Eastern Premise #62 – United Red Army

In this weeks instalment of Eastern Premise Jason Julier takes a look at the epic political revolutionary drama, United Red Army.

This week it’s the overdue turn of a film I’ve name dropped on several occasions. After last week’s nationalistic Patriotism from Yukio Mishima, the timing seems perfect for Koki Wakamatsu’s political left wing epic; Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama sanso e no michi, or more cuttingly translated as United Red Army.

Koji Wakamatsu has enjoyed a varied career, initially starting out by directing exploitation films before moving into the pink genre and ultimately disillusionment with the support his projects received from the Nikkatsu studio. Like so many contemporaries, including Nagisa Oshima, he sought refuge in the independent sector and created his own film company. Confirming this new found freedom and right of expression was the startling Embryo Hunts in Secret, his filmography throughout the 60’s remains just as impressive. Throughout the following three decades he continued to be prolific but the quality of his films become scattered during this period.

Wakamatsu did find time to skilfully produce Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses before re-emerging in 2007 with an ambitious and self-financed project that became United Red Army. If a 190-minute three-decade synopsis of Japanese political left-wing extremism sounds too much to digest, then instead consider his recent drama Caterpillar, or hopefully the soon to be screened at Cannes 11.25 the Day he Chose His Own Fate; a film about the final days of Yukio Mishima. Yes, that’s a full circle DJ-styled link from last week’s Eastern Premise to this week and beyond.

United Red Army was not a commercially viable project, so Wakamatsu mortgaged his home to meet some of the cost of filming. If that wasn’t enough to suggest the drive, passion and belief he possessed regarding United Red Army, Wakamatsu also blew up him home as part of the film proceedings to underline his determination to see its completion. The director has a well-documented interest for politics and was closely associated with the real-life equivalent of the United Red Army, a linkage that prompted his appearance on the American State Department black list. This background and first-hand knowledge of many of the real life characters, their actions and involvement granted Wakamatsu unique insight, although the opening credits do confirm some moments of directorial liberty and embellishment.

Despite such deviations, United Red Army is a more thorough dissection of wannabe communists than we’ve seen recently in films such as Carlos the Jackal, Che or Der Baader Meinhof Komplex. Gone is the romanticism of the struggle against opposing ruling establishments or the glamorisation of terrorism, instead the hardship of a political ideal and its self-destruction is truly apparent. Wakamatsu portrays events in an organic, gritty fashion that reminds us of the work of Peter Watkins with the production budget clearly stretched. Yet this financial restriction removes any of the needless window dressing of other films and places the spotlight on the group members. This is particularly true for the final hostage siege at the mountain retreat; we can hear the police messages and sounds of gunfire yet apart from the odd helicopter shot, the enemy is faceless.

There’s no denying that United Red Army is a very long film and at times needlessly. Wakamatsu paints a detailed canvas of 1960’s student activism, hammering in the foundations of student discontent and the volatile political climate that existed in Japan. Amidst this backdrop we are ushered into the meetings that are the gestation of the United Red Army, which at first begins as a fractured movement initially spurred on by Vietnam, American occupation and the Chinese revolution. The government response forces the surviving members of the communist groups underground and to reform as the United Red Army.

Even more radicalised, the new organisation takes to the mountains in 1972 in preparation for military training and their doctrine of self-critique. A purging of the membership commences as recruits arrive and depart in droves, many falling victim to internal struggles to reach an inner state of revolutionary. There are a only a couple of identifiable characters at this point as Wakamatsu struggles to dramatise events and keep identifiable faces in front of the camera. The self-proclaiming and transition to revolutionary is at times, full of tiresome rhetoric and some activists can talk a good game but fail to put those words into action. The film then moves up through the gears as the group become more mobile and involved. Wakamatsu’s huge scope, initially inflated through his own political ideals, transfers to a more focused and refined vision. It is now that the film truly comes alive and fuelled by its own sense of purpose. In essence the film has moved from a news reel documentary accompanied by re-enacted scenes to a taut political thriller.

The final stand in the mountain retreat allows Wakamatsu to speculate on the conversations from the remaining members and their siege like mentality. The closing moments return us to the documentary with a synopsis of what happened next to those involved. What remains a surprise is that activists and arrests continued into the 90’s and beyond; for some it seems the struggle continues in Japan.

For many years the United Red Army was an elusive film, which spread mainly by word of mouth and reputation. There was a double DVD release in France a couple of years ago but this did not offer English subtitles, but remained a nice package with a making of feature and 44 page accompanying booklet. Thankfully, the creation of American label Kino Lorber has provided a new avenue for subtitled films in America, including United Red Army and Wakamatsu’s unforgettable Caterpillar, thereby making the films far more accessible.

United Red Army is a triumph but remains difficult viewing. The critical success of the film including an entry in the Sight & Sound Magazine films of the decade reignited Wakamatsu international profile and sparked a new phase in the career of this challenging director that continues today.

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