J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

NYAFF & Japan Cuts: United Red Army

It was certainly red, but not always united. As dramatized in director Koji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army (trailer here), the terrorist group that sprung out of the Japanese variant of the New Left was often plagued by factionalism and internal power struggles. Wakamatsu, a sometimes ally and contemporary of the URA has produced a chilling look at the inner workings of the Maoist terrorists, making it relevant (perhaps unintentionally so) to everyone studying terrorism today.

Wakamatsu leaves absolutely no doubt where the URA and its Red Army Faction predecessors were coming from. During one of many “self-critique” re-education sessions, their leader, Tsuneo Mori played by Go Jibiki, spells it out pretty clearly:

“Saying ‘I want to live’ is an abandoning of revolutionary thought. A defeat with regard to Communism. To give yourself to party-building as a Communist is the only meaning of ‘living’.”

These are not misguided anti-war protestors, but hardcore Maoists (in fact, when Nixon makes his historic visit to China late in the film, it is a real buzz-kill for the surviving URA faithful). As Wakamatsu tells the group’s history, one wonders if he realizes how much he actually reveals.

The film consists of three segments. First we see the rise of the Red Army Faction out of anti-American campus demonstrations. As the protests become increasingly violent, the resulting deaths of some demonstrators are used to radicalize those prone to extremism.

During the second phase of the film, the Red Army Faction consolidates with another Communist Party splinter group into the United Red Army, taking to the mountains, ostensibly for military training. However, even before the revolution begins, the Red Army launches a reign of terror within its ranks. Here URA begins to resemble a horror movie, as one-by-one, loyal members are forced to undergo “self criticism,” clearly inspired by the Cultural Revolution, culminating with torture and fatal beatings.

URA concludes with the ill-fated Asama-Sansō stand-off, in which a remnant of the terrorist group held an innocent hostage in her husband’s mountain lodge. Despite his personal disillusionment, Hiroshi Sakaguchi commands his men decked out in Rachel Ray’s wardrobe (remember it has no significance beyond fashion). Wakamatsu’s icy docudrama style gives little attention to character development. After all, the URA must breakdown all personalities for the sake of ideological purity. What we see in URA is the sublimation of the individual to the collective—a textbook example of how cults work.

Wakamatsu is still very much associated with Japanese far left, and remains banned from entering the United States (he is addressing festival audiences via satellite hook-up). Whatever his intentions were with the film, it is a brutal, disturbing look at violent fanaticism, unlikely to generate sympathy for his former comrades. It will be part of four days of screenings jointly presented by the NYAFF and Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at the Japan Society, on July 6th.

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