Ghibli’s Box-Office Record Set to Be ‘Slain’ by New Anime Giant

It was already one of Japan’s hottest TV series, as well as a best-selling comic book. Now it’s on track to be the country’s biggest movie ever.

A film based on the “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” franchise is on the cusp of breaking a $300 million box-office record held since 2001 by “Spirited Away,” Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winner. The tale of a band of sword-wielding demon fighters debuted in comic-book form in 2016, and reached breakout status this year after the animated movie hit theaters.

Ghibli’s Box-Office Record Set to Be ‘Slain’ by New Anime Giant

While the pandemic forced theaters to shut down in other major economies, Japan has managed to keep cinemas open, initially with restricted seating, thanks to the country’s relatively low infection rates. The franchise also owes its success to the pandemic, because the animated TV series was available on a multitude streaming platforms. Anyone stuck at home could watch Demon Slayer on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and almost 20 other services.

What at first glance appears to be a standard Japanese swords-and-sorcery tale has attracted fans across genders, generations and media, making the movie one of the only box office hits of the year. The comic book has sold more than 100 million copies, and the animated series is the second most-watched show on Netflix.

“The restrictions placed on people due to Covid-19 had a major impact,” said Yuka Ijima, an assistant professor at Daito Bunka University, who has written a book about the franchise. “Before, children would tell their parents and teachers about it, but after Covid it was parents and adults who got to know it.”

Although it remains to be seen whether Demon Slayer takes root abroad, the success of the franchise speaks to Japan’s enduring status as an exporter of soft power, which has helped to boost the economy and, before the pandemic, turn it into a tourism mecca.

Hero Saga

“Demon Slayer” tells the story of Tanjiro Kamado, a teenage boy in early 1900s Japan who joins a band of demon fighters after his family is slaughtered, in search of a cure for his sister, who herself is turned into a demon. In May, near the height of Japan’s coronavirus state of emergency, the comic finished its regular run in the magazine Shonen Jump, leading more to seek out the franchise through word of mouth.

Just like Marvel’s heroes, many successful manga can be drawn out for decades. The top-selling property “One Piece” was first published in 1997 and is still running today. But prospective “Demon Slayer” readers knew the story had a conclusion, making it easier to jump in.

Ghibli’s Box-Office Record Set to Be ‘Slain’ by New Anime Giant

Then came the movie (which has the unwieldy title, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train”). Initially slated for a pre-pandemic release, its October opening was impeccably timed with the waning of a summer virus surge and lack of Hollywood competition. And while many such movies are skippable side-stories, “Mugen Train” picks up right where the 26-episode TV show left off.

“Mugen Train” is now just less than $5 million short of Japan’s box office record, which it may break as soon as this week. It has long since surprassed James Cameron’s “Titanic” to claim the No. 2 spot. Thanks to a lack of competition, it’s also one of 2020’s top-10 grossing movies worldwide.

Crocodile Sensei

At first glance, “Demon Slayer” may seem typical of the “shonen manga” genre of action-packed comics for boys that has previously spawned hits such as “Dragon Ball” or “Naruto.” But it has proven to have broader appeal — as popular with girls as it is with boys.

That may be due to creator Koyoharu Gotoge, whose true identity is a mystery but is widely reported to be a woman. Both writer and illustrator of the series, the author’s only appearances are in the comics as a bespectacled reptile affectionately known as “Crocodile-sensei.”

“It helps that the series is the brainchild of a female artist, which helped it appeal beyond typical age and gender lines,” said Matt Alt, author of “Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World.”

“’Dragon Ball’ and the like were made by men for boys. ‘Demon Slayer,’ though cut from the same cloth, is something different,” he said.

Ghibli’s Box-Office Record Set to Be ‘Slain’ by New Anime Giant

The story also reaches across generations. While it’s no “Game of Thrones,” it’s unusually violent for a mass-market product, with frequent displays of blood, guts and death. Yet the series has avoided attracting criticism for its gruesomeness, with even Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga quoting lines from the series in parliament.

Daito Bunka University’s Ijima attributes that to the unexpected purity of the series’ message, which emphasizes familial love and a desire for peace, rather than revenge. The series is less black-and-white than it may appear, picturing Tanjiro empathizing with his enemies and showing that even literal demons face their own inner ones.

That’s led Tanjiro to be voted the person most admired in a survey of elementary schoolchildren, the sort of list normally dominated by sports stars and celebrities. Seven of the top ten places were filled by characters from the series (with remaining slots occupied by mom, teacher and, trailing fifth, dad).

$2 Billion

Ijima notes that it’s appropriate that the breakout hit of the pandemic year features demons, which in Japan symbolized past plagues such as smallpox. But will a franchise born of the pandemic endure beyond it?

“The boom can continue for another year or two,” said Akiyoshi Takumori, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui DS Asset Management. He estimates the impact — calculated by tabulating the amount spent on comics, movies and licensed products — has already hit upwards of $2 billion.

The creators haven’t revealed plans for the future of the animated franchise — whether it’ll continue as a streamed series, on the big screen, or some combination thereof. A theatrical movie release in the U.S. is planned in 2021, pandemic permitting, though it’s hard to tell if the story will resonate in the same way abroad.

“I think it has a good shot. Being fantasy, it’s a lot easier to assimilate for non-Japanese,” said Alt. “Japan’s soft power is only partly about entertainment: it’s about new tools for navigating the weirdness of modern life.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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