Episodes 1-3 – Train to the End of the World

Ironically, the most off-the-rails anime of the season is the one that takes place on a train. It’s not ironic, however, that Train to the End of the World‘s weirdness is its strongest asset. That’s deliberate. With its blend of fantasy, sci-fi, social commentary, conspiracy, and offbeat humor, this long trip to Ikebukuro feels like a collection of demented parables bearing cute facades and sheathed claws. Infernal machinations are driving this plot forward, and it’s up to four girls (and a dog) to navigate them.

Strangeness in itself does not a good anime make, so what allows Shuumatsu Train (I’m going to stick with the romaji abbreviation so I don’t have to type Train to the End of the World every time) to chug along so confidently? To me, the most obvious culprit is the tag team of director Tsutomu Mizushima and writer Michiko Yokote. They’re both prolific figures with a long history together, and they’ve been responsible for some of my favorite manga adaptations, most notably Witch Craft Works and Prison School. Their original works, however, have been truly special and idiosyncratic. Shirobako is an all-timer—a frank metatextual work that celebrates anime while marveling at how anything gets made in the first place. The Magnificent KOTOBUKI is an under-watched and underrated gem about female fighter pilots flying through some of the best dogfights I’ve seen on TV. Given some of Mizushima’s other projects (and I’m thinking in particular of The Lost Village with Mari Okada), I think he loves to “yes, and” a writer’s most insane instincts. And if that’s the case, then Shuumatsu Train‘s existence starts to make sense. But not too much sense.

The premiere throws us head-first into the deep end, and in doing so, it lays the groundwork for the anime’s most intriguing contrasts. It’s salient to know that this project was originally announced in 2022 in concert with the 150th anniversary of Japan’s first railway. While it isn’t an official piece of JR propaganda, Shuumatsu Train is, in its own way, celebrating the rail system as a vital thread linking the fabric of society together, apocalypses be damned. At the same time, however, the opening scene oozes satire about the hubris and folly of big tech, and the inciting 7G incident echoes facets of popular modern-day conspiracy theories. In other words, technology unites as easily as it divides. These are two ends of one axis, and the more literal reading of the Japanese title may ask us which end this doomsday train is heading toward.

Despite the hugeness of this question, the show’s mood remains relaxed. Much of the humor in these episodes stems from the disconnect between the harsh absurdity of the environment and the girls’ quotidian attitudes. At the right (or wrong) angle, it resembles the tone of a Yorgos Lanthimos film. While nowhere near as acerbic as his works, Shuumatsu Train still has some bite to it. In the girls’ home village, for instance, most old folks peacefully accept their new animal forms, and there’s an idyllic sense of returning to the natural order. However, the writing also acknowledges that nature’s harmony necessarily includes violence. The full loss of their humanity will not be bloodless. The third episode tackles this idea more overtly with its fatalist fungus fracas. People are good at adjusting to crises, but that doesn’t mean those adjustments have to be healthy. And often, the worse the coping mechanism, the more fervent its practitioners are about proselytizing it.

If we look at Shuumatsu Train as a whole, I love that each episode has felt distinct. A good anthology series shouldn’t be afraid to apply that format towards the strangest ends. That’s what gets us the most memorable episodes of a classic like Kino’s Journey, and I hope these stops along the way to Ikebukuro have plenty of equivalent surprises in store. The fundamentals have also been strong. The first episode lays down a lot of exposition, but it’s charming about it, and it successfully sets up Shizuru’s call to adventure. The second episode eschews a new station in favor of establishing the cast’s personalities and relationships, and I felt like I had a good grasp on their group dynamic when it finished. The third episode crafts a solid stand-alone comedy-thriller about a cordyceps cult. I can’t readily point to another story in which the heroine’s climactic act of heroism is pulling a mushroom out of her brain.

The only complaint I’d note so far is that the main foursome hasn’t had enough time to breathe and stretch beyond their archetypes. Some of that, certainly, is by design. The premise relies on pitting these relatively normal girls against a bevy of supernatural oddities and I enjoyed how matter-of-factly they worked through their unique circumstances in the second episode. I’m just looking forward to them receiving more depth in the future. Akira got good material this week, which is a step in the right direction, but it came at the cost of the others being mushroom-brained for most of the runtime. This series is still at the top of my seasonal pile, though, so it’s just a quibble.

The truth is that there’s a lot Shuumatsu Train going for but I believe Mizushima and Yokote’s secret weapon is also their most potent: misdirection. They’re sneaky, and they’re going to get you if you’re not on your toes. Here’s a silly example: the map they got from the weird guy on the swan boat is accurate! When they unfurl it, it’s treated like a joke, but if you look at the symbols and number of stops, everything lines up (the first station has an animal, the second has a mushroom, etc.). For a more sinister example, the bright color palette and goofy environmental design disguise the Stalker-like bleakness behind the chaotic and alien world that Shizuru and her friends must navigate. The third episode, for instance, ends on a punchline about something growing out of Akira’s butt. The story up to that point primes us to assume that this is a mushroom cap. Hilarious. However, what if it’s not a mushroom cap? What if it’s a tail, heralding Akira’s inevitable loss of humanity, accelerated by the weird time shenanigans in the railcar? You can’t deny that it’s a possibility, which is evil, and I love it. That’s the kind of A-game this anime is bringing, and there’s no stopping this train now.

Episode 1 Rating:



Episode 2 Rating:




Episode 3 Rating:




Train to the End of the World is currently streaming on
Crunchyroll.

Steve is on Twitter while it lasts. He’s currently considering how even the apocalypse couldn’t stop Japan from having a nicer rail system than the United States. You can also catch him chatting about trash and treasure alike on This Week in Anime.