Sunday, June 13, 2021

Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train

A partial list of movies released during the pandemic that have done less at the American box office than Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train ($47.7M and counting):
  • Wonder Woman 1984 ($46.5M)
  • Tom and Jerry ($46M)
  • Mortal Kombat ($42.1M)
  • Nobody ($26.1M)
  • Spiral: From the Book of Saw ($25.4M)
  • The New Mutants ($23.9M)
  • Monster Hunter ($15.2M)
Now, a lot of these numbers are lower than they might have been if they weren't released on HBOmax at the same time, and depending on the month movies were released, theaters either weren't open in certain areas or people were sensibly waiting on vaccination to return to theaters. But it's telling that Demon Slayer opened the same weekend as Mortal Kombat and not only outlasted that movie around here, but actually bumped MK off the Imax screen in their second weekend. It has done legitimately well.

But while I don't consume the same sort of pop-culture/movie news diet as I used to, I'm still mildly surprised that what I do see hasn't talked much about Demon Slayer at all. It feels like genre film fans talked about Nobody non-stop for about a month, and there was a vocal contingent for Monster Hunter, and I'd argue that not only did neither of them grab audiences the same way that this did, they've arguably got the same issues keeping them from being great.

So why is that? Part of it is probably experience - manga and anime have seemed on the verge of bursting into the mainstream a couple of times since I was first exposed in college a little less than thirty years ago, to the point where the manga section in chain bookstores would be bigger than the American comics section, but it never quite took the next step, both because Japanese media companies often seem to be very wary about how they approach the American market and because the guys covering comics, movies, etc., didn't want to budget extra people for it as a beat. The margins in entertainment reporting are thin, maybe just thin enough that you don't add headcount for something you're not sure is going to break through.

On top of that, there seems to be a little generational resistance. The Back to the Future question is something I think about on occasion - 1955 was a different world when that was released in 1985, but if you go back 30 years from now, the fashions aren't that different and the technology is about to catch up. Today's pop culture is a constant recycling of decades past (a Mortal Kombat movie came out while I was working in movie theaters during college), and there are a lot of people comfortable reporting on the things they loved as kids. Which Demon Slayer ain't, and that's before getting into how many of the people setting the agendas were overweight bearded white guys, excited to write about the things that marked them as geeks being popular, while manga and anime seem to be a thing more casually mentioned in the Black community. Manga and anime aren't new, but there's enough turnover and historic sidelining there that it's got an extra bit of work breaking through.

(And, yes, I'd probably be part of that group of middle-aged overweight bearded white guys if I grew the beard, which is probably why it took me until the movie was almost at the end of its run to get to and write about it. That and the tendency to find anime/manga fans among the worst theatrical audiences because they're so used to consuming the stuff in their living dens or online, maybe IMing back and forth, and many bring that attitude to the theater with them. The two folks behind me talked through the movie non-stop, for instance, although it wasn't like they were ignoring it.)

I know I don't have the voice that can get people to pay more attention to this sort of thing, although I'd love it if it were impossible for me to miss new Naoki Urasawa manga and more Japanese pop-culture hit screens without seeming like they'd lucked into a release date. I just find it strange, and maybe telling, that none of the people I know who love genre movies are really talking about something that's been a big box-office success, and that the inertia involved is a part of why today's pop culture seems even less daring than it is.

Kimetsu no Yaiba: Mugen Ressha-Hen (Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 6 June 2021 2021 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run, DCP)

Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train is not the biggest pandemic hit at the American box office, but it has sold a lot more tickets than movies that have had a lot more play in the media, even those sites dedicated to the "geek beat". That's understandable - even if an outlet wants to talk about it, there's a lot of catching up to do, a lot of work for something that may be a flash in the pan - but maybe short-sighted. This is a big deal, even if the movie itself may feel like a two-part episode of an animated series stretched way out to feature length to those of us jumping in for the first time.

After a brief prologue, young demon-slayers Tanjiro Kamado (voice of Natsuki Hanae), Zenitsu Agatsuma (voice of Hiro Shimono), and Inosuke Hashibara (voice of Yoshitsugu Matsuoka) race to jump aboard the train from Tokyo to Mugen, where they are to meet veteran "Hashira" Kyojuro Rengoku (voice of Satoshi Hino). Initially under the impression that their target is in Mugen, Rengoku tells them that the threat is actually onboard the vehicle - 40 people have been killed in recent months, and over 200 people are on the train now. They appear to beat the demons preying on the train back easily, but all is not as it seems.

There's a bit more to it, including Tanjiro's sister Nezuko who has become a demon but apparently not evil, and needs to stay in a box during daylight hours, kind of a lot if this is your first encounter with this sort of thing, though the broad strokes are clear enough to those who have followed serial manga/anime before. Mugen Train feels like a feature-sized case of the week, and while I don't blame the filmmakers for not giving me a little more exposition even as they let the villain run his mouth about nothing, there's not much to this other than "scary villain is cool and powerful guest star is also cool". It never feels bigger than that, and with so much of the early going taking place in dream worlds, it not only limits the amount of time the characters are playing off each other, but also tests the rule of thumb that any movie can get a boost by being set on a train.

There's bits that work, though - the brought colors and bold lines that suggest Promare is part of a broader evolution in anime style rather than a simple one-off, for instance; a leaning-into what digital production does well while staying true to its analog roots. There's a heart-on-its-sleeve earnestness even as stories get grim and gruesome, to an extent that will make some in the audience snicker (these powerful warriors can cry like nobody's business), but in most cases, it's a reminder of the characters' youth and what they've gone through, even though they've triumphed in enough battles for a TV series. The main trio are a bunch of fun - I don't know what the deal with the board-headed Inosuke is, but he's a ton of fun. The soundtrack rocks a bit, and doesn't let up as the film becomes wall-to-wall action. That action is fast and impressive, even when filled with ever-more-powerful energy attacks, with diretor Haruo Sotozaki staging acrobatic and impossible motion and dramatic pauses in a way that keeps it going without exhausting the audience.

At least the action itself doesn't wear the audience out, but there's this whole extra drawn-out fight after the apparent climax that's seemingly got nothing to do with the rest of the story; a completely new villain shows up with his eye on Rengoku, who as far as I can tell wasn't a regular part of the series, making it feel like the movie is going off on a long tangent when the main business is done. It's big and almost as well-done as the main train fight, but so disconnected from the main characters, and repetitive as heck, putting the movie firmly into "just friggin end already" territory.

At least for me. The guys behind me who were interested in the minutia seemed into how powerful everybody was. I'm glad they enjoyed it, and based on the stealthily healthy box office (and friends' anecdotes about how much anime and manga kids and twenty-somethings have consumed during the pandemic), they're far from alone. I can't say this movie has done much to interest me in Demon Slayer lore, but it's good enough and a big enough deal that folks should probably be paying more attention to the medium in general.

Also at eFilmCritic

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Tout ce que j'ai dit... n'est pas vrai. Je viens de jouer au jeu et c'est tout.
dit l'actrice de cinéma.