What pandemic? Japanese cinema attracts record number of spectators

TOKYO — In the United States, movies are shown to seas of empty seats, if theaters open at all. But in Japan, an anime film just had the biggest box office weekend in the country’s history – by far.

The film, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train,” based on a hit Japanese comic book, has been eagerly awaited for months by fans and an industry desperate to bring moviegoers back to the big screens amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The film exceeded all expectations, more than doubling the nation’s record for biggest opening weekend, with more than 3.4 million people shelling out nearly $44 million in tickets. In what could be a first for Japan, the film had the biggest global opening last weekend – more than all other countries combined – despite only debuting domestically. .

There’s not much competition right now, as one Hollywood studio after another has pushed back big-budget releases. The sheer scale of the film’s success would have been an outlier even under normal circumstances, but it holds special significance during the pandemic, showing how quickly audiences can return once they feel safe spending hours sitting among strangers in crowded spaces.

Japan has kept coronavirus cases and deaths low, with a relatively light touch that relies on contact tracing and appeals to a national sense of social responsibility. While infections are on the rise again in much of the West, the daily number of new cases in Japan has remained below 800 since late August, and in Tokyo daily life, at least on the surface, is for the back to normal.

For many who saw ‘Demon Slayer’ over the weekend, it was the first time they had returned to theaters since April, when the government declared a brief national emergency due to concerns over rising virus cases. For the country’s top politicians, the startling box office numbers were a barometer of Japan’s resilience to the pandemic and its efforts to revive the economy.

It was the rare cartoon that received rave reviews from not one but two Japanese cabinet ministers. Government spokesman Katsunobu Kato told reporters the film had made an “extremely significant contribution to the film industry”. And on Twitter, Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is leading the country’s economic revitalization efforts, called it “a spectacular achievement for the worlds of culture and entertainment as they battle the coronavirus.”

The story, set in early 20th century Japan, follows a young man who joins a band of warriors bent on eliminating the demons that killed his family and cursed his sister.

The comic, or manga, on which the film is based is part of a 22-volume series that has become a national phenomenon. In the four years since its launch, it has sold over 100 million copies, making it one of the most successful manga of all time.

The comics have been turned into a popular animated series that has found fans around the world, and “Demon Slayer” characters decorate everything from rice balls to training liveries in Japan.

“This particular title crosses the generations. Even people over 40, over 50, really like ‘Demon Slayer’,” said Roland Kelts, visiting professor of media studies at Waseda University in Tokyo and author of the book ‘Japanamerica’.

The series is “quite sentimental, but it’s done well,” he said, adding that it had “been really smart about building and maintaining an audience” through online streaming services.

“Demon Slayer” has found plenty of space on Japanese cinema screens. The only major foreign production shown in Japanese cinemas last weekend was Christopher Nolan’s time-traveling spies film “Tenet,” which opened in the country in mid-September.

On Friday, the opening day of “Demon Slayer”, a theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district – a short walk from the busiest train station in the world – scheduled 42 screenings, starting at 7 a.m. and continuing until in the early hours of the next morning. On social media, commenters joked that the show times looked more like a bus schedule than a list of movies.

In mid-September, authorities lifted restrictions that required cinemas to operate at 50% capacity. Now businesses can fill the house as long as they don’t serve food. Many theaters, in anticipation of the release of “Demon Slayer”, have decided to forgo snack sales in hopes of maximizing ticket revenue.

At a cinema, Shinjuku Wald 9, people of all ages lined up on Tuesday to buy tickets for the film. A thermal scanner in the lobby checked body temperature and signs posted around the building reminded people to sanitize their hands before entering their show and to wear a mask while watching it. Regular announcements on an intercom told customers they could drink in their seats but not eat.

No major coronavirus outbreaks have been traced to Japanese movie theaters, and industry groups have tried to appease tempers with studies showing theaters are well-ventilated, theoretically reducing the risk of exposure to the pathogen.

In an August poll by market research firm Gem Standard, 84% of respondents said they were “reassured” by the steps theaters are taking to prevent infection. Still, nearly 60% said they weren’t quite ready to return. Another 37 percent said they were waiting for a movie worth watching. “Demon Slayer” apparently filled that bill for many.

Japan’s entertainment industry has been hit hard by the pandemic even as the country has taken a largely laissez-faire approach to controlling the virus, falling somewhere between Sweden, which has been largely left behind, and Japan. China, which has locked down entire cities. (Cinema rebounded strongly in China as the virus was largely eradicated.)

In Japan, there has been no mandatory lockdown, no fines for going without a mask and little testing. The most extreme measure has been an almost complete closure of the country’s borders to anyone other than its own citizens, a step that has only recently begun to be relaxed.

Public education campaigns have emphasized mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing and avoiding what officials have called the “three Cs” – closed spaces, crowded places and contact. narrow. Across the country, people voluntarily complied.

In Tokyo, there are few signs of the pandemic other than the ubiquitous masks and bottles of disinfectant placed near doors. Rush-hour trains are packed with commuters. Cafes are full of people typing on their laptops. And diners are again lining up to enter popular restaurants.

Among those who ventured out for “Demon Slayer” was Xu Jie, a 20-year-old Chinese exchange student. Mr. Xu, who came to the theater with a friend, said it was the first time he had returned to the cinema since the pandemic began.

For “Demon Slayer,” he said, he was “willing to take the risk.”

“I’m a little worried, but I just had to see it.”

Satori Shigematsu, 22, said she started seeing movies again in September “once things calmed down”.

“As long as people take the necessary precautions,” she said, “there’s not much to worry about.”

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

Marie A. Evans