Kôji Wakamatsu certainly had one of the more colorful backgrounds than many filmmakers. He worked for the yakuza, “supervising” location shooting in Tokyo. He served a six-month prison sentence for robbery. He supported the surge of Japanese political activism in the sixties and seventies. In one of his last films, United Red Army, Wakamatsu circles back to this period in his life and in Japanese history, looking at the rise and fall of that ultra-left movement. Unlike many of the films (and TV series, in one case) released in the last decade, which took revolutionary groups or figures as their subject (Carlos, Che, The Baader Meinhof Complex), United, Dennis Lim rightly noted, is unique because an insider directed it.
United Red Army, centers on the establishment and early days of the ultra-left movement. Starting as a mass of student protesters, organizing as a small cultish unit (comprised of two URA sub-groups, the Revolutionary Left Faction and the Red Army Faction ), struggling as a rag-tag quintet, the URA mutates throughout the film. Whatever iteration the URA takes though, Wakamatsu has a style to go with it. In fact, make that three, for a film in which Wakamatsu brings to bear his personal and professional experience.
For the first of three-plus hours, Wakamatsu blows through events leading up to the Red Army’s mountain training: the US’ Anpo Treaty with Japan, the rising cost of tuition in Japanese universities, the death of civil rights leaders, and the Vietnam War. This is a history lesson stuck on the fast-forward button, ever moving to create a flow of found and re-created footage.
It is within this hour that Wakamatsu begins a formal pattern that remains throughout the rest of the film: amid the fact and the fiction, the recruiting or arresting of revolutionaries, Wakamatsu freezes the frame, pausing on an activist as text on the screen reads their age, name, and some sort of context – arrested, executed, etc. By stopping to focus on these individuals, Wakamatsu consecrates them as victims of a delirious ideology. He consigns them to cinema as faces, names, and ages once written out of history.
Once in the mountains, in the Gunma Prefecture, with a band of Red Army members, United becomes a different film, one gripped in cabin fever. As the film’s tempo slows, here, ideological rigor leads to ideological paralysis. Instead of engaging in an “all-out war” with the Japanese government, in-fighting sets in. Under the warm glow of lantern lights, URA leaders issue “self-criticisms,” in which activists are beaten, tortured, and executed for actions counter to the group's cause.
Punishment and entrapment, two themes that Wakamatsu seems to work through even in his early, “pink films.” In fact the cramped quarters of this middle section recalls Violated Angels. A nihilistic work based on the rape and murder of eight student nurses by Richard Speck, Violated doubles as an allegory for US imperialism according to Jasper Sharp. With United, however, Wakamatsu does away with symbolism. He collides various styles instead. What emerges is historical “truth.” Indeed, United begins with the claim that "The events depicted in this film are all true." Followed cheekily by text that reads, "But some fiction has been incorporated."
Both movies have a, blunt look. Low-grade video in United, however, replaces the searing black-and-white (with occasional color) film in Violated. Video gives the image a flat look, blanched of color that fits in well with the DIY mentality of the activists.
By the third section, United enters another cramped space. Hewing away the number of exterior shots, Wakamatsu makes this space more restricted than the last. Finished with what seems like interminable training, the remaining members of the group, those eluding arrest or execution, barricade themselves in a lodge, holding the owner hostage for ten days. This is the Asama-Sanso hostage case. Although a media blitz during its time, Wakamatsu shies away from this aspect, rendering the event from within the lodge as an action film.
Dissonance between spouting and acting on ideology gives way as a gun battle erupts between the leftists and the police. In the end, the lodge (which Wakamatsu owned) loses. Over the course of the stand-off, the lodge endures blasts from water cannons, thick gas, sparks and flames, before crumbling as the police infiltrate it and take the URA members in by handcuff.
And like many docu-dramas, the obligatory on-screen text explains away events that stretch beyond the plot, a lazy way of saying “this film is only a small moment in the continuum of history.” On the other hand, for me, this final section, United’s epilogue, is the most frightening part of the film. There’s a chilling historical precision as the text appears and disappears, scrolling across the blank screen. The screen’s emptiness is a striking contrast to the text, which tells of the rising level of terror acts to come.
Here's two pieces by Rea Amit and Dickon Neech that I think are quite good. One contextualizes United Red Army, the other looks at the different periods of Wakamatsu's oeuvre