Demon Slayer kills big-name rivals to become Japan's highest grossing film

Justin McCurry in Tokyo
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Not even a pandemic has been able to stop an animated film set a century ago from becoming Japan’s highest-grossing movie ever, surpassing sales from Hollywood blockbusters, the Harry Potter series, and even the works of the revered Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki.

Since its release in mid-October, Demon Slayer has generated ticket sales of ¥32.47bn [$313m], according to figures released on Monday by its distributors.

Based on the best-selling manga series of the same name, the film took just 45 days to become the second-highest grossing movie ever in Japan, squeezing past Titanic in late November before claiming the top spot from Spirited Away – Studio Ghibli’s 2001 hit anime directed by Hayao Miyazaki – on Monday.

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Part of Demon Slayer’s success lies in its compelling storyline – an old-fashioned tale of good against evil that follows Tanjiro, a teenage boy who joins a band of demon fighters to avenge the slaughter of most of his family and to rescue his sister, who herself is turned into a demon.

Demon Slayer – Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train – to give it its full, and somewhat unwieldy, English title, may have also benefitted from a lack of competition as the spread of Covid-19 across the globe forced studios to halt filming and postpone new releases.

That said, the success of the Haruo Sotozaki-directed film is all the more remarkable precisely because it has come during the worst period of the outbreak in Japan.

The country kept infections comparatively low during the early part of the pandemic – thanks in part to an eight-week state of emergency in April and May.

But it has seen cases surge in recent weeks, just as Demon Slayer came close to surpassing the ¥31.68bn grossed by the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

That, however, did not stop people packing out multiplexes – some of which screened Demon Slayer dozens of times on its opening day – albeit with restrictions, including the wearing of masks.

In addition to an inspired marketing and merchandise campaign that included everything from replica plastic swords to themed canned coffee – Tanjiro’s resilience resonated with cinema-goers confronting their own nemesis in the form of the virus.

“In the past, the concept of a ‘demon’ was used to embody invisible, frightening threats, like diseases and epidemics including smallpox,” said Yuka Ijima, an assistant professor at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University who focuses on manga and psychology. “Overall, the film is about resilience, about overcoming terrible things and having the strength to do that.”

Its delayed release in October coincided with an end to the first wave of infections. “at a time when there was a certain sense of security”, Ijima added.

Other commentators said audiences associate the protagonist with traditional values many fear have been forgotten.

“People in high positions act according to that - ‘noblesse oblige’, the samurai and so on. Those at the top become a shield for weaker ones, using their strength to protect them,” said movie commentator Yuichi Maeda. “That’s absolutely missing in modern Japan.”

The film, set during the Taisho era (1912-26), appeared in 2016 as a manga series in the popular comic magazine Shonen Jump, and saw its popularity rise when it was adapted for TV.

The television series, which is available on Netflix and other streaming services, piqued interest in the movie, which takes up the story where the 26-episode TV version left off.

While the film failed to break the record by Christmas – as some had predicted – Demon Slayer fever has continued throughout the recent surge in infections, even as record daily caseloads prompted the government to urge people to avoid unnecessary outings.

Fans formed long queues outside shops earlier this month to snap up the 23rd and final volume in the manga series, which has sold more than 120 million copies and been translated into 14 languages.

The Demon Slayer effect has also been a bright spot in an otherwise difficult year for Japan’s economy, generating an estimated economic impact of at least ¥270bn (USD 2.6 billion), according to the Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute.

The film is in cinemas in Thailand and Taiwan, with dubbed and subtitled versions due for release in the US and Canada early next year.

Some fans, however, cautioned against making too strong a connection between an animated film and a lethal virus. Kei, a 25-year-old who saw the film with his sister, partly put its success down to people having more free time during the pandemic, but added: “It’s a big hit because the animation is unique and beautiful. It’s very creative.”

Agencies contributed reporting.