Numlock Sunday: Ana Diaz on the box office smash hit of the pandemic era

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Ana Diaz of Polygon, who wrote “Demon Slayer has biggest US foreign-language box office debut ever”. Here's what I wrote about it:

Japanese film Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train scored the top-grossing foreign language debut in the history of the U.S. box office, bringing in $21.1 million over its opening weekend. The film had already become the top-grossing film of all time in Japan when it made about $350 million and dislodged Spirited Away from the top spot. It’s about a person trying to save his sister from a demon curse, and is based off an incredibly popular manga and anime franchise.

Demon Slayer has been a real delight to see, mainly because I’m incredibly fond of box office stories and the evolution of cinematic tastes, and this has been a pretty rough 15 months for that kind of storytelling. Demon Slayer has smashed all kinds of records, and has done so at a fascinating time. Beyond its hits at the box office, it’s also a big hit for an anime format that has long been on the rise. Diaz’s coverage has explored that repeatedly, so I’m very excited to chat with her.

Ana can be found at Polygon and on Twitter at @Pokachee.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

You covered a really fascinating box office phenomenon — a thing that we haven't really had a lot of in the past year! — and you've written a couple of times about the new Demon Slayer movie. What made this such a hit in the U.S. and globally?

When thinking about Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train, it's important to remember that this movie isn't just the standalone movie, it’s part of a rich media ecosystem of anime and manga. To people in the U.S. who aren't familiar with manga, who weren't familiar with the franchise Demon Slayer, it might've come as a surprise that it smashed the record for largest foreign language film debut in the United States. But to the folks inside these fandoms, it's not so surprising. Demon Slayer was the biggest manga of 2020, and in November the manga broke over 80 million physical copies sold worldwide, and that's not even including digital releases, which is another incredibly popular way to read it. In a sense, Mugen Train was just a continuation of this already worldwide hype over this new franchise.

Why is it connecting with audiences so well?

I think the easy thing to say would be like, okay, people are starting to get vaccinated, they're excited to go into a movie theater again. But I would say it performed in spite of hesitancy to go into the movie theater. From a fandom perspective it was a very exciting, really popular movie because not only is it the first feature length film for Demon Slayer, but it is also canon, which essentially means whatever happens in the world, the movie also carries onto the television show. It sort of makes it a must-watch for fans.

Other popular anime franchises, like My Hero Academia, released feature length movies, but they're not so canon, so to speak. Whatever happens in those movies does not necessarily carry over into the world of the shows, whereas this movie was consistent with the world of the show and the manga.

So, I think that obviously is going to bring in a ton of fans. Then as far as other reasons for popularity, anime and manga are super big on platforms like TikTok. It's never been easier to get into something new and consume content around it. People also have the time to do that, and so I think that all of these sorts of circumstances created the perfect storm for it to become a super popular movie.

You've written a lot about manga as a cultural phenomenon. I think that a lot of times when people are assessing the media industry, they don't tend to notice that this has been a very pervasive force, not only in American publishing, but also it's one of the few things that really has been growing year-over-year, right? I'd love to hear what drew you to covering the topic as a journalist.

I think for me, I am sort of a case example of how someone can get pulled into these fandoms. I know I watched some anime on Netflix when I was younger, but over the pandemic, I just got really into these worlds through TikTok to the point where it's like, okay, I'm reading manga, I'm watching anime, I'm watching the movies. And I'm watching people make very specific jokes about characters that sort of draw upon memes conventional to TikTok fandoms, but then also, blend in very hyper specific jokes about these franchises, and it makes you feel like a part of something. So, I'd say that's one thing.

But then the other part of it is, and I've written on this: I'm a woman, and a lot of these franchises are starting to be more inclusive to women and show more diverse and different kinds of characters. Yasuke just came out from Netflix and it's on the first Black samurai. You have shows like Jujutsu Kaisen, which was the most popular anime on Crunchyroll's streaming numbers in North America, and that's a show that does its female characters incredibly well. I think for me, the combination of having the time, and then also starting to see stories that really appealed to me, drew me in specifically and felt more open to people like me, really brought me into this and made me want to write about it more and explore more.

You mentioned Netflix earlier, and I know that they've been recently doing a fairly huge pitch, a push into developing more anime content and buying up a lot more, leading to an expansion of development top to bottom. What do you think is fueling that?

It's a big year for anime in general, and I think that more American companies are starting to see this as a profitable enterprise. For example, Sony Funimation bought the anime streaming service, Crunchyroll, for $1.175 billion. I think larger moves in the industry like that are starting to signal like, "Okay, this is a big thing, and it's here and it's going to stay." It's not just niche, it's mainstream, and Netflix is going to want to get a slice of that pie.

Even if Mugen Train is not going to necessarily hit all four quadrants, there's a bigger conversation that's going on about how there's much more in global recognition for this form of storytelling. I know you're working on this topic a lot.

I'm reporting a story about how paperback mangas are huge right now. It's astonishing to see, a video on TikTok that's just a person filling up their bookshelf with manga can get 2.5 million views. I've been talking to folks, and one person I talked to really stood out to me. As a kid, they were originally bullied and made fun of for having nerdy interests, but now it's a whole new world where it really does feel like something that is becoming more mainstream and more widely accepted and seen. It does reflect a larger shift in the culture and what is seen as pop culture versus what is seen as sort of niche.

You had a post a few weeks ago about even just the Barnes & Noble manga section and how that was a very formative place for a lot of people. I saw the conversation online about it, and you hit a nerve, a lot of people really shared quite a bit of important time in that space.

That's the thing, I think that's what's hard to convey to people who are not familiar with these topics. It's always been a big thing, now it's massive. The Barnes & Noble piece definitely touches on that, where it's these certain cultures have already always existed, and these fans have always been here and loved this content. Obviously, Barnes & Noble wouldn't have had that section if the interest wasn't there. With that Barnes & Noble manga section, it's a fun thing to think like, okay, it's a pandemic now, right? There’s not going to be as many people there.

But I suspect that when things start to open up more and people feel more comfortable spending regular time or longer time periods inside stores, that section is going to be bigger than it ever was. The story was based on a lot of childhood teenage memories of people being in the store, but I think there's going to be a whole new wave, a whole new generation of folks who are interested in it.

It's always interesting the moment that a section that has always been niche, yet profitable, becomes the mainstream. You really saw this with American style comic books about a decade ago, right, where they went from being rather niche pursuits to being like, no, these are the biggest movies on the planet now. With
Mugen Train, obviously, it is the tail end of a pandemic and box office is weird, but it did win the box office weekend! This does kind of feel like a moment.

Totally. I think that another thing to think about too is it also reflects changing generational tastes, right? A lot of this interest is really driven by younger folks, like Gen Z. I don't fall into that category specifically, but as this group becomes like older and starts defining the cultural tastes more, I feel like we're going to see this shift where anime becomes a much larger thing.

Ana, you write all about this and more very cool stuff over at
Polygon. Where can folks find you? Where can folks find your work?

Folks can find me on Twitter, @Pokachee. It just sounds like that because it's how my dad says Pikachu. You can look out for continuous coverage of fandom, both in video games and in anime, just sort of covering what is popping on TikTok and what fandoms are talking about there.

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