- The anime film "Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train" was released in US theaters on April 23.
- The film set a box office record in the US, and some coverage described its success as surprising.
- It shouldn't have been: "Demon Slayer" is a massively popular anime series.
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Over the weekend, the anime film "Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train" notched a major American box office win. Per Deadline, it brought in $21.1 million in its opening weekend, setting a record for a foreign-language film debut in the United States and nearly beating out "Mortal Kombat," which brought in $23.3 million.
That's impressive for an R-rated movie premiering during a pandemic, but while some coverage heralded the film's box office success as surprising, it shouldn't have been.
"Demon Slayer," is, to put it bluntly, one of the biggest anime series in the world right now. "Mugan Train" represents the first major event for anime fans stateside since the beginning of the pandemic, and it hit the American public at a time when moviegoers seem to be more willing to return to theaters than they were even a few months ago. That confluence of factors, and the intense fandom buildup to "Mugen Train," shows that its success makes perfect sense.
'Demon Slayer' is a massively popular series that began as a 2016 manga
"Demon Slayer," also known by its Japanese name "Kimetsu no Yaiba," is one of the biggest anime series worldwide. It began as a manga series of the same name in 2016 written by Koyoharu Gotouge, but its popularity exploded in 2019 when the anime adaptation began airing that summer.
"Demon Slayer" takes place in Taishō-era Japan and follows Tanjiro, a young man who trains to join a secret organization known as the Demon Slayer Corps after a demon slaughters his entire family. His younger sister, Nezuko, survives the attack but becomes a demon in the process, setting Tanjiro on a path to turn her back into a human and avenge the rest of his family. Along the way, he teams up with fellow demon slayers Zenitsu Agatsuma and Inosuke Hashibara.
Praised for its ethereal animation, brilliantly choreographed fight sequences, and the strength of its characters, "Demon Slayer" was named anime distribution platform Crunchyroll's anime of the year in 2020, an award that's determined both by a judging panel and fan votes. Its popularity has clearly continued in the lead-up to the film's release.
"Mugen Train" picks up immediately following "Demon Slayer's" first season. Tanjiro, Zenitsu, and Inosuke join Kyojuro Rengoku, an elite slayer with the title of Flame Hashira, on a train plagued by mysterious, demon-related disappearances. It's not a standalone film, but rather a continuation of the main story that picks up immediately after "Demon Slayer's" first season. That makes its success somewhat unique – there's a narrative barrier you need to hop in order to understand the movie, but in turn, it's necessary viewing for fans of the series, of which there are many.
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Some coverage described 'Mugen Train's' box office win as surprising, but it was already a proven hit
"Mortal Kombat" and "Mugen Train" posted the highest American box office numbers of the pandemic thus far, Variety reported, citing Comscore. That's an encouraging sign for box office analysts as theaters continue to open at wider capacities, according to Variety.
Variety's headline described the box office performance of "Mugen Train" as "surprisingly strong;" The Hollywood Reporter described it as locked in a "surprise battle" with the dominant "Mortal Kombat."
However, "Mugen Train" was already a smash hit – and that's putting it mildly. The film was one of the first to premiere in Japan amid relaxed pandemic movie theater restrictions, Vulture reported, and audiences showed up for a record-breaking $44 million opening weekend.
It eventually dethroned Studio Ghibli's "Spirited Away" as the top-grossing film ever in Japan, and also holds the title of the top-grossing anime film worldwide, and as the Los Angeles Times reported, it was the fourth highest-grossing film of 2020 worldwide. That meant that "Mugen Train" beat out Christopher Nolan's fifth-place "Tenet," which bore the hopes and dreams of the ailing movie theater industry in 2020 and ultimately wasn't able to deliver amid ongoing pandemic safety concerns.
'Mugen Train' represented a major event for anime fans in the United States
At this point, anime has become a major part of American pop culture. Michael B. Jordan launched a Naruto-inspired collection with Coach in 2019. Megan Thee Stallion posed in "My Hero Academia" cosplay on the cover of Paper Magazine that same year. Anime franchises and audio clips are a major part of the fabric of TikTok culture.
That's due in part to increased accessibility. You can watch anime on distribution platforms Crunchyroll and Funimation hours after episodes premiere in Japan. Many popular series – "Demon Slayer" included – are available to watch on Netflix, which produces its own original anime, and other major streaming services like HBO Max and Hulu. Screenings of films like "Mugen Train" or 2019's "Promare" are a big deal for fans.
The anticipation building up to "Mugen Train" online was palpable, particularly given that it represented the biggest in-person anime event since the pandemic began. TikTok posts leading up to and following the film's release give an insight into that anticipation, even if it's through memes about people yelling out random TikTok or fandom-related phrases.
Ultimately, "Mugen Train's" success makes sense: a continuation of a popular, highly acclaimed series, it represented a major event for fans as people are starting to become more comfortable going to the movies. It's also a testament to anime's broader standing in American pop culture – "Mugen Train" is a smash international hit, but it fights right into the American entertainment landscape as well.
"Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train" is currently in theaters in the United States and will be available digitally on June 22.