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What's behind Demon Slayer anime's monster success at Japan box office?

An image from a scene in "Demon Slayer -- Kimetsu no Yaiba -- The Movie: Mugen Train" is seen in this provided image.

TOKYO -- Despite the new coronavirus pandemic, box office takings for an animated film adaptation of popular manga and anime series "Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba" are breaking records, with distributor Toho Co. reporting that on Oct. 25 it became the fastest film in Japanese cinema history to make 10 billion yen (around $95.9 million). What's behind its huge success?

    "Demon Slayer -- Kimetsu no Yaiba -- The Movie: Mugen Train," directed by Haruo Sotozaki, was released on Oct. 16, and sources including Toho says that within three days it had earned about 4.62 billion yen in theaters, later reaching over 10.75 billion yen on Oct. 25. Until now, seven Japan-produced animated films have passed the milestone number, but none as fast as Demon Slayer. The top two highest-grossing Japanese films at the country's box office, "Spirited Away" (30.8 billion yen) and "Your Name," (25 billion yen) each needed three weeks or more in theaters to make their first 10 billion yen. The pace that this latest release is climbing the tables is attracting close attention.

    The Demon Slayer film is playing at 403 cinemas across Japan, equivalent to more than 80% of the country's theaters. In the period following opening day, some multiplex cinemas held 40 or more showings daily of the movie across multiple screens and from early morning to late at night. Anticipated new releases from home and abroad have been canceled since the coronavirus crisis began to take hold this year, and takings are down below half of their totals in a normal year.

    In the midst of all this gloom, the Demon Slayer movie has entered the picture almost like a savior for the cinema industry. The series is popular with parents as well as children, and theaters have been packed with customers wanting to see the "family-friendly" film.

    Film journalist Hiro Otaka told the Mainichi Shimbun, "Everything about this film's run is out of the ordinary. The multiplex system involves concentrating on showings of popular movies, and with that in mind the industry initially had high expectations that the Demon Slayer film would make 10 billion yen. But with that said, in the past there would be considerations about its balance with other movies. This time, there are no other films like it out, and consequently there's a focus on its showings." He added, "Even several days after its release, audience numbers aren't falling. It seems it's a lock to take 25 billion yen."

    An image from a scene in "Demon Slayer -- Kimetsu no Yaiba -- The Movie: Mugen Train" that features protagonist Tanjiro Kamado, left, and Kyojuro Rengoku, right, is seen in this provided image.

    What's Demon Slayer all about though? For the uninitiated, here's a brief rundown. It was originally a manga series by Koyoharu Gotoge published in Shueisha Inc.'s Weekly Shonen Jump magazine from 2016 to 2020. Set in Japan during the Taisho period (1912-1926), it follows the powerful Demon Slayer Corps as they battle man-eating demons. To defeat them, they must either be decapitated or exposed to sunlight, and if their blood enters a human, that person also becomes a demon.

    Amid all this, protagonist Tanjiro Kamado's family is slaughtered by demons, and the only survivor, his younger sister Nezuko, turns into one. To save his sister and fight the monsters, he undergoes grueling training and joins the Demon Slayer Corps.

    While the portrayals of the battle scenes are at times intense, the series also has moments of laughter, and plays out as a revenge tragedy and coming-of-age story for Tanjiro. There are also touching scenes portraying his wholehearted kindness toward his family and companions. "Demon Slayer -- Kimetsu no Yaiba -- The Movie: Mugen Train" serves as a continuation of the anime series broadcast on TV, and covers content from the seventh and eighth volumes of the original manga. In it, Kyojuro Rengoku, one of the Demon Slayer Corps' nine most powerful "hashira" members, joins forces with Tanjiro and others to face a formidable demon.

    Anime critic Ryota Fujitsu focused on the ways its narrative has a wide appeal to children and adults, saying, "Tanjiro shoulders a heavy burden, but he accepts it for himself without complaint. It seems like seeing someone who has directly faced injustice in life and overcomes them with their effort and strength of will has been a source of support to people watching today. Additionally, there's drama on the demon villains' side too, and it's not just an exciting film but a moving one, too."

    Another factor in its success has been changes in the way media is delivered. During the manga's serialization, the anime adaptation was broadcast between April and September 2019 on the Tokyo Metropolitan Television Broadcasting Corp.'s Tokyo MX station. Although it was shown late at night on Saturdays, its high quality visuals caused a stir among anime fans, and soon it became a wider hit.

    Fujitsu said that the fact the show was broadcast on a regional station late at night nurtured the enhancement of the story. "On major stations, there are controls on what can be shown and the views of the broadcaster are stronger. Late night regional slots allow for shows made primarily by production committees, making it easier to fulfill the project artistically. Even if the potential audience it reaches out to is limited, if the show is then streamed online or through other means, it can reach the whole country." After its broadcast, the Demon Slayer TV anime was included on streaming services, and did become widely known as a result.

    A poster for "Demon Slayer -- Kimetsu no Yaiba -- The Movie: Mugen Train" is seen in this provided image.

    Including electronic editions, the 22 collected volumes of the manga published so far have sold more than 100 million copies. Its magazine serialization ended in May, and in December the 23rd and final volume is set to be released. Demon Slayer novelizations have been hits too, and according to Nippon Shuppan Hanbai Inc. the series-related books "Kataha no Cho" ("one-winged butterfly"), and "Shiawase no Hana" (flower of happiness"), have been first and second on the bestseller list for the first half of 2020.

    Furthermore, the film's theme song by artist LiSA has been number one in the Oricon chart rankings for two consecutive weeks. Game and theatrical tie-ins, as well as character-themed merchandise, have also been successful, and the series continues to be hugely popular across all kinds of media.

    The events of the film currently in theaters don't even bring the Demon Slayer story up to its halfway point, and expectations for subsequent films and anime TV series are high. How much excitement could this series go on to cause during these straitened pandemic times?

    (Japanese original by Tomomi Katsuta, Cultural News Department)

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