「炎柱・煉󠄁獄杏寿郎)」 (En Bashira Rengoku Kyoujurou)
“Flame Hashira Kyojuro Rengoku”
SETTING THE SCENE
2020 was a crazy year for films. With most of the world afraid to catch COVID-19 at public movie theaters, it turned the industry over on its head when it came to releasing new films. Many new releases would either be pushed back to 2021/2022, make their grand debut as straight-to-streaming films, or just throw caution to the wind and hope for the best turnout you could for theatrical releases.
But while a number of productions still made quite a bit last year, one anime film turned out to be a behemoth that would not only become the highest-grossing anime film of all time, but also the highest-grossing film of 2020; Kimetsu no Yaiba Movie: Mugen Ressha-hen. Yes, this midquel to a TV anime that adapted the arc between Season 01 and Season 02 would go on to become the 17th highest grossing Rated-R film as of October 8, 2021 (sandwiched between it would be Terminator 2: Judgement Day and Saving Private Ryan).
How an animated movie based on an ongoing TV anime ended up being 2020’s biggest film could be chalked up to a number of factors, but only some of which involve COVID-19. Not many big studio productions were willing to take the risk of a wide release for both their bottom line and the safety of theater-goers. Because Japan was at a point in time where the cases were mild enough to go to the theaters, it also made Kimetsu no Yaiba Movie: Mugen Ressha-hen the one way you could entertain yourself at theaters while the big money productions were still being held off until 2021.
But above all else, you also have to factor in what made Kimetsu no Yaiba absurdly popular overnight to begin with. There have been so many think-pieces about why the series as a whole ended up lucrative enough to outsell One Piece, or why an anime that made its debut in 2019 and ended in 2020 is now the biggest shonen to come out within the past few years.
It’s received an admirable amount of attention as a cultural product considering that you have characters slapped onto snack foods for all ages while public figures go on a moral panic campaign about the violent and erotic content of the series. I mean, when the next prime minister is propping it up as his favorite recent anime and when Gundam’s Tomino Yoshiyuki promises his follow-up to Gundam Reconguista in G will crush it, you know it’s gotten to be a far bigger, far more significant series than your standard shonen.
As far as what makes it as huge as it is, that also contains a number of factors. Ufotable’s production certainly helped to give the manga’s art an expensive face-lift, especially when the public’s reaction to Tanjiro’s fight with the spider demons was explosive at the time. Personally, I marathoned through the manga because I’m a sucker for a good battle manga about super-powered sword fights in an old Japanese setting. Knowing the sentimentality that stories taking place in the Meiji and Taishou eras have on Japanese audiences, I’d imagine that’s also a factor in why it resonated easily enough to influence older folks to pick up the manga along with younger viewers and readers.
Another factor would be how self-contained it is considering how short the manga is. Rather than worrying about having to buy the manga until the end of time, you have a series that only needed 23 volumes to tell the entirety of its story, making it an easier story to get invested into without having to worry about whether Tanjiro is able to accomplish his goals or not.
The context on why a recent shonen where people have been routinely torn apart or explode into bloody mulch became a cultural icon overnight might seem over-bloated, but it is nice to elaborate on considering how much excitement for Kimetsu no Yaiba has built up leading to the premiere of Season 02. The next season’s focus on the Red Light District arc will have to wait though since the decision was made to break up the Mugen Train film into a seven-episode arc.
It might feel redundant if you’ve seen the movie along with others who contributed to its box office ratings, but it helps to have it on-hand if you missed out on the theatrical experience. With the riskiness of going to the theaters, especially with the U.S. limited release earlier this year, it’s a helpful resource if you wanted the theatrical experience without having to hear the guy behind you shouting “Deku is a sussy baka!” or “EREN YEAGER!”
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
As for Episode 01 of the second season’s first arc, it’s a nice way to scratch that Kimetsu no Yaiba itch before the new material is underway. It might be more of a Season 1.5 than a Season 02, but there are enough key details added to make it feel like a unique, fresh experience that fits well with a TV broadcast.
Considering how little information was given about Rengoku during the first season, it was a treat to see that he was a genuine, courteous, and forthright person. When I first saw his character in the anime and manga, I was reminded of a not-so-wholesome star-eyed character from Fire Force who had a heroic voice and was creepily virtuous even while he was murdering folks. But Rengoku actually turned out to be a good boy who you could take home to your parents. He’ll say their food is delicious, but deep down, you know they just bought a rotisserie chicken and called it a day.
Virtuosity-aside, Rengoku’s talents also utilize Ufotable’s greatest strengths with their adaptation by bringing life to the organic special effects that come from his fire-based breathing techniques. With every movement and attack, you see a flurry of flames as they spiral and coil around him and his blade. Aside from that beautiful noodle soup at the beginning of the episode, Rengoku’s attacks and dashes were easily the most visually impressive details in the episode.
But the main meat and potatoes of this episode is how it sheds light on Rengoku’s whereabouts before his rendezvous with Tanjiro’s group on the Mugen train. With much of the material being original, it’s the first time we’re getting a glimpse at how Rengoku handles taking on a difficult investigation by his own accord.
While he’s happy to help out, much of his impulse is through a combination of intuition and a desire to use his strength to protect others. It was also a treat to see the older woman see Rengoku’s father in him as his techniques reminded her of his raw strength and talent. They even throw you a bone by the end of the episode when the rest of the Hashira reflect on how much they enjoy Rengoku’s presence.
While Kimetsu no Yaiba’s return might not jump directly to the Red Light District arc, it helps extend an olive branch towards those who might not have caught the Mugen Train film and even gives you some extra kudos for sticking around. Even if the other episodes give you mostly footage from the film, this episode gives us some much-needed material that shows us a day in the life of everyone’s favorite Flame Pillar.
It might seem redundant if you’ve seen the film, but it should prove to be a UMAI treat to scratch your Kimetsu no Yaiba itch before Season 02’s new material arrives. I’m planning on only covering the Mugen Train episodes from now until November when this arc ends, but I’m excited to examine what helped make the film a smash hit last year and how it translates to a TV series.