Art Theatre Guild: Unabhängiges Japanisches Kino 1962-1984
by Tom Mes
The importance of the Art Theatre Guild (ATG) within Japanese cinema is equalled only by its obscurity in the West. During three decades, it produced, distributed, and exhibited the works of such pivotal filmmakers as Nagisa Oshima, Susumu Hani, Kazuo Kuroki, Shohei Imamura, Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida, Shuji Terayama, and numerous others whose combined efforts have gone into history as one of the most daring, challenging, exciting, and innovative movements in the nation's cinema: the Japanese New Wave.
Even in its later years, when most of the New Wave directors had gone into semi-retirement, ATG continued to back such idiosyncratic projects as Seijun Suzuki's Zigeunerweisen, Yoshimitsu Morita's Family Game, and Sogo Ishii's Crazy Family. Forming at once an alternative, a complement, and an inheritor to the studio-led industry, ATG's stamp on Japanese film history could be said to be almost as important as any of the major studios.
But while many of the filmmakers it supported are internationally lauded, ATG itself, and its revolutionary system of film production that allowed these filmmakers to create their many masterpieces, has remained curiously overlooked and undervalued. This must doubtlessly have been the main motivating factor behind the Vienna Film Festival's decision to hold an extensive ATG retrospective in October 2003. With more than 30 films, including many hardly ever screened outside Japan, numerous guest filmmakers, and a symposium bringing together specialists from Japan, the United States and Europe (historians Go Hirasawa and Inuhiko Yomota, producer/exhibitor Kinshiro Kuzui, director Koji Wakamatsu, film critic Max Tessier, film scholars Mark Nornes and Roberta Novielli, and the program's curator Roland Domenig), the Viennale did groundbreaking work in giving back ATG its rightful place. The retrospective was later shown in Berlin and Cologne, and an excerpt from the program was screened at the Jeonju festival in Korea in 2004.
One of the greatest results of the efforts of Domenig and the Viennale is without a single doubt the catalogue that accompanied the retrospective. The first publication outside Japan devoted entirely to ATG, it admirably shines light where previously there was only obscurity. In simple terms, much more than a catalogue, it is an essential book on one of the most important movements in Japanese film history. Art Theatre Guild: Unabhängiges Japanisches Kino 1962-1984 contains numerous essays by experts from around the world and a revealing interview by Domenig with the aforementioned Kinshiro Kuzui, the man regarded as the personification of the ATG spirit, all of which combine to form not only an in-depth look at the inner workings of ATG and the Japanese film industry, but also paint a vivid portrait of Tokyo in the 1960s and the counter-cultural climate that infused the company's policies and the works of its filmmakers.
With individual analyses of all the films in the Viennale program and an extensive index of all 180 films distributed and produced by ATG, including full credits for all the Japanese films, the book also sheds new light on many previously unknown, but no less important, films, including Akio Jissoji's This Transient Life, Kazuhiko Hasegawa's Young Murderer, and horror master Nobuo Nakagawa's final work Mysterious Story: The Living Koheiji, to name but a few.
Even though the book is partially in German and partially in English, the English language pieces form the majority of the catalogue, so even those who can't understand the German language will find this an exhaustive study. (And the English translation of Roland Domenig's essay on the history of ATG and independent Japanese cinema can be read here at Midnight Eye.) Disregarding it for its German texts would mean doing yourself a great disservice, as, quite simply, Art Theatre Guild: Unabhängiges Japanisches Kino 1962-1984 should be considered one of the major publications on Japanese cinema.