Anime goes mainstream…again
People stormed Wal-Mart this past weekend. They didn’t do it for TVs or iPads. They did it for Pokémon. Japanese pop culture, and more specifically anime, is having yet another moment in the west.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
While the current Pokémon craze in stores owes to opportunistic adults with dollar signs in their eyes, another anime craze this past weekend points to something bigger going on. The Demon Slayer animated feature film took the number two spot on the US box office list of all-time highest grossing anime films right behind Pokémon: The First Movie (1999). It’s also now the highest grossing anime film of all-time worldwide—quite a feat, considering they released it during a global pandemic.
Any time an anime feature makes noise at the US box office, it usually means some sort of cultural phenomenon like Dragon Ball Z or Yu-Gi-Oh has captured the imaginations of American children, but in this case Demon Slayer’s success indicates more of a shift towards anime taking a permanent place among the cravings of young adults.
The formula of Demon Slayer doesn’t really set it apart much from any other mainstream anime hit of the last few years. It follows the story of a young boy out for vengeance after demons kill his family. He trains, he gains accolades and abilities, he seeks out creatures, and he’s got a rag tag group of silly, badass companions. I’ve just described Attack on Titan, Pokémon, and Demon Slayer.
The film, however, cleverly positions itself as big-budget bridge between the events of season one and the upcoming second season. Set almost entirely on a train, something we’ve seen before—Mugen Train both advances the story of the series and provides a self-contained and easily accessible story for newcomers.
While Demon Slayer claims its own merits as a series and film, Gen Z’s emerging proud, wide acceptance of the genre and insatiable hunger for animated content out of Japan is propelling its performance in the West.
Gen Z grew up with Evangelion, Bleach, and Naruto at their fingertips by way of Crunchyroll and more recently Netflix. If you walked into a Hot Topic any time in the last few years you would’ve seen large sections dedicated to Attack on Titan and Studio Ghibli. Those sections now house the latest fixations of My Hero Academia and Demon Slayer.
Whereas anime used to be something us geeks cautiously admitted to liking since the days of Akira, anime now offers community for teens and young adults connecting through TikTok. Demon Slayer’s theatrical run comes at a time when all the pent-up social frustration of a pandemic nursed by anime streaming binges at home can now have a socially acceptable outlet.
Demon Slayer was already doing numbers when a social media trend brought teens out to the theaters, posting themselves cracking OG anime inside jokes during the studio bumpers before the film starts. The most popular is shouting out “Eren Yeager,” the protagonist of completely unrelated anime series Attack on Titan, in a dramatic Japanese accent during the Funimation logo bumper.
Wearing your anime fandom on your sleeve is now a badge of honor and an opportunity for the extremely online to share in the same social literacy and memes. For millennials, the only commonly understood anime meme at their disposal that showed they were an initiate was hentai—don’t Google that—but for Gen Z it’s yesterday’s news. Anime is no longer a subculture. It is the culture.