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Demon Slayer: the action-packed anime blowing up the box office

The runaway success has already become Japan’s highest-grossing movie ever, ending Spirited Away’s 19-year reign on top

In a year that’s seen the film industry decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, one film has come out on top. Demon Slayer fever has taken over Japan, and despite only being released in October, it’s already become Japan’s highest-grossing movie ever. In a matter of months, it’s surpassed sales from Hollywood blockbusters, the Harry Potter series, and even the works of the revered Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away previously held the position in Japan’s charts for nearly two decades).

Like most anime, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie – Mugen Train is adapted from a manga of the same name. The series follows Tanjiro, a teenage boy living in Taisho era Japan (1912-1926) who joins a band of demon fighters to avenge the death of most of his family – and to rescue his sister, who has been turned into a demon. A series adaptation was made for television in 2019, but only became a word-of-mouth sensation when it was re-released onto Netflix and Fuji TV last year. The delayed popularity of the series reignited interest in the manga, making it a runaway bestseller. As of December, the Demon Slayer manga series has sold nearly 120 million copies.

Mugen Train begins where the series left off, as we follow the main characters on a new mission to fight a demon. The action takes place almost entirely on the infinity train; Tanjiro and his motley crew (one walks around in a hollowed-out boar’s head) are on the hunt for Rengoku Kyojuro, a demon slayer who possesses a unique style of fighting that’s only taught within the Kamado family. It’s not the most rigorous plot, but what it lacks in complexity, it gains in fast-paced fight sequences, digitally-enhanced thrills, and an exhilarating soundtrack. Haruo Sotozaki’s film is fun to watch, though at times predictable and inconsistent – and it’s only after a slow 40 minutes of erratic dialogue and unestablished plot that the film really gets chugging.

Back in November, a reporter asked Miyazaki what he thought about Demon Slayer taking over Spirited Away’s number one spot in the box office. “It’s better if people don’t concern themselves with things like box-office records,” he replied. “That sort of thing isn’t worth worrying about. There’s always inflation in the world.” Indeed, the film’s popularity feels inconsistent with its quality. Demon Slayer is by no means a ‘bad’ movie, but it’s no Spirited Away either, begging the question: why is it so successful?

The film hit screens at a time when Japanese cinemas had fully reopened after months of coronavirus shutdown. Since Hollywood had pushed back most of their major releases (Dune, James Bond, The French Dispatch), until 2021, Demon Slayer had little foreign competition. Warner Bros has even secured a deal with HBO Max, which would see Dune premiere on the streaming platform on the same day it hits cinema screens – a decision that shocked and angered the film’s producers.

One multiplex in Tokyo's Roppongi district played Demon Slayer more than 40 times per day, according to The Japan Times. Not to mention a monstrous run of merchandise including plastic swords and limited edition Tamagotchi to Demon Slayer-themed canned coffee, which proved so popular it revised up its profit forecast this fiscal year to 2.5 billion yen (approximately £17,697,500) from 500 million yen (approximately £3,539,880).

Demon Slayer's success might have something to do with its themes of resilience amid difficult times. Tanjiro’s resilience against the demons is no different to the feelings experienced by 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,” Yuka Ijima, an assistant professor at Tokyo’s Daito Bunka University who focuses on manga and psychology, told the Guardian. “Overall, the film is about resilience, about overcoming terrible things and having the strength to do that.”

With Demon Slayer’s UK release slated for February 4, it’ll be interesting to see how the anime fares in Britain’s tense coronavirus climate. Last year saw the country’s cinema industry derailed by the pandemic, forcing the subsequent closure of Cineworld, while the arrival of a third national lockdown pushes cinemas further towards troubled times. Until then, all aboard the Infinity Train!