Tokyo, Japan – The unprecedented success of the film Demon Slayer has helped underline the potential of its anime industry and its focus on mass entertainment, and boost Japanese morale as the country battles a renewed surge in coronavirus cases.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train now owns the Japanese record books.
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After a dozen consecutive weeks at the end of last year as the highest-grossing movie in Japan – it is still going strong – in December it surpassed Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as the No. 1 highest-earning Japanese film of all time.
Now it is topping the box office in the United States, only two weeks after its release there.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, this week celebrated Demon Slayer as “bright news that the Japanese manga culture has been regarded highly across the world”.
In the 29 weeks since its release, the movie has sold almost 29 million tickets and brought in about $365m in sales in the Japanese market alone.
Roland Kelts, author of the book Japamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, attributes Demon Slayer’s phenomenal success to the gathering of “a perfect storm”.
One key element was its “strategic rollout,” he said.
It began as a serialised manga – Japanese comics or graphic novels – in the magazine Weekly Shonen Jump in February 2015, before evolving into a 26-part television anime series that was released in a staggered fashion from April 2019 and later streamed on various platforms, only then becoming the feature film that was released in October of last year.
The extended process allowed the buzz to build gradually.
Another element was the timing of the cinematic release. It came during a lull in Japan’s COVID-19 pandemic – between its second and third waves – when cinemas were open but there were few films to choose from.
Kelts says that when he dropped by the major cinema in his Tokyo neighbourhood at the time of its October 2020 release “there were virtually no options… it was all-day Demon Slayer.”
Of course, even then the film could not have achieved its record-breaking success without possessing broader appeal.
“It’s got an attractive young hero who is very empathetic,” said Carol Hayes, associate professor of Japanese studies at Australian National University. “The dilemmas that he is worrying about are very human.”
Good vs evil
The central character of the series, Tanjiro Kamado, sets out on an adventure that seems familiar and timeless.
He is the brave young man from the country who sets out to combat threatening villains and to both avenge and save his family. In that sense, it could be a tale from any culture of any time period in human history.
We hear the hero’s internal monologue as he struggles with “the moral dilemma of what is good and what is evil.”
Hayes also suggests that it draws from the contemporary popularity of zombie and vampire films and that because the anime is so beautifully drawn, it can be quite engaging to a wider audience.
At the same time, Demon Slayer is not entirely dark, as many of the characters and situations are designed to make the audience laugh and to preserve a lighter and more whimsical mood.
“They’ve made an effort to make it funny, and that’s a good way of coping with violence,” Hayes observed.
Moreover, by taking “demons” as the antagonists, the killing which takes place in almost every episode becomes less of a problem from a moral perspective.
Emerald King, lecturer in Japanese at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, adds that, beyond Tanjiro, there is “a really great cast of secondary characters and supporting characters, and there’s somebody for everybody… None of the characters are wasted. They all serve a purpose.”
Making a point that other analysts also cite, King observes that despite having the typical structure of young men’s manga, the female characters also have depth.
“There’s really great women characters… they’re allowed to have as many flaws and strengths as the boys have,” she said.
On the other hand, those who study Japanese manga and anime also tend to agree that, despite its success, there is no single element within the Demon Slayer series that can be said to be truly groundbreaking.
“There’s nothing new,” admitted King, “It has taken the best bits from everything and kind of brought them together.” The series makes use of “what’s worked in other genres and [is] using it to their advantage.”
In this context, Kelts goes so far as to suggest that its reputation may fade over time.
“I don’t think it’s going to be revered as an anime classic five years from now,” he said.
The genius of Demon Slayer may lie not in its innovation or artistic depth, but rather in its ability to deliver exactly what it set out to deliver.
Kelts notes that a lot of investment money has been flowing from the US into the Japanese anime world in the past five years or so, meaning that the studios are “being forced to sharpen up” their act from a commercial perspective.
“The industry is realising that their job is to deliver a product that now has a global audience,” Kelts said. The mature craftsmanship of Demon Slayer reflects this more tightly written, well-executed style.
The film’s national and international success virtually guarantees that other studios and industry players will study Demon Slayer, hoping to ride the wave it has created. It will serve as a model for much that will follow, including, no doubt, some uninspired rip-offs aiming to cash in.
But even many of the better anime products of the future are likely to feel the impact of the commercial success that Demon Slayer has achieved, and some of the effects may be lamented by certain groups of anime fans.
The perfect storm could leave behind it an altered landscape.
As a studio insider told Kelts, “Our generation has realised that anime is entertainment; it’s not art.”