Koji Wakamatsu's 'United Red Army' is a contribution to the critique
of militant practice
By Jim Quilty
Daily Star staff
Thursday, October 01, 2009
BEIRUT: Even before the "United Colors of Benetton," there was the
United Red Army. Formed in 1970, the group amalgamated the armed
wings of the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Revolutionary Left
Faction (RLF), two shards of the Japanese left. Both grew out of that
country's student movement, which became ever-more radicalized as
Tokyo's Liberal Democratic Party consolidated its post-war economic
and military alliance with Washington.
The Red Army Faction may ring a bell or two among Lebanese students
of the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s, thanks to the local notoriety
of its spin-off organization, the Japanese Red Army. Formed by Fusako
Shigenobu (an RAF founding member) the Japanese Red Army was closely
allied with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and
its members were involved in several spectacular hijackings in the
1970s, most notoriously the 1972 Lod Airport attack.
The JRA reappeared in the local press in March 2000, when Lebanese
security forces arrested five of its members (Masao Adachi, Kazuo
Tohira, Haruo Wako, and Mariko Yamamoto) and deported them to Japan;
Lod survivor Kozo Okamoto was granted asylum here.
Koji Wakamatsu's docudrama "United Red Army" is a gruelling yet
absorbing chronicle of the URA, and the Japanese youth militancy of
the 1960s from which it sprang.
More than one cinema-goer will likely roll their eyes at the prospect
of such an evening out. In these manifestly post-revolutionary times,
a movie about now-extinct Japanese militancy promises to be blandly
esoteric in a way that samurai swords and manga comics are not.
Indeed "United Red Army" does make demands of its audience. Weighing
in at just over three-hours in length, the film falls into three
distinct chapters. The first provides the political background of the
URA in Japanese student politics. The second chapter depicts a
bizarre joint RAF-RLF military training exercise held in the Japanese
countryside in 1971-72. The third takes up the February 1972 story of
the 10-day-long Japanese police siege on a mountain lodge in Asama,
where five URA members were holed up with a hostage.
The most demanding part of the film is the first chapter.
Where commercial filmmakers seek to lower audience defenses by
whatever candy-coated means available, Wakamatsu opens with a
black-and-white film that makes extensive use of file footage and
voiceover to deliver a dizzying array of names-and-dates from 1960s-era Japan.
His purpose is to cast a fair political context for his characters'
behavior, specifically to depict the havoc that political duress can
wreck on the humanity of even the most idealistic people. In this,
"United Red Army" is a resounding success.
Only a few of the dramatis personae introduced in the first hour
remain within the frame for the balance of the film. In 1970, soon
after the organisation is launched, Takaya Shiomi (Taku Sakaguchi),
the charismatic RAF founder, is among the dozens of founding members
caught in the state dragnet.
Virtually the only original RAF members to evade capture are Mieko
Toyama (Maki Sakai) and Fusako Shigenobu (Anri Ban), a pair of pretty
girls whom none of their male comrades seem to take seriously. A
third is Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki), whom Wakamatsu depicts as an
inveterate coward. He fled the punch-up with another leftist faction
that preceded Toyama's founding the RAF and is only invited to rejoin
the party because nearly all its other members had been arrested.
The obliteration of the party ranks was a factor in the RAF's forming
an alliance with the Maoist Revolutionary Left Faction. At this
point, Mori (the coward) takes control of his depleted party and
ushers it toward a program of stealing weapons and robbing banks.
Shigenobu departs Japan in early 1971 for Lebanon, where she went on
to form the Japanese Red Army. By July, 1971, the RAF and the Maoist
RLF had merged their armed wings to form the URA.
As members of both parties have second thoughts about death and
police detention, Mori, expressing concern about party security,
demands strict measures against malcontents ending in the murder of
two members. This fratricide opens chapter two. The military
exercises are fraught with factional conflict as Mori and his
feminine counterpart in the RLF, Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki), take
turns pointing out the revolutionary shortcomings of each other's
In no time, petty conflict devolves into something more lethal.
Nagata's doubts concerning the girlish Toyama's revolutionary fervor
initiates serial demands for "self-criticism" from individual RAF and
RLF members. By the time the Asama Mountain Lodge confrontation
began, the United Red Army had beaten 14 of its comrades to death.
The party leadership rationalizes this pre-revolutionary purge by
saying its members' self-critiques are insufficiently critical.
Self-critique is a leitmotif of Wakamatsu's film and there is a sense
in which the film is itself self-critique.
Wakamatsu has a reputation for radical anti-authoritarianism at
least he was unable to attend the American premier of his film in New
York last year because he's still officially banned from travelling
in the US. "United Red Army" points out the paranoid extremes to
which idealism can be pushed when, first, idealists are faced with
state intransigence and feel forced to take up militancy, then, when
confronted by effective state repression, they are forced into covert action.
Wakamatsu's work closed the Docudays film festival at the Metropolis
Cinema Sofil Wednesday evening. The film offered an appropriate
stylistic and thematic counterpoint to the festival's opening film,
"American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein."
David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier's classical, talking-heads-style doc
about a radically nonviolent dissident intellectual is as much about
the human fragility of political activism as it is the ideas their
hero propagates and the injustice he opposes. With the principal
characters of the Japanese Red Army's militancy imprisoned or dead,
Wakamatsu has resorted to docudrama to tell their story.
Docudrama isn't without its problems, at least for those who still
believe in "facts" and so forth. Here, these problems are inseparable
from the success film's stylistic innovation.
The stuff in "United Red Army" that audience-conscious critics regard
as tedious are the names and dates of the first chapter. The film
overcomes the hurdle of fact because of the gripping narrative that
it tells over the next two chapters.
What unfolds during the United Red Army's fratricidal military
exercises is certainly plausible as fact. The goings on Wakamatsu
depicts echo anecdotes that have emerged from certain cultic
practices. The 1978 Jonestown massacre springs to mind, as do some of
the reported social practices of the Iranian opposition movement the
For those unfamiliar with the stories of those surviving the URA
purge, one lingering question may be whether the gripping story that
saves the film from its facts is as accurate as it is entertaining.