Underground Cinema and the Art Theatre Guild

25 August 2005
picture: Underground Cinema and the Art Theatre Guild


1. Death By Hanging

Shohei Imamura's A Man Vanishes (Ningen Johatsu) was released in June 1967. Although difficult to classify as an Art Theatre Guild (ATG) production, as it was planned completely by the director and then shown at Nikkatsu-run theaters after only a short run at ATG, the film marked a real turning point. In autumn of the same year preparations began for ATG's first official film, Death By Hanging (Koshikei, 1968), made in collaboration with Nagisa Oshima's film production company, Sozosha. A low budget system was established in which ATG and the director each invested half of the 10 million yen cost of the film. The low budgets however necessitated a new way of shooting with a limited number of actors on one set during a short period of time, and the large set used for the execution room was actually the ruins of the Shibazono Theater where Kinshiro Kuzui used to be the manager.

Oshima conceptualized and planned the film since 1963 and Michinori Fukao had already written the first and second versions on which Oshima, Fukao, Tsutomu Tamura and Mamoru Sasaki based the script. The film is inspired by the murder in 1958 of a high school girl in Komatsugawa. The strangeness of the crime - the fact that the criminal reported the details of his crime directly to the newspapers and sent a memento to the victim's family - attracted a lot of attention. A resident Korean named Ri Chin-u, a studious boy from an impoverished background, was arrested in 1959 and the discovery that he had previously killed another woman sent shockwaves through society. The death sentence was handed down despite the fact that the crime was committed by a minor and although there was a movement to save his life, the execution was carried out in 1962.

Through this Brechtian drama of the irrational that describes the Japanese State's execution of Ri Chin-u (or boy R), the film pursues the question of Japan's war responsibility that lies behind the event. Oshima, who had taken up the question of the Korean peninsula and resident Koreans in his own films from Forgotten Soldiers (Wasurerareta Kogun, 1963), Yunbogi's Diary (Yunbogi no Nikki, 1965), A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Song (Nihon Shunka-ko, 1967) to Three Resurrected Drunkards (Kaette Kita Yopparai, 1968), basically determined the direction of all ATG films to come with the anti-Japanese, anti-emperor system, anti-State theme of this film, or rather anti-film, that became ATG's first production.

Toshiro Ishido, Masao Adachi and the film critic Masao Matsuda, all amateurs to acting, appeared in the film with Sozosha's actors. Furthermore Adachi, the assistant director, was put in charge of the preview reel in which he put a noose around Oshima's neck in an intense anti-execution demonstration. The participation of Adachi from Wakamatsu Production and the film critic and anarchist Matsuda symbolized the joint struggle of ATG-Sozosha and the underground cinema movement. Later on, ATG would function as the meeting point of critics and creators from various genres, directors employing artists from outside the film world in an attempt to cut across genres and to not be bound by established roles of film production.

The script for Susumu Hani's The Inferno of First Love (Hatsukoi Jigoku-hen, 1968) was written by Shuji Terayama, the art direction by the painter Kuniyoshi Kaneko, the posters by Akira Uno; Oshima's Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Shinjuku Dorobo Nikki, 1969), although a film for distribution, included the participation of designer Tadanori Yokoo, situational drama by Juro Kara and the Red Tent group, the sexologist Tetsuji Takahashi, and Shigeichi Tanabe of Kinokuniya, as well as a script by Adachi; the designer Kiyoshi Awazu was in charge of art direction of Shinoda's Double Suicide (Shinju Ten no Amajima, 1969), the scenario by musician Toru Takemitsu and writer Taeko Tomioka; Peter, the Shinjuku gay boys and the art happening group Zero Dimension appeared in Matsumoto's Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no Soretsu, 1969), with the stage art director Setsu Asakura in charge of art direction; Oshima's lineup in The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa, 1970) included Kazuo Goto and the group Pojipoji (which grew out of a high school film study group), and a scenario by Masataka Hara that attracted attention at the Sogetsu Film Festival; the folk singer Nobuyasu Okabayashi and ankoku butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata appeared in Kuroki's Evil Spirits of Japan (Nihon no Akuryo, 1970); the director and translator of Ionesco, Hiroshi Shiose and Yoshiki Makita (the latter later gaining notoriety for his role in the Peace can explosions), worked on Yoshida's Heroic Purgatory (Rengoku Eroika, 1970); Shuji Terayama directed Throw Away the Books, Let's Go into the Streets (Sho o Sute yo Machi e Deyo, 1971); the avant-garde of the TV world also participated-Akio Jissoji with This Transient Life (Mujo, 1970), Soichiro Tawara and playwright Kunio Shimizu with Lost Lovers (Arakajime Ushinawareta Koibitotachi yo, 1971); the stills for Wakamatsu's Ecstasy of Angels (Tenshi no Kokotsu) were taken by photographer Takuma Nakahira, and the music was by jazz pianist Yosuke Yamashita; the scenario for Yoshida's Coup d'Etat (Kaigenrei, 1973) was written by the playwright Minoru Betsuyaku, and the film was produced by the film critic Koshi Ueno. There are too many names to list here but the diverse talent amassed by this one film production company has never been and will probably never be equaled again.

