“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie — Mugen Train,” the anime film that became the biggest entertainment event of the year in Japan, has now become the biggest-ever box-office hit in Japanese film history.
The film officially attained this milestone with an announcement by distributor Aniplex today that its total earnings had reached ¥32.47 billion, beating the former all-time record holder, Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” which made ¥30.8 billion in 2001 and an additional ¥880 million this year in revival screenings, for a total of ¥31.6 billion.
Like many successful manga adaptations, “Demon Slayer” had a big built-in fan base, with nearly 120 million copies of the comic by Koyoharu Gotoge sold in all formats by December 2020. And the anime based on the manga became a global hit as it aired and streamed on multiple platforms domestically and internationally, including Fuji TV and Netflix.
Also, the film’s release on Oct. 16 was after theaters had restored normal seating (with some precautions to prevent COVID-19 infections still in place), so theater owners could not only schedule more screenings — one multiplex in Roppongi played “Demon Slayer” more than 40 times a day — but fill up theaters to capacity.
Even luckier, Hollywood studios had postponed releases of nearly all their major titles for the summer and fall, giving local films an open field. Only two non-Japanese films made the box-office top 10 for the year — Bong Joon Ho’s black comedy, “Parasite,” and Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi actioner, “Tenet.” By comparison, foreign films snagged six of the top 10 spots in 2019.
Still, the ascent of “Demon Slayer” to the summit is no mere fluke of timing. The film’s story of a boy in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), who sets out for revenge after his family is killed by demons and his sister becomes one, resonated emotionally with viewers. Meanwhile, the film’s many action scenes, rendered with digital techniques not possible in 2001, thrilled them — and encouraged many to see the film on IMAX screens with its high-tech bells and whistles, not to mention higher ticket prices.
The “Demon Slayer” franchise, however, did not follow the traditional media trajectory of a hit print manga succeeded by a hit anime on network TV and finally a hit movie, with the entire process sometimes requiring a decade or more. (Taking a somewhat different path, Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli animators had their first box-office smash with the 1989 “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” but needed 12 more years, and several more hits, to set the all-time record with “Spirited Away.”)
Debuting in February 2016 in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, the “Demon Slayer” manga did not truly take off until after the 26-episode anime series, produced by the Ufotable studio, finished broadcasting on Tokyo MX and other channels in September 2019. The anime then became a word-of-mouth sensation on streaming services, boosting the manga’s popularity and paving the way for the film’s meteoric rise to the box-office heights.
Now that the film has become a pop culture steamroller, dozens of companies have jumped aboard for the ride, making everything from “Demon Slayer” toys to toothpaste. Early in December, Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, Inc. released a report stating that the economic impact of the franchise, including sales of spinoffs, totaled ¥270 billion in Japan. In a year filled with gloom, “Demon Slayer” has been a rare ray of money-making sunshine.
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