Delving into the mindset of young fanatics...
United Red Army, also listed under the catchy title Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi, is not a movie I can recommend to anybody without exceptional patience and endurance. On the other hand it is not a movie that I will ever be likely to forget. Of the films about Seventies radicals, it may provide the best insights into their way of being and mindset. It also contains two powerful virtuoso sequences, a long central one during which its young Japanese leftist radicals slowly and cruelly destroy themselves, or a goodly number of their own members, anyway; and a lengthy final standoff by five remaining members bombarded by the police in a splintering ski lodge. Both sequences take place in a breathtakingly beautiful mountain landscape, of which we get occasional glimpses that come as a shock and sudden relief amid the mayhem and mad obsessiveness.
This is a docu-drama (実録 jitsuroku) that combines recorded reality with fictional recreating. It alternates conventional character depiction with freeze-frame ID photos of the individual dead and huge rolling titles gradually retailing the tangled history of Japan's self-declared revolutionary communists in the Sixties and Seventies. Initially university students, they conduct a series of attacks on institutions and facilities, and their two rival factions merge in 1972. Wakamatsu always emphasizes personality, clothes, hairstyles that highlight the clashes and infighting. The dialogue is largely made up of passionate ideological debating that takes up most of the would-be terrorists' time. The NY Times' Manohla Dargis observes that the "physical and vocal performances" in Red Army are often "stilted and awkward" and, combined with "visually flat cinematography," arouse memories of "American soaps" -- an effect, she says, that "perversely" draws you in. That critique of the acting is debatable. The stilted quality may simply be the way self-important young intellectuals sound. But certainly there is something hypnotic about this story and the way, or ways -- because it uses a variety of styles -- in which it is told. The audience was small when I watched United Red Army but nobody walked out through the grueling 190 minutes.
Dargis sets the Japanese leftists in perspective by referring to a scene from Olivier Assayas' Carlos. In it a handful of Japanese Red Army members who are trying to attack the French embassy at The Hague are so inept they can't even decipher their street map. The get lost on the way to the embassy and their attack totally fizzles. Wakamatsu's young terrorists are full of ideological menace, ever questioning the authenticity of their fellow-members, but they turn out quite early to be best at self-destruction. This is not to say Wakamatsu mocks them: for the most part he takes them deadly seriously, as they do themselves. As the film's intertitles and freeze-frame photo portraits depict them one after another, they keep going down, over and over, in their early twenties. They were hard to stamp out, though. A handful of them survived to be hunted down decades later, as Red Army , as relentless in its documentation as it is in-your-face in its dramatic reenactments, does not fail to inform us at the film's end. This is a movement that never dies: it is as hard to kill as a snake.
The first segment is a swift-paced review of the radicalization of Japanese youth in the Sixties and Seventies leading up to the fusion of the two big Red Army factions in 1972. This is the least involving and the most documentary-feeling part, though it is full of dramatized scenes emphasizing personalities who range from sullen to dashing. It is also the hardest to follow, with facts, even outlined by the big intertitles, coming very fast, and a lot of archival footage, which helps (for a while anyway) to confuse the line between the real and the fabricated. And after that you may be too involved to care which is which.
Japan's Southern Alps became the training base of the United Red Army, and here the second segment begins, focusing on the lengthy periods of harassment and finally murder of members deemed lacking. In both the long mountain episodes, the URA kids are fugitives who must keep shifting from one freezing makeshift hideout to another. Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki), the main leader, accuses members of being fake communists and his creepy female cohort Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki) takes the accusations to an even more insidious and damning level. Nagata and Mori force the others to act out rituals of horrific ideological purification called "self-criticism," which in fact become processes of torture, which lead to death. There are also simple executions. Nagata's chief target is another woman, the idealistically naive Mieko Toyama (Maki Sakai), whom she accuses of indulging in feminine luxuries like haircuts and makeup. Most horrifying of all, Toyama is induced to torture and disfigure herself. The lengthy ordeals eventually lead to the victims' collapse and deaths. As intertitles show, the victims are among the earliest and most dedicated members of the movement. This is a very ugly and very long sequence. It will make you think hard about what mass hysteria and group pressure can do and about how ideology can distort thinking and behavior. Wakamatsu and his cast dig very deep here.
The last act of the movie is almost light entertainment by comparison, and also the most flashy display of mise-en-scène. Eventually all the mountain URA group members have killed each other, been killed, or been captured, except for five who flee through the snow. They too are trapped by police who catch up with them on foot and in a helicopter, but they manage to take refuge in a mountain lodge and hold the manager's wife hostage -- though they insist she is not their hostage but only their guest. Does this sequence take place over ten hours or ten days? That is unclear but the staging is elaborate and compelling, and leads to the almost total dismantling of the house as the police bombard it with water canons, tear gas, and other weaponry, seeking to flush out the youthful terrorists without killing them or the woman. The police succeed, though a number of police and some others died; in more documentary intertitles full statistics of the siege are supplied -- even how many gallons of water were expelled by the water canons.
A rapid final sequence outlines the URA's subsequent history, showing how many attacks they carried out after this and how long it took to track them all down. Nonetheless the standoff of the band of five symbolizes the general failure of the movement. And as Dargas' Carlos reference shows, the Japanese radicals seem to have been somewhat less effective and bold and certainly more self-defeating, than other groups, or Carlos himself. As Dargis also mentions, Seventies radicals have been notably "romanticized and critiqued" in a whole series of ambitious recent films, including Carlos, Che, Motorcycle Diaries, Baader Meinhof Complex, and Good Morning, Night.
Wakamatsu, a prolific maker of soft-core erotica with well over a hundred films to his credit, is also a former radical leftist. He has said, in justification of the repetitiveness of his titles, "All my films deal with the same primal element - the fight against authoritarianism, the individual hate and revenge against authority and repression. That hate and revenge explode in lust and violence. Is this bad?" United Red Army, a remarkable film that digs deep into the radical terrorist mentality, may be seen as the director's own act of "self-criticism." As a former radical, who would know the internal virtues and faults of the movement better than he?
United Red Army was first released in August and October 2007 and shown in international festivals in 2008. The US distributor is Lorber Films, and it was released in theaters May 27, 2011 and screened at the IFC Center, New York.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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