As programmers Junko Yamazaki and Daniel Johnson explain in their series notes, Art Theater Guild (ATG) was formed in the early 60s to distribute art-house movies from other countries but transferred to film production later in the decade. "While partially subsidized by one of Japan's major studios, Toho, ATG was largely free of the commercial and artistic constraints imposed by these studios." Their output included movies by some of Japan's major directors, including Shohei Imamura (whose ATG production, A Man Vanishes, screened at the Siskel Film Center in January) and Nagisa Oshima (represented in Doc's series with The Ceremony on April 16), subversive "pink" films (soft-core genre movies) by Koji Wakamatsu (whose Ecstasy of the Angels screens on April 9), and experimental work like Funeral Parade of Roses, which screens this week.
All these films represent alternatives to mainstream Japanese cinema as it was practiced in the 1960s and '70s. ATG's productions took full advantage of the unconstrained conditions that Yamazaki and Johnson mention, either through blatantly nonnarrative techniques or content that challenged social taboos. Often the films' radical aesthetics mirrored their makers' radical politics, as in Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film and Yoshihige Yoshida's Coup d'Etat (1973). At some points, the films themselves were perceived as acts of aggression. The programmers note of Ecstasy of the Angels: "Due in part to the participation of actual in [the] production, the film met with protest against screening it [sic] at the main ATG theater, near the police station recently hit by a guerilla bomb." Like certain French films of the May '68 period, these movies document a revolutionary energy that had infiltrated the culture at large. Regardless of their artistic merit, all the titles in this series should provide fascinating history lessons.