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Growing interest in anime movies is a beacon of hope for the entire industry

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Japanese animation, or anime, has been around for decades and has spawned as titles such as "Demon Slayer," "Pokemon," "Naruto." But anime movies have only recently become consistent hits at the U.S. box office. That may bode well for a movie market saturated with sequels and superheroes. NPR's Maison Tran has more.

MAISON TRAN, BYLINE: Sailing the seas in search of fruit that gives powers, shooting energy beams out of palms, fighting demons with swords and sorcery...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JUJUTSU KAISEN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Japanese).

TRAN: ...All on brand for the anime movies that have come out this year to great success in the U.S. "Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero" grossed over $38 million. And the recent "One Piece: Red" opened with 9 million.

JEFF BOCK: Usually, a film like this would take the box office by surprise, you know? And a lot of analysts wouldn't even mention the film. And now a lot of them are predicting, hey, oh, an anime film's coming in? Oh, that could be number one at the box office. That was just unheard of even three years ago.

TRAN: That's Jeff Bock, a box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. He says films like "Pokemon: The First Movie," which came out in 1999, and Studio Ghibli's "Spirited Away," which had great critical acclaim, laid the groundwork for how these later movies did so well. Since then, anime's audience has grown massively. One of the biggest anime conventions in America, Anime NYC, went from about 22,000 attendees in 2017 to 55,000 this year.

BOCK: That's great news not only for theaters and and audiences, but for the theatrical community, which is losing more genres than it's gaining. To see something like this shoot up is like a beacon of hope for the entire industry.

TRAN: Usually, these films only screen for a few weeks, so dedicated fans rush out to see them opening weekend. Mitchel Berger, senior VP of Global Commerce at Crunchyroll, the No. 1 distributor of these anime films, says they owe it to these fans.

BOCK: There's just something special about getting together in real life and watching it on the big screen. And I think that is another big key into why it's been a success. We have amazing content to show, and we have a fan base that loves to come out and see it in theaters.

TRAN: As passionate as these fans are, there's still a little bit of stigma around this medium, as one might associate cartoons with kids. But Peter Tatara, director of Anime NYC, says there's a lot more in common with a Marvel movie fanatic and an avid anime fan than one might think. And whether a kid is swinging around New York in spandex or flying around Japan in a jumpsuit...

PETER TATARA: Whether it's about an alien with a monkey tail or Captain America, it's still the same thing that brings people together.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DRAGON BALL SUPER: SUPER HERO")

CHRISTOPHER SABAT: (As Piccolo) It's do-or-die time, so draw out all of your strength.

KYLE HEBERT: (As Gohan, yelling).

TRAN: As these animated films consistently make upwards of $30 million domestically, they're hitting more than just their target demographic. And Hollywood has taken notice. Sony acquired Crunchyroll in 2021 for $1.2 billion. Netflix and Disney are already licensing and producing anime. But wherever this goes, anime fans...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Japanese).

(CHEERING)

TRAN: ...Will be eating good.

Maison Tran, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAOKI SATO'S "'DRAGON BALL SUPER: SUPER HERO' MAIN THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maison Tran