterans who have seen it all, or close to it, and they seem a little more comfortable in their skins and confident in their abilities. Even when Guren spots Feris with a scope and Feris stares right back, it doesn’t faze him. He’s also on a first-name basis with the others, like the power-punching Mito.

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Like Guren, Feris is just kind of chilling as the underlings get valuable battle experience; ready to swoop in if there are any problems. Mika is with Feris, but soon goes off on his own. Feris’ insistence he drink someone’s blood takes Mika back to his first days as a baby vamp, during which Krul Tepes was trying to get him to do the same.

Mika refused a human boy’s blood, and knocked a cup of Krul’s own blood out of her hand…but the sound of that blood pouring and splattering on his face has a visceral effect, and in a moment of possible weakness, possible necessity, he finally digs into her arm. She’s very clear: Mika is her dog, and will always be her dog. In the present, he still carries vials of Kurl’s blood—no one else’s—and he has 10 days of it before he needs more, during which time he hopes to find Yuu.

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That makes Krul’s blood a drug that keeps Mika alive and not a reasonless demon. Turns out, it’s also drugs that, in a pinch, give the humans the edge they need to have a chance against higher-ranking vamps. Shinoa whips them out as casually as Bleach’s Kuchiki Rukia introduces the body-swapping Soul Candy to Ichigo.

In both cases, a fundamentally terrifying biological transformation is treated like taking your Flintstones vitamins. But that’s Shinoa for you; always keeping it light and breezy.

Then there’s the fact that she gives everyone, including Yuu, more than the maximum of two the human body can tolerate, almost assuring that when he’s in a tough spot, Yuu might get stupid and take more than two.

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There’s a foreboding to the truck driven by Corporal Nagai taking them to the front line, but that’s replaced when an Apache ambushes them. The team works together to save Nagai and destroy the chopper, but they end up separated when the street collapses and they fall into the subway below. Yuu is with Shinoa and the unconscious Nagai and head for the nearest base, while Mitsuba, Yoichi and Shihou head to the defense line where they’ll ideally meet up later.

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Meanwhile, as Mika is milling around, looking for Yuu, a cloud of dust is kicked up, and a detached vamp limb flies by his face. As the dust clears, we see Guren, ready to exterminate his next target. It’s kind of fitting that Yuu’s brothers, past and present, meet before Mika and Yuu, though I don’t see either defeating the other, nor do I see Yuu being brought up unless Yuu himself enters the fray.

However this goes, the buildup in the end, presented without music—just the falling rain and a cut to silence—was very effective. Guren v. Mika: Who ya got?

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Owari no Seraph – 08

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Ahh, good ol’ Omotesando Station… I remember it well, travelling on the Ginza Metro line between Shibuya and Shimbashi. It was in a far better state of repair when I was there. On Owari, after the fall, it’s been re-purposed as a creepy lair for the team’s next targets: seven vampires. Shinoa says they’d probably do okay fighting individually, but better to work together and defeat them without a scratch. For once, Yuu agrees.

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They enter not to find fello Metro users like myself, but the vampires’ thralls, who give their blood in exchange for protection from the monsters above ground. They glare at the soldiers as they press on to their primary targets; saving them is secondary, and for once, Yuu doesn’t protest. They glare because they wish they had the power to choose a different fate for themselves besides this or death.

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When Mitsuba gives the order to prepare their weapons, Yuu takes it upon himself to cut down an unarmed vamp, their first catch of the day, following the letter but not necessarily the spirit of his orders. This irks Mitsuba, but he catches her hand before she can slap him again, then maneuvers her out of the way of a second vamp’s strike, whom he takes care of without any trouble. Two down, five to go, and Yuu’s first rescue of Mitsuba.

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When they confront the final five, three more pop out from behind Mitsuba, and one of them grabs her by the throat. But in one of the vamps’ sillier choices, he decides not to kill her immediately, but wait until Yuu and the others have engaged his comrades to do it, by which time it’s too late, and Yuu slices him in half.

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With Mitsuba rescued by Yuu once more (who regards her as his family), the team closes ranks and mops up the remaining vamps, armed with second-rate weapons no match for their cursed gear. In all, it’s a good first subterranean fight, packed with peril but ultimately not too difficult to pull off with the lessons they’ve learned.

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The girl who told them about the vamps in the station lowballed the figure to save her own friends/family, something Yuu doesn’t hold against her when they return to base camp, where other former thralls are being tended to by the army. When Mitsuba learns from Shinoa about Yuu’s past, and how it so closely resembles her own, but his denseness annoys her and she storms off without telling him anything. There’s pretty textbook romantic bonding exercise in practice here, but not unearned due to solid fundamentals and decent voicework by Iguchi Yuka.

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The second half opens with Shiho getting a derelict Hummer H2T running again to shorten their trip to Shinjuku. While Yuu grows up a lot in this episode, the comedic scene the show allows as a breath between life-and-death ordeals successfully reminds us he still is a kid, judging from how stoked he is about driving a car for the first time. This is Yuu as a charming, wide-eyed kid, not an annoying angsty or arrogant; and it’s nice.

The shot of Shiho gathering the others, as Yuu drives into the frame and crashes into a lamppost, demonstrates decent comedic timing (plus it looks like Yuu is having a ton of fun, which I can speak to having driven one of those brutes). Shinoa sitting in the drivers seat is a nice sight gag, as is her off-camera revenge over the lads for laughing at her.

