“Demon Slayer” is the most successful Japanese film of all time

FOR ALMOST 20 years “Spirited Away,” an Oscar-winning animation, has reigned undoubtedly as the highest-paying Japanese film. But in the dying days of 2020, the title was swept away by “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”, an adaptation of a hit manga (comic). Set at the turn of the 20th century, “Demon Slayer” follows a young boy, Tanjiro, as he and his comrades battle a group of demons who killed his family and turned his sister into one, as the demons. “Spirited Away” took over eight months to reach ticket sales of 30 billion yen ($ 247 million at the time); “Demon Slayer” passed that mark in less than two (there has been virtually no inflation in the meantime). Box office revenue currently stands at 36 billion yen ($ 349 million).

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The film is one of many successes in the same script. The original manga series ran in the popular Weekly Shonen Jump from 2016 to 2020. The following compilations have sold over 100 million copies. A TV show based on the series has been named anime of the Year in 2020 at the Tokyo Anime Awards Festival, an animation industry powwow. The series’ theme song topped the pop charts. Marketing partnerships have seen “Demon Slayer” characters deployed to sell everything from rice balls to toy swords. Products related to the series grossed 270 billion yen, according to the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, a think tank.

The series has invaded all walks of life. Suga Yoshihide, the 72-year-old prime minister, reportedly referred to one of his key phrases – “full concentration breathing” – during a cabinet meeting. Elementary school students named Tanjiro their most admired person in a survey in November, just ahead of their mother (who came in second) but well ahead of their father (who came in at a modest fifth).

In part, “Demon Slayer” has covid-19 to thank for its success. the manga concluded at the onset of the pandemic, when many Japanese people squatted in their homes. This sparked new interest in back issues and in the TV series released in 2019. Unlike longer series with intimidating tomes from past issues, such as “Dragon Ball” or “Doraemon,” the relatively new “Demon Slayer” compact turned out perfect. for the midlife frenzy. The film’s release, in turn, coincided with the lifting of audience size restrictions in Japanese theaters. In addition, Hollywood studios were holding back the release of blockbusters at the time. “It was started when entertainment was limited, so people rushed over it,” says Sudo Tadashi, a anime critical.

The story itself also carried a moral adapted to the pandemic: good triumphs over evil, but only after great difficulties. Some commentators have even argued that the oni, or demons, in the series evoke those associated with plagues in the past, making their defeat particularly sweet.

The success of the series also reflects big changes in the manga and anime Business. On the one hand, its creator, who uses a pseudonym, is said to be a young woman, a rarity in a predominantly male industry. Female characters are less passive than in many others mangaSays Ijima Yuka of Daito Bunka University: “In the past, women and girls had to be protected and not presented as combatants; in “Demon Slayer” women and girls fight. The most varied protagonists appeal to a wider range of viewers. “There are a lot of characters and each had an individual flair, so everyone could find someone to empathize with,” Mr. Sudo said.

“Demon Slayer” also heralds a hijacking of the directors who control everything and the closed distribution networks of yesteryear, says Matt Alt, author of “Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World”: “Streaming disrupts traditional giants” . the anime version of “Demon Slayer” launched simultaneously on 20 TV channels and 22 streaming platforms, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, which has helped it build a larger fan base, Sudo said. It was not the creation of a single, driving figure, unlike “Spirited Away,” which was written and directed by Miyazaki Hayao. He is one of the declining ranks of Japanese who have yet to see “Demon Slayer”.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Record Slayer”

Marie A. Evans