For the third week of April, the final volume of the Japanese manga “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba” topped bestseller lists in major South Korean bookstores including Kyobo, Yes24, Interpark, and Aladin. “Demon Slayer” was the first comic book to top the list since “Misaeng” in 2014, a feat largely attributed to popularity of the movie adaptation, “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train.”
The movie, which was released on January 27 in South Korea, had attracted more than 1.84 million viewers as of April 28, making it the second-most watched movie so far in 2021. It topped the daily South Korean box office chart four times and remained on the weekly chart of the top three most watched films for 11 consecutive weeks. Its popularity was rather unexpected; it received the rating of a film intended for audiences who are 15 years old or older, which would leave out the profitable demographic of younger children and their accompanying parents. And unlike popular stand-alone animation movies from Disney or Studio Ghibli, the movie is a follow up to the first season of a television series aired in 2019. That limited the film’s accessibility for anyone who did not watch the series or read the manga, especially since Netflix aired the TV series a month after the movie’s release in South Korea.
But perhaps the biggest hurdle for the movie is the fact that a boycott on Japanese products and companies, stemming from a trade feud in 2019, is still ongoing for many South Koreans. According to a poll conducted in November and December last year, 71.8 percent of respondents said they have participated in the boycott, with 41.9 percent indicating that they will continue to actively participate.
Against the backdrop, “Demon Slayer” seemed destined for rejection in South Korea. Another point against it: The anime is set in the beginning of the Taisho Era, a short period from 1912 to 1926 between Japan’s Meiji and Showa periods. The Taisho Era is remembered as a time of relative liberalization and stability in Japan, before the enactment of the Public Security Preservation Law of 1925 and the military takeover by the 1930s. Koreans, however, have a different view toward the Taisho Era. The beginning of the period coincided with the earliest phase of Japanese colonialism in Korea – known as the Military Police Reign Era – where the Kenpeitai (Military Police) controlled much of colonized Korea’s governance. Its brutal governance sparked the March 1st Movement in 1919, which forced the colonial government to briefly take a different approach before the Japanese Empire’s complete militarization.
In the anime, it’s hard to find any significant historical elements of the Taisho Era. There are a few echoes in the syncretic fashion of characters and different places; the main character Tanjiro wears a traditional haori jacket on top of a European-inspired gakuran school uniform. There is a little resemblance to anything modern until the main characters visit bustling Asakusa, with tall neoclassical buildings and people in different traditional and Western-style costumes. In fact, the cultural style and fashion of the Taisho period have been romanticized by other works as well, a trend known as Taisho Roman. Perhaps the author followed this trend and chose the early 20th century as setting to show demons roamed around even at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. But it is usually not easy to convince most Koreans to like Japanese works that depict early 20th century Japan.
This historical background was not at all helped by one element of Tanjiro’s design: his earrings. Some saw in the main character’s earrings an echo of the Rising Sun Flag, which is regarded as a symbol of Japanese militarism and imperialism by Koreans. In order to dodge controversy, Tanjiro’s earrings were edited to leave out the Rising Sun design in both the movie and the television series aired on Netflix in South Korea.
Despite all these possible obstacles, the “Demon Slayer” movie has been very successful in South Korea so far. It topped the daily box office again with almost 70,000 viewers on April 24, 88 days after its opening. Its latest surge is credited to audience members who are visiting theaters multiple times to collect special booklets or goods, or just to watch it again before it is gone from theaters. Its popularity has been met with mixed reviews. On Daum, the second largest portal site in South Korea, heavily used by pro-government and nationalistic users, “Demon Slayer” received 5.9 stars out of a possible 10, with many users giving one star with comments criticizing Japan. On Naver, the largest portal site, however, the movie received 9.31 stars from regular users and 9.62 stars from audiences who booked tickets through Naver.
A K-Drama Takes Japan by Storm
The rather unexpected success of “Demon Slayer” in South Korea resembles the success of a Korean drama in Japan last year. Since its distribution by Netflix in February 2020, the South Korean romantic drama “Crash Landing on You” became a sensational hit in Japan, despite rocky Japan-South Korea relations. It was one of the most watched dramas throughout much of the last year, and its continued popularity led to an exhibition showcasing the drama in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, and Nagoya this year.
The popularity of Korean dramas is not something that is new in Japan; in the Diplomatic Bluebook published by the Japanese Foreign Ministry on April 27, “Crash Landing on You” is credited for helping to spark the fourth “Korean Wave” boom in Japan. The drama was popular enough to be selected as a candidate for the buzzword of 2020. The Diplomatic Bluebook also suggests that Korean dramas, along with K-pop, are now widely accepted among different generations.
What was special about the popularity of “Crash Landing on You” was that, just like “Demon Slayer” in South Korea, it had a backdrop that seemed to set it up for failure. The K-drama focuses on North Korea.
In Japan, North Korea’s image is dominated by a few topics: North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs since the 1998 “Taepodong Shock,” the 1970s and ‘80s era abduction of Japanese citizens, and the pro-North General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon). Considering these images of North Korea, the big popularity of a drama heavily featuring dramatized life in North Korea, with a North Korean officer as a protagonist, was certainly a surprise.
“Crash Landing on You” was also able to attract an unlikely audience for a romantic drama, including older males. When special editor Yamada Takao of the Mainichi Newspaper asked Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu, a known K-drama fan, whether the minister had watched “Crash Landing on You,” the minister replied, “I watched everything. And you are late [catching up on episodes], Mr. Yamada.”
The drama even attracted individuals usually unlikely to watch anything produced in South Korea. Hyakuta Naoki, a former governor of NHK and writer well known for his fierce anti-Korean remarks and stance, admitted on Twitter that he fell in love with the drama. He went even further, writing that “the Korean actor’s acting was great… It is unfortunate, but Japan lost this point (in drama creation).” Hashimoto Toru, a former mayor of Osaka city who is well-known for his anti-Korean and revisionist views, also admitted that he was addicted to the drama – to the point where he was being scolded by his wife for not coming out of his room for dinner. He went on to praise the drama for including every theme that is popular across the world, and even lauded South Korea for orienting itself toward the world through entertainment.
Would these cultural exchanges lead to an improved Japan-South Korea relationship? Probably not. Politics intertwined with history is likely to continue to define the relationship, especially since the general election in Japan and the South Korean presidential election are just around the corner. The Japanese government weaponized trade in a political dispute a few days before the 2019 upper house election, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party encouraged its members to emphasize the dispute throughout the campaign. Meanwhile, the ruling party in South Korea also concluded that the feud with Japan would be beneficial for their party in the 2020 parliamentary election, and their election manual suggested ways to frame the opposition as a “pro-Japan” faction. And there always will be individuals who would like to perpetuate the confrontation for their own financial and political gain.
But when dialogue on common interests becomes possible, admiration and respect for each other’s culture could be a good icebreaker for the two nations.