picture: scenes from 'Death By Hanging', 'Ceremony' and 'The man Who Left His Will On Film'

The same year, 1968, Death by Hanging was entered into the Cannes Film Festival thanks to the efforts of the Cineclub Study Group's Kazuko Kawakita and Hayao Shibata of France Film Company. At the time Truffaut, Godard and others were carrying out their anti-film festival action, and when the film was screened at a theater in the city, it was highly praised by the students involved in the May revolution as a Japanese revolutionary film that supported the anti-establishment movement. Although this screening broke the monopoly on foreign film festival entries held by the large companies and the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, its real significance lay in the fact that it wasn't a classic Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu or Kinugasa, but a contemporary Japanese film. At the same time at Cannes, the Motion Pictures Producers Association of Japan blocked the screening of The Inferno of First Love despite a request from the Filmmakers Association of France, causing a commotion that led to the film's large success at home. The following year Eros Plus Massacre (Eros Purasu Gyakusatsu, 1970) was screened at the Avignon Film Festival and largely through Cahiers du Cinema, Oshima and Yoshida became known around the world. At Cannes in 1971 The Man Who Left his Will on Film and The Ceremony (Gishiki) displaced the recommendations of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan and were screened during the Directors' Fortnight as Oshima became central to the intensifying critique of the large studios. The efforts of these filmmakers to continue struggling against the large studios and to introduce ATG films abroad opened the path for Japanese films to be shown abroad today. In this way ATG films serve as the memory of Japanese film history, perhaps even world film history.

2. Movement Films: A Simultaneous World

In April 1968, after filming Branded to Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967), Seijun Suzuki was suddenly fired from Nikkatsu, and the Cineclub Study Group, which was planning a full retrospective of his works, was not allowed to borrow his films. The Seijun Suzuki Joint Struggle Committee was formed to demand his re-employment and the right to screen his films. A wide spectrum of film people from large studios to independent production houses, film critics and student film groups formed a united front, coming together as an All-Campus Joint Struggle Committee of the film world. The struggle against the firing of Henri Langlois of the Cinématheque Française, and the anti-Cannes film festival action paralleled this movement in Japan in which Sozosha and Wakamatsu Production played a central role, and Masao Matsuda became a leader. In other words, the meeting with Death By Hanging provided the battleground for the Seijun Suzuki Struggle within which Matsuda recognized the arrival of the movement film led by the audience. He contrasted the 1950s as the period of company films made by the five big studios, and the 1960s as the period of filmmakers' films centered around independent production companies. He recognized the filmmakers as the leaders of this change from the 1950s to the 1960s, adding that the audience must appear during this transformative period towards the movement film. As a "filmmaker-activist," Adachi himself equated being a filmmaker with being an activist.

