Reviews

'United Red Army': Revolutionaries Lost Without a Map

This ambitious three-hour-plus examination of Japan's notorious radical left-wing militant group loses its way in the narrative fog.


United Red Army

Director: Kôji Wakamatsu
Cast: Maki Sakai, Arata, Akie Namiki, Gô Jibiki
Distributor: Kino
Release date: 2012-01-17

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.

4

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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