Ghost In The Shell Director Mamoru Oshii On This Year's Biggest Anime Hit

When people look back at 2020, for all its awfulness, one bright spot will stick out in Japan: the runaway success of Demon Slayer.

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The manga debuted in 2016 and recently ended its run. Last year saw a TV anime. But this year, Demon Slayer exploded. As of writing, the animated feature film has dominated the box office, while the manga has ruled the sales charts. Its success is truly staggering.

Yet, Mamoru Oshii, the famed director of the 1995 anime feature Ghost in the Shell, isn’t bullish on Demon Slayer becoming a long-running institution like One Piece or Dragon Ball. Instead, he chalks up its success to going viral.

In a recent interview with Bunshun Online, Oshii was asked why Demon Slayer is such a huge hit. He replied that hasn’t seen more than YouTube footage of the anime, but added that he has some basic knowledge of it. “The original manga is popular with people, and the illustrations are carefully done,” Oshii continued. “But it’s not like the characters or the story are new.” This does not seem to matter. Toho Studios, which is distributing the Demon Slayer film, told NHK that over 22.5 million people had seen the movie.

Oshii recalled something that Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki once said: A work can appeal to a million people, and anything above that is a social phenomenon.

This is an excellent point, and it does remind me of how Yokai Watch captured the imagination of Japanese children in 2014. But the trend ended, and as Kotaku reported last year, Yokai Watch is having a terrible time in Japan.

The case of Yokai Watch proves massive success does not necessarily led to becoming part of Japan’s cultural fabric. It’s a question of whether fans remain after the white-hot popularity has cooled. Some things, such as Pokémon, do not peter out and instead become institutions.

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“Works that go viral become mega-hits,” Oshii continued. “One of the modern mysteries people want to know is why something goes viral.”

The reason could be simple. It could be that, as movie critic Yuichi Maeda told Reuters, Demon Slayer’s message resonates with Japanese audiences. “People in high positions act according to that—’Noblesse oblige’, samurai, and so on. Those at the top become a shield for weaker ones, using their strength to protect them,” said Maeda. “That’s absolutely missing in modern Japan.”

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Or, it could be that once something becomes popular in Japan, then inevitability, it snowballs through society. This is how trends supernova, but staying power can be elusive.

“Perhaps, I would imagine that another Demon Slayer movie will get made, but it’s doubtful it will be as big of a hit as this first one,” Oshii added. “I also think it’s difficult for it [Demon Slayer] to become a standard [anime] like One Piece or Dragon Ball.” In short, Oshii seems to think Demon Slayer is lightning in a bottle. Repeating its success, he indicates, will not be easy. What has made One Piece and Dragon Ball so iconic is that their popularity has endured for years—generations.

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Oshii says it’s “difficult,” but certainly not impossible. Demon Slayer is already on track to surpass Spirited Away at the box office. This year, it made a mark with the manga’s last chapter being published at the height of Demon Slayer-mania. Maybe it will return to regular serialization, bringing more anime films. If so, the only thing that’s left to prove is future success. Easier said than done.

Originally from Texas, Ashcraft has called Osaka home since 2001. He has authored six books, including most recently, The Japanese Sake Bible.

DISCUSSION

Oshii recalled something that Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki once said: A work can appeal to a million people, and anything above that is a social phenomenon.

This is a provocative statement, although I’m curious about the intended tone. Is he simply talking about the threshold for going viral? Or should we take this to mean that a “social phenomenon” is not the same thing as an appreciative and understanding audience? The connotation here escapes me.

In any case, it’s interesting to see Oshii musing about what it takes to capture the cultural zeitgeist. At least in the west, he held almost oversized importance during the 1990s, as anime worked its way into the cultural mainstream, but his recent projects have been nearly invisible. Things like Avalon and Assault Girls have some high-profile fans, but they have never really been part of the conversation.

I don’t mean to suggest that his take on Demon Slayer is bitter grapes. He seems to have accepted smaller budgets - and live action - as a means of preserving creative independence and making some truly peculiar art. But does he see himself as an independent on the outside? Or as an anime savant on the wrong side of an arbitrary viral culture?