The construction of this new film theory reverberated with the swelling anti-establishment movements throughout the world and developed in many different forms from the late 1960s onwards. For the Dziga Vertov Group formed by Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, film was divided into the three categories of imperialistic films, revisionist films and militant films that were defined respectively as Hollywood and Moscow films, auteur films, and truly revolutionary films. In Argentina Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino defined Hollywood cinema as fascist cinema, European cinema as second cinema and third world cinema as third cinema. Using the phrase 'cinema as a gun' they emphasized that in Latin America holding a camera was tantamount to holding a gun and that cinema was not merely cinema but held the promise of liberation from American neocolonialism. Julio Garcia Espinoza of Cuba put the last into opposition with the two former, contrasting a bourgeois Imperfect Cinema with the people's revolutionary collective cinema of the Bolivia Ukamau group. In Brazil Glauber Rocha emphasized the aesthetic of hunger in Third World cinema and was one of many Latin American filmmakers who used the ICAIC in Cuba and Chilean and Venezuelan film festivals to deepen their relations and exchange various theories. Rocha participated on the Vertov Group's Wind from the East (Vent d'est, 1969) and Godard organized the European screening of Solaris-Getino's Hour of the Furnaces (La Hora de los hornos, 1968).

Examples of actual exchanges can be cited but more important than the direct personal relations and the relationship of influences between theories, ideas and films, are the unseen ties that exceeded these, a world simultaneity. In other words, radical filmmakers of this period shared a problem consciousness. When Rocha praised the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet who lived in exile in Germany, as exemplary of third world cinema, he indicated how the framework of nations, regions and language was overcome, and how close the distance that separated them was in fact. It is now imperative to discuss the theory of Matsuda-Adachi's movement films and Oshima's ATG experiments from this perspective of world simultaneity for the first time.

3. Theory of Landscape

After the Seijun Suzuki Joint Struggle Committee, Matsuda, Adachi, Sasaki, music critic Hisato Aikura and art critic Masaaki Hiraoka formed a critical front around the movement film. This gave birth to the second incarnation of the magazine Eiga Hihyo (Film Criticism) and Oshima, Kawakita, Shinoda and Matsuda initiated the movement to screen the films of the Dziga Vertov Group in Japan. As part of this process Adachi, Matsuda and Sasaki collectively produced A.K.A. Serial Killer (Ryakusho: Renzoku Shasatsuma, 1969), a film composed entirely of a series of shots of landscape that the 19-year-old serial killer Norio Nagayama may have seen and that put forth the 'theory of landscape,' in which landscape became a key word for understanding the changing situation.

Developed for the most part by Matsuda, Adachi and the photographer Nakahira, the theory of landscape opposed the homogenized landscape of post-Fordist space under high economic growth. A.K.A. Serial Killer certainly reflected the transformation after the 1967 Haneda struggle, from the increasingly intense street struggles and university struggles which were put down by force after mid-1969, to the turn to armed struggle and post-riot police confrontation urban guerilla warfare. Rather than describing the struggle itself, the film literally and materially took as its theme the structure of state power upholding the emperor system and capital in the featureless landscape of the everyday that needed to be destroyed.

picture: Koji Wakamatsu, Masao Adachi and Nagisa Oshima

The Man Who Left His Will on Film was shot literally as a landscape film and sparked an even more intense debate. The Communist League Red Army advocated the Tokyo War and Osaka War, or the militant plans of the urban guerilla struggle with the authorities in Tokyo and Osaka, as the preliminary stage of armed revolt. Forms of political agitation such as attacks on police stations and the military training camp at the Daibosatsu intended to stop Eisaku Sato's visit to the U.S. in November 1969, were suddenly suppressed. Mass arrests in June 1970 ensued, and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty was automatically renewed.

