China Tightens Censorship After 'Monster Hunter' Scandal, Delays Release of Hit Anime 'Demon Slayer' (Exclusive)

Monster Hunter
Coco Van Oppens/Sony Pictures

The country's Film Administration has called back previously approved imported films for a second censorship review as it faces pressure to avoid another controversy. The resultant delays could severely impact the earning power of films like 'Demon Slayer.'

The racial insensitivity scandal that derailed the China release of action film Monster Hunter is starting to impact other high-profile movies in the country.

Sources in Beijing tell The Hollywood Reporter that the China Film Administration has tightened its censorship process in the wake of the controversy, calling back several previously approved imported films for a second, more thorough review.

The largest film impacted is the Japanese anime blockbuster Demon Slayer, which has earned just shy of $300 million worldwide and was hotly anticipated in China. The Japanese hit was acquired by Chinese entertainment company Bilibili and was eyeing a major theatrical release in late December or early January. A source close to the situation tells THR that those plans have been plunged into turmoil after the censors insisted on scrutinizing the movie a second time.

Popular Japanese anime sequel Fate/stay night: Heaven's Feel III. spring song, produced by Tokyo studio Ufotable, is said to have suffered the same fate. Directed by Tomonori Sudou, Fate/stay III earned a healthy $19.2 million in Japan earlier this year despite taking a hit from the country’s brief COVID-19 cinema shutdowns.

Neither film is expected to have any difficulty passing censorship a second time, but the lengthy approval process will probably push them out of their year-end target release window. Since China’s regulators don’t allow foreign films to open during the lucrative Chinese New Year holiday period — Feb. 11-26, 2021 — Demon Slayer and Fate/stay may have to wait until late February or March to release in China. By then, a high-quality pirate copy of Demon Slayer is expected to have leaked online (the film will release on DVD and Blu-ray in Japan sometime in late January), which could severely impact the blockbuster’s China earnings.

Chinese filmgoers often privately gripe about their country’s strict censorship system, but in the case of Monster Hunter, some patriotic social media users vocally criticized the government for not taking a more aggressive stance.

Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat) and starring Milla Jovovich, Monster Hunter is an adaptation of a Capcom video game series that commands a particularly strong following in China. Other video game adaptations, such as the Resident Evil franchise, have done huge business in the country, and hopes were high that Monster Hunter would do the same. A global effort, the film was co-produced by China’s own tech giant Tencent, Germany’s Constantin Films, Anderson’s Impact Pictures and Japan’s Toho, with Sony holding most of the worldwide distribution rights outside of China.

But the film was yanked from Chinese cinemas one day after its release on Dec. 4 after a brief scene caught the attention of filmgoers and exploded on social media.

The 10-second sequence that sparked the outcry features Asian-American rapper/actor MC Jin saying to a fellow character, “Look at my knees." "What kind of knees are these?" replies his white companion. "Chi-nese,” Jin quips. Many interpreted the pun as a reference to the once common racist playground rhyme used to insult people of Asian origin.

Capcom immediately distanced itself, saying it had nothing to do with the adaptation, and the film’s producers later issued a statement apologizing and saying no offense was intended. But the damage was done: Scores of angry local filmgoers and lay observers slammed the scene as a slur against the Chinese people. The movie was pulled and has yet to be rereleased, even though the producers pledged to cut the offending sequence before putting it back out. Some internet commentators even took direct aim at Beijing’s censors for not “catching” the offending snippet of dialog.

Even prior to the Monster Hunter debacle, film censorship in China had become tighter than at any time in recent memory. Numerous leading local filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou, Guan Hu and Derek Tsang, have had to make changes to their latest work in response to decisions by censors. Monster Hunter seems to only have exacerbated the repressive trend.

Bilibili operates one of China’s most popular streaming platforms, which targets a young and influential demographic, often with anime content. The company acquired the hit Japanese anime TV series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, which preceded the blockbuster movie adaptation. In Japan, the popularity of the TV series, as well as the original manga on which it is based, was instrumental to the big-screen version’s historic success (the film is expected to soon surpass Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as the highest-grossing film in Japanese box office history). Bilibili had been repeating that playbook by streaming the TV series version, priming the Chinese audience for the forthcoming film release.

Japanese anime has been known to generate huge ticket sales in China. Matoko Shinkai’s whimsical teen anime Your Name earned $84 million in 2016 and a rerelease of Spirited Away brought in $70 million in 2018 — 17 years after its original debut.

Losing Demon Slayer from the 2020 calendar would be a sizable disappointment to Chinese exhibitors as well as Bilibili. China's year-end theatrical release calendar is looking notably thin after the release of Warner Bros.' Wonder Woman 1984 and Dante Lam’s The Rescue on Friday. Many in the Chinese industry were hoping Demon Slayer might give the box office a final boost as 2020 ticked over into the new year.