On August 3, a cinema in Beijing rolled out a “danmu” service to accompany its film screening. The Chinese word “danmu” (or “danmaku” in Japanese) literally means “bullet curtain” and refers to a commentary sharing system in which viewers can plaster comments directly on top of an uploaded video. It was first popularized by Japanese ACG (animation, comic, game) video portal Niconico, which later inspired Chinese ACG websites AcFun and Bilibili . The use of danmu for screening at the Beijing cinema was allegedly the first of its sort in the world.

To start commenting at the danmu screening, audience needed simply connect their smartphones to the cinema’s wifi and they would be directed to an inputting page. Their comments would then scroll across the screen in real time. Comments sometimes got so thick that they resembled a barrage of bullets, aka danmu. 

The app popular among post-1990s Chinese, Jiecao Collection, also recently added a danmu feature to its static content to provide a more interactive user experience. 

Jiecao Collection added danmu to its static content
Jiecao Collection now lets users plaster danmu on top of its static content

What’s the point of watching a movie if danmu gets so thick that it obscures the clip? Danmu seems less about the content of a work than the social interaction centered around it. As Director of  Niconico discusses danmu in an interview: “Even when the videos are boring, the viewers are getting together and entertaining each other.” Besides, viewers can choose to turn off the bullet curtain.

Bilibili has been incredibly popular among Chinese ACG fans. It’s a place they call home. The website has stickier users than general video portals because danmu has a social component. It’s more active than other forms of ACG online communities because fans often check back to see how others have embroidered upon their favorite clips. Yet Bilibili hasn’t established a solid business model. Back in May rumor has it that Xiaomi was going to pour money into Bilibili, but the news outraged many Bilibili users who believed that external capital would “taint” the ACG culture.

So far as many see danmu as a subculture, it doesn’t have to be. The concept – people freely entertaining each other as an anonymous collective – might as well be adapted somewhere else besides film screening.

People may get annoyed by the bullet curtain and want to concentrate on the film. Perhaps someone can invent some kind of special glasses so danmu is only visible when people wear those glasses?

Telling the uncommon China stories through tech. I can be reached at ritacyliao [at] gmail [dot] com.

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  1. The only English-language website example of the danmu effect I ever saw is Viki…

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