Japan Society: February 18—March 1, 2009
Shinjuku, Tokyo in the late 60s and early 70s was an electrifying place: student radicals, avant-garde street performers, drag queens, and assorted hippies crossed paths in a vortex of vibrant counterculture. In the heart of Shinjuku stood the Shinjuku Bunka, the Art Theatre Guild’s flagship showplace. Painted stark grey—in contrast to the surrounding gaudy commercial theaters—the Bunka introduced Tokyoites to European art cinema as well as to the most daring Japanese independent productions of the day.
Founded as a distributor of European films in 1961, the Art Theatre Guild (ATG) began producing independent films in 1967. Contemptuous of the commercial film industry, ATG approached film production in an unprecedented fashion: a committee of film critics selected the films. Once a project was approved, often after a single meeting with the director, the company left the filmmaker alone. Completed films were guaranteed a one-month run at the Bunka, regardless of attendance—this at a time when the average film, even box office hits, played for about a week. This innovative approach revitalized the Japanese art film. Shinjuku Ecstasy: Independent Films From the Art Theatre Guild of Japan, a recent screening series at the Japan Society, documented ATG’s astounding first decade.
ATG gave New Wave directors, experimental and amateur filmmakers, documentarians, veterans of the pink film (soft-core erotic films), and TV directors the opportunity to shoot their dream projects. Energized by the volatile political climate of the late 60s and early 70s, rebellious young filmmakers sought to reinvent Japanese society. Their films investigated such controversial subjects as transgressive sex, gay subculture, racism against Koreans, Japan’s soul-crushing dependence on the United States, and the breakdown of the traditional family.
Akio Jissoji’s This Transient Life (Mujo, 1970) remains the most notorious of the many ATG films that deal with incest. One of ATG’s most commercially successful films, it recounts the story of a brother and sister, Masao and Yuri, who live in a country estate near Kyoto. Obsessed with Buddhist statues, Masao refuses to go to college and wants no part of his father’s business. One day, while chasing each other around the house wearing traditional Noh masks, the siblings wind up in each other’s arms and make love. The gliding camera follows the lovers throughout the vast shadowy mansion. It moves constantly, evoking the Buddhist concept of mujo—the transience of all things. Moving independently of the action at times, the camera possesses a life of its own: it tracks back and forth laterally, while Masao and his childhood friend Ogino, a priest, discuss philosophy. Masao’s perverse interpretation of Buddhism, which denies the existence of good and evil as well as an afterlife, shakes Ogino to the core. Ironically, it is Masao who will attain enlightenment, entering a heightened state of consciousness in a surreal scene during which he encounters an old woman and a giant carp with a belly full of stones representing the souls of the impure. The film dissects Buddhist thought through its sensational subject matter. Jissoji continued to examine this topic in a series of films he made for ATG.
Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Street (Sho wo suteyo machi e deyo, 1971), Shuji Terayama’s incendiary first feature proves an angry call to arms. The film opens with an uncomfortably long stretch of black. The defiant young protagonist finally appears and begins to provoke the audience, criticizing their passivity. He chides them, declaring that they’re less free than the fictional characters projected on the screen. The film traces the coming of age of Eimei, a timid teenager who lives in a squalid Shinjuku flat by the railroad tracks with his dysfunctional family: a withdrawn sister obsessed with her pet rabbit, a feeble war criminal father, and a manipulative grandmother (repressive maternal figures are a staple in Terayama’s plays and films). Eimei dreams of escape—from his family, from the city, from his life—a recurring scene in which he fantasizes about flying away in an antique plane becomes a haunting motif. As he matures, Eimei grows more self-assured, yet his longings remain unfulfilled. A magenta-tinted image of the crashed plane in flames symbolizes his dashed desires. Dream images, musical sequences, and Godard-like interviews with Shinjuku denizens constantly interrupt the story. Searing psychedelic guitar punctuates the narrative shards. Bold and kinetic, the cinematography enthralls: a jittery handheld camera follows Eimei as he runs along the train tracks for what seems like an eternity. Terayama even attaches a camera to a soccer ball during a match. The film references Vietnam, the Japan-U.S. security treaty (the cause of Japan’s student riots in the 60s), and the rise of commodity culture: a character compares Japan to a lizard trapped in a Coca-Cola bottle. A burning American flag reveals a couple making love behind it.
