What pandemic? Japanese cinema attracts record influx of moviegoers

TOKYO – In the United States, movies are shown on seas of empty seats, if theaters open at all. But in Japan, an animated film just had the biggest box office weekend in the country’s history – by far.

The film, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train,” based on a successful Japanese comic book, has been eagerly awaited for months by fans and an industry desperate to bring moviegoers back to big screens amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The film exceeded all expectations, more than doubling the country’s record for the biggest opening weekend, with more than 3.4 million people spending nearly $ 44 million in tickets. In what may be a first for Japan, the film had the the biggest opened to the world last weekend – more than all other countries combined – despite only debuting at the national level.

There’s not a lot of competition right now, as one Hollywood studio after another has pushed back on big budget releases. The extent of the film’s success would have been an outlier even under normal circumstances, but it has special significance during the pandemic, showing how quickly audiences can return once they feel safe spending hours sitting down. among strangers in crowded spaces.

Japan has kept coronavirus cases and deaths low, with a relatively light touch that relies on contact tracing and appeals to a national sense of social responsibility. While infections are skyrocketing across much of the West, the daily number of new cases in Japan has remained below 800 since late August, and in Tokyo, daily life, at least on the surface, is for the most part back to normal.

For many who saw “Demon Slayer” over the weekend, it was the first time they had returned to the theater since April, when the government declared a brief national emergency amid concerns over the increase. cases of viruses. For the country’s top politicians, the startling box office figures were a barometer of Japan’s resistance to the pandemic and its efforts to revive the economy.

It was the rare cartoon that received enthusiastic reviews not from one but from two Japanese ministers. Top government spokesperson Katsunobu Kato told reporters the film made “an extremely important contribution to the film industry.” And on Twitter, Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is leading the country’s economic revitalization efforts, called it “a spectacular achievement for the worlds of culture and entertainment as they battle the coronavirus.”

The story, set at the turn of the 20th century in Japan, follows a young man who joins a group of warriors determined to eliminate the demons who killed his family and cursed his sister.

The comic, or manga, on which the film is based is one of a 22-volume series that has become a national phenomenon. In the four years since its launch, it has sold over 100 million copies, making it one of the most successful manga of all time.

The comics have been turned into a popular animated series that has found fans around the world, and the characters of “Demon Slayer” decorate everything from rice balls to train livery in Japan.

“This particular title crosses the generations. Even people over 40, over 50, really like “Demon Slayer”, “said Roland Kelts, visiting professor of media studies at Waseda University in Tokyo and author of the book” Japanamerica “.

The series is “quite sentimental, but it’s done well,” he said, adding that she had “been very smart in building an following and maintaining it” through online streaming services.

“Demon Slayer” has found plenty of space on Japanese theater screens. The only major foreign production to hit Japanese theaters this past weekend was “Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s time-traveling spies film, which opened in the country in mid-September.

Friday, the opening day of “Demon Slayer”, a theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district – a stone’s throw from the world’s busiest train station – has scheduled 42 performances, from 7 a.m. to the smallest. hours of the next morning. On social media, commentators joked that the show schedules looked more like a bus schedule than a list of movies.

In mid-September, authorities lifted restrictions that required cinemas to operate at 50% capacity. Now businesses can fill the house as long as they don’t serve food. Many theaters, in anticipation of the release of “Demon Slayer,” have decided to forgo snack sales in the hopes of maximizing ticket revenue.

At a movie theater, Shinjuku Wald 9, people of all ages lined up on Tuesday to buy tickets for the movie. A thermal scanner in the lobby checked body temperature and signs posted around the building reminded people to sanitize their hands before entering their show and to wear a mask while watching it. Regular intercom announcements informed customers that they could drink in their seats but not eat.

No major coronavirus outbreaks have been traced in Japanese cinemas, and industry groups have tried to calm things down with studies showing the venues are well ventilated, theoretically reducing the risk of exposure to the pathogen.

In one month of August survey According to the market research firm Gem Standard, 84% of people questioned said they were “reassured” by the measures taken by cinemas to prevent infection. Still, nearly 60% said they weren’t quite ready to go again. Another 37% said they expected a movie to see. “Demon Slayer” has apparently filled that bill for a lot.

Japan’s entertainment industry has been hit hard by the pandemic even as the country has taken a largely laissez-faire approach to controlling the virus, lying somewhere between Sweden, which has been largely inactive, and China, which has locked down entire cities. (The cinema has strongly rebounded in China because the virus has been largely eradicated.)

In Japan, there has been no mandatory confinement, no fine for passing without a mask and few tests. The most extreme measure has been the almost complete closure of the country’s borders to anyone other than its own citizens, a measure that only recently started to be relaxed.

Public education campaigns have focused on wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and avoiding what authorities have called the “three Cs” – closed spaces, crowded places and close contact. . Across the country people have voluntarily obeyed.

In Tokyo, there are few signs of the pandemic, except for the ubiquitous masks and disinfectant bottles placed near the doors. Rush hour trains are packed with commuters. Cafes are full of people typing on their laptops. And diners are lining up again to enter popular restaurants.

Among those who ventured out for “Demon Slayer” was Xu Jie, a 20-year-old Chinese student. Mr. Xu, who had come to the theater with a friend, said it was the first time he had returned to the cinema since the start of the pandemic.

For “Demon Slayer”, he said, he was “ready to take the risk”.

“I’m a little worried, but I just had to see it.”

Satori Shigematsu, 22, said she started seeing movies again in September “once things calm down”.

“As long as people take the proper precautions,” she said, “there’s not much to worry about. “

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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