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What Pandemic? Japanese Film Draws a Record Flood of Moviegoers

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TOKYO — In the United States, movies are being shown to seas of empty seats, if theaters are opening at all. But in Japan, an animated film just had the biggest box office weekend in the country’s history — by far.

The movie, “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train,” based on a smash-hit Japanese comic book, had been hotly anticipated for months by both fans and an industry desperate to get moviegoers back in front of big screens amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The film outperformed all expectations, more than doubling the country’s record for the largest opening weekend, with over 3.4 million people shelling out nearly $44 million on tickets. In what may be a first for Japan, the movie had the biggest opening in the world last weekend — more than all other countries combined — despite having debuted only domestically.

There isn’t much competition right now, as one Hollywood studio after another has pushed back big-budget releases. The magnitude of the film’s success would have been an outlier even under normal circumstances, but it has special significance during the pandemic, showing how rapidly audiences may return once they feel safe spending hours sitting among strangers in crowded spaces.

Japan has kept coronavirus cases and deaths low, with a relatively light touch that relies on contact tracing and appeals to a national sense of social responsibility. While infections are soaring again in much of the West, the daily number of new cases in Japan has stayed below 800 since the end of August, and in Tokyo, daily life, at least on the surface, has mostly returned to normal.

For many who saw “Demon Slayer” over the weekend, it was their first time returning to the theater since April, when the government declared a brief national emergency over concerns about rising cases of the virus. For the country’s top politicians, the startling box office numbers were a barometer for Japan’s weathering of the pandemic and its efforts to restart the economy.

It was the rare cartoon that received an enthusiastic review from not one but two Japanese cabinet ministers. The top government spokesman, Katsunobu Kato, told reporters that the movie had made an “extremely large contribution to the film industry.” And on Twitter, Yasutoshi Nishimura, who heads the country’s economic revitalization efforts, called it “a spectacular achievement for the worlds of culture and entertainment as they struggle with the coronavirus.”

The story, set in early 20th-century Japan, follows a young man who joins a group of warriors committed to wiping out demons that killed his family and cursed his sister.

The comic book, or manga, on which the movie is based is part of a 22-volume series that has become a national phenomenon. In the four years since its launch, it has sold over 100 million copies, making it one of the most successful manga of all time.

The comics have been turned into a popular anime series that has found fans worldwide, and “Demon Slayer” characters decorate everything from rice balls to train livery in Japan.

“This particular title cuts across generations. Even people over 40, over 50, really like ‘Demon Slayer,’” said Roland Kelts, a visiting professor of media studies at Waseda University in Tokyo and the author of the book “Japanamerica.”

The series is “quite sentimental, but it’s well done,” he said, adding that it had “been very clever about building an audience and sustaining it” through online streaming services.

“Demon Slayer” has found plenty of space on Japan’s theater screens. The only major foreign production playing in Japanese cinemas last weekend was “Tenet,” the Christopher Nolan film about time-traveling spies, which opened in the country in mid-September.

ImageA poster for “Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train.” The film more than doubled Japan’s record for the largest opening weekend.
Credit…Koyoharu Gotouge, UFOTABLE, Aniplex

On Friday, the opening day for “Demon Slayer,” a theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood — just steps away from the world’s busiest train station — scheduled 42 showings, starting at 7 a.m. and running through the early hours of the next morning. On social media, commenters joked that the show times looked more like a bus schedule than a movie listing.

In mid-September, the authorities lifted restrictions that had required theaters to operate at 50 percent capacity. Now, the businesses can fill the house as long as they do not serve food. Many theaters, in anticipation of the “Demon Slayer” release, decided to forgo snack sales in hopes of maxing out ticket revenue.

At one theater, the Shinjuku Wald 9, people of all ages lined up on Tuesday to buy tickets for the movie. A thermal scanner in the lobby checked body temperatures, and signs posted around the building reminded people to disinfect their hands before entering their show and to wear a mask while watching it. Regular announcements over an intercom told customers that they could drink in their seat but not eat.

No major outbreaks of the coronavirus have been traced to Japan’s movie theaters, and industry groups have tried to ease minds with studies showing that the venues are well ventilated, theoretically reducing the risk of exposure to the pathogen.

In an August poll by the market research firm Gem Standard, 84 percent of respondents said they were “reassured” by the measures taken by theaters to prevent infection. Still, almost 60 percent said they were not quite ready to head back. Another 37 percent said they were waiting for a movie worth seeing. “Demon Slayer” apparently fit that bill for many.

Japan’s entertainment industry has been hit hard by the pandemic even as the country has taken a largely laissez-faire approach to controlling the virus, situating itself somewhere between Sweden, which has been largely hands-off, and China, which locked down entire cities. (Moviegoing has sharply rebounded in China as the virus has been largely eradicated.)

In Japan, there have been no mandatory lockdowns, no fines for going without a mask, and little testing. The most extreme measure was a nearly complete closure of the country’s borders to anyone other than its own citizens, a step that has only recently begun to be eased.

Public education campaigns have emphasized the importance of wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and avoiding what officials have called the “three C’s” — closed spaces, crowded places and close contact. Across the country, people have willingly complied.

In Tokyo, there are few signs of the pandemic, except for the ubiquitous masks and bottles of disinfectant placed near doors. Rush-hour trains are packed with commuters. Coffee shops are full of people tapping away on their laptops. And diners are lining up again to get into popular restaurants.

Among those venturing out for “Demon Slayer” was Xu Jie, a 20-year-old Chinese exchange student. Mr. Xu, who had come to the theater with a friend, said it was his first time back to the movies since the pandemic began.

For “Demon Slayer,” he said, he was “ready to take the risk.”

“I’m a little worried, but I just had to see it.”

Satori Shigematsu, 22, said that she had started seeing movies again in September “once things had settled down.”

“As long as people take the proper precautions,” she said, “there’s not much to worry about.”

Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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