From 2001 until December of last year, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away reigned as the highest-grossing anime movie in the world and the highest-grossing movie ever in Japan. (No. 2 was Titanic.) However, as 2020 came to a close, a new challenger broke both of the Studio Ghibli film’s records. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train, a sequel to the popular anime Demon Slayer, became an instant hit upon its October release. (Miyazaki, when asked by a reporter on the street about the box-office upset, said, with his trademark stoicism, “That sort of thing isn’t worth worrying about,” before excusing himself to keep cleaning up trash.) Though there’s no set date yet for the movie’s North American release, the first season of the series has just landed on Netflix, making now the perfect time to get acquainted with the history-making franchise.
The series’ story centers on Tanjiro Kamado, a teenage boy in Taishō-era Japan whose life is irrevocably changed by an encounter with a demon. While he’s away from the house, the demon slaughters his family and turns his younger sister Nezuko into a demon as well. Soon afterward, he is recruited by a secret society of demon slayers to become one of them and sets out to avenge his family and to make his sister human again. In other words, the plot may not go much further than the title suggests, but the fact of the matter is that it doesn’t need to. That simplicity helps Demon Slayer focus on building meaningful connections between its characters, and on the area in which it truly excels: its animation.
Before airing on TV, Demon Slayer began as a manga series (Kimetsu No Yaiba, in Japanese), written and illustrated by Koyoharu Gotōge, and was published in the magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump (home to other notable hits such as Naruto, Death Note, and My Hero Academia) from February 2016 to May 2020. The anime adaptation, which aired in 2019 for 26 episodes (thus far), won the 2020 Anime of the Year award from the anime streaming service Crunchyroll, cementing the show’s place as one of the best and most popular animated series to emerge from Japan in recent years. That reputation is well-earned. Though the series’ premise is fairly simple, its execution is impeccable, and it boasts a visual style that immediately sets it apart from its peers.
The fight sequences—of which there are many, as suggested by the fact that the show’s core concept involves slaying demons—are breathtaking, not just for how well-choreographed they are, but for the way blows and sword strokes are visualized. The demon slayers employ “Breathing Styles” that lend them enhanced strength, and different techniques (“Sun Breathing,” “Water Breathing”) burst to life on screen in waves of fire or ripples of water that, rather than being rendered in the show’s typical style, look like they were pulled straight from woodblock prints. That isn’t, however, to discount what the rest of the show looks like, as the utmost care is taken from everything from the characters’ clothes, almost all of which boast beautiful patterns, to their hairstyles, which range from looking (relatively) natural to, in the case of Tanjiro’s eventual friend Zenitsu, resembling french fries.
The dazzling animation, however, wasn’t the only factor behind the movie’s historic success. Beyond being the latest installment of a popular and critically acclaimed anime, Mugen Train had the benefit of opening just as Japan reopened its movie theaters nationwide after having shut them down due to COVID-19 during the spring. On top of that, it had very little competition, given that most major Hollywood releases had been pushed into 2021 because of the pandemic. It was this combination—the right movie at the right time—that put Demon Slayer over the top.
With the second season of the anime reportedly in production, the Demon Slayer phenomenon is still growing, and the first season’s arrival on Netflix makes it more easily accessible than ever. (It is already, as of this writing, climbing Netflix’s list of its Top 10 titles in the U.S. today.) With episodes clocking in at less than half an hour each, it makes for a breezy show to binge-watch, and it’s worth catching up with now before the next installment arrives and the franchise becomes even more of a global hit.