Heat of the moment

Local retrospectives spotlight Japan's innovative Art Theater Guild

"A Man Vanishes"


FILM The late 1950s saw Japanese film production and attendance at all-time highs. Soon the expanding television market would steadily draw audiences away, but in the meantime the industry was robust enough to encourage the promotion of assistant directors and other next-generation talents influenced by the era's various artistic avant-gardes to make their own features. This resulted in a flowering of bold new voices parallel to France's New Wave and other radical filmmaking shifts around the globe. As elsewhere, ideas and influences from the underground began bubbling up to the mainstream surface.

Unlike other places, however, Japan had its own conglomerate means of importing, producing, and exhibiting (in a micro-chain of specially designated theaters) more experimental work in direct if modest competition with commercial product. That means would be the Art Theater Guild of Japan, which a group of cineastes, filmmakers, and critics launched in 1961; by spring of the next year they'd secured 10 venues across the nation to showcase the work ATG distributed and, eventually, created in-house.

Two concurrent local retrospectives highlight the Art Theater Guild's important but (at least in the West) underseen contributions. The organization is tangentially related to the roster of experimental shorts (plus Michio Okabe's mondo-like 1968 feature counterculture overview Crazy Love) in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and San Francisco Cinematheque's two-week "Fragments of Japanese Underground Cinema 1960-1974" series, which begins this week. But it's central to the Pacific Film Archive's already in-progress "Chronicles of Inferno: Japan's Art Theater Guild," continuing through month's end.

Raised in a society whose rigid codes for behavior and loyalty enabled a remarkable post-World War II economic recovery, but which could also stifle individual expression, Japanese filmmakers emerging in the 1960s were if anything even more eager than young Americans and Europeans to tear apart inherited thematic, stylistic, and commercial conventions. Whether advocating for full-on revolution, critiquing the status quo, or playing with form, ATG's productions pushed both medium and audiences out of the comfort zone.

That aim couldn't have been more apparent in the company's first original feature (co-produced with Nikkatsu Corp.), 1967's A Man Vanishes by the celebrated Shohei Imamura (1963's The Insect Woman, 1966's The Pornographers, 1983's The Ballad of Narayama). Ostensibly an investigative documentary about a salaryman who's gone missing for two years, it's a poker-faced prank that slowly grows more convoluted and bizarre until the film becomes a chronicle of its own unmaking, and an accusation directed at any notion of truth in cinema.

More traditional subjects are turned inside out in Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide (1969) and Toshio Matsumoto's Shura (1971). The former is drawn from a 300-year-old tragic romance written for bunraku (puppet) theater; mixing abstraction and naturalism, actors human and otherwise, it's a jewel that questions artifice itself. In contrast to the prolific Shinoda, Matsumoto made very few features, most famously 1969's pop art-camp extravaganza Funeral Parade of Roses, which transplants Oedipus Rex to the Tokyo gay underground with cross-dressing singer-actor "Peter" as its ruthless glamazon protagonist.

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