'Demon Slayer' Overtakes 'Spirited Away' to Become Japan's Biggest Box Office Hit Ever

Demon Slayer

'Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train'

Thanks to low local levels of COVID-19 infection and fully operating cinemas, the anime feature has smashed nearly every one of Japan's major box office records, becoming an inescapable cultural phenomenon in the country.

Hayao Miyazaki's nearly two-decade reign atop Japan's all-time box office rankings has come to an end.

Runaway anime blockbuster Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train became Japan's biggest box office hit of all time over the weekend, pushing Miyazaki's beloved classic Spirited Away (2001) into second place. As of Sunday, Demon Slayer had earned 32.47 billion yen ($313.9 million), according to its distributor Aniplex, besting Spirited Away's historic 31.68 billion yen total (Spirited Away earned 30.8 billion yen during its original 2001 release, but got a boost to its total after a rerelease in Japan this past summer).

Demon Slayer has been a rare bright spot in a deeply trying year for the global film industry. The film has been smashing records in Japan ever since its Oct. 16 opening, including the biggest single-day gross (1.2 billion yen, or $11.3 million) and the biggest three-day opening weekend ever (4.6 billion yen; $44 million). Demon Slayer also became the fastest movie in the history of Japan's box office to cross 10 billion yen and $100 million, hitting those marks in just 10 days (Japan's box office is known for its long holds and steady gains over weeks and months for top titles). The film's vivid CG animated action also proved a smash on Imax, becoming the format's biggest movie ever in Japan with $21 million.

Demon Slayer is based on a popular 2016 manga by Japanese artist Koyoharu Gotouge. But the property didn't become a pop cultural phenomenon until it was adapted into an anime series for television. Produced by Tokyo-based studio Ufotable, the 26-episode series aired on Tokyo MX and other channels in 2019, but became a sleeper smash hit when it re-aired on Netflix and Fuji TV. The popularity of the series reignited interest in the manga, making it a runaway best-seller. As of December, the Demon Slayer manga series has sold nearly 120 million copies.

When Ufotable's big-screen adaptation of the series hit Japanese cinemas this fall, conditions were ripe for a box office bonanza. Japanese cinemas nationwide had fully reopened nationwide after a brief period of COVID-19 shutdown in the spring. Since the Hollywood studios had postponed most of their releases until 2021, Demon Slayer had limited foreign competition and Japanese cinemas were highly motivated to wring as much earnings potential as possible for the local blockbuster. One multiplex in Tokyo's Roppongi district played Demon Slayer more than 40 times per day, according to The Japan Times.

Various Japanese news outlets also have speculated that Demon Slayer's success might have something to do with its themes of resilience amid trying times. The film tells the story of a boy in Taisho era Japan (1912-1926) fighting against the odds against flesh-eating demons who have killed his family.

Whatever the case, the film has become much more than a mere event film within Japan. According to Bloomberg, companies ranging from sushi restaurant franchises to canned coffee and toy-making have seen their sales and share prices surge this year after inking Demon Slayer licensing deals. Beverage-maker Dydo Group Holdings Inc. experienced a sales spike of almost 50 percent year-on-year in October after it sold more than 50 million cans featuring Demon Slayer characters on the labeling. Shares of toy-maker SK Japan Co. nearly doubled in Tokyo in the fall following a licensing arrangement involving Demon Slayer characters.