domingo, 7 de agosto de 2011

Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'ATG

(Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa, 1970)

By Inuhiko Yomota (Translated by Michael Raine)
(in Art Theatre Guild: Unabhängiges Japanisches Kino 1962-1984)

How to describe Shinjuku in the late 60's and early 70's? The scene was something like the noise and the bustle of the famous Boulevard du Crime in 19th Century Paris or London's Picadilly Circus. Tokyo was formed by the grouping together of a number of centers such as Ginza, Shibuya, and Ikebukuro. Of all those places, Shinjuku in this period was the center of the underground art and culture, filled with vulgarity and nihilistic energy. Shinjuku was divided into East and West by the train station. The West side is now a forest of skycrapers, an official space symbolized by the New City Hall, but in those days a water treatment plant extended to the horizon and the place was almost deserted. Action films would often shoot scenes in this out-of-the-way location.
On the other hand, the East side of the station was so crowded as it gets. Watching films like Nagisa Oshima's Shinjuku Dorobo no Nikki (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, 1968) or Toshio Matsumoto's Bara no Soretsu (Funeral Parade of Roses, 1969), you'll see the kinds of impromptu street performances that filled Shinjuku in 1968. In the square in front of the station futenzoku (Japanese hippies) from all over Japan, homeless and hungry, sleep on the grass and sing songs. In the café Fugetsudo, self-declared artists with long hair and beards rub shoulders with leftist activists, while American soldiers who are against Vietnam war and who've gone AWOL from their bases huddle with anti-war groups, plotting escapes to northern Europe. Out in the main street, ten or so men and women form a strange procession. Apart from the gas masks on their heads they're completely naked. At the other end of the main street a gay bar district has grown up. A French semiotician, not yet famous in Japan, is a regular furtive regular.
In the hitherto sacred precints of a temple rises a scarlet tent where grotesque Theater of Cruelty is performed. Riot polices are brought in to prevent these scandalous performances. The sponsors of the theater group act as if they fully intend to hold the performance, engaging the riot police in extended and meaningless wrangling. Meanwhile, another red tent is stealthily erected elsewhere. At last a signal is given and the audience leaves the decoy tent as one body and ruses into the new tent. And so the play starts without incident. The police are frustrated: once the audience is in the new tent they can't interrupt the performance.
Artistic experiment and political contestation went hand in hand. A demonstration against the US-Japanese Security Treaty turned into a riot, the mob turning over cars and flooding onto the railroad tracks so the trains couldn't run. The riot police fired tear gas canisters to suppress the disturbances. On riot days you had to hide lemons in your bag to counteract the effect of the tear gas on your eyes. Young people felt a sense of liberation, that anything goes in Shinjuku. You felt that if you were chased by the cops you could turn into an alley and hide in a coffee shop. That's not the feeling you got from pre-war amusement districts like Asakusa, nor higher class bourgeois districts like the Ginza. Truly, Shinjuku in late-60's Tokyo was what Bakthin had called a carnival space.

(Tenshi no Kokotsu, 1972)

