It could just be my imagination, or some pre-conceived bias that comes from knowing that the Mugen Train Arc was once a single piece of unbroken storytelling, but “Should Have Been” is very much a chunk of plot that feels like it has been plucked rather ungracefully from a larger whole, which doesn’t do the episode any favors. A lot of this has to do with the central conceit of this part of the arc, which is that Spooky Demon Guy has our heroes trapped in prisons of their own dreaming, which his young servants will infiltrate in order to destroy the “spiritual core” that lies beyond the dreams’ borders. This will presumably kill Tanjiro and Co. if the villains aren’t stopped, though at one-point Spooky Demon Guy explains that the dreamers will be “crippled”, which sounds like a very different end result than straight murder, so it still isn’t clear to me what the exact goals of this arc’s antagonist are, or if they even go beyond the usual wanton slaughter.
That vagueness of motivation is a part of what makes this episode feel like it probably worked a lot better when it was merely the opening of a movie’s middle act, but it’s the vagueness of time that hurts the story’s momentum the more. Dream-based stories are tricky things in that way, because they are malleable in shape and function to such a degree that it becomes very easy to lose track of the plot. Over the course of this episode, we spend time in each of our four heroes’ dreams, with the lion’s share of the screentime devoted to Rengoku and Tanjiro’s more serious scenes. However, despite all of the character backstory and internal conflict that gets explored in these sequences, very little actually happens. Rengoku gets a series of maudlin exchanges between his father and brother that I think we’re meant to take as a more literal flashback compared to everyone else’s dreams, but the details are stock-standard cliches: Rengoku’s dad has become a depressed and disapproving shut-in who has completely given up on his legacy and his children, and little brother Senjuro is a frail-looking boy who also wants his pop’s approval (though he’ll have to settle for Rengoku’s eerie, vacant smile instead).
Really, it feels like Rengoku’s dream primarily exists to establish the mechanics of Spooky Demon Guy’s Train-ception plan, which hits a snag once Rengoku’s unconscious body begins outright strangling the poor little girl who got roped into doing the monster’s bidding. There’s a little more meat to Tanjiro’s trap, though not much, since the whole thing amounts to Tanjiro almost getting tricked into believing that he is back home and free from the burdens of being Demon Slayer‘s main character. Now, I would have sworn up and down before this week that we had already gotten a sequence where Tanjiro had to wake himself up from a comforting dream of the life he could have lived, but that might have been me confusing this beat with the hundreds of other movies and shows that have pulled the same trick.
If we had gotten more than a glimpse of Nezuko and Tanjiro’s life before everything went to hell in the series premiere, I might have been more invested, but the rest of the Kamado clan may as well be a bunch of characters from a Norman Rockwell painting, for as saintly and blandly loveable they all are. We know that Tanjiro has to wake up eventually, and we don’t need any refreshers on how sad Tanjiro is to have lost his folks, so this also feels like a waste of emotional potential to me. There is one moment that gave me pause, the almost comical bit where he’s getting stalked by Nezuko’s box in the woods. Before we learn that Dream Nezuko is just out doing chores or something, I thought the episode was implying that Tanjiro’s perfect dream was a life without Nezuko altogether, which would have been a very interesting direction to take Tanjiro’s character.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t love Nezuko—only a fool would try to argue that—but it would add a wonderfully sad and human element to his character if we learned that he secretly resented her a little, too, both for their current hardships and for the pain and loss she represents. This is Demon Slayer we’re talking about, however, and I don’t think the show would have the guts to suggest that Tanjiro could ever be willfully cruel or selfish like that. Instead, Tanjiro’s conflict is much more basic: He just has to figure out a way to wake up and stop the bad guys.
That leads me to my other gripe about “Should Have Been”, because the problem with focusing on characters’ dreams isn’t just that it results in a whole 25-minute episode that covers maybe two or three minutes of in-story time. That would be fine if the dreams were more substantive or visually interesting. Instead, Tanjiro and Rengoku’s dreams are middling family dramas that barely take advantage of the infinite possibilities of dream space, and Zenitsu and Inosuke are once again relegated to serving as the looney comic relief. This got me thinking about something that’s continued to rub me the wrong way more and more as Demon Slayer has gone on: Its main characters are the most boring part of the entire story.
In Zenitsu and Inosuke’s C-plots, we have two characters who have virtually no depth to them as of this point, since they exist almost entirely to be the butt of jokes and/or help out in fights. Nezuko, as we’ve discussed, is basically a Murder Tamagotchi, since she is just expressive enough to be cute as hell and sell a bunch of merchandise, but not so complicated as to be an actual person that we need to bother empathizing with. With the Mugen Train Arc, we’ve added Rengoku to our main cast, and while the show keeps insisting that there are depths to be mined beneath his wacky exterior, I have a very hard time taking anything he says or does seriously, because he looks and acts like the insane offspring of a space alien and a Hot Wheels sticker.
This means that, at this point in the narrative, the only protagonist of Demon Slayer that even remotely resembles a believable human being is Tanjiro, and his most defining character trait is that he’s nice. Really nice. It’s no secret that the villainous demons have always been the most compelling elements of Demon Slayer, and Tanjiro’s empathy has always played well against that. On his own, though, he’s kind of a bore, and none of his companions are even close to being able to pick up the slack.
If I were just sitting down to watch the Mugen Train movie, I wouldn’t be thinking so hard about the script’s faults because I’d know that it wouldn’t be long before I learned just what in the heck this new Spooky Demon Guy is all about. Maybe another twenty minutes, tops. Due to the episodic format, all our villain has had time to do is monologue on top of the train, and we’ve spent three weeks reintroducing characters and visiting their dreams to learn information that is either old news or not especially interesting, and it certainly isn’t enough to hold up an entire episode.
It may sound like I’m complaining a lot for an episode that’s getting a decent score, but it’s because all the flaws of this episode are being accentuated heavily by its awkward placement in the middle of a season of television. On top of that, Demon Slayer‘s official Twitter account has reported that we’ve got a weeklong delay for Episode 4 , which means I will have even more time to spend asking myself how much ufotable‘s absolutely incredible production values can carry this otherwise unexceptional script. Thankfully, the answer right now still seems to be “Pretty goddamned far”, but I can’t help but wonder if the story of the Mugen Train Arc would have been better off if it had just stayed a movie, after all.
Odds and Ends
• I will make one concession: Inosuke’s dream of leading his animal friends in an underground battle against the evil Train Monster is perfect and delightful, and I would watch 100 episodes of just this storyline, and nothing else. I know you’re desperate to cash in on Demon Slayer in any form imaginable, Shueisha! Give me a call, and we can get to work making that sweet, sweet spinoff money.
• I know I called Nezuko a “Murder Tamagotchi” earlier—and I stand by that!—but I’m not so much of a monster that I will deny how unbelievably cute her little scene trying to wake up Tanjiro was. It reminded me of exactly how my cats react whenever they’re starved for attention (which makes Zenitsu’s fixation on here even weirder, when you think about it).
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba Mugen Train Arc is currently streaming on
James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitter, his blog, and his podcast.