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Reviewed by:
  • United Red Army
  • Sarah Hamblin
United Red Army (Japan 2007, US 2011). Directed by Kôji Wakamatsu. Distributed by Lorber Films. 190 minutes.

Alongside Banmei Takahashi’s Rain of Light (2001) and Masao Adachi’s Prisoner/Terrorist (2003), Kôji Wakamatsu’s multiple award-winning United Red Army traces the Japanese history of leftist militancy and armed resistance. The film, a brutal three-hour epic that combines archival footage with dramatic narrative, is comprised of three unequal parts and begins by laying [End Page 101] out the complicated history of the student movement in Japan from its beginnings in the ANPO protests of 1960 to its culmination in the Communist coalition of the United Red Army. The second and longest part focuses on how the URA’s military training and preparation for the “all-out-war” descends into despotism, inter-group violence, and the brutal executions of fourteen of its members. The film closes with the siege of the Asama Sanso lodge in Nagano, where the five remaining members of the group take an innkeeper’s wife hostage in a ten-day standoff against the police, before eventually being arrested.

United Red Army is a particularly significant example of contemporary engagements with 60s radicalism given the fact that, during the 1960s and 1970s, Wakamatsu himself was an active member of the radical left and a filmmaker committed to investigating the revolutionary possibilities of cinema (Wakamatsu’s affiliations with members of the Red Army proved enough to land him on the blacklist so that he is, to this day, barred from attending US screenings of his films). As such, United Red Army, a film made almost forty years after the consolidation of the Japanese student groups into this militant faction, presents a unique reflection not only on the legacy of such politics but also on the possibilities of political cinema in light of the failure to bring about revolutionary transformation.

United Red Army was made, in part, as a response to Masato Harada’s The Choice of Hercules (2006), which tells the story of the Asama Sanso siege as “a hymn to the cops.” According to Wakamatsu, Harada’s Hollywood-style action treatment of the incident was in danger of becoming its historical record and it was important to present an accurate portrayal of the events leading up to the siege, especially given Japan’s historical amnesia regarding the radical student movement. In light of this goal, the beginning and end of United Red Army establish an historical document of the leftist movement. These documentary-style segments combine predominately archival footage of student marches, occupations, and riots with a detached voice-of-God narration that details the various names and dates of these actions and describes the various groups responsible for them in order to articulate, in comprehensive detail, a factual history of Japanese student radicalism. Moreover, by intertwining footage of Japanese protests with those in Mexico, France, Germany, and Eastern Europe, the film contextualizes the development of the URA, arguing that the rise of Japanese militancy was an outgrowth of a global culture of violence cultivated through the Vietnam war, the assassination of various political activists, and violent military attacks on protesters, and thus a part of the international response to institutionalized capitalist oppression. [End Page 102]

But United Red Army is more than a historical document. During the 1960s, Wakamatsu was involved in the fûkeiron (landscape) theory movement, a mode of documentary film practice that attempted to reveal the hidden relations of power encoded in the construction of landscape. Given that fûkeiron theory was developed as a critique of militant documentary filmmaking, it at first seems odd that United Red Army begins by adopting a highly aesthetic approach. However, while the opening of the film is a nod to the militant documentary, the sequence still embodies a critique of the genre. The material presented in this opening segment is not particularly easy to absorb – subtitles introduce us to dozens upon dozens of characters, many of whom appear only briefly in the film, while additional titles list dates and statistics of different protests as the voiceover simultaneously details the global culture of protest...


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pp. 101-104
Launched on MUSE
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