Left: K˘ji Wakamatsu, Ecstasy of the Angels, 1972, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 89 minutes. Right: Kunio Shimizu and S˘ichir˘ Tahara, Lost Lovers, 1971, still from a film, 123 minutes.

“THIS LOVE OF DROPPING OUT is not going to be possible in every era,” observed Terayama Shűji, the charismatic voice of Japanese youth, in 1967. He was critiquing a return to “primordial society” embodied by the futen-zoku, the so-called “idle tribe” who gathered, sedated on sleeping pills, in front of that quintessential example of busy modernity, Tokyo’s train station Shinjuku-eki.

In that era, Shinjuku was contested ground in the battle between Japan’s cultural and political radicals and the pragmatic, materialistic society that emerged in the wake of what amounted to an economic miracle. This dense network of express trains, urban trains, and subways all opening into department stores created an ideologically charged space, the setting for and subject of an unprecedented burst of counterculture in Japan.

The “Shinjuku Diaries” program, which ran at the British Film Institute this summer (August 2–31, 2011) with a parallel “Theatre Scorpio” series organized by London’s Close Up Film Centre, revisited the astonishing cinema that was born out of two of Tokyo’s countercultural hot spots, the Shinjuku Bunka and its basement venue, the Sasori-za. The Shinjuku Bunka was the most successful in a chain of boutique repertory cinemas managed by the Art Theatre Guild; the institution was established in 1961 as a distributor for foreign art-house films, but by 1967 it was successfully producing its own. The BFI program focused on the guild’s heyday of experimentation, which lasted until the demise of the Shinjuku Bunka and Sasori-za in 1974.

The Art Theatre Guild privileged themes of taboo crime, violence, anarchism, and eroticism, producing groundbreaking work by directors including Nagisa ďshima (Death by Hanging [1968]), Matsumoto Toshio (Funeral Parade of Roses [1968]), and Terayama (Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets [1971]). What is remarkable about these films is how they not only narrated but also seemed to drive a period in which the boundary between artistic expression and political violence was permeable. Shinjuku comes across in the films of the Art Theatre Guild as a liminal cityscape where leftist factions, merging literary language and political rhetoric, instigated and enacted their own “Battle of Tokyo.” The most striking example of the guild’s synchronicity with this political fever pitch was K˘ji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), a film depicting the isolation and faction fighting of a group of terrorists after they attack a US army base. As producer Kuzui Kinshir˘ noted, “Wakamatsu’s film was too lucid in anticipating things that were about to happen.” For instance, the Christmas tree bombing Wakamatsu envisions really did take place during the shoot, and the film’s release coincided with the Asama Sans˘ Incident, a brutal purge of newly recruited Red Army Faction members by their own comrades in the isolated mountains of Gunma prefecture.

At the start of the 1970s, the utopian ideal of a counterculture combining art and politics was coming apart. The young people that had been concentrated in Shinjuku moved to other parts of Tokyo. In Kunio Shimizu and S˘ichir˘ Tahara’s Lost Lovers (1971), a former youth pole-vault champion abandons Shinjuku after witnessing the failure of the student protests, and embarks on an aimless adventure to the north of Japan, his primary companions a deaf and mute couple. With a clear sky as his roof and the air for his furnishings, he embodies the ideals of the futenzoku. But the directors are obviously unsympathetic to the principles guiding such “dropouts,” and in a curious parallel to the isolation and blinding of the terrorist in Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, Lost Lovers finally sacrifices its three protagonists: All end up blind, deaf, and mute after they stray onto a military training site during a weapons test.

Lost Lovers’s rebuff to the dropouts’ carefree abandonment of society is a useful starting point when revisiting the films of the Art Theatre Guild. When they were made, these works revised the conditions of the “present tense,” and in retrospect they evince an uncanny, seismographic connection to the deep contradictions in the historical landscape of Shinjuku and Japanese counterculture.

Thomas Dylan Eaton