© 2007 Wakamatsu Productions

United Red Army (2007)

Director: Koji Wakamatsu
Year: 2007

The newish Shibuya Auditorium theater in Tokyo is running a festival of two dozen films made in and about the turbulent year 1968. The film I wanted to see the most was United Red Army, but long-time controversial director Koji Wakamatsu, was making softcore pinku films in the ’60s, and rubbed elbows with many of the student leaders who founded the Japanese Red Army.

This is an important and acclaimed film, but also one that is hard to watch, and not only because of its three hour ten minute running time. The first hour or so was fascinating, mixing archival footage with dramatization to give background on the student protests of the mid-’60s. It was quite a shock  to see old footage of Shinjuku station in Tokyo being occupied by students who pelted police in full riot gear with rocks, not just because I use that train station every day, but because young people in Japan today are so politically apathetic.

As ridiculous and hated as the various Red Army factions became in the early -’70s, when then were highjacking and blowing up airliners, in the ’60s, they had some genuine issues to protest against. Most of the early student protesters were born in the tough years at the end or just after WWII, and were working to pay their own way through college, something that would be unthinkable to most Japanese college students today. So when universities around the country decided to raise tuition, most of them had a reason to protest, but motivations are largely left out making it seem like the founders simply have a good time protesting. But by giving themselves the name “Japanese Red Army,” they simply made it easier for the police to find them and arrest them, which is exactly what they did. The group almost immediately got entangled in pointless infighting, and about a third into this very long movie, one of the original founders, Fusako Shigenobu, departs for Lebanon to train with the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The movie could have followed her, which would have made for a more interesting (and much more expensive) movie, but is stays with the newly renamed United Red Army.

Here the movie because quite difficult to watch. The thirty or so members of the URA go to the middle of nowhere in the Japanese countryside to march on riverbeds with rifles in hand as part of training for the revolution that never comes. The two leaders Hiroko Nagata and Tsuneo Mori are tyrants who beat to the brink of death and leave out in the cold to die their followers, for infractions such as kissing or wearing make up. The movie never attempts to explain why these two are so evil or so maniacally devoted to their strange ideas of revolution or why more members didn’t run off. As the members die off, on-screen titles give their name, age and university, and pretty soon there is a casualty for every minute of screen time, including a pregnant women and a mother of a baby. As the audience is asked to watch a long seen of a young woman forced to beat herself up to prepare herself for better revolutionary training, I was wondering why a movie had to be made about these people.

After half of the members are arrested, the remaining five occupy a ski lodge taking the owner’s wife hostage for ten days and firing shots at their own mothers who had been flown in to try to talk them into surrendering. This section is also very long and tedious, but the actress who plays the hostage is a fine performer despite having only a few lines of dialogue. The whole point of this section, and indeed of the whole movie, is how ridiculous and misguided this group was, as one member is shown to be nearly shot for the anti-revolutionary act of eating a cookie which is deemed not strictly necessary for his nourishment. But a little more exploration of their motives, rather than a straight forward journalistic retelling of the facts, would have filled the long running time with a bit more depth.

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