United Red Army (2007)
Directed by Koji Wakamatsu
The panicked refrain “This isn’t revolution!” echoes throughout Koji Wakamatsu’s expansive, 190-minute docudrama about the student movement in 1960s and 70s Japan. In each instance it’s shouted by a different character, but always far too late to turn things around. It’s obvious, today, that these socialist militants failed; neither glowing hagiography nor glowering condemnation, United Red Army is about the why of that failure—in exacting detail, and with plenty of time to think it over.
Wakamatsu never gives the film over completely to one stylistic impulse. Beginning with a fast-paced history of the events leading up to the formation of the URA, blending stock footage of student protests against the US-Japan Security Treaty with reenactments of intercine battles with two-by-sixes, United Red Army becomes a more conventional, character-driven narrative of the group’s paramilitary training exercises in the Japanese alps. Tinkly, sentimental music plays as the corpses of those beaten to death during the party’s many purges pile up, honoring melodramatic tradition. Yet, a la Carlos, there’s a just-the-facts approach to characterization, extending from performance and costume to the voiceovered backstories and onscreen bios. While Wakamatsu avoids editorializing, the ages of the characters, flashed on screen at during their first appearances and at their deaths somehow becomes incredibly affecting. Nearly everyone is under 24, driving home the pointlessness of the deaths of 15 radicals, all executed for age-reflective, insgnificant ideological infractions. They destroy themselves before the outside world gets a chance, and for no good reason. This impotent self-destruction and eventually becomes darkly comic, with the URA leadership insistingupon endless “self-criticism”sessions for members perceived as threats to their authority, for doing things that people in their early 20s do, like wear makeup and have sex. Radical student leader Hiroko Nagata’s (Akie Namiki) propensity to stare icily out of windows is eventually reminiscent of the evil queen from Disney’s Snow White: half cartoon, half psychopath.
After trawling through the endless brutality of these sessions, defections and the infamous Asama-Sanso shootout, a 10-hour standoff at a mountain vacation lodge), the movie becomes a rapidly scrolling, text-only timeline that follows the URA’s activities from the mid-70s to today, from hijackings in the Middle East to the arrests of long-wanted ex-radicals. Finding another movie that emanates such complete cruel absurdity is rare; finding someone who believes United Red Army is essential viewing is probably rarer. It’s difficult viewing for even the staunchest Marxist, and not just for the excruciating sit time: pathology is rarely palatable. With extremely low-lit shots, it’s often difficult to discern what’s going on—but even that, ultimately, wouldn’t make the URA’s actions any more intelligible.
Opens May 27 at IFC Center