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Media & Entertainment

'Demon Slayer' anime franchise continues to roll

Companies cash in on marketing tie-ups with blockbuster brand

The animated film "Demon Slayer: Mugen Train" has grossed over 25 billion yen. (Photo by Shihoko Nakakoka) 

TOKYO -- The Demon Slayer money machine continues to churn out profits while creating its own lucrative ecosystem.

An animated film based on the popular manga "Demon Slayer (Kimetsu no Yaiba)" released on Oct. 16 has already grossed over 25 billion yen ($240 million). The franchise, supported by a manga, TV series and most recently a movie, has resulted in numerous product and company marketing tie-ups that have generated hefty sales.

But success was not by chance. Rather, it came from strategies carefully calculated to capitalize on the franchise's popularity.

Sushi restaurant chain Kura Sushi saw same-store sales grow 7.9% in September from a year earlier, apparently from its tie-up with Demon Slayer. The chain posted its first year-on-year sales growth in seven months despite the pandemic-related slump restaurants have suffered. The chain's hook? Plastic-sleeve giveaways featuring Demon Slayer characters.

Meanwhile, convenience store chain Lawson cashed in by offering 50 items -- including rice balls depicting Demon Slayer characters -- timed with the release of "Demon Slayer: Mugen Train," the movie version of the manga. More than 10 million units flew off shelves during the first 10 days, and total sales have now topped 5 billion yen.

It was Lawson's fourth marketing campaign based on the manga. The company planned its first merchandising campaign with the franchise in April 2019, when a TV anime series based on the story first aired. The company has so far rolled out more than 70 items featuring the main characters in one of its largest marketing tie-ups.

Lawson set up a special corner dedicated to Demon Slayer goods at its stores. (Photo by Chie Matsumoto)

"Demon Slayer: Mugen Train" has broken numerous Japanese box office records, becoming the first movie to gross 20 billion yen in about three weeks. By comparison, it took "Spirited Away," a blockbuster animated fantasy by Hayao Miyazaki, 59 days to reach the same mark.

Between 50% to 60% of ticket sales go to distributor Toho, while Aniplex, the Sony unit that produced Demon Slayer, will also likely receive a big earnings boost thanks to the movie's success.

Lawson's long history of collaborating with anime projects dates back two decades and gave it an edge when forming the tie-up. In the process, it was able to develop a close relationship with Aniplex. Lawson also has a direct foothold in the entertainment industry through its Loppi terminal used to buy movie tickets and its group company United Cinemas, a movie theater operator.

Akiko Shirai, general manager of Lawson's marketing strategy division, helped orchestrate the Demon Slayer campaign. Her marketing team has a well-known "passion for anime," and has worked closely with copyright holders and product makers to promote tie-ups. The team's commitment to developing products wholly in line with the animations it represents has evolved into a winning formula.

Shirai's team also devotes a lot of resources to marketing via social media, flooding its Twitter and Line accounts with news and updates of its campaigns. Product makers appreciate the power of Lawson's social media presence, which reaches some 43 million accounts.

Copyright expert Kazuo Rikukawa, president of Character Databank, points to Lawson's flair for making tie-up goods look special. The convenience store chain often works with copyright holders to create unique graphics that are used exclusively in the products, according to Rikukawa. Lawson's collaborative marketing "stands out from the crowd for its uniqueness and content quality."

Another beneficiary of the movie's success is beverage maker Dydo Drinco, whose new canned coffee products featuring 28 different Demon Slayer graphics, launched on Oct. 5. "It was like 'gacha,'" said a person who bought the coffee from a vending machine. Similar comments flooded social media saying how purchasing the canned drink was like buying items from Japan's famous capsule-toy vending machines.

Some people get hooked on buying the coffee until they get the can with their favorite character, said a public relations official at the company, who added that the campaign will be the company's biggest success in terms of sales.

In the first three weeks of product launch, over 50 million cans were sold, pushing up October sales of its coffee products 50% from a year earlier -- equivalent to 6% of overall sales in 2019. The campaign was aimed at "winning more customers in their 20s and 30s" and beefing up sales through vending machines, according to a marketing manager at the company.

Toymaker Bandai Spirits, part of Bandai Namco Holdings, started developing Demon Slayer-themed products in May 2019. Its model Nichirin Sword used by the hero opened for orders in October. The realistic toy prop is designed to appeal to Bandai's mostly older demographic and discerning collectors.

The model sword is embedded with about 70 audio tracks, including lines from the movie. Preorders for delivery in February 2021 have already sold out.

Demon Slayer merchandise began to boom after the TV anime series aired. (Photo by Hiroyuki Kobayashi) 

The popularity of Demon Slayer soared after its TV anime series was aired from April to September 2019. In July this year, Atsuhiro Iwakami, president of Aniplex, which produced the series, said the company devoted its best resources to the project with an eye to making the anime the company's crown jewel. Still, the boom has been beyond "our wildest dreams," he said.

But Demon Slayer's popularity began just before broadcast of the anime ended, driven mainly by video-streaming services. Social media first became alive with Demon Slayer chatter and comic books soon sold out at many bookstores.

Within a week after the first airing of the anime series, Aniplex began offering the series on video-streaming sites Abema, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. This created a fresh wave of interest in the series while ensuring a long life after broadcasting, leading to its huge popularity later.

Aniplex is seeking to maximize profits by showing the movie over many different types of media. "We want to deliver titles to as many people as possible by not limiting platforms," says Iwakami. "Demon Slayer has become a very successful example of this strategy,"

The Demon Slayer sensation is likely to have a huge impact on the industry. Fumio Kurokawa, an anime expert, predicts that the new formula of combining TV broadcasts and video streaming will become popular in the anime industry. "You can broadcast an anime series on TV while distributing spinoffs through streaming services," he said.

People sporting Demon Slayer-themed costumes were spotted during the 2020 Halloween season in Tokyo. (Photo by Makoto Okada)

Mayumi Morinaga, a senior researcher at the Institute of Media Environment of Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, says the popularity of Demon Slayer has mostly been driven by people who have been hooked on animation for the first time.

The movie "meets consumers' needs for content that gives them a sense of certainty," she said, as it closely follows the storyline of the manga. Viewers know exactly how the story ends, Morinaga said, explaining that they are able to relive the thrill they had when they first read the story.

The success of Demon Slayer reveals "a tendency among consumers to seek entertainment that they know they will enjoy instead of wasting time looking for something that may be disappointing in the end," she added.

She also points out that the unique and eye-catching colors of the hero's costumes and hair -- which make easily recognizable symbols -- have also contributed to the proliferation and strong sales of the merchandise.

Additional reporting by Benkei Kuroda, Daiki Hiraoka and Takako Fujiu

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