Tag Archives: Art Theatre Guild

The Advent of “Mini Theater”: The Diversification of International Films in Japan and a New Kind of Film Ephemera

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

Serial film magazine/program. Iwanami Hall #19 (1977). THE ROUND-UP/Szegénylegények, directed by Miklós Jancsó (Hungary)

As we discussed in an earlier blog post, Art Theatre Guild (ATG), Japan’s first independent film production company, firmly established the foundation of production and distribution of non-commercial, art house films. Movie theaters that distributed independent films appeared in the Japanese film industry between the 1980’s and the 1990’s.

In the post-war period, people’s cultural tastes dramatically diversified. People began to crave something more subtle than just popular mainstream Western films. Those blockbuster films pervasive in the market and large movie theaters for the purpose of attracting large audiences were over-supplied, and new demands for film distribution methods and unique film line-ups were generated. Thus, the number of mini theaters increased dramatically in the 1980’s, in response to the demand.

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

Serial film magazine/program. Iwanami Hall #11 (1976). THE GOAT’S HORN, directed by Methodi Andonov (Bulgaria)

Films with highly artistic aspects generally appeal only to a small audience, and thus they are not box-office successes. Acknowledging this limitation and possessing new perspectives for future films, a film distribution project called, Equipe de Cinema (lit. fellows/party/team of cinema) was launched in 1974 as a movie theater at Iwanami Hall, which used to be a multipurpose hall (built by Iwanami Shoten Publishers, one of the biggest publishing companies in Japan); they became pioneers of minor film distribution and mini theaters in Japan. The project was headed by Etsuko Tanakno, general manager of Iwanami Hall, and Kashiko Kawakita, film curator, popularly known as “Madame Kawakita” among the overseas film industry, who formed the cornerstone of Art Theatre Guild.

– Our primary mission is to uncover hidden masterpieces and show them to the public, and to put a spotlight on film countries, and specifically new and powerful directors from the third world. (1974, Equipe de Cinema No. 2)

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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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