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Once everyone’s aboard and they near the Shinjuku barrier wall, they spot a Vampire Noble, the first we’ve seen in action since Yuu ran from Ferid. Everyone bails as they set the Hummer on a collision course with the vamp, but he stops the three-ton SUT with one hand and flings it back at them like a toy. *GULP*. They had a relatively easy time with vamps up till now, but it’s clear this will be a little different.

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The noble is so fast he’s upon Shinoa before she can raise her weapon. Yuu is able to block his blow and disarm him, showing her yet again why he and Shiho are Guren’s favorites. The noble is a little impressed as two more noble vamps descend from the sky, flanking him.

Yuu asks if they should retreat from this. Let me repeat that: Yuu mentions retreat. But it’s too late; Shiona believes they’ll still have a chance if the five of them work as one unit at the very limit of their demon power, but she doesn’t pretend there won’t probably be a casualty or two.

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The lady vamps have come to bring their comrade to the front lines, and he grudgingly goes along with them, sparing Yuu & Co. from a fight but promising he’ll drink their blood when they meet again, casually tapping him on the shoulder before flying off. That easy arrogance really ticks Yuu off, but Shinoa is still visibly terrified from the bullet they just dodged.

Even if Yuu had what it took today to take that noble on one-on-one, his friends would get killed as he fought without teamwork. Shinoa also does what Mitsuba couldn’t: thank him promptly for saving her life, noting that as Guren said, he really does care about his friends. Her gratitude brings the bashful boy out in Yuu.

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Those nobles were pretty damn scary, but they’re gone for the moment, and while the episode ends with the team staring down a Shinjuku under assault, about to enter that inferno themselves, it ends with an upward pan right into the smoke, as upbeat music plays. It will be tough going from here on, but they’re going in together, and whatever they face in there, they’ll get through it with teamwork.

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Cross Ange: Tenshi to Ryuu no Rondo – 19

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Back from her DRAGONcation, Ange saw the Arzenal/Libertus “new normal” aboard the Aurora last week, only to learn that Jill wasn’t someone she could count on to accomplish her goals. When she leaves the Aurora with Tusk, Momoka, and Vivian, they’re quickly captured by Ersha, Chris, and Salia, and we travel back to Misurugi, where it all began, and to these girls’ “new normal.” Of course, first the show acts as if Ange was fatally shot, but obviously she’s not dead.

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Momoka couldn’t be happier to be back in the capital, dressing and tending to her princess. Ange is looking for escape. She finds it when Salia comes in throwing her weight around; the new captain of the “Order of the DIamond Rose.” (So lame.) Salia explains how Embryo saved her and gave her everything she ever wanted because he loves her. Ange’s response is why she’s not called the Burn Princess for nothing: “You were adrift in the world, and then a new owner picked her up.”

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She pokes Salia in her boob with a pen and quickly overpowers both her and her two subordinates, even getting in a dig at Salia’s new uniform, saying the Pretty Salian cosplay suited her better. In terms of physical and psychological dominance, Ange really rules the day in this scene, even if I still have quite a bit of sympathy for poor Salia, who was raised to obey, not dominate. And Embryo did save her from a terrible drowning death.

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As soon as I saw the little Arzenal orphans running around the palace grounds with Ersha, I knew why she went over to Embryo. He literally brought the little ones back to life and let Ersha bring them to Misurugi to care for them.Ersha has what she’s always wanted: to be able to protect the children, and like a momma grizzly, she’ll show no mercy to anyone who threatens them, even Ange.

Like Salia, Chris was abandoned and left for dead, only to be saved and befriended by Embryo. And all Chris ever wanted was a friend. Embryo even lets Sylvia, who is still very much insane, lead a naked Riza around like a dog and whip her when she brings her the wrong book in the library.

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It isn’t until halfway through the episode that Ange comes face to face with Embryo, who immediately gives Salia pause when he asks to be left alone with the princess. Just like Jill, he’s far more interested in Ange, who is the first human in a long time who has interested him more than the characters in his beloved books. That’s another way of saying the likes of Salia don’t interest him. He’s given her everything she wants, but in exchange for her allegiance, and with the understanding that there isn’t anything deep or profound beneath any of it.

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Embryo takes Ange far beneath Misurugi to show her Aura, whose plight she’s already learned from Salako. Ange uses Embryo’s lowered guard to pull a gun on him, but no matter how many times she kills him, he comes right back, like a bishonen Kyuubey. It’s clear this is an enemy unlike any other Ange has faced: one with the powers of a god. A god who “tunes the sound of the world” can’t be defeated with guns.

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Embryo turns the tables by putting Ange into some kind of hypnotic trance, telling him all of the love, peace of mind, friendship, trust, and belonging he’s given her former comrades. He offers those same things to Ange, and even gets her to undress before him so he can get a good look at what is to be his prized possession and tool.

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Then he kisses her, Ange remembers her true knight Tusk, and snaps right the fuck out of it. Far from being hurt that she’d rebuke him so coldly, the mere fact that she could resist him is, arguably, even more preferable to her easily falling under his spell. Ange is a part of the world Embryo created and should be able to tune her like anyone or anything else…but he can’t.

This golden-haired, fiery-eyed princess is living proof his powers aren’t limitless, a claim that hasn’t been challenged for thousands of years. Perhaps those centuries have made him weary, and this is what he’s been seeking all along; what Salia and even Jill couldn’t provide (as it’s clear from her nightmares she was under his thrall): a human heart and will that can truly resist him.

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