The Big Ones: United Red Army

When Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu died on October 17th of this year at the age of 76, he had undergone a somewhat unexpected late-career renaissance. A complex and legendary filmmaker with a diverse and notorious filmography, Wakamatsu began making exploitation films for Nikkatsu in the early 60s before forming his own production house. Although he made his name with eiga or “Pink films” (softcore porn), Wakamatsu became best known for fusing radical leftist politics with the outrageous sex and violence that got his films into theatres. The politics was by no means mere window dressing. Wakamatsu’s unique fusion of genre codes with the total Marx-Freud liberation gospel of student radicalism (in essence, his own Japanese spin on the philosophies of Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich) made him a true peer to Nagisa Oshima. Unlike Oshima, however, Wakamatsu was not so besotted with Godardian formalism. Films such as Go, Go, Second Time Virgin (1969) and Ecstasy of the Angels (1972) are far more visceral, if undeniably clumsier.

Wakamatsu’s cinema had fallen into semi-obscurity in the West until the 90s, when programmers like Grady Hendrix of the New York Asian Film Festival began shining a light on the “Japanese outlaw masters” of the 1960s (Wakamatsu, Seijun Suzuki, Kenji Fukasaku, Hideo Gosha, and others). This attention helped to focus greater attention on Wakamatsu’s contemporary output, although not necessarily in the way one might have expected. His 2007 film United Red Army world premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was received as something of a revelation – possibly the most focused, almost classical work of Wakamatsu’s career, a plangent, wide-scope examination of the self-immolation of the Japanese radical left. With the reviews strong, URA’s logical path was the fall festival circuit (Toronto and/or New York), where it could gain traction as one of the key event-films of the cinephilic year and cement Wakamatsu’s “comeback.”

Interesting, that’s not what Wakamatsu or his production company did. The North American premiere of URA was in New York at Hendrix’s Asian festival. As had been the case with Suzuki’s equally-lauded Princess Raccoon, United Red Army debuted at a festival programmed by and devoted to the loyalists who had kept the flame alive for “disreputable” cinema, long before Lincoln Center came calling. Still, likely as a result of its diminished premiere status, United Red Army did not get a commercial release in the U.S. until last year, when Kino Lorber piggybacked it with their much timelier release of Wakamatsu’s 2010 film, Caterpillar. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Caterpillar (an interesting but undeniably lesser film) would have secured a Competition berth in Berlin, or gotten a release at all, were it not for the undeniable landmark that is United Red Army. (Wakamatsu’s final film, The Millennial Rapture, is still awaiting release.)

It would be inaccurate to call United Red Army sui generis. In fact, it fits rather neatly into a subgenre of highly significant films that examine radical leftism and “terror” from a semi-sympathetic point of view. That is to say, a number of leftist filmmakers have made works that could best be described as post-mortems on the radical aspirations of the 60s and 70s. These films tend to adopt the standpoint that doctrinaire ideologies and near-psychotic paranoia undermined any and all utopian striving that the would-be revolutionaries possessed at the start of their journeys. Older examples of such films include Oshima’s Night and Fog in Japan (1960) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation (1979); more recent examples are Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night (2003) and Olivier Assayas’s miniseries Carlos (2010). Nevertheless, United Red Army is far and away more systematic than any of those films, and not just by dint of its length.

The first 45 or so minutes of Wakamatsu’s film occupies an unsteady formal zone between docudrama and university lecture, with the precise history and causes of Japan’s radical student front being laid out for the viewer in a fast and frenzied “prologue” of sorts. URA alternates between deftly edited news and amateur footage of the key protests and riots of the period (particularly those relating to the renewed Japanese-American Security Treaty of 1960). A narrator, veteran actor Yoshio Harada, provides voiceover commentary throughout the film, giving factual background, identifying the various members of the revolutionary splinter groups, and generally serving as an omniscient historical consciousness for what United Red Army displays before us.

