The last several years have seen an interesting boom in films about the militant leftist movements that emerged around the world in the ‘60s and ‘70s. From Soderbergh’s Che to Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex to the gripping epic that is Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, a growing number of international filmmakers have found fertile ground in the revolutionary radicalism of that era. Added to that crop of films is director Kôji Wakamatsu’s 190-minute opus from 2008 United Red Army, depicting the fanatical group of violent revolutionaries who captivated Japan for a period in the ‘60s and’ 70s, now finally out on DVD in North America.
Although Kôji Wakamatsu is probably best known in Japan for his long career making so-called “pink films” (a uniquely-Japanese variety of softcore film popular in the ‘60s), he has flirted with arthouse respectability before with controversial films like Oshima’s In The Realm of the Senses, which he produced, and his most recent film Caterpillar. However with United Red Army, the most ambitious film of his career, he attempts nothing less than to come to terms with one of the most dramatic and sensational periods of Japan’s postwar political history, and grapple with the painful truth of what happens when idealism meets the limits of human frailty. Unfortunately, the film’s aimless structure and narrative failings end up illuminating little beyond its creator’s inability to fully master the material.
United Red Army’s three-hour-plus running time is roughly divided into three acts. The first and strongest is essentially a documentary illuminating the context and origins of the Japanese radical left, consisting primarily of sober narration over grainy newsreel footage. In the ‘60s as the Vietnam War raged and escalated, Japanese students became increasingly bitter about the deepening security ties between Japan and the US, which included using Japanese airbases to stage bombing attacks on Vietnam and Cambodia. As in so many other countries during that era, young people marched in the streets, universities were burned and occupied, and students regularly clashed with police and the military. (After each major event, an onscreen graphic shows the number of protestors arrested, which soon climbs into the thousands.)
The well-chosen archival footage, smart narration, and brisk pace all create an effective evocation of the period’s desperate urgency and fear, the sense of a society seething with a political tension that seemed ready to boil over at any moment. The stark footage of conservatively-dressed Japanese students fighting in the streets is smartly combined with the propulsive score by avant-garde American rocker Jim O’Rourke to provide a sense of breathless momentum as the societal tension escalates.
Unfortunately, after setting the stage so expertly, United Red Army switches gears and loses this momentum entirely, becoming a dry, repetitive chamber piece. The film eventually centers on a group of two dozen or so students from different radical groups who combine to form the militant United Red Army, decamping to a secluded mountain cabin to train for the coming revolution. However, over time their situation devolves into factional bickering, endless humiliating Stalinist “self-critiques”, and, eventually, beatings and murder as more and more members are purged by the URA’s increasingly cult-like leaders (played by Gô Jibiki and Akie Namiki).
This section, largely taking place within the one-room cabin, dominates the film and stretches for nearly 90 minutes, offering scene after repetitive scene of URA members stiffly hurling denunciations at each other in ritualistic “criticism sessions”. One by one, characters are beaten and left outside to die of exposure, but with Wakamatsu’s choice to provide his characters with virtually no backstories or emotional lives, these deaths carry little dramatic weight. Like a bad slasher movie, after the fourth or fifth nearly-identical murder, the initial shock of the killings is replaced by a grindingly dull sense of boredom.
In the hands of a more confident director with a slightly bigger budget, it’s a story that could have the makings of a fascinating historical drama. But in Wakamatsu’s hands the stilted acting, sparse production values, and poorly-lit digital photography often make United Red Army feel more like the work of an unsure student filmmaker than that of an auteur with a decades-long career. Most scenes typically involve a sparsely-dressed set populated by immoblie actors loudly declaiming their lines as they read from dry manifestos. The awkward performances are further highlighted by curiously static staging and flat compositions, giving too many scenes the feeling of a soap opera or TV melodrama.
When the group inevitably shatters, some members are arrested while others flee, and a small group eventually blunders their way into a hopeless standoff and hostage situation at another nearby cabin, which comprises the third and final hour of the film. Although imbued with slightly more dramatic tension than the grueling middle section, this extended finale eventually devolves into similarly aimless repetition as the standoff grinds to its unavoidable conclusion.
Having been involved with the radical left himself during the ‘60s, Wakamatsu’s passion for the material is clearly evident, as is his painstaking attention to precise historical detail, with dozens of names, dates, and locations meticulously notated by onscreen titles throughout the film. He and his writers clearly put in many tireless hours of research. But a story of this scope and complexity requires more from a filmmaker than just a journalistic accumulation of facts; it requires the ability to impose some sense of narrative arc and structure onto complex relationships and historical events, necessitating tough directorial decisions that Wakamatsu is either unable or unwilling to make. As a result, rather than molding the raw material of history into an engaging cinematic form, Wakamatsu commits the mistake of trying to stretch his film to fit around every last awkward shape and sharp corner of its subject, with the inevitable result of stretching it so thin that it loses its center and dissolves.
The documentary that comprises United Red Army’s first act is an engaging piece of history and an illuminating look at a fascinating time and place for anyone who might be unfamiliar. But in the fictional sections that follow, Wakamatsu becomes so bogged down in detail that he loses the ability to see the forest for the trees, either from being too close to the material or simply having bitten off more than he could chew. Whatever the reason, the disappointing result is a film that leaves the viewer with a sense of regret that such rich material could not have been better dealt with.