Call it the Midnight Train to Gehenna.
Oh, sure. Technically, the train boards in Tokyo and is bound for Mugen. But sometimes, not everybody arrives. More than 40 people have gone missing lately, and many suspect the obvious: demons.
Thankfully, Japan has long had an organization to fight such threats: the Demon Slayer Corps. There are hundreds of folks in this little band of do-gooders, all willing to battle demons whenever they crop up.
The best of the best are called Hashira. They don’t just slay demons: They eat ‘em for breakfast. (Not literally, of course, but it sounds better than saying “they slay a lot of demons.”) And all of them, be they Hashira or a bit farther down the Slayer totem pole, have the ability to tap into elemental powers, from water to thunder to stone.
A trio of young members—Tanjiro, Zenitsu and Inoskue—board the train to investigate this suspected demon activity, joined by Tanjiro’s own boxed-up, demonic little sister, Nezuko. (More on that later.) There they meet their much more experienced operational partner Kyōjurō Rengoku—a Hashira with the ability to tap into the power of fire. He’s also a friendly bloke. And when a demon suddenly springs forth from the train, Rengoku dispatches him with all the effort most of us would take sniffing a daisy.
But the dispatched demon—while certainly a fearsome-looking and wildly dangerous entity for most of us—is merely a warm-up act for what’s to come. The train, it seems, has become home to a much, much more powerful demon. And he doesn’t fight fair.
His name is Emmu, and he’s a master of dreams. Even as the Demon Slayers slice and dice their first opponent, Emmu is at work, slowly waiting for his narcotic-like spell to take hold and throw everyone on the train, including the Demon Slayers, into a deep, dream-filled sleep. He’ll give those Slayers the nicest dreams he can muster—dreams so nice that they’ll never wake up.
And that’s exactly the plan.
As those would-be heroes dream the rest of their pitiful lives away, Emmu plans to plant children in those very dreams. There, they’ll cut a hole through the dreamscape wall and crawl into the dreamer’s subconscious, searching for his spiritual soul. Once they find it, they’re to stab that soul: No soul, no life, and Emmu can ride the train forever, devouring its passengers at his leisure.
But perhaps Emmu forgot to account for Nezuko, Tanjiro’s sister-in-a-box. The literal demon child crawls out of said box when it’s safely night and finds her brother, along with everyone else, in their coma-like slumbers.
That’s not right. And She’s got to wake Tanjiro up by any means necessary.
Fighting demons isn’t for the faint of heart. This is perilous work, and every Demon Slayer on the train knows that each battle might well be his last. You can even think of them as paladins if you will: knights fighting for a righteous cause.
The character of these Slayers is perhaps best illustrated by Rengoku, who’s a little farther along on his journey than his two peers. We learn that as a boy, Rengoku was reminded by his mother how exceptional he was, and she made him promise always to use his gifts to help make the world a better place and to protect innocent people. He does just that here, repeatedly saving innocent lives at the risk of his own.
Indeed, the whole movie makes a big point to tell us how precious life is. Most of the Demon Slayers are concerned with protecting and preserving it. In fact, when Tanjiro is stabbed in the gut by a very human train inhabitant, he tells himself that he can’t die: If he did, the man would be guilty of murder, and he doesn’t want that on the man’s conscience (or rap sheet). And when that attempted murderer lands in trouble himself and a fellow Demon Slayer suggest they just leave him to die, Tanjiro insists they help him. “He’s already atoned for his sin,” Tanjiro says.
And that brings us to our next section.
As one might expect from an anime movie about demon slaying, the spiritual content here is all over the map, and not really pinned down to any consistently identifiable brand of faith. You can sometimes detect even a hint of Western monotheism here—at least according to the subtitles. When Rengoku is told by his mother to use his gifts wisely, she calls them “God-given” talents, with an upper-case G.
The demons here also act, in some respects, in ways that Christians might find familiar, too: They tempt people. Emmu tempts his victims with promises of meeting lost loved ones and literal dreams of better, more peaceful days. Another demon tries to encourage an adversary into following the demonic path—and thereby earning both immortality and unimagined power. He mocks weak humans for their finite lifespans and fragile shells. Better to turn to the dark side and fight forever. (They are indeed creatures of the dark; like vampires, they can’t tolerate the sun, and that, of course, has a spiritual component sas well.)
But Nezuko shows that becoming a demon isn’t always voluntary. In the source material (a manga series that ran from 2016-2020), Nezuko was changed into a demon during the murder of her and Tanjiro’s family. Her mind mostly left her after that, and she wears a bamboo muzzle of sorts to make sure she doesn’t bite anyone. But after much training (again, as we learn in the source material), she’s emotionally far more human than demon—suggesting that nurture ultimately wins over nature.
