The pioneering independent production and distribution company Art Theatre Guild, or ATG, was a driving and centrifugal force that inspired and intertwined the most significant avant-garde currents transforming Japanese cinema of the Sixties and Seventies. Founded in 1961 as a distributor principally of foreign art films, with funding provided by the major Japanese studios led by Toho, ATG was envisioned as a promoter and incubator of radical and experimental cinema and a means of reaching the small but influential Japanese audience for more sophisticated, difficult and politically outspoken cinema. With its own chain of ten cinemas and a policy of giving each major feature a one-month run, ATG made possible cinematic experimentation of a kind and scale unprecedented in the Japanese cinema. An incredible cast of now canonical filmmakers including Nagisa Oshima, Kyju Yoshida, Masao Adachi, Kinju Wakamastu and Toshio Wakamatsu all realized among their most ambitious and audacious feature films as ATG productions. Veteran and first-time directors from Kaneto Shindo to Shuji Terayama also contributed major works to the ATG canon which is now being rediscovered and heralded as an apex of post-WWII Japanese cinema. Following the celebrated tributes to ATG recently unfurled in Paris and New York, this mini-retrospective offers a selection of classic works of Japanese counter-cinema little known in the US. As a centerpiece of this series we have included a three-film tribute to the late and extraordinarily great Nagisa Oshima.
Special thanks: Theodore C. Bestor, Ted Gilman, Stacie Matsumoto – Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Havard University; Go Hirawsawa – Meiji-Gakuin University; Joshua Siegel – Museum of Modern Art Film Department.
Directed by Nagisa Oshima. With Yun Yun-Do, Fumio Watanabe,
Japan 1968, 35mm, b/w, 119 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Oshima's unquestionable masterpiece, Death By Hanging is one of the great works of Brechtian cinema, wielding avant-garde anti-narrative and intense, absurd theatricality to deliberately rupture and restore cinematic illusionism and pull the spectator into a sustained and emotionally resonant dialectic on the death penalty and the responsibilities of the State. Death By Hanging‘s harsh critique of the Japanese justice system and the nation's endemic racism was inspired by Oshima's impassioned connection with the life and later published writings of Lee Chi-nu the young and precociously talented ethnic Korean convicted of murdering two Japanese school girls. With his talented wife Akiko Koyama as the young man's sister, Oshima also perversely cast the maverick radical filmmaker Masao Adachi in the role of a hapless policeman.
Directed by Nagisa Oshima. With Kazuo Goto, Emiko Iwasaki,
Japan 1970, 35mm, b/w, 94 min. Japanese with English subtitles
"Secret Story After the Tokyo War," the original Japanese title of Oshima's now classic work of counter-cinema makes clear his political investment yet in no way explains the film's feverish and lingering enigma. One of the most urgent, anxious cinematic interventions into the post-1968 defeat of the radical youth movement, The Man Who Left His Will on Film is structured around a poetically closed-loop that begins and ends with the suicide of a young member of a political film cooperative and follows a grieving friend's attempts to understand the meaning of the seemingly "ordinary" footage of Tokyo streets and cityscapes recovered from the dead man's camera. The key to the footage lies in the so-called "landscape theory" advanced by Oshima contemporary and occasional collaborator Masao Adachi whose own cinema explored the idea the dominant and invisible power structure of a nation is legible in the most everyday landscapes that surround us.
Directed by Toshio Matsumoto. With Pîtâ, Osamu Ogasawara,
Japan 1969, 35mm, b/w, 105 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A carnivalesque melding of documentary verité and avant-garde psychedelia, Funeral Parade of Roses offers a shocking and ecstatic journey through the nocturnal underworld of Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood, following the strange misadventures of a rebellious drag queen fending off his/her rivals. Often cited as a major inspiration for Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Matsumoto's breakthrough film is a visually audacious and lyrically abstract testament to the vertiginous daring of the postwar Japanese avant-garde art and film scenes. Matsumoto orchestrates a series of quite astonishing visual set pieces, including actual performances by the influential Fluxus-inspired street theater groups, the Zero Jigen and Genpei Akasegawa. Print from the HFA collection.
