Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: United Red Army

Kôji Wakamatsu's messy, punishing 2008 meta-docudrama about the cult-like sect of 1970s Japanese revolutionaries gets a long-overdue release.

May 25, 2011

-By Chris Barsanti


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1246408-United_Red_Army_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu has made something of a career out of torturing the body. Though known as an impresario of soft-core erotic, or "pink," films, Wakamatsu often plays with themes of rape and torture. With his latest, Caterpillar, just hitting theatres, Wakamatsu's three-year-old opus United Red Army (aka Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) is getting a belated release. As the former features a scarred, quadriplegic veteran with a voracious carnal appetite, and the latter a gang of students who verbally and physically brutalize one another against a backdrop of sexual denial, it's fair to say that Wakamatsu's post-pink work has hewed close to his old themes. (He did, after all, produce one of the great Eros/Thanatos films, In the Realm of the Senses.)

United Red Army is a three-hour-plus treatment of two groups of student radicals who were forged in the fire of protests against Japan's involvement with the United States during the Vietnam War, before unifying as the United Red Army. A lengthy screed of grainy news footage, backed by a deep-voiced and emphatic narrator, and punctuated with some introductory dramatic recreations, sets the scene. From marching and battling in the streets, some of the students are forged as would-be warrior radicals in the crucible of a government crackdown, going underground to continue their "revolution."

The bulk of the film's increasingly horrific middle section follows what happened when a few dozen URA members retreated to a mountain cabin in the winter of 1972 for further indoctrination. After some by-the-numbers military training, the young radicals get down to the real business at hand: purging themselves of all reactionary doubts through a regimen of vicious group interrogation or "self-critique." Their grim and glowering leader Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) singles out one person after another for insufficient fealty to their doctrine—often egged on by his violently jealous sidekick Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki), a Lady Macbeth figure with naught but murder in her eyes. Once somebody is targeted for self-critique, it's a downward spiral into cult mania masquerading as intellectual discipline. Soon, trussed-up corpses are littering the cabin, one URA member screaming, "Where is the revolution?"

Although Wakamatsu is able to build this initially confusing mosaic into some semblance of a narrative, it takes too long to reach that point. The same spinning-in-circles haggling over doctrinal minutiae that obsesses the URA could be said to apply to the filmmaker as well. This is not to say that every film on the period's international radical movement needs to emulate the pulpy jazz of Carlos or The Baader Meinhof Complex, but Wakamatsu could learn from the way those films brought a humanity to their fanatical protagonists. United Red Army is content to let the newsreels provide background; by the time the students are introduced (often in short, awkward exchanges), they have already bought into the revolutionary dogma. This blankness—especially notable in the affectless Mieko Toyama (Maki Sakai), targeted by Nagata for wearing makeup, who Wakamatsu apparently knew in real life—could be intentional, to illustrate the group's cultish isolation. Climaxing in a lengthy police siege, Wakamatsu's film adds a blistering panic and black comedy nearly too late to a story that has often been as repetitive as its protagonists, who seem unable to decide whether to first destroy themselves or the world.


Film Review: United Red Army

Kôji Wakamatsu's messy, punishing 2008 meta-docudrama about the cult-like sect of 1970s Japanese revolutionaries gets a long-overdue release.

May 25, 2011

-By Chris Barsanti


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1246408-United_Red_Army_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.

Japanese director Kôji Wakamatsu has made something of a career out of torturing the body. Though known as an impresario of soft-core erotic, or "pink," films, Wakamatsu often plays with themes of rape and torture. With his latest, Caterpillar, just hitting theatres, Wakamatsu's three-year-old opus United Red Army (aka Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi) is getting a belated release. As the former features a scarred, quadriplegic veteran with a voracious carnal appetite, and the latter a gang of students who verbally and physically brutalize one another against a backdrop of sexual denial, it's fair to say that Wakamatsu's post-pink work has hewed close to his old themes. (He did, after all, produce one of the great Eros/Thanatos films, In the Realm of the Senses.)

United Red Army is a three-hour-plus treatment of two groups of student radicals who were forged in the fire of protests against Japan's involvement with the United States during the Vietnam War, before unifying as the United Red Army. A lengthy screed of grainy news footage, backed by a deep-voiced and emphatic narrator, and punctuated with some introductory dramatic recreations, sets the scene. From marching and battling in the streets, some of the students are forged as would-be warrior radicals in the crucible of a government crackdown, going underground to continue their "revolution."

The bulk of the film's increasingly horrific middle section follows what happened when a few dozen URA members retreated to a mountain cabin in the winter of 1972 for further indoctrination. After some by-the-numbers military training, the young radicals get down to the real business at hand: purging themselves of all reactionary doubts through a regimen of vicious group interrogation or "self-critique." Their grim and glowering leader Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) singles out one person after another for insufficient fealty to their doctrine—often egged on by his violently jealous sidekick Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki), a Lady Macbeth figure with naught but murder in her eyes. Once somebody is targeted for self-critique, it's a downward spiral into cult mania masquerading as intellectual discipline. Soon, trussed-up corpses are littering the cabin, one URA member screaming, "Where is the revolution?"

Although Wakamatsu is able to build this initially confusing mosaic into some semblance of a narrative, it takes too long to reach that point. The same spinning-in-circles haggling over doctrinal minutiae that obsesses the URA could be said to apply to the filmmaker as well. This is not to say that every film on the period's international radical movement needs to emulate the pulpy jazz of Carlos or The Baader Meinhof Complex, but Wakamatsu could learn from the way those films brought a humanity to their fanatical protagonists. United Red Army is content to let the newsreels provide background; by the time the students are introduced (often in short, awkward exchanges), they have already bought into the revolutionary dogma. This blankness—especially notable in the affectless Mieko Toyama (Maki Sakai), targeted by Nagata for wearing makeup, who Wakamatsu apparently knew in real life—could be intentional, to illustrate the group's cultish isolation. Climaxing in a lengthy police siege, Wakamatsu's film adds a blistering panic and black comedy nearly too late to a story that has often been as repetitive as its protagonists, who seem unable to decide whether to first destroy themselves or the world.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

PK
Film Review: PK

An alien trying to return home tangles with religious authorities in a low-key Bollywood message drama. More »

A Small Section
Film Review: A Small Section of the World

Worthy but uninvolving documentary about the coffee-producing women of Costa Rica. More »

Sagrada
Film Review: Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation

The fabulous 130-year work-in-progress that is Barcelona's Sagrada Familia cathedral, as well as its crazy-brilliant originator, Antonio Gaudi, is the focus of this vividly informative documentary. More »

Inside the Mind of Leonardo
Film Review: Inside the Mind of Leonardo in 3D

Documentary-feature hybrid that offers unexpected insight into the world of Leonardo da Vinci, but nonetheless suffers from a heavy hand and pretentious sensibility. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Into the Woods
Film Review: Into the Woods

Over-scaled, too dark and only intermittently charming Sondheim musical adaptation does a disservice to a great cast and is often so noisy you can't even appreciate the music. More »

The H obbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Film Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After rewriting the rules for modern fantasy cinema, for the better and worse, Peter Jackson’s six-film Tolkien saga slams, bangs and shudders to a long-overdue conclusion. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here