This captivating yet unusual formal approach is part of what makes URA such a bracing film. Unlike most historical films, which rely on a rhetoric of transparency so as to make the tale they are constructing seem both inevitable and unquestionable, Wakamatsu’s film lays history before us like an argument. The constant narrator intrusion (which seems as much a surrogate for Wakamatsu’s voice as any similar voiceover in, say, a Chris Marker film), together with the collision of documentary and dramatic material, gives the impression of United Red Army not as a dramatization but as a workspace or a “magic screen,” where an argument about radicalism and its (failed) dialectic is being presented for our consideration.

The length of the film, then, is absolutely necessary, because what Wakamatsu shows us, in grueling detail, is the slow, fatal disengagement of a movement from its greater aims, and from those whose interests it ostensibly serves. In the name of “training” or “revolutionary discipline,” we witness a cell of idealistic young leftists leaving the streets, the universities, the unions they helped to organize, all so as to pull into an ever-smaller, ever-more-insular cadre of self-consuming Maoist maniacs, bent on rooting out the traces of “reactionary” impurity within themselves.

United Red Army is not a film that hangs together in the conventional sense; much like Carlos is exists in extended chunks of elaboration. This allows Wakamatsu to construct searing, claustrophobic setpieces that demonstrate, with their sometimes agonizing attenuation, just how claustrophobic and paranoid the Army has become, particularly once the two cadres – the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF) – join to form the URA under the leadership of Tsuneo Mori (Gô Jibiki). While Wakamatsu’s narrator tries to stick to the facts and remain relatively neutral, there is no mistaking the film’s disgust with Mori and his leadership, and with good reason. A former deserter who returned to the ranks as a sadistic bully, Mori never speaks in less than a manic bark, and constantly demands “self-criticism” of all under his charge, for failings great (a prospective putsch) and small (letting the weapons get scratched).
“Self-criticism,” per Mori, entails having one’s limbs smashed with a 2x4; starvation and dehydration; being beaten to a pulp by the entire collective; or in one particularly horrifying scenario, being forced to beat oneself beyond recognition. In this case, we are asked to witness the cruel, pointless destruction of one of URA’s key points of identification, a young woman named Toyama (Maki Sakai). We see her earlier in the film helping an RLF member escape to Lebanon rather than face execution at the hands of the group. Now, her “counter-revolutionary” femininity is at issue. (She was caught wearing makeup.) Maki’s aggressive, insecure second in command, Nagata (Akie Namiki) feels it is her personal duty to destroy Toyama, and so she and Mori have the young woman “punch those pouty lips,” “that proud nose,” et cetera, until, by the end of the self-inflicted beating, Toyama resembles a 50+ year old street woman.

Much has been made of United Red Army’s final 45 minutes, an undeniably nerve-wracking reenactment of the URA’s last stand in a mountain lodge in Asama. This was easily the highest profile action the URA ever committed, a multi-day standoff between the five remaining group members and police that effectively spelled the end of the organization as a force in Japanese life. Wakamatsu famously staged the Asama siege in his own home, destroying it in the process of making United Red Army – a sacrifice on par with the glory days of Griffith and Stroheim. This segment also provides Wakamatsu a perfect opportunity (thankfully, in the absence of Mori and Nagata) to display the disparity between theory and praxis. With cops shooting at them for hours, one of the men grabs a cookie from the pantry and is upbraided by a comrade for breaking the rationing rules. “That,” he is told in all seriousness, “was a counter-revolutionary cookie.”

But by this point we are really witnessing the denouement for Wakamatsu’s opera of a dialectic that died long before. United Red Army is a radical’s reckoning for all the squandered opportunities, all the ways that ideologies purporting to bring “scientific Marxism” ended up providing barely-disguised outlets for all too human pathologies. The film unfurls like a scroll, honoring the dead by name, remembering what they stood for, and reminding us that they got lost along the way, not by embarking upon the path itself.