Directed by Nigisa Oshima. With Hosei Komatsu, Hiromi Kurita,
Japan 1972, 35mm, color, 95 min. Japanese with English subtitles
On the occasion of Okinawa's release from American control, Oshima offered this poetic and wonderfully unpredictable exploration of the island and its inhabitants as a distorting mirror of Japan's complex and tumultuous modern history. Loosely following a spirited young Tokyo woman's travels through Okinawa in search of the half-brother she has never met, Dear Summer Sister leads us through a series of mysterious vignettes about the girl's extended family and new found Okinawan acquaintances, each of whom hold sharply different opinions about the island's history and future.
Directed by Kazuo Kuroki. With Mariko Kaga, Minoru Hiranaka,
Japan 1966, 16mm, b/w, 100 min. Japanese with English subtitles
In sharp contrast to the psychosexually extreme cinema most often associated with the ATG avant-garde is Kuroku Kazuo's profoundly lyrical and unclassifiable Silence Has No Wings, in which a young boy's search for an elusive butterfly opens up to an allegorical meditation on the atomic bomb, the Cold War and the dark shadow of Japan's militarized nationalism. A rare example of true film poetry, Silence Has No Wings sustains its hypnotic rhythm through the delirious beauty and haunting power of its imagery and the floating specter of the ethereal butterfly-woman played by Mariko Kaga. Originally produced by Toho, the studio shelved Kazuo's film out of fear of controversy yet allowed it to be distributed by ATG, giving way to its quick recognition as an astute yet under-spoken work of sharp political protest.
Directed by Kihachi Okamoto. With Minori Terada, Naoko Otani,
Japan 1968, 35mm, b/w, 117 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Best known in the US for his dark and violent gangster and "anti-samurai" films of the 1960s, Kihachi Okamoto is equally renown for his celebrated and popular war films which drew directly from his own negative experience as a soldier during WWII. After directing Toho's commercially successful star-studded war epic Japan’s Longest Day, Okamoto turned to ATG to explore a decidedly more idiosyncratic and personal vision of World War II, adapting the perspective of the individual rather than abstractly idolized soldier. A portrait of a hapless kamikaze submarine bomber floating in wait for his first and final assignment, Human Bullet uses an energetic flashback structure to inject unexpected humor into the film, recalling the soldier's youth and comic misadventures in first love. Okamoto's irreverence and rough love for the ill-fated soldier gives way to a bracing and poignantly unofficial history of the war.
Directed by Soichiro Tahara and Kunio Shimizu. With Renji Ishibashi, Kaori Momoi, Tenmei Kano
Japan 1971, 35mm, b/w, 122 min. Japanese with English subtitles
A poetic and vivid evocation of defeated youth looking back at Japan's extinguished student protest movement and lost revolution, Lost Lovers is a stylistically innovative and unusual art film that anticipates the drifting, melancholy cinema of Shinji Aoyama and Tomita Katsuya. Lost Lovers follows the picaresque adventures of an indelible anti-hero crowned with the bittersweet aura of faded glory, a former champion pole vaulter turned drifter whose aimless path leads him to Japan's remote North and into the company of a young deaf-dumb couple who calm the ex-athlete's restless anger and teach him a new intuitive relationship with the world. The debut film of documentarian Tahara Soichiro and playwright Shimizu Konio, Lost Lovers intermixes verité style and theatrical performance to inject a spirited yet thoughtful restlessness to the film's gently comic yet deeply poignant rendering of vulnerable dreamers.
Directed by Kaneto Shindo. With Taiji Tonoyama, Nobuko Otowa,
Japan 1962, 35mm, b/w, 117 min. Japanese with English subtitles
Veteran filmmaker Kaneto Shindo's sole ATG credit is a stark, at times harrowing, and dynamically stylized variation on the theme of human endurance so central to his long career. Shindo uses the gripping story of three men and a woman stranded on a small fishing boat far out in the Pacific Ocean in order to strip his declared human subject down to its most elemental, chronicling their intense struggle against the frightening, blinding power of hunger, despair and religious belief. The expanded canvas of Human’s black-and-white widescreen cinematography masterfully evokes the ocean's vast and terrifying indifference and the gnawing tedium that pushes the four towards unthinkable acts.