ATG's Art Theatre Shinjuku Bunka was at the heart of the chaotic bustle of the East side of Shinjuku. It was surrounded by rows of cinemas with gaudy billboards advertising endless programs of anything from yakuza films to Holliwood movies. But the atmosphere of the ATG cinema, a 400 seat cinema that had been in use since before the war, was unique. The building was painted a uniform dark gray, the main door was a special black-tinted glass. The interior walls were gray blue and the doors to the auditorium were padded with black leather. It's no surprise that when the newly founded ATG refurbished the cinema in such muted colors someone dubbed it "the mausoleum". In any case, the decision to make everything monochrome created a sense of total separation from the surroundings.
I first saw a film at ATG four years later, in June 1966. I rushed to see Orson Welles' Citizen Kane on its first release in Japan. The "rosebud" of the film was as intoxicating as the word suggests. At the time, Tokyo was buzzing with the Beatles visit, but I thought Welles was much more important. His was the first director's name I remembered. I decided on the spot to become a member of ATG - simply bu becoming a member I could see films restricted to adults. I was still only 13 at the time. I saw many films at ATG after that: Fellini's Giulietta degli spiriti; Godard's Pierrot le fou; Losey's The Servant; Bresson's Procès de Jean d'Arc, Paradzhanov's Teni zabytykh predkov. If it hadn't been for the overwhelming influence of the films I saw between graduating Junior High and beginning High School, perhaps I would never have become an art critic and would be slogging away as a businessman at a Japanese company instead. It wasn't only me, you could probably say the same for the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and the poet Gozo Yoshimasu as well. At the time ATG was a unique guide to the European art film, so different from the Hollywood entertainment film. It is impossible to overstate the influence of ATG programming on the Japanese literary and art scene, even up to the present day.
After a certain point ATG, in addition to distributing foreign auteur films, started to produce new films by radical Japanese directors. Nagisa Oshima's Ninja bugeicho (Manual of Ninja Martial Arts), released in 1967, packed in the students and became a huge hit. The film told the story of the head of a group of ninja who organized farmers' rebellions and fought againt powerfull samurai in the 16th century. It was based on an original 16-volume manga series by leftist manga artist Sanpei Shirato. In order to make the film, Oshima developed his own unique method of freely selecting from and enlarging the actual manga frames, dubbing voices over those images without using any animation or live footage. Oshima followed Welles in being firmly enshrined in my personal pantheon.
From 1968 to 1972 Oshima released Koshikei (Death by Hanging), Shinjuku dorobo nikki (Diary of a Shinjuku Thief), Shonen (Boy), Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa (The Man Who Left his Will on film), Gishiki (The Cerimony), and Natsu no Imoto (Dear Summer Sister). He worked at a frenetic pace, putting into practice what he himself called "sleeping with" the times. In particular I felt that Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa was exactly my story. The budding 8mm-filmmakers who appeared in this film were the same age as me, albeit we went to different high schools. We all spoke the same coded way about the connection between film and politics, participated in the same anti-government demonstrations, were chased by the same riot police and wandered the same tear-gas canister littered streets of Shinjuku. But I, who was caught up in all the political excitment, couldn't understand why Oshima viewed things from a meta-level and was critical of their actions.
