What if critics chose which films got made? Such was the bracing—or hair-raising, your pick—reality at Japan’s independent Art Theatre Guild in the ’60s and early ’70s. The vital distributor blossomed just as big studios were wilting despite their notorious homegrown New Wave. Initially a funnel for the burgeoning Western art house, ATG began co-funding productions selected by a critic-led committee, and their hands-off policy welcomed homeless talent with vision to spare. Shohei Imamura’s imploding 1967 case study, A Man Vanishes, inaugurated a bewildering parade of films, each assured a month in ATG’s mini-chain of theaters.
“Shinjuku Ecstasy” is the Japan Society’s tribute to the organization, and, not surprisingly, sex and revolution energize the slate—though in Kiju Yoshida’s Eros Plus Massacre, the violence is felt before it’s seen. Anarchy begins at home in this lesser-known Waver’s bifurcated experiment: Yoshida toggles between a love quadrangle involving 1920’s anarchist Sakae Osugi and a frisky young rebel play-acting on an eerie studio set. The austere Taisho-era face-offs occur at a cherry-blossom-shaded bunker, with Osugi’s lovers shunted to edges of the wide-screen, until a climactic, delirious, wall-busting murder fantasy. Robustly dialectical, Eros is suffused with the sexual torment that seizes so many of these films.
Keeping up the direct address, a dweeby punk introduces his Crumb-worthy family in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Street. (ATGers sure could pick a title.) Dad’s a “beaten dog and war criminal,” Grandma’s a pickpocket, and Sis should definitely not get attached to her bunny, in case someone strangles it. Writer-director Shuji Terayama (also responsible for the infamous Emperor Tomato Ketchup) staged a play by the same name, and ATG’s main Tokyo venue, Shinjuku Bunka, also hosted an experimental theater and gallery as well as a literally underground cinema. (Also screening is undergrounder Michio Okabe’s Crazy Love, a feature-length mixtape of street theater and general vamping, set to the Western rock that buzzes through much of the series.)
If all this posturing sounds radical, yet not inconceivable, then enter The Inferno of First Love. Originally a documentarian (and ripe for a retro), director Susumu Hani opens with a tender sketch of a fizzled teenage tryst, then fleshes out 1) the boy’s hypnosis-revealed abuse by his metalworker guardian, and 2) whippings and wrestling at the s/m model shop where the girl may work. With camerawork by turns intimate and expressionistic, Hani observes an unnervingly broad range of sexual behavior. (Not to be outdone, incendiary Pink Eiga director Kôji Wakamatsu, who most recently unfurled a grueling docudrama about the United Red Army revolutionaries, features terrorists canoodling before being tortured, in 1972’s Ecstasy of the Angels.)
In recent years, rep houses have mapped more of Japanese film history than almost any other, spotlighting the exports of cinematic ambassador Kashiko Kawakita—also instrumental in the birth of ATG—and retros of Imamura, Mikio Naruse, Tomu Uchida, and original Shochiku enfant terrible Nagisa Oshima (whose incredible existential farce Death by Hanging screens here). Japan Society adds another valuable piece with this iconoclastic burst of films.