Is Toonami’s “No Movies” Policy Coming Back to Haunt Its Viewers?

Last Updated on by Daniel Limjoco

With the next canon installments of Demon Slayer and Sword Art Online being movies, one might wonder if Toonami’s “no movies” policy since 2014 was a mistake in hindsight?

This past April, Demon Slayer’s highly anticipated Mugen Train arc premiered as a feature film in theaters around the United States and Canada, nine months after its Japanese premiere. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic forcing closures of movie theaters around the world, and delays in the release of films both big and small, Mugen Train has done very well in the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, the film ranked #1 on its opening night, grossing an estimated $9.5 million in 1,598 theaters. The film ended its opening weekend ranked #2 grossing $21,144,800 in 1,600 theaters. This is impressive especially considering that its competition for that weekend, Mortal Kombat, was available in twice as many theaters. As of the end of the weekend of June 4-6, 2021, Mugen Train has grossed $47,700,000 in the domestic box office and $455,011,767 worldwide, shattering records previously set by Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away back in 2002.

While Mugen Train has been a commercial success despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncertainty of these times has complicated the film’s release. While vaccines started to become widely available when the Demon Slayer film made its North American debut, allowing for a gradual opening of movie theaters around the nation (with social distancing and mask requirements), infection rates remained high. Naturally, some fans were hesitant to head out to the theaters for these reasons.

Fortunately, Funimation and Aniplex would help rectify this by releasing Mugen Train a bit earlier than usual for viewers wishing to view the film in the comfort of their own homes. Starting today, June 22, the film is available to purchase on digital platforms, including Apple TV, Microsoft Store, Vudu, Google Play, PlayStation Store, and Amazon. The film is also available for streaming on FunimationNow. While a Blu-ray release among other outlets is expected to come in the future, there is one particular demographic Funimation and Aniplex could consequently still be leaving out in the long run: Toonami viewers.

Toonami has aired movies on occasions, most notably during 2013 and 2014 when the block had a “month of movies” during December as a way to shake things up from the norm with folks traveling for the holidays or needing a break. While these movies were initially well-received, after the 2014 Month of Movies saw lackluster ratings combined with a need to refocus the budget to get more popular shows, movies have been a lot less frequent on the better cartoon show. At one point, Toonami co-creator Jason DeMarco was quite adamant in saying that they couldn’t air any movies anymore, although he has since softened that stance and made exceptions on special circumstances.

While most anime films based on a series tend to be filler in regards to continuity, it typically isn’t a problem if Toonami doesn’t broadcast a film on the block. When a movie does become canon to the overall storyline, this normally tends to be rectified by having the TV series show the events. Dragon Ball Super started its television run by retelling the Battle of Gods and Resurrection F films into full sagas. Meanwhile, the OVAs Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn and Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin were both converted into an episodic TV format that would be aired both on Japanese television and later on Toonami. And if that is not an option, more often than not, the networks who air the TV series usually get the rights to air the movies.

Unfortunately, Aniplex does not make television retellings or recaps of their canon films. News over the past year regarding the Demon Slayer franchise has come with both good news and bad news. The good news is that thanks to Demon Slayer’s continued success, there will be a second season for the franchise airing on television sometime later this year. The bad news is that Aniplex has announced that Demon Slayer’s second season will skip ahead to the Entertainment District Arc, which assumes that viewers have already seen the movie. Because Mugen Train is a canon arc from the manga, there is concern among some viewers that Aniplex and Toonami will risk disenfranchising viewers by skipping Mugen Train over for the Toonami audience.

This issue isn’t unique to Demon Slayer, as it wouldn’t be the first time viewers were left high and dry regarding a movie Toonami couldn’t air, and we only have to look to another popular Aniplex franchise Toonami airs for a precedent. Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale takes place canonically in the months after the Mother’s Rosario arc that ended Season 2, and before the beginning of the Project Alicization arc that dominated season 3. Although some fans, and perhaps the Toonami crew themselves, could be forgiven for skipping the film as Ordinal Scale is not in the original light novels, the events are nonetheless officially canon to the overall storyline. Fans have noticed that the author Reki Kawahara is integrating elements from the movie (such as the Augma, and Kirito and Asuna getting engaged) into the Project Alicization anime. There’s even mention of the film’s events in the light novels going forward. Indeed, Kawahara himself said back in 2017 that this was going to be the case.

川原礫;SAOP8巻6月発売 on Twitter: “I’m going to unite Ordinal Scale to light novels. / Twitter”

I’m going to unite Ordinal Scale to light novels.

This was emphasized when Toonami aired Episode 41 of Alicization (or Episode 18 of War of Underworld) on the night of December 12, 2020. For those that saw Ordinal Scale, you saw a reprisal and character development of the film’s two central characters, Eiji and Yuna. For those that didn’t see the movie, a sense of confusion and perhaps frustration, as Ordinal Scale introduced elements and plot lines to the storyline that ultimately left Toonami fans completely out of the loop.

Sadly, it might not be the last time Toonami and Aniplex could potentially leave TV and especially Toonami viewers out in the cold in regards to the Sword Art Online storyline. The first installment for Sword Art Online: Progressive, the retelling of the highly acclaimed Aincrad arc, has been announced to be a feature film. Titled “Sword Art Online: Progressive – Aria of a Starless Night,” Aniplex is planning to release the film in Japan sometime in Fall 2021. While the film is expected to cover the first 121 pages of the first volume, something which was covered in Episode 02 of the first season, Aria of a Starless Night will expand on those events, and will even include anime-only events featuring a new character in Mito. Depending on what Reki Kawahara, A1 Pictures, and Aniplex’s long-term plans are for Progressive, Toonami viewers could potentially be in for a rude awakening when the show returns in the future if Aria of a Starless Night turns out to be essential to the storyline.

