Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

The ‘Demon Slayer’ phenomenon

2020 has not been the best year for the film industry. With lockdown leaving many cinemas open to bankruptcy, Disney charging extortionate prices for online screenings of lacklustre remakes, and prospective award-winning blockbusters pushed back to release in 2021, it’s clear Hollywood is going to need some serious TLC to recover from the virus.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the future of the industry. It seems, perhaps, that the western world could pick up a few sage words of advice from our friends overseas in Japan, who, in a shocking twist, have just had what many are coining “the box office weekend that rocked the world”.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train opened on 16 October, a Friday, and by the following Monday, it had brought in ¥4.6 billion (nearly £34 million), the best box office opening weekend in Japanese history. After ten days the movie had generated ¥10 billion. The previous record is held by Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away (2001), which took 25 days to make the same amount.

But what is Demon Slayer, and what was it about the movie that made thousands of otherwise pandemic conscious audiences flock to the big screens to see it? The film is based on the manga Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, which ran in Shonen Jump, the popular manga anthology magazine which brought us iconic titles such as Dragon Ball, Naruto and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Shonen Jump is a wildly popular publication and ran Demon Slayer from 2016 until earlier this year.

The series was made even more popular when it was released as an anime, produced by studio Ufotable, which resulted in the rocketing popularity of the manga publications all over the world. Many Japanese viewers claimed the show as their all-time favourite according to a survey by mobile operator NTT Docomo. And it’s not just the Japanese who have caught onto the hype. The show proved a hit success when Netflix took it up in the USA, and soon enough became one of the most talked-about anime shows, with a matching spike in manga sales again.

The series and subsequent movie follow the life of Tanjiro Kamado during Japan’s Taisho Era (1912-26). After his family is murdered and eaten, and his younger sister left to live out her life as a demon, he swears to join the Demon Slayer Corps to avenge their deaths and reinstate Nezkuo’s humanity. As he trains, he slowly uncovers the dark secrets of the Demon world and the fact that, somehow, his sister has become something new and dangerous.

The movie picks up from the intense Season One finale and covers chapters fifty-three through sixty-nine of the manga. We join Tanjiro, Nezuko and their friends once more, as they accompany the famous Kyōjurō Rengoku, the Flame Hashira, to investigate a series of suspicious disappearances on the Mugen Train. The train seemingly never ends, and it appears that the last of their fiercest enemies may be leaving them sinister messages.

The popularity of the film and its box office success is, therefore, no surprise. There are, however, arguably a few additional elements which have certainly given Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train a helping hand. The film had next to no competition, with almost all major Hollywood movie releases and local Japanese productions such as Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet being pushed well into 2021 thanks to the pandemic. All Mugen Train had to hold up against was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a movie which not only received particularly mixed reviews but also has been holding up the desolate box office since mid-August.

Audiences are desperate not only for something fresh, but something thoroughly immersive

Audiences are desperate not only for something fresh, but something thoroughly immersive which will allow the struggles of the real world to fade away, even just for two hours. Thus both cult fans and general audiences flocked to the big screens. This resulted in an average of 40 showings during the week, and 45 during weekends, with the public taking to social media to sing the film’s praises, remarking that cinema schedules looked more like “timetable for trains and buses”. 

With Covid-19 cases stagnating at around 500 a day in Japan since September, cinemas, along with a little governmental help, have managed to sustain themselves quite effectively. Until the release of Demon Slayer, they were operating at a 50% capacity if food and drink were still being sold. After release, capacity was hiked back up to 100% with no food sales, full protective gear and temperature monitoring upon entry.

With the sheer quantity of screenings per-day, it’s difficult for audiences to come into too much contact with each other. Based on a consumer survey conducted on 10 October, a full 80% of people who went to a cinema answered that they felt ‘very safe’ or ‘somewhat safe’ during their visit, according to film analytics firm GEM Standard.

It may well have been the pandemic which marked such a success for the movie. With Netflix’s and Crunchyroll’s (an American distributor, publisher, and licensing company focused on streaming anime, manga, and dorama) acquisition of the show, and the vast numbers of both Western and Eastern citizens now free from the constraints of school and work life, the number of streaming services used increased dramatically.

There was no chance for viewers to lose interest in the show, which fostered even more excitement for the release of the movie

The longer lockdowns went on for, the more curiosity audiences fostered in their viewing habits. The constant presence of the show on these major streaming platforms meant that audiences were always able to access the program, no matter where or when. Therefore, there was no chance for viewers to lose interest in the show, which fostered even more excitement for the release of the movie.

English-dubbed and subtitled versions of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train are slated to hit movie theatres in North America in early 2021, with IMAX cinemas also seeking a screening deal for their state-of-the-art cinemas in forty-one different countries. However, with the worsening state of the Covid-19 pandemic in the West, it may yet still be some time before we’re able to get to enjoy this box office breaker.

Will Demon Slayer follow in the footsteps of its Oscar award-winning predecessor Spirited Away, or will its victory reign only in Japan? Only time can tell. But for now, there are 26 episodes for you to indulge in online, and believe me, I’ll be there watching them all!

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