How “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” made a billion dollars
A strategy guide for global success?
The Super Mario Bros. Movie represents a remarkable achievement – dare I say a “level up”? – for a film based on a video game. Even if you aren’t a fan of the film itself, such as the critic who called it “a shiny and noisy infantile distraction,” the scope of its success is staggering. It trounced the competition to emerge as the top-earning movie of 2023 thus far. Less than a month after its American release, the film broke one billion dollars in box office ticket sales worldwide. This marks the first time a movie based on a Japanese franchise has ever entered that rarefied “1B league,” which until now has been almost entirely dominated by Disney films and remakes of Disney films—Frozen and its sequel, Toy Story 3 and its sequel, The Lion King (1994) and, uh, The Lion King (2019), etc., etc. Clearly, the only thing the world loves more than new things are old things in disguise.
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This axiom actually describes The Super Mario Bros. Movie to a T. It’s a brand new film… based on a game close to forty years in age and stars a character well over, if you count Mario’s debut in the 1981 quarter-muncher Donkey Kong under the moniker of “Jumpman.” Which I do count. I have unique credentials to assess Mario’s birthdate, being both a survivor of Pac-Man fever and a veteran of the console wars.
The game Super Mario Bros. arrived in the fall of 1985, as a cartridge for the Famicom home gaming console in Japan. It was an immediate success there, then a society-wide phenomenon. So much so that a Super Mario strategy guide became the best-selling book in Japan for two years running. But this was nothing compared to the impact the game would have abroad. Super Mario Bros. debuted in American stores later that year and profoundly transformed the entertainment landscape. First, it proved the “killer app” for the Nintendo Entertainment System, speed-running the console’s spread throughout the USA. In so doing, one can argue that Mario almost single handedly resurrected the American video game industry, which had crashed and burned a few years earlier. Nintendo sold tens of millions of copies of the game over the remainder of the decade. By 1990, more American kids recognized Mario in a survey than they did Mickey Mouse. Mama mia!
This was a seriously unlikely turn of events. In 1985, Japan was public enemy no. 1, locked in an escalating trade war with the West. Hyperventilating pundits declared an “economic Pearl Harbor.” Aggrieved Americans, egged on by politicians eager to exploit racial tensions, smashed Japanese products in theatrical stunts that aired on the nightly news. In such a harsh environment, Mario’s stupendous success might seem an outlier. But it in fact followed the same playbook that other importers of Japanese content used to skirt the anger of the era: skillfully obscuring anything identifiable Japanese about it. Consider two hits that aired on American television at roughly the same time as Mario’s release: The Transformers and Voltron. Both were based on hit Japanese toy series. Both television shows were animated entirely by studios in Japan. Not a single Japanese name appears in the English-language credits of either. You’d have been forgiven for thinking these were dreamed up in Topeka rather than Tokyo.
Super Mario Bros. was unique in that no “culturalization” was necessary in the first place. It was set in a fantasy world straight out of a European fairytale, with castles and moats and dragons, helmed by a protagonist named Mario. Superficially, it seems decidedly non-Japanese. Or is it? When I was writing Pure Invention I tracked down the engineer of the Nintendo Entertainment System, Masayuki Uemura. We spoke for several hours. “Super Mario Bros. isn’t set in Japan, but the character’s Japanese,” he told me at one point. “The name Mario sounds Italian, but he isn’t Italian. They were really able to capture that ambiguity.”
The cultural studies professor Koichi Iwabuchi called this concept mukokuseki, which transliterates into “not of any particular nationality” and is more commonly localized as “cultural odorlessness.” This implies a sort of exclusionary binary of Japaneseness/not-Japaneseness. I prefer to think of things in a different way, borrowed from quantum mechanics: not either/or but rather occupying multiple cultural states simultaneously. Consider how Hello Kitty seems both irrepressibly Japanese and not so, all at once. Mario is much the same – and tellingly, in my interview, Uemura linked both of these seemingly disparate characters together, remarking that “Super Mario Bros. was the first to really bring a kawaii perspective to game characters.” In fact, Mario’s smushed, supercute design is the single most identifiably Japanese thing about him.
At first glance The Super Mario Bros. Movie seems to borrow from the Eighties playbook of cultural obfuscation. It is based on a Japanese video game, but written by Americans, computer-animated in France, set in Brooklyn and filled with the voices of big Hollywood stars. The characters are rendered in a Minions-esque Western style. The lone identifiably Japanese aspect is a “tanuki suit” from the game Super Mario Bros. 3 that gives the hero the powers of a trickster animal from Japanese folklore. In the English, it is a “raccoon suit.” (I’ll admit it: as a chronicler of Japanese folktales myself, mistaking tanuki for raccoon is a pet peeve of mine.)
Yet, times have changed mightily since the days when American producers cloaked the Japanese origins of their shows. Key players like game designer Shigeru Miyamoto and music composer Koji Kondo get top billing in the credits of The Super Mario Bros. Movie, on equal or even higher footing than the Westerners. And in an interesting twist, the Japanese-language version of the film is now touring the USA. A game made in Japan becomes a movie made in America that gets dubbed into Japanese and exported back to America again. It’s enough to make your head spin. One thing’s for sure: someone is making a lot of money here. As George Orwell famously wrote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a plumber smashing a block full of coins that fly into Nintendo’s pocket – for ever.” (I may be paraphrasing a little here.)
Mario’s triumph at the box office might seem a clear-cut example of what the political scientist Joseph Nye calls soft power: a nation’s ability to persuade through the attractiveness of its culture. But the film represents something even more interesting. It isn’t a Japanese success so much as a global one, created by non-Japanese who were raised on Japanese content and inspired to make something new in partnership with them. It’s less a case of soft power than it is a product of it. Figuratively and literally.
Super Mario Bros. the game introduced many kids (and adults) to a new form of leisure activity. From vibrant design and catchy music to the way it eschewed machismo without sacrificing cool factor, it offered a compelling Japanese alternative to Western concepts of play. That in turn subtly suggested alternative ways of thinking and looking at the world, for those inclined to pick up on them, or those who simply played too much Super Mario Bros. (Why are you looking at me?)
Games are but one of many fantasies that persuaded a generation (X!) to like Japan and things from it. What happens next? The Super Mario Bros. Movie provides a concrete example. Now fans in the West aren’t simply consuming or appropriating; they are wholeheartedly acknowledging and actively collaborating with the original creators to make something new. And a Japanese company’s involvement is no longer something to be hidden – it is key to the whole enterprise, for consumers see it as a mark of authenticity. (Incidentally, Nye wrote in a WSJ op-ed that "credibility is the scarcest resource" in the information age. He was referring to the appeal of democracy over authoritarianism and would probably stomp me like a Koopa Troopa for linking his idea to Super Mario Bros., but it is as true for products as it is for political regimes.)
This is a much bigger trick than creating a hit or a fad. Hits and fads fade. They are ephemeral. The Super Mario Bros. Movie’s smashing success suggests a bigger paradigm shift, where Japan has rewoven the fabric of global youth culture in its own image. People all over the world have assimilated Mario; he is foreign and familiar at the same time. This “post-soft power” concept has yet to be defined with a pithy phrase. For the moment, a stout plumber of deliberately ambiguous ancestry seems to be its flag-bearer. In the games, Mario starts out tiny. He only turns into Super Mario when he snags a magic mushroom – a “power-up,” in video game parlance. Perhaps we could borrow this idea to call the tipping point where persuasion turns into adoration… a soft power-up?