With the issues of Toonami skipping Ordinal Scale now beginning to show, due to how vital the Mugen Train story arc will be to the overall storyline, I’m sure Toonami fans would be devastated if the block had to skip it. Doubly so if it turns out to be the case for Progressive as well in the years ahead. This is especially concerning given that Demon Slayer and Sword Art Online both premiered their dubs on Toonami, and when it comes to programming that has their dubs premiere on the better cartoon show, the block usually gets the premiere rights to successive seasons and sequels. Even in the age of streaming and digital releases, telling your viewers “You get to see the dub first, but you’re on your own when it comes to catching up with the movie” probably isn’t going to win over fans to say the least.

Did you know that Kirito and Asuna are engaged now? If you didn’t see Ordinal Scale, you didn’t know that.

On one hand, if Toonami does have a clause to air these films, but chose not to anyway knowing the canonical consequences, I think it would be a hugely irresponsible move. On the other hand, although it’s easy to tell Jason DeMarco and the Toonami crew that the solution is to “suck it up and air the movie”, getting the airing rights to the said film is much easier said than done. Unfortunately, we don’t know who or what’s more to blame for this predicament, as television producers rarely go into the details regarding airing rights. While Jason DeMarco has been pretty transparent about what shows he’s unable to get (including the likes of GintamaMob Psycho 100 season 2, and Sailor Moon Crystal), he’s been tight-lipped about whether or not Mugen Train or the SAO films are ultimately unairable.

Financial issues are often a cited issue by fans, as the same environment that ended the Month of Movies could be what keeps Demon Slayer and Sword Art Online‘s Toonami viewers from getting to experience the entire continuity. In fairness, the block could be in a “between a rock and a hard place” situation. Their options could come down to airing the movie but take a hit financially with the airing rights, potentially needing to defer on premiering another franchise or even the sequel. Or pass on the film, and deal with the PR and fan backlash of skipping an essential part of the storyline when the sequel season arrives.

The distributors would not be blameless either, as license negotiators could have played hardball or got too greedy in regards to the airing rights, that Toonami was backed into a situation that they were forced to refuse. And besides financial reasons, one reason that Toonami viewers could likely miss out on these canon movies is simply that the network can’t get the film rights. For all we know, it’s possible Toonami tried to get Ordinal Scale to prevent this scenario from happening, but the producers and licensors for whatever reason gave them a hard no. Even if we could confirm that Toonami does have a right-of-first-refusal to premiere the dubs of both Demon Slayer and Sword Art Online, movie rights could likely be a different ballgame compared to a television series. Some have noted that while Aniplex USA has been pretty good at distributing their shows on a wide range of streaming platforms (when they are not tied to an exclusivity period), the situation is less so for movies. And if Aniplex USA themselves are having problems distributing their movies to various services, what chance does the Toonami crew have?

The precedent of Toonami deferring from airing Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale could spell big trouble for not just Demon Slayer and SAO fans in the near future, but fans of any show whose producers opts to create a canon movie between seasons. Whoever is more at fault here, whether it’s stubbornness from Toonami and Adult Swim, the licensors unwilling to sell the airing rights at a reasonable price, or the producers who opted for a film in the first place, what I do know is that unless the folks at Toonami and the folks at Aniplex USA can do something about it, this is not going to end well for the block’s viewers in the long run.

But as Jason DeMarco has regularly said: “never say never.” We have seen this block pull off quite a few miracles since its revival nine years ago. Indeed, the revival of Toonami itself has been nothing short of one, given the factors needed to get to where we are today. At one point, Jason DeMarco himself even said that it was more likely he would win the lottery before Toonami aired a movie again. I think Jason must have hit the jackpot at some point, as Toonami has aired quite a handful of films and OVAs since then, including Children who Chase Lost VoicesMind GameLupin the Third: Is Lupin Still Burning, and several DC animated films. Hopefully, the Toonami crew can pull off some magic and will find a way to bring back Demon Slayer for future seasons without needing to skip Mugen Train. And the same can be said for Sword Art Online, for that matter. All I can say is if you do want to see Demon Slayer and Sword Art Online again on Toonami when the time comes, you can always let @Clarknova1 and @AniplexUSA know on their respective social media outlets. Let them know your show requests and concerns, but of course, politeness goes a long way.

In the meantime, be sure to go see Mugen Train if you can and haven’t already. Whether on the big screen, streaming, or through physical or digital media, it is a great way to support this industry. And if worse comes to worst, at least you can avoid getting locked out from the storyline in the event Toonami’s efforts to get Mugen Train fails. With Demon Slayer‘s continued popularity and support, I’m confident that Tanjiro, Nezuko, and the entire gang will make their way back to Toonami for the sequel season. We just need to hope (and with our viewership, work to make sure) that the Toonami Faithful won’t be missing out on the fun when the time comes.

Demon Slayer images courtesy of Aniplex USA, ©Koyoharu Gotoge / SHUEISHA, Aniplex, ufotable. Sword Art Online images © Reki Kawahara/Published by Kadokawa Corporation ASCII Media Works/SAO MOVIE Project.

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Daniel Limjoco

Editor of the “Toonami Trending Rundown” a weekly article cataloging Toonami’s social media impact. News editor and social media curator for Toonami Squad. Former news editor and social media curator to from 2013-2021.