The right film at the right time helps Japan confront its demons
FOR NEARLY 20 years “Spirited Away”, an Oscar-winning animation, reigned unchallenged as Japan’s highest-earning film. But in the last days of 2020 the title was, well, spirited away by “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train”, an adaptation of a hit manga (comic book). Set in the early 20th century, “Demon Slayer” follows a young boy, Tanjiro, as he and his comrades battle a band of demons who have killed his family and turned his sister into one of them, as demons do. “Spirited Away” took more than eight months to reach ticket sales of ¥30bn ($247m at the time); “Demon Slayer” passed that mark in less than two (there was hardly any inflation in the intervening period). Box office receipts currently stand at ¥36bn ($349m).
奥斯卡获奖动画片《千与千寻》（Spirited Away）稳居日本最高票房电影的宝座长达近20年。但在2020年的最后几天，这顶桂冠如同少女千寻一般，被改编自热门漫画的《鬼灭之刃：无限列车篇》（Demon Slayer: Mugen Train）悄然掳走。《鬼灭之刃》的背景设定在20世纪初，讲述了少年炭治郎在家人被鬼杀死、妹妹被变成鬼后和伙伴们一起斩鬼的故事。《千与千寻》当初达成300亿日元票房用了八个多月（当时合2.47亿美元），而《鬼灭之刃》不到两个月就破此记录（在这些年间几乎没有通货膨胀）。目前后者的票房收入为360亿日元（3.49亿美元）。
The film is one of several hits from the same storyline. The original manga series ran in the popular Weekly Shonen Jump from 2016 until 2020. Subsequent compilations have sold over 100m copies. A television show based on the series was named anime of the year in 2020 at the Tokyo Anime Awards Festival, an animation industry powwow. The series’ theme song topped the pop charts. Marketing tie-ups saw “Demon Slayer” characters deployed to sell everything from rice balls to toy swords. Products linked to the series have brought in ¥270bn, according to the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, a think-tank.
这部电影是源自同一则故事的多个热门产品之一。其原作漫画系列从2016年到2020年在人气杂志《周刊少年Jump》上连载。合集版本的销量超一亿册。2020年，在动漫行业盛会东京动画奖（Tokyo Anime Awards Festival）上，根据该系列改编的电视动画片当选“年度最佳动画”。电视主题曲也登上流行音乐榜榜首。营销合作使得《鬼灭之刃》的人物角色出现在从饭团到玩具剑的各种商品上。根据智库日本第一生命经济研究所（Dai-ichi Life Research Institute）的数据，《鬼灭之刃》系列周边已经带来了2700亿日元的收入。
The series has permeated all walks of life. Suga Yoshihide, the 72-year-old prime minister, reportedly referred to one of its signature phrases—“total concentration breathing”—during a cabinet meeting. Primary-school pupils named Tanjiro their most admired person in a survey in November, just pipping their mothers (who came second) but well ahead of their fathers (who came a lowly fifth).
In part, “Demon Slayer” has covid-19 to thank for its success. The manga concluded in the early days of the pandemic, as many Japanese hunkered down at home. That fuelled fresh interest in earlier issues and in the television series released in 2019. Unlike longer-running series with daunting tomes of back issues, such as “Dragon Ball” or “Doraemon”, the new and relatively compact “Demon Slayer” proved perfect for quarantine-era bingeing. The film’s release, in turn, coincided with the lifting of restrictions on audience sizes at Japanese cinemas. Moreover, Hollywood studios were holding off releasing blockbusters at the time. “It launched when entertainment was limited, so people flocked to it,” says Sudo Tadashi, an anime critic.
The story itself also carried a moral suited to the pandemic: good triumphs over evil, but only after great hardship. Some commentators even argued that the oni, or demons, in the series evoke those associated with plagues in the past, making their defeat especially sweet.
The success of the series also reflects big changes in the manga and anime business. For one thing, its creator, who uses an alias, is thought to be a young woman, a rarity in a largely male industry. The female characters are less passive than in many other manga, says Ijima Yuka of Daito Bunka University: “In the past, women and girls were to be protected, not portrayed as fighters; in “Demon Slayer” women and girls fight.” The more varied protagonists appeal to a wider range of viewers. “There are lots of characters and each one had individual flair, so everyone could find someone to empathise with,” Mr Sudo says.
该系列的成功也反映出漫画和动画行业的重大变化。首先，人们认为使用化名的创作者是一位年轻女性，这在一个很大程度上由男性主导的行业中十分罕见。大东文化大学（Daito Bunka University）的井岛由香说，与其他许多漫画相比，这部作品中的女性角色没那么被动。“以前，女人和女孩是被保护的对象，不会被描绘成战士，而在《鬼灭之刃》中她们能战斗。”主要角色更加多样化也吸引了更多观众。数土直志说，“故事中的人物很多，而且各具特色，所以人人都能找到有共鸣的角色。”
“Demon Slayer” also heralds a turn away from the all-controlling directors and closed distribution networks of old, argues Matt Alt, author of “Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World”: “Streaming is unsettling the traditional giants.” The anime version of “Demon Slayer” launched simultaneously on 20 television channels and 22 streaming platforms, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, which helped it build a broader fan base, says Mr Sudo. It was not the creation of a single, driving figure, unlike “Spirited Away”, which was written and directed by Miyazaki Hayao. He is one of the dwindling ranks of Japanese who have yet to see “Demon Slayer”. ■
《纯粹的发明：日本流行文化如何征服世界》（Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World）一书的作者马特·阿尔特（Matt Alt）认为，《鬼灭之刃》也预示着行业将开始背离导演总揽全局和旧有的封闭分销网络的模式，“流媒体正让传统巨头感到不安。”数土直志表示，《鬼灭之刃》剧集版在20个电视频道和奈飞（Netflix）、Hulu及亚马逊Prime Video等22个流媒体平台上同时推出，这帮助它建立起更广泛的粉丝群。与宫崎骏创作并执导的《千与千寻》不同，它并非某一个有强大影响力的人的创造物。而宫崎骏是越来越少的还没看过《鬼灭之刃》的日本人之一。