Yoshishige (Kiju) Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre (1969) revolves around Osugi Sakae, a historical figure who advocated anarchy and free love during Japan’s liberal Taisho period (1912-1926), and was murdered, along with one of his mistresses¬, by the police. The film shuffles back and forth between past and present, as a college student, Eiko, researches Osugi’s life. Wada, Eiko’s nihilistic boyfriend, cannot satisfy her sexually and indulges in compulsive acts of pyromania. Yearning for passion and meaning, Eiko searches for it in the lives of the Taisho characters. Past and present blur: in one sequence, a woman in traditional dress boards a bullet train and disembarks at ultramodern Tokyo Station only to be picked up by a rickshaw and driven to Osugi’s traditional country home. Yoshida disorients the spectator through anti-illusionist devices: jump cuts, stylized theatrical reenactments, and radically de-centered compositions that crop the characters in odd ways. Through such avant-garde formalism the film addresses the impossibility of portraying history truthfully: Osugi’s death is presented in three alternate variations. In one version Osugi is stabbed to death by one of his mistresses in his home. He staggers and dies melodramatically, shoji screens collapsing around him like a house of cards. A character hangs himself with a noose made of 35 mm film, one of the many self-referential moments in the ATG films, which often feature filmmakers as characters.
Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no soretsu, 1969) by Toshio Matsumoto re-imagines Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in the Shinjuku gay milieu. The actor known only as “Peter” delivers a powerful performance as Eddie in his film debut. Eddie competes with an older drag queen named Leda, the current “Mama” of the Bar Genet, for the affections of the drug-dealing owner, Gonda. Eddie is haunted by a childhood trauma that gradually comes to light via flashbacks. He hangs out with a band of hippies, drop-outs, filmmakers, and drag queens in a small apartment, where they watch underground movies and do drugs (pot, and plain eye-drops—hard drugs being difficult to score in 60s Japan). The film shifts gears tonally and stylistically, veering suddenly from tragedy to farce. Campy mock-duels between Eddie and Leda, set to the strains of a barrel organ, are juxtaposed with documentary interviews of Shinjuku drag queens, and stroboscopic montages. Matsumoto, who began his career making experimental films, employs a full array of special effects: over-exposed images, sped-up action, on-screen text, high-contrast freeze-frames. These techniques pull us out of a too-easy identification with the story. However, the formal complexity of the film never comes across as dry or overly cerebral. A non-judgmental depiction of gay life in 60s Japan, the film refuses to equate liberated sex with emancipatory politics (as do some of the other films in the series). Supposedly, Stanley Kubrick modeled A Clockwork Orange’s droogs on Funeral’s pretty things. Eddie’s spiky false eyelashes and penetrating stare do indeed evoke Malcolm McDowell’s Alex De Large.
Koji Wakamatsu cut his teeth making pink films, yet found ways to smuggle avant-garde techniques, poetry, and radical politics into his no-budget sex movies. Penned by Masao Adachi, who later defected to Lebanon and became a member of the Japanese Red Army, Ecstasy of the Angels (Tenshi no kokotsu, 1972) recounts the in-fighting among members of an ultra-left paramilitary organization. A botched robbery at an American military base leaves several members of one of the organization’s troops dead. The survivors realize they were set up by their parent organization, which disapproved of their lax sexual behavior and perceived deviations from ideology. Dedicating themselves to anarchy, violence, and free sex, they break off, embarking on a desperate campaign of random bombings across Shinjuku and Japan. The film culminates in a cathartic bomb-throwing montage. The film caused one of the biggest scandals in the history of ATG when a bomb hidden in a Christmas tree exploded not far from the Shinjuku Bunka during the shoot. Wakamatsu and ATG were accused of being in cahoots with the terrorists, and the police tried unsuccessfully to halt the production. Wakamatsu recently returned to this topic with United Red Army (2007), his self-produced docudrama based on the Asama Mountain Lodge incident. In this episode, the remaining members of the student militia barricaded themselves inside a mountain inn, took the caretaker hostage, and faced off against the police for ten days. Though made on a much larger budget, United Red Army is remarkably consistent in tone with the earlier film.
Shinjuku Ecstasy transports you back to a vital era when angry young people believed that they could change the world. ATG films subvert the mainstream through taboo-busting themes and jolting images that resonate beyond their initial shock value. These films dazzle in their imagination, freedom, risk-taking, self-reflection, and political engagement. Hopefully, the Japan Society will follow up with a series devoted to ATG’s second and third decades.
Ethan Spigland is a filmmaker, visual artist, writer and curator based in Brooklyn. He is a Professor in the Graduate Program of Media Studies at Pratt Institute.