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Jasper Sharp on the rise of new movie gimmicks

Does the future of anime lie on the big screen, and if so, will developments in cinema exhibition technologies redefine its form, content and audiences in the digital age? These are questions many are asking as pundits declare conventional anime’s glory days to be a thing of the past.

As Jonathan Clements points out in Anime: A History, we tend to forget that the idea of owning our favourite films or shows on a physical medium like a video cassette, VCD, DVD or Blu-Ray has really only existed since the early 1980s. In terms of viewer access, the past thirty years or so are but a short chapter in the overall history of the moving image, and don’t necessarily point towards future forms of consumption.

In the field of anime in particular, the impact of alternative distribution channels outside of cinema or television has been monumental. Since the emergence of the serialised OAV (Original Animated Video) with Dallos in 1983, this manner of dissemination via video cassette has allowed anime to reach new audiences and open up new markets. These have brought increased revenues to producers, with the tastes and demands of this new fanbase having a feedback effect on the type of stories made to cater for them.

Fast-forward to the 2010s, and the global market for anime as it currently stands owes much of its existence to the extended reach provided by home-viewing media. However, now in the digital age of DVD and Blu-ray, when pirate copies are indistinguishable from the original in terms of quality, it is also safe to say that despite its glorious past, the OAV model might not have such an auspicious future.

Given the current sophistication of home-viewing technology, it is also easy to overlook just how superior the experience of watching a feature-length movie such as Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995) or Princess Mononoke (1997) on the big screen actually was – especially when measured against the second-tier, small-screen, low-res alternative of their age, VHS. But nowadays, faced with high-quality home formats like Blu-ray, the convenience of Video-on-Demand services and the illegal but free option provided by piracy, exhibitors are facing tougher times luring us out of our living rooms.

In recent years, Hollywood has been offering 3D as the carrot on the stick to remind us just how much fun going to the cinema can be, with James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) the great success story of this strategy. In America and Europe, however, the initial novelty of the third-dimension wore off quickly.

In Japan too, the taste for the rittai eizo (‘solid body’) alternatives for cinema-goers similarly dropped quickly, after peaking in 2010. However, in other parts of Asia, notable China, India and South Korea, there has been considerably greater hunger for more immersive viewing experiences. And it is these expanding markets rather than Western ones that are likely to provide Japanese producers with their most reliable revenue streams in the future.

Now the Koreans have stepped beyond the third dimension, using Cameron’s film in 2010 to showcase their own new domestically-developed system, 4DX. The recipe is simple – take a standard action blockbuster, preferably one in 3D, then add automated chair movements, a state-of-the-art sound system and in-auditorium physical effects – smoke, various aromatic odors, strobing lights, jets of air or water directed at the viewer’s face or down the backs of their necks etcetera – for the ultimate cinematic joyride.

The amusement park analogy is inevitable – even more so when one recalls it was a rollercoaster ride that formed the centerpiece of This is Cinerama, the feature with which the first immersive system, Cinerama, debuted back back in 1952. For some time now, theme parks throughout the world (including Thorpe Park in the UK) have boasted similar attractions to that provided by 4DX, with short films like Pirates 4-D (1999), Haunted Lighthouse (2003) and Journey to the Center of the Earth 4-D Adventure (2008) shown to enraptured thrillseekers in dedicated exhibition sites.

The key strength of 4DX, however, is that it can be retrofitted to any multiplex, and the accompanying sensory track of air jets and chair rolls / pitches / yaws / throbs can be prepared for any film. As an example, in 2012, South Korean viewers were afforded the opportunity to stand in Leonardo’s shoes at the prow of the Titanic (1997) for its 4DX-makeover re-release, bobbing up and down on the waves with the wind in their hair and the ocean spray moistening their brows.

One of the most interesting aspects of 4DX, from the point of view of global economics, is how its rapid expansion has occurred in reverse of previous exhibition systems such as Cinerama, CinemaScope and IMAX. Across Asia, unsurprisingly, this has been most vigorous in South Korea (now with 10 venues) and China (10 venues), but there are also sites in Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia. Other growing markets have been in the Middle East, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe. So far in cinema’s birthing pools of North America and Western Europe, however, nada.