Oshima did not describe the Tokyo War itself but attempted to create a new style of struggle by showing its aftermath in the postwar landscape. In 1971 The Man Who Left His Will on Film, Violated Angels (Okasareta Byakui, 1967) and Sex Jack (Seizoku, 1970) showed at the Cannes Directors' Week. On their way home Wakamatsu and Adachi stopped in Beirut to join the struggle with Fusako Shigenobu of the Red Army and the Palestinian People's Liberation Front. They filmed the everyday life of Arab guerillas and tested their theory of landscape in the revolutionary newsfilm, Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (Sekigun PFLP Sekai Senso Sengen, 1971). Originally the film opened at the Shinjuku Bunka Theater but as the result of intense pressure was moved to the Keio Meigaza theater. The red bus mobile projection unit attempted to implement film praxis by touring the country with the film. If we trace the theoretical journey, this film turns from a theory of landscape to a theory of information-media. A close re-examination of the theory of landscape today can point to the radical aims of such a theory of landscape and help think about the theoretical differences and similarities to the question of the impossibility of representation in the films of Straub-Huillet and Maguerite Duras. The most scandalous film produced in the midst of this theoretical transformation was Koji Wakamatsu's Ecstasy of the Angels (1972).

4. Koji Wakamatsu

Discourses on ATG are many and diverse and include writing by producers, systematic film histories, auteurist analyses and theories of individual films, but references to Koji Wakamatsu outside of the period are extremely rare. This despite the fact that retrospectives of both his new and his old films played at the Sasori-za as if it were a Wakamatsu Production theater. All of his films were big hits and played as the late show at the Shinjuku Bunka Theater, and the trilogy Ecstasy of the Angels, Eros Eterna (Seibo Kannon Daibosatsu, 1977) and Secret Flower (Hika, 1972) a film for distribution, were also shown. If one considers the intimate relationship of Wakamatsu Production and Sozosha, not to mention Adachi's participation in ATG's first film Death by Hanging, it is easy to imagine the great influence of the low budget and short shoots of Wakamatsu Production's pink films on ATG's 10 million yen film projects. This relationship ended with Wakamatsu's production of In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no Koriida, 1976). Of course, as a director of the pink film genre, and a representative underground filmmaker one should avoid discussing him simply in terms of his relationship to ATG films but it is also problematic that this relationship is never addressed.

Kusabe and other ATG members reacted to the campaign that labeled Secret Behind Walls (Kabe no Naka no Himegoto, 1965) a national disgrace by promoting art films in opposition to the five big studios: in other words, by expelling anything more alternative than an art film in the name of art. When looking back on this aspect of the history of ATG, the continuity of this double structure of discrimination becomes clear. The declared struggle against the Japanese state, the attack on U.S. military bases and confiscation of weapons, the serial explosions of police stations, the suicide attacks on the Diet building, the destruction of Mt. Fuji - the symbol of Japan - described in Esctasy of the Angels and reminiscent of the assassination of the emperor in the last scene of Sex Jack, and the description of the struggle to blow up a nuclear power plant in Eros Eterna in the latter half of the 1970s when the political fever had cooled, synonymously posed and provided some form of answer to the difficult question of defining terrorism and revolution, a problem which remains unresolved up to this day. It is no surprise that ATG films are overlooked by the impoverished Japanese film discourse of the present day in which textual analysis, playful cynicism and representations of pure artistic expression have become the norm. The production of Esctasy of the Angels paralleled the Asama Sanso incident carried out by the United Red Army and bombing plots by anarchists. The police station right in front of the Shinjuku Bunka Theater had been bombed and pressure from the state authorities, Toho-ATG, the Organization of Theater Owners and the neighborhood association forced ATG's most dangerous film to be shown only at the Shinjuku Bunka Theater. Right after its release Tsuyoshi Okudaira, Yasuyuki Yasuda and Kozo Okamoto carried out an assault operation on Lydda Airport. The opening at the Shinjuku Bunka Theater caused a sensation and although there was a movement to screen the film in various places, a fearful ATG-Toho quickly disposed of the rights to the film.

picture: scenes from 'Ecstasy of the Angels'