We hear several conflicting references to what happens after someone dies, with some people looking forward to reuniting with lost loved ones (and one, in fact, sees the spirit of his mother when gravely injured). Others say that once you’re dead, you’re done: You go back to the ground. A couple of characters walk through a graveyard full of the dead, which one visitor recites the names of and calls his “children.”
The abilities that both the demons and Demon Slayers wield can look very much like magic (and feel pretty similar, in some ways, as to what you’d see in Avatar: The Last Airbender). Inosuke—very recognizable, since he runs around with a boar’s head mask—is quite spiritual in his own, animistic way, albeit a little unhinged. He declares he wears the “hide of the mountain god on my head,” demands that people worship and glorify him and discusses the lord of the train.
Zenitsu, a blond-headed Demon Slayer and a good friend of Tanjiro, has a thing for Nezuko. His Emmu-inspired dreams feature her (in a less demonic form). And when one of the Emmu-influenced children finds himself in Zenitsu’s subconscious, a version of Zenitsu finds him there and demands what he’s doing there—since there’s no room for anyone in his subconscious except for Nezuko.
Inosuke not only runs around with a boar mask on, he gallivants about without a shirt, too. And while his lower half is covered by either fur or fur-covered pantaloons, it’s remarked that he does run around “naked.” Another character seems to be unclothed as well, but we see him only from the hips up.
A note: Tanjiro wears dangly earrings, and his outfit is a bit androgynous (though we’re told it is his uniform). As such, casual observers might surmise that there’s some gender fluidity baked into his story. I’m no longtime Demon Slayer fan, but a bit of research suggests to me not to read too much into the earrings. Apparently in the original manga, Tanjiro goes on to marry a female Demon Slayer and have children.
My, my, my.
First things first: As the title suggests, demons can be slain. The surest way to do so? Cut off a demon’s head. We see a number of beheadings here, with demonic craniums flying every which way. Arms are fileted and hacked off, too, only to heal and grow back again. Sternums are crushed, eyes are gouged and so much blood is shed here that I suspect the animators got a bulk deal on red ink. The demons themselves morph, and when one turns into a purplish, throbbing mass of tentacles and hands and eyes, even Inosuke (not exactly a master of subtlety himself) exclaims, “Gross!”
But perhaps the most disturbing aspects—and where Mugen Train crosses from PG-13 into R-rated territory—is its depiction of demon-caused massacres.
The slaughter of Tanjiro’s family is particularly horrifying, consisting of his mother and three young brothers and sisters. We see their bodies littered in the family home, blood covering everything. And as part of a dream sequence, dead and bloodstained family members accuse Tanjiro of not being around to save them. Other violent dreamlike moments include the depiction of wholesale slaughter on the train, too. Again, we witness bodies lying lifelessly amid of huge smears of blood.
Tentacles threaten innocent (and sleeping) train passengers, and Emmu often discusses what a lovely feast they’ll all make. A massive accident leads to “a slew of injuries” but no actual deaths. A headbutt draws quite a bit of blood. Someone is attacked with a pair of huge garden clippers in a dream state.
[Spoiler Warning] The dream state that Emmu puts his victims in is incredibly difficult to get out of. When Tanjiro realizes he is in a dream state, he figures the only way to wake himself up is to kill himself in the dream world. He takes his sword to his neck and slices, sometimes sending huge swaths of blood spattering onto the snow (though we never actually see him cut or behead himself). He does this countless times during the course of the film.
We hear about 20 milder profanities, including “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ssed.”
When Zenitsu sleeps, a bit of mucus puffs up into a bubble around his nose.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train, you’re late to the party.
Manga and anime fans—especially in Japan—have known about this series for years. The manga (print) version of the series has more than 150 million copies in print. The first television season (26 episodes in all) is available on Netflix, Hulu and YouTube TV. And Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train is not just the highest-grossing anime film of all time, but the highest grossing Japanese film ever. And keep in mind, this is the country that gave us Godzilla.
The movie isn’t really built for newcomers like me. The story is too complex, and the characters too well-established, for a novice to this world to do much besides play catch-up and tabulate the blood spatter.
And there was plenty of blood spatter to tabulate. This film is bloody. Despite it being a “cartoon,” the carnage we see here often isn’t cartoonish. Seeing an entire family, including children, lying dead in pools of their own blood is pretty disturbing for anyone, be they child or adult. No wonder Tanjiro has nightmares.
But while the film is justifiably rated R and comes with tons of violence and some significant spiritual issues to take note of, it also carries some surprisingly positive messages into the fray, too. This is no triumph of gore and nihilism, but rather an exhortation to fight evil when you find it and sacrifice for goodness along the way. The costs can be high, and the aftermath painful. But, Mugen Train insists, the sacrifices are still important. To be good for goodness’ sake, even against impossible odds, is what we’re all to be about in this world, not just Demon Slayers.
Definitely, the film is a mixed bag. But honestly, I was surprised by the redemptive messages I found—along with a bunch of severed demon heads.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.