So what are we to make of the fact that audiences in Chiang Mai, Kharkov, Santiago and Zagreb get to experience the 4DX phenomenon ahead of those in London or New York? One thing worth pointing out is that the majority of films receiving these sensory embellishments since 2010 have been the usual global Hollywood franchises of superhero movies and CG animations. While there have also been a good number of local South Korean titles enhanced for the system, such as Kim Sang-man’s thriller Midnight FM (2010), Kim Ji-hoon’s sci-fi Sector 7 (2011) and Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), it seems 4DX isn’t about to turn the world 180° on its cultural axis any time soon, not quite yet, at least…

So where does anime fit in with all this? 4DX arrived in Japan relatively late, with Iron Man 3 opening in the first such venue in Nagoya on 26th April 2013. Currently there are only two installations, with the second in Kita Kyushu. However, already two Japanese films have been festooned with a 4DX track; the live-action Sadako 3D (2012) reboot of the Ringu J-horror series, and, somewhat more curiously, Masahiro Hosoda’s Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods (2013). Both appear to have been released in a number of 4DX venues outside of Japan.

This second title perhaps best highlights the huge popularity of Japan’s most significant contribution to global culture in those countries so far blessed with a 4DX theatre – enough to justify the long-running series’ eighteenth instalment undergoing the not-inconsiderable expense of being “scored” with a kinaesthetic track and being considered financially viable within the limited number of these high-ticket premium screening sites.

The other point worth thinking about with Dragon Ball Z is how, in stark contrast to Hollywood CG animation, it provides a perfect example of the flat, 2D anime aesthetic. This might suggest either that the 4DX experience is more about the spectacle than real immersion, or it could mean that stereoscopic 3D in itself is not an essential component of immersion.

We should never overlook, either, the extent to which cinema’s marvellous illusionism is not just confined to its visual dimensions. It is fascinating to consider the pioneering role played by evolving sound technologies in various animators’ attempts to break down the fourth wall within a medium whose means of visual representation is so ostensibly at odds with “reality”.

One director from the world of anime who clearly thinks a lot about sound is Mamoru Oshii. Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004) and Sky Crawlers (2008) both had their 5.1 surround soundtracks designed by Skywalker Sound in California. It is therefore no surprise to hear that, for his next project, Oshii is embracing the next theatrical revolution (and one you’re unlikely to hear the benefits of while watching at home), announcing that his feature-length spin-off of the forthcoming Patlabor: The Next Generation series, scheduled for release in 2015, will be the first Japanese film mixed for the new Dolby Atmos system.

Oshii’s reboot of the seminal anime series with which his name is solidly associated is actually filmed as live-action, albeit with enough 3DCG thrown in to complicate this distinction. Nevertheless, the expressive possibilities Dolby Atmos could bring to the mix are immensely exciting. First introduced in April 2012 for Pixar’s Brave, the system employs up to 64 discrete speakers, including ones positioned overhead, and is capable of dynamically creating sound sources that move around within the theatre space, bringing an entirely new sonic dimension to the show.

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As with 4DX, only a limited number of top-notch exhibition venues across the world have been kitted out with Dolby Atmos equipment so far, to accommodate the relatively limited although growing number of films with soundtracks mixed to exploit it. According to Dolby’s website, the UK currently boasts only a handful of screens capable of providing the full Atmos experience, including the Empire Leicester Square and Olympic Cinema in London, and a number of cinemas in the Vue chain (Glasgow, Cramlington and Gateshead). There are even fewer in Japan, with the three that are currently in operation all based in Tokyo (the Aeon Cinema, Makuhari and Toho’s Lalaport, Funabashi and Nihonbashi venues).

Looking across the Sea of Japan however, reveals the same startling picture as for 4DX – there are currently six Dolby Atmos sites in South Korea and ten in China and India apiece, and Dolby has just announced plans to install this audio platform in over a hundred screens in Indonesia’s Cinemaxx circuit over the next three or so years.

Currently, the films graced with Atmos soundtracks have tended to be similar to the range of Hollywood titles given the 4DX treatment. However, India is most certainly leading the way outside of North America, with the 2007 Tamil-language film Sivagi (S. Shankar) post-converted to 3D for a December 2012 re-release becoming the first non-Hollywood production to benefit from Atmos sound, followed by a surprising large amount of further Bollywood productions, both new, such as Nautanki Saala! (2013), directed by Rohan Sippy, and old, like the 3D reissue of his father Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 classic Sholay.

Producing bigger and better “content” that more fully exploits the strengths of these superior exhibition environments is certainly an expensive gamble for Japanese producers. But the cases of Dragon Ball Z and the Patlabor: The Next Generation movie suggest we might soon be moving towards a situation in which the home-viewing market, its benefits in terms of potential audience reach increasingly countered by diminishing financial returns, comes to be seen as a loss-leader for the ultimate shared experience of the limited-run expanded cinema presentation; anime reverting back from its status as a packaged product to be collected and physically “owned” to the catch-it-while-you-can “event” of the theatrical release.

If the future of cinema exhibition is defined by Asia, then it is these developing arenas of consumption for Japan’s most popular cultural export that will ultimately define anime’s future form.

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