Unprecedented Quality, Publicity behind Success of ‘Demon Slayer’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Giveaways for “Demon Slayer — Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train”

Who would have expected a new box office record to be set in this pandemic-hit year?

The animated movie “Demon Slayer — Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train” directed by Haruo Sotozaki has become the most successful film in Japanese history, reaching about ¥32.48 billion at the box office. It broke the previous record of ¥31.68 billion earned by “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi” (Spirited Away), directed by Hayao Miyazaki in 2001.

Let’s look at the factors behind the success of “Kimetsu,” which dominated the movie world in the second half of 2020 and became a social phenomenon. The movie was released on Oct. 16 and grossed ¥4.62 billion in the first three days. Its momentum continued to build, and it broke the record set by “Spirited Away” on Dec. 26, its 72nd day in theaters.

Minami Ichikawa, managing director of the movie’s distributor Toho Co., praised co-distributor Aniplex Inc. for focusing its advertising on “the magnificence of the film.” Ichikawa also noted the effective strategy of distributing special giveaways at theaters every few weeks — ranging in number from hundreds of thousands to millions of items each time — including a booklet containing a newly drawn manga by original creator Koyoharu Gotoge.

Aya Umezu, chief executive officer of GEM Partners Inc., which provides data and digital marketing services for the entertainment industry, attributed the unprecedented success to a combination of three elements.

The first was the familiarity of the content, Umezu said. The original manga was selling well, and the anime version was available on almost all video distribution services such as Netflix and Hulu, allowing the story to swiftly gain popularity as people stayed at home during the pandemic.

Second was the normalization of moviegoing. With various safety measures in place, an atmosphere was created around summertime that it was safe to go to movie theaters.

Third was less competition than usual — the supply of Hollywood blockbusters, which usually account for half of the market, stopped, and moviegoers focused their minds on one movie.

Umezu felt familiarity was the most effective of these three factors. Compared to other successful anime films such as “Spirited Away” and 2016’s “Kimi no Na wa” (your name.) directed by Makoto Shinkai, Umezu said: “The content already was an explosive hit in a wide range of areas and among many fans,” contributing to the success of the movie version.

Umezu expectes “Kimetsu” will “become a model for success that many businesses will pursue and that will change the industry.”

Video distributors tend not to publish data such as the number of viewers, so the popularity of the anime version was not disseminated to the public. However, the movie’s box office numbers have been well known and were reported as news, “ensuring everyone knew the movie was a hit,” Umezu said.

The spread of information related to “Kimetsu” on social media and the internet also boosted the number of moviegoers. A movie character named Kyojuro Rengoku who fights against demons with the protagonist Tanjiro Kamado became hugely popular — hashtags including his name appeared on Twitter, and dedicated fans went to cinemas again and again. Whether “Kimetsu” would be able to surpass “Spirited Away” was also a matter of public interest, and the news itself became entertainment.

Some members of the film industry had told The Yomiuri Shimbun that they expected “Kimetsu” to be a big hit, but that it would only bring in about ¥4 billion. Even people in the industry didn’t anticipate this level of popularity.

■First-class design, action

©Koyoharu Gotoge / SHUEISHA, Aniplex, ufotable
Nezuko Kamado, the heroine of “Demon Slayer — Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train”

Anime industry researcher Hiromichi Masuda praised the animated adaptations of the manga saying, “Both the TV and movie versions are of high quality throughout,” and noted the skill of production company Ufotable Inc.

The most striking features, Masuda says, are the well-drawn characters and the fierce fighting scenes.

“In anime with a lot of fighting, scenes tend to freeze in the middle of the story, or the drawings become fuzzy. But that never happened with ‘Kimetsu,’” he said.

Ufotable has drawn attention for its “Gekijoban Sora no Kyokai” (The Garden of sinners) series of animated films.

“Many Japanese animation studios tend to be prolific, but this company is a small producer and puts all its energy into one work. I think this has contributed to the high quality of their work, which has been appreciated by viewers,” Masuda said.

Unlike other big-hit anime films in the past, the creators’ faces do not advertised.

“Unlike anime that often highlight the particular characteristics of the creator, ‘Kimetsu’ was originally carried in Shukan Shonen Jump weekly magazine,” Masuda said. “The theme of ‘Kimetsu’ is based on the magazine’s theme of ‘friendship, effort and victory.’ Viewers may not think about who the creator of the anime is.”

Masuda also said the timing of the film’s release was perfect.

“It was put out in October, after the second outbreak of the coronavirus had settled down, and audiences’ craving for movies may have given it a push,” he said.