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.

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.