With the end of the Cold War and the passing of 30 years since the 1960s, a reinvestigation of the 'season of politics' has occurred around the world, notably in France, Germany and Italy. In a sense the historicization of this tumultuous period is progressing but although it is possible for the films to be shown, when the director himself appears at film events or when Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War is shown, despite decreasing cases of harassment and intervention, surveillance by the special police and authorities continues. Many former members of the Red Army including Haruo Wako, who played the role of a soldier in Ecstasy of the Angels, are still in court, and the death sentence has been handed down to members of the Red Army for the bombing of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries building (carried out in order to demand Japan take responsibility for the war on Asia), for its occupation of embassies, and for its role in hijacking (to demand the release of captured members of the anarchist group East Asian Anti-Japanese Armed Struggle). The simplistic historicization which relegates these events to the past must be avoided. Although the Left ought to be leading the way, in Japan the Right and the establishment have taken the offensive and recycled the Asama Sanso incident and the Red Army hijacking struggle into TV drama and film spectacles, while shameless propaganda films for the establishment, such as The Choice of Hercules (Totsunyu Seyo Asama Sanso Jiken, 2002 - dir: Masato Harada) have gained unexpected popularity.

Tragically, many filmmakers and critics who participated in and supported ATG and the movement have, without being aware of it, converted to the side of capitalism and the emperor system state with the changing times. The difficulty of talking about Wakamatsu is caused by the complexity of the political situation, but if one acknowledges this difficulty then Wakamatsu can be said to be a rare breed of filmmaker whose films of the past can narrate the actuality of the period. Rather than reminiscing about the good old art films of ATG in a nostalgic and revisionist manner, an investigation of the real meaning of ATG opened up by Death by Hanging can narrate the revolutionary nature of ATG and the underground, which cut across the cinema and movements supported by Wakamatsu and Adachi.

5. Post-1976

After 1970 however, the end of the 'season of politics' was declared, and many filmmakers involved in the joint struggle were forced into a difficult position. Oshima stopped making films about the present after Dear Summer Sister (Natsu no Imoto, 1972), Yoshida became distanced from the film world after Coup d'Etat (1973), and although Wakamatsu continued to shoot pink films, his films were never the same again after Adachi left for Palestine after writing his last scenario, Ecstacy of the Angels.

In 1970 after the surfacing of underground culture that went along with the Osaka International Exposition's extolling of progress and development, many went their separate ways - some became active in commercial films, those opposed went abroad to make films, others relegated themselves to experiments in conceptual art and experimental film, some tried to carve out a path in television, and others quit film altogether. From the late 1970s many withdrew into a vacuous postmodern theory of media away from the theory of information, the successor of the theory of landscape.

At the same time, around 1972, ATG itself was forced to change direction and began making films with the masters and directors of the five large film companies: Music (Ongaku, 1972) with Daiei's Yasuzo Masumura, Aesthetics of a Bullet (Teppodama no Bigaku, 1973) with Toei's Sadao Nakajima, The Wanderers (Matatabi, 1973) with Kon Ichikawa and Tsugaru Folk Song (Tsugaru Jongara-Bushi, 1973) with Shochiku's Koichi Saito. The films were recognized not for their experimental nature but for their predictability, entertainment value and mass appeal. Pastoral: To Die in the Country (Den'en ni Shisu, 1974) marked the end of the era of the Shinjuku Bunka Theater directly managed by ATG, after which Kinshiro Kuzui quit Sanwa Kogyo and continued making films as a freelance producer.

Underground films continued on a different horizon from this point on with Masato Hara's Cinema Expressway, the dawn of PIA, and in a commercial vein with Tatsumi Kumashiro and Chusei Sone's Nikkatsu Roman Porno, and Toei's post-yakuza films by Kinji Fukasaku and Shunya Ito. However, with the appearance of Kazuhiko Hasegawa's Young Murderer (Seishun no Satsujinsha) and Sogo Ishii's Panic High School (Koko Dai Panikku) in 1976, art itself - including cinema - reached a certain maturity and the underground cinema, which had up until this point enjoyed a close relationship with ATG, entered a completely different phase.

NB: This essay was originally intended for inclusion in Art Theatre Guild: Unabhängiges Japanisches Kino 1962 - 1984, edited by Roland Domenig and published by the Viennale and the Österreichisches Filmmuseum at the occasion of the ATG retrospective in Vienna, Austria in 2003. We thank Go Hirasawa and Roland Domenig for allowing it to be published on Midnight Eye and heartily recommend everyone to pick up a copy of the ATG book, which includes an accompanying essay by Go Hirasawa.