Eros + Massacre: The films of ATG

in 41st Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Christoph Huber

Probably the most outstanding retrospective among the commendable tributes of this year’s Vienna Film Festival was the 35-film program at the Vienna Filmmuseum dedicated to “Independent Japanese Cinema 1962-84”, or more precisely: to those films produced (or in some cases: just distributed) by the “Art Theatre Guild” (ATG). Founded in 1961 as a distribution company with its own cinema chain, ATG played a formative role in establishing a sense of film history amongst Japanese audiences and filmmakers: They were the first to show classics by Eisenstein or Welles in the country, not to mention the exciting films of a new generation of directors that challenged traditional forms of storytelling: Godard, Cassavetes and Tarkovsky, for instance.

The influence of these groundbreaking works is felt in the films ATG produced from 1967 onwards, the first being Imamura Shohei’s amazing docu-fiction “Ningen johatsu” (“A Man Vanishes”): Since independent Japanese films like Teshigahara Hiroshi’s “Otoshiana” (“The Pitfall”, 1962) or Mishima Yukio’s baffling, sensual suicide short “Yukoku” (“The Rite of Love and Death, 1966”) had done quite well on the ATG cinema circuit, the company decided to mount film production, allowing its directors an unusual amount of freedom – basically all they had to do was have their project accepted by the studio’s independent commission and put up half of the money. This was a welcome opportunity for the young turks of the so-called “Japanese New Wave”, who were dissatisfied with the artistic constraints of the rigid studio system dominating Japanese production.

Many central Japanese films of the era were ATG productions: Among Oshima Nagisa’s many films for the company are classics like “Koshikei” (“Death by Hanging”, 1968), a didactic black comedy about capital punishment or “Gishiki” (“The Ceremony”, 1971), a devastating account of Japan’s post-war history disguised as a deadly parody of that beloved Japanese genre staple – the family saga. Former documentarist Hani Susumu impressed with “Hatsukoi: jiguko-hen” (“The Inferno of First Love”, 1968), a fascinating, splintered essay on lost innocence and doomed relationships. The towering achievement of the period remains a rarity: Yoshida Yoshishige’s epic meditation on the connections between past and present, society and individual, anarchism and free love which goes under the fitting title “Erosu purasu Gyakusatsu” (“Eros + Massacre”, 1970).

Indeed in many ways it sums up the central motifs of the first few years of the ATG output: the films obsessively revolved around topics like revolution, incest, historical guilt and generational struggle. And like some of the other ATG films, “Eros + Massacre” dares to presuppose a great amount of preordained (historical) knowledge from its audience, which makes it all the more puzzling to the uninitiated, although there’s no denying its flamboyant visual inventiveness and complex mise en scène.

The 70s saw a cooling down of the heated political climate that had fueled early ATG work and 1974 brought the closing down of the Shinjuku Bunka cinema in Tokyo, the heart of ATG’s chain as well as the most important meeting point of the Japanese avant-garde movement. This ultimately led to a more diversified output (for all their differences in style, ATG’s early films often had a shared tendency towards the theatrical and academic), including the experimental first features by multi-talented Terayama Shuji, “Tenshi no kokotsu” (“Ecstasy of the Angels”, 1972), an anarchic explosion helmed by pink picture master Wakamatsu Koji, “Matatabi” (“The Wanderers”, 1973), a very personal anti-samurai-film (and satirical answer to the then-current yakuza hype) by Ichikawa Kon, not to mention Hasagawe Kazuhiko’s debut, the masterpiece “Seishun no satsujinsha” (“Young Murderer”, 1976), a powerful expression of the frustration and nihilism felt during the period.

Indeed, one of the most notable characteristics of the late ATG output is the visible willingness to help younger talents, although some old masters found a home with ATG as well: “Tsigoineruwaizen” (“Zigeunerweisen”, 1980), Suzuki Seijun’s delirious comeback, was distributed by ATG and Nakagawa Nobuo returned after a 13-year absence from filmmaking for his great last film, the singularly stylized, sparse ghost story “Kaidan – Ikiteiru Koheiji” (“The Living Koheiji”, 1982). Ishii Sogo and Morita Yohimitsu, for instance, shot their successful first “commercial” projects for ATG – “Gyakufunsha kazoku” (“A Crazy Family”, 1984) and “Kazuko Gemu” (“Family Game”, 1983), respectively; and Itami Juzo’s directing debut “Ososhiki” (“The Funeral”, 1984) was distributed by ATG. Still, by 1986 ATG stopped production and distribution came to an end in 1992. Others were to follow their groundbreaking work – indeed not only thematic and formal, but even personal continuity can be found by looking at some recent, well-received Japanese films: Tamura Masaki, the brilliant director of photography who shot, amongst others, Aoyama Shinji’s “Eureka” (2000) or Suwa Nobihro’s “2 Dyou” (“2/Duo”, 1997) had previously worked on important ATG films like “A Crazy Family” or Kuroki Kazuo’s “Ryoma ansatsu” (“The Assassination of Ryoma”, 1974).

One can only hope that the opportunity to discover this important and influential part of Japanese filmmaking can be provided elsewhere, too – although legal problems concerning the rights of many of these films might make this a difficult (and thus, even more admirable) task.