After Oshima, ATG produced films by Yoshishige Yoshida (who became also known as Kiju), Toshio Matsumoto, Shuji Terayama, Kazuo Kuroki and Akio Jissoji one after the other. Until then, I had thought of Japanese cinema as Japanified versions of American westerns and gang films, or as monster movies in which one or another enormous beast attacked, but at ATG for the first time I realized that Japanese films could also be "artistic". At the same time, I was deeply impressed by the music used in their films. Toru Takemitsu, Ichiyanagi Toshi, Hikaru Hayashi were the leaders of Japanese music. Apart from anything else, this period of ATG films stands as an archive of modern Japanese music.
At the ATG cinema they used the time after the last screening to put on new playwrights such as Albee, Wesker, Genet and LeRoi Jones. When Yukio Mishima, a major supporter of ATG, presented his sole directorial effort, Yukoku (Patriotism, 1966) at the Shinjuku Bunka, he also put on a modernized version of a No play after the screening. I was also there when the founder of Buto Dance, Tatsumi Hijikata, performed five of his works over 27 days in 1972. Following those performances, Hijikata went into a long seclusion before leaving this world wrapped in the cloack of legend.
The majority of the films that were shown and plays that were performed at ATG were by artists who were already known abroad and who in their own ways had built careers within Japan. As interest in the underground counter-culture developed in the 1960's, ATG opened a small theater in the basement. Mishima, who loved Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, dubbed the space Sasori-za (Theatre Scorpio). The first film shown in this new theater was Gingakei (Galaxy, 1967) by radical student filmmaker Masao Adachi. The Sasori-za, which had projectors for all film gauges, from 8mm to 35mm and so could show films on an equal footing, soon became the center of Shinjuku underground culture.
The year 1971/1972 was a major turning point for Japanese anti-system movements and the underground counter-culture. ATG teamed up with the master of pink eiga Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi to make Tenshi no Kokotsu (Ecstacy of the Angels), a film about the heroic isolation visited on a group of terrorist bombers after they attacked a US army base. During the shoot, a time-bomb hidden in a Christmas-tree exploded less than 100 meters from the ATG cinema, injuring many seriously. A false but believable rumor went around that just after the explosion some suspicious characters were seen running into the Sasori-za. All at once the media started a violent attack on ATG which was advised to stop the making of the film. However, at a press conference director Koji Wakamatsu said: "I want people to realize that behind this incident lies a much greater danger, of the violence that is war." The film was released at the Shinjuku Bunka in March 1972 to great acclaim.
However, that happy age in which political excitment and cinematic experiment seemed to be permanently linked was already ending by the early 1970's. The student movement turned into something cultish, indulging in meaningless tit-for-tat murders or wanton bombing campaigns. The big studios that ATG had opposed int he 1960's reached an economic impasse that resulted in bakrupcy or radical changes in direction. Akira Kurosawa attempted suicide, while Seijun Suzuki and Tai Kato were expelled from the studios and silenced for many years. In the end, ATG turned to a policy of making youth films, seeking to develop a new audience. Masao Adachi had disappeared from view, leaving Japan to engage in the struggle on behalf of Palestinian refugees.

