Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Dawn of Art Films in Japan, Art Theatre Guild (ATG): Ushering in Innovative Forms

From the Makino Collection, C. V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

A powerful logo on some pieces of ephemera immediately caught my attention. The logo, “アートシアター (Āto shiatā/Art Theatre)” or “atg” in its impressive design, stands for Art Theatre Guild (ATG), a film distribution company, founded in 1961. The company built up the foundation of today’s avant-garde film distribution in Japan, and literally made it a home for art films of that period. ATG’s activities made the Japanese people one of the few audiences in the world who intensely appreciated films from outside their own production countries.

In 1928, Tōwa Shōji (later Tōwa Eiga/Tōhō Tōwa) was established by Nagamasa Kawakita in order to import quality foreign films to Japan. He became a well-known pioneer and entrepreneur of international film, as well as an importer/distributor in Japan. He and his wife, Kashiko Kawakita, strived to bring foreign films into Japan. The first film they imported was a German film, Leontine Sagan‘s Girls in Uniform/Mädchen in Uniform (1931).

From the Makino Collection, C. V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

Art Theatre no.3 (1962), issued by ATG. The cover: Otoshiana/PITFALL (1962), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Kashiko formed Nihon Ārt Shiata Undō no Kai (literally, Japan Art Theatre Movement Party), aiming to establish theaters for showing art films. Art Theatre Guild (ATG) was established shortly thereafter in 1961 as an independent film theater/art house for the purpose of producing and distributing innovative, quality avant-garde art and non-commercial hidden films both inside and outside Japan, the kind of film that was not shown at major film theaters. This independent film company and its distributed films left a great impact on the Japanese film industry. (Interesting fact: ATG’s title and logo designs were made by the filmmaker Jῡzō Itami (1933-1997), who is known for his much acclaimed work, Tampopo, and was also an industrial designer.)

The major Japanese film studio, Tōhō, advocated for the ATG mission and sponsored them as a main investor, also offering their theaters as an experimental screening place for art films, including Nichigeki Bunka Gekijō, a film theater, which later became an ATG specialized “Art Theatre”.

From the Makino Collection, C. V. Starr East Asian Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

We have long suffered from sadness and sorrow that highly received art films in the world were not imported to Japan, and that we have missed such a great opportunity to appreciate masterpieces. The Art Theater is a precious experimental theater [for art films] that will grant our wish.

(From the cover of the Polish film Mother Joan of the Angels, directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz, the first ATG film distribution: Art Film Society no.1, ATG members’ bulletin issued by Nichigeki Bunka Gekijō, 1962)

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