Since it premiered in October, the movie has surpassed 2001’s Spirited Away as Japan’s highest-grossing movie after raking in more than $350 million in the domestic box office. As of April, it has grossed over $415 million worldwide, making it both the highest-grossing anime and Japanese film of all time.
The hit is now set to premiere in the United States on April 23, but many of its fans may not even be able to see it — at least not without their parents.
As a continuation of the anime series Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, the film is about Tanjiro, a young swordsman who embarks on a journey to become a demon slayer after his family is killed, while attempting to save his sister who has turned into a demon herself. It sees the pair of siblings boarding a train together with a skilled swordsman to battle a notorious demon. Like most anime, it features intense battle scenes, moving on-screen friendships, and lovable characters.
In Japan, the movie was rated PG12 by national movie regulator Eirin (also known as the Film Classification and Rating Organization), which recommends parental guidance for children under 12 years old but does not require parental accompaniment in the cinema.
In the U.S., however, it’s a totally different story.
The American Motion Picture Association rated the film R (Restricted), which means that anyone under 17 years old must be accompanied by an adult.
How can an animated movie that children as young as five years old have seen and loved in Japan be rated R in the U.S.? It has a lot to do with differences in culture.
“Usually, when people consider what is inappropriate for children, it has to do with sex or violence,” animation historian Nobuyuki Tsugata told VICE, adding that Japanese restrictions for onscreen sexual content are “a bit looser” compared to the U.S. and restrictions on movie violence are generally “quite lax” in Japan.
The R rating in the U.S. was credited to the film’s “violence and bloody images.” In Australia, anyone under 15 years old needed to watch Demon Slayer: Mugen Train with an adult, while the film was banned to everyone under 16 in Singapore.
The curious contrast in age restriction seems to reveal a gaping difference between a local market that is steeped in anime-dominated pop culture, and global audiences that aren’t.
“Japanese people are quite used to depictions of blood in anime,” said Tsugata. “There haven’t been many protests against this domestically, but when there are, I notice that it’s often Japanese adults, not children.”
“I think kids understand the bloody depictions, but because it’s within the fictional world of anime, they aren’t bothered by it and watch it anyway,” he said.
Demon Slayer depicts quite a few beheadings, as well as decapitated limbs, dead bodies, and bloody battles. As the name indicates, it’s no Disney fairytale. But it’s neither the first nor only anime to feature such grisly scenes.
In general, it seems like Japanese audiences just have a higher threshold for horror content. For example, while the 2002 movie The Grudge was rated G (suitable for all ages) in Japan, its American remake was given a PG-13 rating which strongly cautions parents against pre-teen viewing.
While Demon Slayer has attracted a large fanbase, especially among teens and young adults, underaged fans in the U.S. will likely face difficulties watching the highly-anticipated movie.
“It’s a little silly that the target audience for this movie won't be able to view it without their parents coming along,” Amanda, an American viewer who requested to be identified by her first name, told VICE.
Anime are sometimes edited for international release to make them more localized or accessible for specific markets. For example, the original Japanese version of the film Spirited Away features a scene where the main character looks at a large building in silence, while the English-dubbed version has her saying aloud, “It’s a bathhouse,” for international viewers who may not recognize the traditional Japanese facility.
When the anime series The Way of the Househusband was released on Chinese video-hosting platform Bilibili, the tattoos of the main character — a former yakuza boss — were notably scrubbed off to abide by local censorship rules.
Tomoharu Ishikawa, the executive director of Japan’s national movie regulator Eirin, told VICE that they have the following measures for determining a film’s rating: the subject matter, linguistic expression, sexual expression, nudity, violence and cruel depiction, fear or images of threat, narcotics and drugs, and crime and delinquency.
“Depending on the scale of each depiction, a movie gets a different rating,” he said, adding that Eirin gave the film a PG12 rating considering “its depiction of murder” and sword-related gore content.
“Demon Slayer is not the only movie to have different ratings for different countries. Each film is unique, and we must look at the movies individually,” said Ishikawa.
The rating seems to sit well with Japanese viewers, many of whom have cultivated a large appetite for anime films and series. Go Ogata, a Japanese college student who watched the movie, said that he “didn’t find the depictions of violence or blood particularly bothersome.”
“I’ve watched a lot of movies since I was a kid, largely from my parent’s influence. I watched The Silence of the Lambs when I was about 11 or 12 years old. So I’m quite used to it,” he said.
Meanwhile, international viewers recognize that the wildly popular film may not be all that child-friendly.
“I think the storyline is actually appropriate for kids because it is pretty wholesome but those under the age of 12 should not watch this because certain scenes might be considered violent and dark,” said Thy Le, a 19-year-old student in Australia.
Erik Ponce, 22, from El Salvador, suggested that it should be restricted to those 15 years old and above, pointing to “some particularly disturbing moments” that made the film “a bit more uneasy” than other anime movies.
Amanda, the American viewer, said she could understand why it was rated R in the U.S. She managed to catch the movie before its official release and described it as “more bloody and disturbing” than animated films that are typically released for youth in the country.
But this doesn’t mean that she agrees with the age rating.
“I do not think the movie should have an R rating in the U.S. and I'm a little surprised to hear of it. PG-13 would be more appropriate,” she said. “There are definitely ‘violent’ scenes that show blood … but I think an R rating and requiring an adult to accompany is very excessive.”