(Sain, 1963)

Let's return on the 1960's to consider the state of Japanese Cinema when ATG started producing films. The Japanese cinema achieved its largest audience in 1958, and in 1960 produced 547 films. As the saying went, film was the king of mass entertainment. The six major companies produced two program pictures every week. Nikkatsu specialized in Japanese-style westerns and action films. Toho made period films and monster movies. At Shochiku it was melodramas of the lower middle class. Toei focused on period films, while Daiei featured their actresses in melodramas.
Finally, Shin-Toho specialized in ghost films and historical spectaculars. Each company had its own peculiar individuality but all of them were devoted to commercial entertainment film. There was little interest in leaving a legacy of film as an art. Of course, it's also true that the period films of Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, filled with samurai and geisha, were lauded at Western film festivals. But those films were exceptional: the "local" films that formed the greater part of Japanese cinema were made in a studio system in which the star abd the script were already decided, and the director was simply an artisan who turned the script into images. Directors were low in the hierarchy, for example, at Shochiku, they could do nothing when films were cut for broadcasr or pulled for political reasons.
ATG's film production was born in reaction to that situation, out of a desire to bring a high artistic quality to Japanese cinema. A close historical analysis of ATG films, starting with Nagisa Oshima's Koshikei in 1968, would reveal any number of variations but in broad outline the films of this period can be characterized in the following way: ATG was opposed to commercial entertainment cinema, so it gave directors who fled the big studios a chance to make their own films. From the end of the 1950's, talented young directors debuted at the Shochiku studio. Nagisa Oshima with Nihon no yoru to kiri (Night and Fog in Japan, 1960), Yoshishige Yoshida with Rokudenashi (Good-for-nothing, 1960), and Masahiro Shinoda with Kawaita mizuumi (Dry Lake, 1960) each in their own way of absolutely rejected the established melodramatic mode of Shochiku films. They were called the Shochiku Nouvelle Vague but they hated the oppressive structure of the conservative studio and turned toward independent production. ATG played an extremely important role in that process.
If ATG had not existed, perhaps we would have remembered Yoshida only as a director of delicate melodramas, not as an auteur who experimented with ways of representing historical over-determination in Erosu Purasu Gyakusatsu (Eros Plus Massacre, 1969) and Kaigenrei (Coup D'État, 1973). Also, Oshima might have had to spend the rest of the 60's in unproductive silence. Between 1968 and 1972 Oshima made five important films, all of which were co-producted by ATG and his own company Sozosha. In Shinoda's varied filmography too, the films made with ATG - Shinju Ten no Amijima (Double Suicide, 1969) and Himiko (1974) - brim with avant-garde techniques and a critical perspective on received ideas about Japanese history and tradition. That would surprise people who know Shinoda only through the nostalgia and retro-stylings of his post-1980's films, in which he seemed to have turned into a mediocre "people's director".
It is significant to the history of Japanese cinema that all of the films mentioned here originated in passionate interchanges between the directors and ATG producer Kuzui Kinshiro. It was normal procedure for the director to bring the proposal to ATG, where it would be assessed rigorously in a single production meeting. After that single meeting, if the project was approved, ATG would make no further intervention. The completed film was the director's alone. At last, through this unrestricted system, films worth being called auteur cinema were produced in Japan.

(Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyou, 1971)

ATG did not concern themselves with the pedigree of the directors they employed. Whether they came from documentary, 8mm or 16mm amateur film, or from television, not to mention avant-garde theater and comic books, ATG invited people with a talent for experiment and gave them a chance to direct their first feature film. There was a strong sense of breaking with the established form of studio films and testing the boundaries of the medium, creating genres that had not yet been categorized.
For example Toshio Matsumoto (Bara no Soretsu), Kazuo Kuroki (Nihon no Akuryo/ Evil Spirits of Japan, 1970) and Yoichi Higashi (Sado/ A Boy Called Third Base, 1978) had backgrounds in documentary film. Bara no Soretsu, which could be called Japan's first gay film, skillfully juxtaposes interviews in Shinjuku gay bars with dramatic sequences adapted from Sophoclean tragedy, and films everything with an Artaudian cruelty. In Nihon to Akuryo, yakuza get caught up in a serious story accusing the communist party of betrayal. The film becomes a humorous yet critical commentary on the then-prominent yakuza genre in Japanese cinema.
Akio Jissoji is one example of a director who came from television. In Jissoji's debut directorial effort Mujo (This Transient Life, 1970) a brother and a sister in a traditional Japanese house in the suburbs of Kyoto put on No masks and indulge in incest as a Bach partita plays on the soundtrack and the camera tracks with unbelievable fluidity. The allegory in this film is based on the Buddhism that is part of everyday folk custom but on the other hand the youth and the priest are influenced by Pascal and Dostoyevsky and their conversations seem real. Jossji vividly expresses what was suppressed in the television system through the free-thinking sense of liberation in these scenes. Although Mujo was not strictly speaking an ATG production, after it became a major hit Jissoji was able to make three ATG productions from 1971 to 1974: Mandara (Mandala, 1971), Uta (Poem, 1972) and Asaki Yumenishi (The Life of a Court Lady, 1974). He is remembered as the first director to fasten onto Buddhism as an intellectual subject in Japanese cinema. He later directed the Ultraman series on television and became known as a monster movie director but even those films were scripted by Mamoru Sasaki, who had worked with Nagisa Oshima on films such as Koshikei and Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa.
The most important names to emerge from the field of amateur filmmaking were Masao Adachi and Masato Hara. When ATG opened its underground theater Sasori-za in 1967, the first film it showed was Adachi's Gingakei. Before that his film Sain (1963) was shown at the Shinjuku Bunka. This 16mm short film created an intense political allegory out of the female's protagonist congenitally sealed vagina and made Adachi a legend in the early 1960's world of student filmmaking. The screening marked a turning point after which ATG, quite apart from already recognized auteurs such as Oshima and Shinoda, committed itself to the aggressive distribution with his contemporaries Oshima and Wakamatsu, but in the mid-seventies he left to support the Palestinian liberation struggle as a fighter in the Japanese Red Army.
Masato Hara was only 17 in 1968 when he won the Grand Prix in the first Japanese amateur film contest. He went on to write Oshima's Tokyo Senso Sengo Hiwa with Mamoru Sasaki. The starting point for that film was that the Battle of Tokyo frequently instigated by the New Left in 1969 was a complete fiction. The plot concerns an amateur film that becomes a kind of last testament when it is entrusted to one youth by another who then dies. However, as the film proceeds it becomes clear that the protagonist is himself as enigmatic fiction. If this film is the most peculiar among Oshima's body of work, it's due to the participation of this high school student who had been influenced by Jonas Mekas and Godard.
From these various sources ATG scouted talent that had exceeded in some way the structures of the mainstream system. The most turbulent of them all was Shuji Terayama. In some ways, Terayama might be called a Japanese Pasolini or Fassbinder. He was, simultaneously, a poet writting in a traditional form, a horse racing commentator, and a director of the most scandalous plays of the 1960's. He was a dangerous agitator who advocated incest and running away from home to young people. He also wrote a wholly unreliable autobiography. Terayama's many independent films take as their subject the most sybmolic actions, filmed with the most humorous sensibility. One film unspools in darkness as a hand searches for a light switch on a wall. At the moment the switch is thrown, the screen turns white and the film itself comes to an end. Another film consists of an extended take of a human figure in the background running towards the camera. At the moment the figure attains life size, we realize that the figure was projected on a screen within the screen we are watching, when that paper screen suddenly tears and from behind it a real person bursts forth who is dressed just like the runner.
ATG, which often produced Terayama's plays, also produced two of Terayama's films Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyo (Throw Away your Books, Let's Go Into the Streets, 1971) and Den'en ni shisu (Pastoral: To Die in the Country, 1974). The former film is a montage of fragments that thoroughly provokes the audience in the theater and shows the spontaneous imaginitive power of Terayama, who was called the charismatic leader of youth at the end of the 1960's. The latter film is based on his fascination with falsehood and his ambivalence about his mother.
It is important to remember that one reason ATG embarked on film production was that novelist Yukio Mishima's 16mm independent film Yukoku was a big hit when it was screened at the Shinjuku Bunka. ATG was often a hotbed of politically radical artists but we shouldn't forget that Yukoku was the model for the scale of films that ATG decided to produce. Although the budget for a typical commercial film was 40 to 50 million yen, ATG could only afford to put up 10 million. Sets tended to be abstract, closed-off rooms, and films were focused to focus on the conflict between a small number of characters over a short period of time. Films from Koshikei to Shura (Pandemonium, 1971) followed this format, modeled on Mishima's film, in which the only two characters commit ritual suicide after making love.

