United Red Army

Bottom Line: A compendious chronicle of Japan's leftwing extremism that seethes with modern relevance.

BERLIN -- Suffused with recollected passions of a bona fide activist, and sober historical hindsight, "United Red Army" transcends its national and historical specificity as an elegy to Seventies idealism, in kindred spirits with Ken Loach's "Land and Freedom" and "The Wind That Shakes the Barley." Its accounts of the "Mountain Base Incident" and "Asama Lodge Incident" create a celluloid monument to a chapter in Japanese history skipped over in school books. However, at 190 minutes, it is so fanatically faithful in tracing the roots of Japan's left-wing movement and ensuing fractured radicalism, so unflinching in its re-creation of Orwellian internal purging as well as the power hunger and bloodlust that motivates it, that it is a physical and emotional long haul for any viewer.

As the vanguard of Japanese radical cinema and a friend/collaborator of Japanese Red Army member/filmmaker Masao Adachi, there is arguably no one more qualified than Koji Wakamatsu to take the helm. His cult status among European cineastes as a master of pink eiga will no doubt secure that niche market. The film was named best Japanese film at Tokyo International Film Festival.

Structured into three acts, the first charts the rise of the zenkyoutou student movement in 1970, its waning, and splintering into factions. The morass of merged archival and fictional material takes an hour to unfold, and totally swamps the uninformed. However, there are scenes crucial to later dramatic development, such as the activists' inherent violence to each other.

The second act is breathtakingly tense, when two extremist factions merge to become the United Red Army on July 15, 1971. Members undertake military training in a hidden base inside Nagano's mountains. Their initial Boy Scout enthusiasm as they hike and build a log cabin form an ironic prelude to the harrowing Maoist "self-criticism" that escalates from verbal humiliation to bloody beatings and executions with ice picks. The final act and climax is the seizing of a ski resort inn by a few desperado members following the group's disbanding. Their 10-day hold-off is objectively stresses both their politeness to the hostage, and their caged animal madness.

The brittle performance of Akie Namiki, as deputy leader Nagata impersonates a spine-chilling cross between Gang of Four leader Jiang Qing and Mrs. Ceausescu. Go Jibiki's Mori is equally memorable in his cold-blooded brutality and calculation. Wakamatsu eschews the dazzling experimental techniques of his earlier work in favor of a documentarylike and utilitarian style. His mastery of shooting in cramped interiors, alternates with his signature location shooting in single takes and natural lighting create powerful contrasts of the claustrophobia of a torture chamber with the glistening snowy landscape outdoors.

Although the narrative sometimes totters under the weight of its own gravitas, "United Red Army" is a must-see for students and intellectuals.

Wakamatsu, Skhole Co/Wakamatsu Productions Tokyo
Director-Editor: Koji Wakamatsu
Screenwriters: Koji Wakamatsu, Asako Otomo
Producers: Koji Wakamatsu, Noriko Ozaki, Asako Otomo
Director of photography: Tomohiko Tsuji, Yoshihisa Toda
Production designer: Geb Uti
Music: Jim O'Rourke
Hiroko Nagata: Akie Namiki
Tsuneo Mori: Go Jibiki
Mieko Toyama: Maki Sakai

Running time 190 minutes
No MPAA rating