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Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train
Directed by Haruo Sotozaki
Toho (2020, Japan)
Editors Note: This article contains spoilers for
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train
In 2001, Spirited Away became the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time. The dreamlike masterpiece by Hayao Miyazaki is often hailed as his best film and one of the greatest achievements of Japanese animation. That film helped introduce American audiences only aware of Speed Racer (1966–1968) to the richness and variety of Japanese animation.
Twenty years later, in the midst of the pandemic, another Japanese release emerged and toppled Spirited Away’s box office record. This film wasn’t a critical darling or the work of an esteemed auteur. It wasn’t even a standalone film. It was a transitional installment of the anime series Demon Slayer (2019–), fitting right between seasons one and two. This 1-hour and 57-minute bridge story made more than 500 million dollars worldwide.
Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train (2020) plays like a ‘very special episode’ of the show. The animation is stunning, but the regular series already features eye-popping visuals. The events of the film are dramatic, but not world-changing. The film’s American success is almost entirely due to the popularity of season one, streamed on Netflix at the height of the pandemic. In 2001, Spirited Away made $13.7 million in the US. In 2021, Mugen Train made $49.5 million stateside.
In many ways, Mugen Train rolled along the tracks laid down by Spirited Away. 20 years ago anime was still a niche interest for a small set of avid American fans. Now it is pervasive. I suspect many readers of this fine periodical may not realize exactly how popular anime is with younger viewers, but, I assure you, it is very popular. I frequently ask my students what their favorite films are. Often they can’t think of one, but ask, “Can I tell you what my favorite anime is?”
This semester I taught a class on anime and religion at my university. Despite being an elective that helped almost no one with their degree plan, the class filled up with very eager students who talked animatedly about anime and movingly about manga for an entire semester. The popularity of anime is no doubt due to the incredible variety and sophistication of Japanese animation, which offers a much wider range of tones, from the sinister and clever Death Note to the emotional and sweet Violet Evergarden. While American animation tends to target children, anime is often unexpectedly (and sometimes distressingly) adult to Western eyes. It also draws on vibrant narrative art (manga), which provides a depth of worldbuilding and storytelling often unavailable to Western animation.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba began as a popular manga in 2016. It tells the story of Tanjiro Kamado, a humble woodsman, who provides for his fatherless family by selling charcoal down the mountain in the local village. In the first episode he returns to find his family killed by a demon. The only survivor of the attack is his sister Nezuko who has been transformed into a demon with a thirst for blood. Rather than killing Nezuko, Tanjiro tames his sister through his hopeful compassion for her and resolves to find a way to restore her humanity. The series follows Tanjiro as he trains as a demon slayer and seeks a cure for Nezuko.
The eponymous monsters of Demon Slayer bear little resemblance to the evil spirits of Christian theology. They are more like the oni of Japanese folklore, wicked or dangerous creatures haunted by the pains of the former human lives. Guided by his natural compassion, Tanjiro sees the driving desires of his demon foes and frequently seeks to heal their hurts while also ridding them of their heads. One thematic tension running through the series is the conflict between the unbending desire of the Demon Slayer Corps to kill all demons and Tanjiro’s sense that Nezuko can be saved.
The world of the demons that Tanjiro and the rest of the Demon Slayer Corps oppose is organized a bit like organized crime, with high-level demons serving as minions of the shapeshifting Muzan, the very demon who killed Tanjiro’s family. The structure of the series has a clear, ludic logic, as Tanjiro levels up to face more and more fearsome foes. In this sense, Demon Slayer fits neatly within the shōnen genre of anime and manga. Shōnen is aimed at teen boys. Lots of battles and bad guys to defeat. Lots of swordplay and severed heads. (Parents be warned: Demon Slayer’s success is partly due to its vivid, cartoonish gore.)
What marks out Demon Slayer within this genre is the degree to which Tanjiro’s compassion prevents him from simply reveling in destruction. As the series establishes at the beginning, Tanjiro is a kind soul whose helpfulness kept him in town so long that he avoided the demon attack that killed his family. Unlike, say, the brash Inosuke, whose violent drive mirrors the immaturity of teenage viewers, Tanjiro always looks past the physical threat to the hurt that drives his foes. Demon Slayer the show, and the demon slayer, Tanjiro, are both aware that there’s a deeper story to be told. Frequently the show will flash back to the human lives of the demons. Humanizing is the goal, instead of demonizing.
Central to the show’s theme is the bond between siblings. A particularly touching story concludes the second season. Two powerful demons, siblings, bitterly curse each other as they are dying, but Tanjiro encourages them to reconcile. A flashback reveals their early life of poverty, which drove the brother to crime to protect his gentle sister. As they fade into dust they finally reconcile.
As noted earlier, Tanjiro’s personal quest is to return his demon sister to humanity. Nezuko surprises the Demon Slayer Corp with her ability to listen to Tanjiro and to resist her desire to feed on human flesh. Tanjiro’s first teacher trained her to understand that “all humans are her family.” Because of her family bond with her brother, Nezuko is able to extend that care to the rest of humanity. Likewise, it may be said that, because of his bond with his sister, Tanjiro treats all demons “as his family.”
It would be inaccurate to suggest that Demon Slayer offers much of a Christian lesson to the viewer beyond this theme. Most of the show glides along on the smooth rails of epic violence against bizarre monsters. It excels at delivering gorgeous gore and unsettling uncanny undead. It’s not for kids, but its story is hardly mature.
Nonetheless, this redemptive theme is laudable, and one that no Christian need despise. Put simply, we can wish for the redemption of the wicked, and see that it is often God’s loving kindness, not punishment, that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). The demons that Tanjiro defeats require the sharp sword, but also soft words to free them from their trauma. Demon Slayer’s narrative playfulness introduces jarring juxtapositions of justice and mercy that show the need for both in a world full of evils.
Japanese Religion. There is much to learn by watching anime about the culture and religion of Japan.1 Japanese religion is strikingly different from Christian theology at its core. Fundamentally pragmatic, Japanese religion is a mixture of animism, Buddhism, and syncretistic sprinklings of other faiths, including Christian practices. A common, folksy refrain about Japanese life is that you are born Shinto, married Christian, and die Buddhist.
Unlike the totalizing claims of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, Japanese religious views tend more toward the polytheistic syncretism of ancient Greco-Roman paganism, where prayers and piety are transactional. A key element of Japanese religion is the notion of “wa”: alignment with the underlying harmony of all things. Much anime is heavily influenced by Western themes, but viewers of anime will notice a tendency against the sharp dualism between evil and good that pervades stories influenced by Christianity. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is an example of this non-dualistic storytelling, as the film’s conflicts are not handled by the defeat of evil. In Spirited Away, there’s not a true villain to be found, and resolution is found in the re-establishment of a natural harmony.
Demon Slayer, however, is still rooted in a basic dualism between good and evil. There are villains to be fought and evils to defeat. But it also sees, with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that “The line separating good and evil passes…right through every human heart.” —Phil Tallon
Phil Tallon is an Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Christian University, where he recently taught a class on Anime and Theology. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2011) and The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith (Seedbed Publishing, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter @oldhundreth.
1 Editor’s Note: See Ronald S. Green and Susan J. Bergeron, “Teaching Cultural, Historical, and Religious Landscapes with the Anime Demon Slayer,” Education about Asia, 26.2 (2021):48–53, https://www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/teaching-cultural-historical-and-religious-landscapes-with-the-anime-demon-slayer/.