(Kaidan: Ikiteiru Koheiji, 1982)

Although you could see clouds on the horizon, the Japanese film industry was still at its peak, boasting of a healthy number of productions, when ATG started distributing and exhibiting films in 1962. By 1971, soon after ATG turned to film production, the production arms of the big film companies with their massive studios were all in serious trouble. Nikkatsu abandoned its staple action film genres and turned to sex comedies. Daiei went bankrupt and Toho only managed to survive by splitting off its production division.
The collapse of the five-company system gave a big boost to independent production. The most prestigious Daiei directors such as Yasuzo Masumura and Kon Ichikawa made films at ATG in the second half of the 1970's. Of the nine films screened at the Shinjuku Bunka theater in 1962, seven were famous foreign films and only two - one being Hiroshi Teshigahara's Otoshiana (The Pitfall, 1962) - were independent Japanese productions. However, if we look at the screening list for 1972, only three of the eleven films were foreign and the remaining eight were ATG or independent productions. In this way the founding principle of ATG - to create a series of artistic films - was superbly realized.
However, in the larger scheme of things even though ATG was improving the technique of Japanese Cinema it couldn't shore up the subsiding foundations of the Japanese film world as whole. By the end of 1972 ATG carried an accumulated debt of 20 million yen. Unlike the big studios, ATG had no assets so if the current film was not a hit it was not able to provide the capital for the next one. Also, with the rise in prices the policy of producing each film for the unbelievably low budget of ten million yen became increasingly difficult. Inside ATG, too, conservative voices were growing stronger, as did the sense that it was safer to entrust films to veteran directors rather than to unproven newcomers.
We can see many points of rupture in Japanese culture and society that occured around 1972. That year saw the Japanese Red Army beating members to death and shooting it out with the police at the Asama mountain lodge. The New Left movement in Japan lost sight of its objective and turned to murderous internecine battles or to terrorist bombings. The utopian ideal of linking art with politics in a vanguard movement was abandoned and the mores of the young people who gathered in Shinjuku changed completely. They lost the excitment of being part of a crowd, falling into cynicism and nihilism, and were swallowed up by the prevalling culture of mass consumption. High rise buildings rose over West Shinjuku. Soon it was no big deal to travel abroad. People's lives became so comfortable that it surprised even themselves. Nursing a single cup of coffee while debating philosophy or hard to understand films became old-fashioned. Almost overnight the arts tended to take on the character of commodities to be consumed. As if to symbolize that state of affairs, Nagisa Oshima disolved his Sozosha production company.
ATG's economic difficulties became more and more clear. One by one it was forced to dispose of its ten cinemas around the country. At the end of 1974, Shuji Terayama's Den'en ni shisu marked the last experimental work produced under ATG's long-standing policy of supporting experimental art. However, it was no longer possible to roadshow the film at ATG's Shinjuku Bunka for a long period. In order for the cinema to make a profit the film was limited to a short run and replaced with the ultra-popular French film Emmanuelle. The anecdote gives a symbolic indication of the breakdown of the ATG cinema's previous reserve. It also provoked ATG's regular producer since 1968, Kuzui Kinshiro, to leave in despair. He was preparing an adaptation by Yoshishige Yoshida of Kenzaburo Oe masterpiece Man'en Gannen no futtoboru (The Silent Cry), but the project never came to fruition. The president of ATG was less interested in Oe's difficult style than in adapting the mystery writers who were so popular at the time. The successful adaptation of Honjin Satsujin Jiken (Murder in Honjin Manor House, 1975) served as the nail in the coffin of ATG's avant-garde production policy.
Shosuke Taiga, who replaced Kuzui as the main producer at ATG, had been a scriptwritter at Shochiku. He got steady results by employing veterns such as Koichi Saito and Kazuo Kuroki but he also scouted the totally inexperienced Kazuo Hasegawa to direct Seishun no Satsujinsha (The Young Murderer, 1976), based on Kenji Nakagami's short story. With the exception of Nikkatsu, the studio system that had regularly produced new directors had come to an end by the 1970's. After being presented by ATG as a promising new director, much was expected of Hasegawa. Naturally, he disappeared from view after making only one more film.
Shiro Sasaki tried to change the reputation of the ATG production wing more boldly when he became president in 1979. He shunned all the established directors, actively searching for the completely unkown young filmmakers to entrust with a film project. He rapidly discovered talented filmmakers from the worlds of porn films, student films, and Nikkatsu program pictures. This is how Kazuki Omori's, Kazuyuki Izutsu, Banmei Takahashi, Kichitaro Negishi, and Sogo Ishii came to work with ATG. On the other hand, Sasaki also helped Nobuo Nakagawa, known as an overlooked master of B-movies, to make his final film. Only three characters appear in Kaidan - Ikiteiru Koheiji (Mysterious Story: The Living Koheiji, 1982), yet it is still a bloodcurdling horror masterpiece.
As a producer, Sasaki's style was the complete opposite of Kazui's. Kuzui liked to produce profound and difficult films that contained all the contradictions and distortions of post-war Japan. The privileged themes of that cinema were taboo crimes and violence, anarchism and eroticism. Sasaki endeavored to produce simple and vigorous films that escaped the gravitational field of Japanese history and aimed for the free and easy sensibility of a youth audience attuned to the outside world. That difference corresponds perfectly to the shift of the mood of Japanese society between the 1960's and the 1980's. During the same period the Japanese film industry became more and more impoverished, in contrast to the increasingly thorough penetration of Japanese society by high level capitalism.
1972 marks a point at which something important was lost, something that could not easily be replaced but that people soon forgot they had lost in the first place. The next dividing point for Japanese cinema came in 1989 with the death of Emperor Hirohito and the debut of Takeshi Kitano and Shinya Tsukamoto. But let us leave that discussion for another time.

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