To the Next Paycheck
As I’ve written on this blog before, for better or worse, I tend to watch most of the limited-release anime films that I can when they hit my local Cineplex theater. I had not yet been a reader nor watcher of the mega-hit Demon Slayer back when its absurdly high-grossing film hit theaters in that brief period of still-normal 2020. When I saw that Demon Slayer was heading back to theaters in early 2023, I didn’t need any further convincing to book my ticket.
I was fully aware going into the theater that Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba – To the Swordsmith Village was not a traditional movie. Rather, it’s a preview of the first, hour-long episode of the upcoming third season of the anime, preceded by the last two episodes of season two. As someone who understood the hype behind this series’ crazy action scenes (‘specially those from the last two episodes of season two) a rewatch of those episodes on a theater screen in a room packed full of enthusiastic weebs sounded like a fun time. And yet, I was let down by To the Swordsmith Village, even though I knew what I was getting myself into.
The reason for this disappointment has to do with a mismatch of expectations. Given that To the Swordsmith Village was given a theatrical release and a trailer and a marketing budget, I thought, although it was advertised from the start to be three TV anime episodes back-to-back-to-back, that those episodes would at least be stitched together into one coherent program. Instead, it felt like someone hit play on Crunchyroll and then lost the remote control, leaving the viewers stuck watching every last opening theme, closing theme, and commercial bumper.
While the recap of the first two seasons of the show was a sensible and not unwelcome way to start the movie, having to watch multiple opening and ending credits felt… out of place. Worse were the flashbacks that would play after what were originally commercial breaks in a televised program; the effect was that the theater audience had to watch recaps, goofy sepia tone filter and all, of scenes they had already watched literal seconds prior.
However, none of those held a candle to the most jarring sequence-break in the movie. After the end of the second of the three episodes showcased in To the Swordsmith Village, I experienced something I never had before in a theater – a false end credits sequence. Since the second episode marked the ending of season two, it concluded with some dramatic and extended end credits. I’m talking white-text-scrolling-on-black-background and everything. This moment was about an hour into the movie, so to some people it seemed like a sudden, albeit plausible, actual conclusion to the movie. I saw several people get out of their seats and walk out of the theater, evidently assuming this was the end.
The weird thing is that I get the sense that if I had watched this exact same footage on my TV at home, cozily rolling around on my couch, I wouldn’t have felt the same letdown. Of course, I’m assuming that in that hypothetical scenario I would have watched it in a context resembling what I mentioned earlier: hitting play on Crunchyroll. The application interface would have allowed me to skip opening and closing sequences, or fast-forward through parts I had already seen before. Now, admittedly flashback sequences after commercial breaks already feel “out of place” when I’m watching a TV episode outside of the context of a live broadcast. Yet that somehow feels less jarring to me since at least the experience of watching an episode of a TV show with commercials intact has in common with the experience of watching a commercial-less episode of a TV show on an app like Crunchyroll the likelihood that I’m comfortably slouched three-quarters of the way down my couch, curled up in a blanket, beverage in hand, watching it on my own TV at home. I have less of a sense of a mismatch between experience and place.
I’ve been looking at reviews of To the Swordsmith Village throughout social media. One complaint I see frequently is that it’s a “scam” or a “waste of money.” (Homer made the same point in The Simpsons Movie.)
I understand the frustration of people who went to see To the Swordsmith Village expecting an actual film adaption of the titular arc in the Demon Slayer story, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think the audience might have this expectation given that the last time Demon Slayer was in theaters, it bore the name of a story arc and was indeed a real film. I’ve heard from at least one reviewer on YouTube that he deliberately avoided reading any synopsis of To the Swordsmith Village so that he could avoid potential spoilers. Ouch.
But to be honest, I can’t make that excuse. Like I said, I knew what I was getting myself into. So does someone like me have the right to complain?
I think I do. The whole thing just felt out of place for something in a theater. And that sense of a mismatch with the anticipated experience derived from the embodied place of it is actually a problem of information architecture.
That’s right, information architecture! The discipline extends beyond the boundaries of websites and screens, after all. Given the physical placement of the To the Swordsmith Village experience inside a movie theater, as a user I came into it with certain expectations, just as much as a user of a website might derive certain expectations about content based on its surrounding labels.
Information architecture: Just as a user to a bank’s website might be forgiven for not expecting to find certain content (such as “Report Fraud”) situated under a “place” named “Ways to Bank,” it’s understandable when users expect certain content or experiences situated inside the place “movie theater” to resemble movies, not an unedited series of TV episodes.
The producers and marketers of To the Swordsmith Village can truthfully retort to their critics that the movie – no, the “theatrical experience” – never presented itself as anything other than the last two episodes of season two and first episode of season three of a TV program, and so anybody disappointed that they didn’t get a movie has no one but themselves to blame. But I think the overwhelmingly underwhelmed audience is a sign that the information architecture of To the Swordsmith Village was out of alignment. The designers, intentionally or otherwise, built certain user expectations by the mere fact that this experience took place in a movie theater, not on a video streaming app like Crunchyroll nor through a television broadcast. In my case, I expected at least some sort of bare-minimum editing between episodes. (Surely it couldn’t be too much to ask to include only one end credits sequence?)
Despite the negative feedback, To the Swordsmith Village is guaranteed to be a money-maker. It ranked #1 in its opening weekend in Japan. That being said, the producers shouldn’t be surprised if future theatrically-released TV anime episodes bring in fewer viewers now that their users’ mental models for what theatrical experiences can be has been stretched in a new, disappointing direction.