Screens in Japan are now touching
the three thousand mark: a record, if we consider that in 1993 total
screen numbers had reached a minimum with 1,734 units and that the
increase, in approximately twelve years, has been of roughly 70%.
Today’s numbers mean that one screen serves over 43,000 Japanese.
In Italy there is approximately one screen per 16,000 inhabitants,
in the United States one every 7,700.
Average annual frequency in the Land of the Rising Sun is one of
the lowest of all the world markets: 1.25 per inhabitant in 2005.
To continue the comparison, it can be seen that in Italy the average
is 1.76 and in the United States 4.70.
Does this mean that there is still the need to build new theatres
with the intention of increasing cinema-going?
“The leading players in the development of Japanese movie
theatres believe that the market is mature”, states Mark Schilling,
Tokyo correspondent of “Variety” and responsible for
selecting the Japanese films for the Far East Film Festival of Udine
“After almost two decades that have witnessed on the one hand
the division and modernisation of the great traditional theatres
in city centres and, on the other, the advent of multiplexes and
multi-screen complexes in shopping malls, the boom in new openings
can be considered over”, continues Schilling.
An analysis taking into account not only the classic parameters
of “per-capita frequency” per year and “number
of inhabitants per screen”, but also the number of screens
per km2seems to confirm this cautious view. As J. Ph. Wolff, scientific
advisor to the MEDIA Salles’ “European Cinema Yearbook”,
has stated, “the higher the population density, the lower
the screen density can be in order to bring about under otherwise
equal circumstances a certain number of admissions per capita”.
Indeed, in terms of the density of cinema on offer, Japan seems
to be quite “generous”, with one screen every 129 km2.
In this respect it comes close to Italy (one screen every 84 km2)
and a long way from the United States (one screen every 241 km2).
This may also explain why foreign exhibition companies do not –
or more precisely no longer – count Japan amongst their priorities.
Of the big investors who had entered the Country in the ‘Nineties,
contributing to a great extent to the opening of over a thousand
screens, only Warner Mycal has remained, boasting 350 screens. In
order of “disappearance” we see Virgin, coming onto
the scene in 1999 in Fukuoka to open what was then the biggest multiplex
in the Country, who in 2003 sold their theatres (81 in eight complexes)
to Toho, followed by UCI, who in 2004 sold their shares to local
partners (Sumitomo, the majority shareholder, and Kadokawa) who
operate using the United Cinemas logo, and finally AMC, who in 2005
sold their five complexes, all characterised by a generally high
number of screens, to United Cinemas.
In leading position on a market which – thanks to the decidedly
high average ticket price (almost 9 euro) if compared to that of
Western Europe (around 6 euro) and the United States (around 5.5
euro) – is one of the most important in the world, is the
Toho group, famous throughout the world as the “creator”
of Godzilla and vertically integrated from production to exhibition.
Toho, together with a series of large-sized companies, all Japanese
– except for Warner Mycal – like those already mentioned,
but also Shochiku and Toei (through the controlled company T-Joy),
manage a type of offer that tends to be increasingly American in
style, where film rhymes with popcorn, coca cola and hot dogs. This
type of complexes is often located in shopping malls or entertainment
arcades, an icon of Japanese life today and a foretaste of life
in big cities in the near future. Amongst them towers Roppongi Hills,
the most visited place in Japan – “even more so than
the local Disneyland”, stresses Schilling. “Here Toho
manages a cinema that has even kept the logo of Virgin who oversaw
the planning, and which offers – for the equivalent of a little
less than 22 euro – “first class” treatment with
explicit reference to the practice of airlines, also extending to
the customer-loyalty system based on flying miles (one minute of
film = one mile)”.
However, especially in Tokyo and the Country’s other eight
large cities, there is no lack of more traditional or sophisticated
screens, managed by medium-small companies, where a film can still
be accompanied by a taste of dry squid or an Italian cappuccino.
So it is not by chance that the café in one of Tokyo’s
most fashionable cinemas is called “La dolce vita”,
both by expatriates and by the Japanese with more sophisticated
tastes. The cinema is the Cine Amuse which, in Shibuya, Tokyo’s
leading cinema-going neighbourhood, offers titles ranging from independent
Japanese productions to films from the rest of the world with an
“art-house” perspective. Again in Shibuya the Cinemarise,
which stands out not only because of its avant-garde architecture
but also because of programming which gives visibility to European
authors such as Lars Von Trier or François Ozon, and Eurospace,
managed by an exhibitor/distributor to whom we owe an assortment
of “art-house” titles, ranging from the A of Almódovar
to the Z of Zhang Yimou, including Kiarostami and Rohmer, as well
as the to promotion of young authors from the Land of the Rising
In a country that has emanated such a high-tech and computerised
image of itself, the offer of digital cinema was bound not to be
missing: the end of 2005 saw the number of screens equipped with
DLP CinemaTM technology reach the figure of 49, whilst
agreements have been reached between Japanese and American companies,
amongst which Warner and Toho, to run distribution and screening
trials according to DCI specifications, even using 4K resolution.
But for now, even in technologically-advanced Japan, the frontier
of 4K still seems more the stuff of experiments than a reality for