United Red Army Turns 40

Revisiting a radical Japanese touchstone

Mark the 40th anniversary of '68 once more with Kôji Wakamatsu's grueling, engrossing three-hour United Red Army. The movie's hectic first hour uses newsreel footage, scored by Jim O'Rourke's ongoing psych-rock jam, to track the course of Japanese-student radicalism from the 1960 security-treaty demonstrations through the mid-decade anti-airport, anti-tuition, anti–Vietnam War demos to the "World revolution!" of 1968 and 1969, with riot police occupying Tokyo University as sectarian madness, led by the ultra-militant Red Army Faction, engulfs the student movement.

Half the RAF departed in 1971 for careers of hijacking and havoc in the Middle East; the others joined forces with the Revolutionary Left Faction, a new, violent splinter inspired by Mao's Red Guards, to create the United Red Army. Wakamatsu, a prolific pioneer of Japanese soft-core porn who co-directed the 1971 RAF PLO agitprop Declaration of World War (and produced Nagisa Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses) is most interested in what happened at the URA's mountain- training camp in late '71 and early '72. At the heart of the movie are the prolonged, increasingly violent, self-criticism sessions—an escalating, claustrophobic, paranoid reign of terror, staged in near darkness and shown in close-up. Day by day, the group tore itself apart, beating and eventually executing its supposed heretics. In the film's final 45 minutes, five survivors take over a ski lodge where, still in the grip of an insane ideology ("The cookie you just ate is a counterrevolutionary symbol"), they battle the police for 10 days.

As United Red Army takes as its drama the amalgamation of two ultra-militant groups, so Wakamatsu's epic is having its North American premiere at Japan Society July 6 and 8 as a joint presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film. And as the old radical Wakamatsu is still barred from entering the U.S., the July 6 screening will be followed by a satellite Q&A.

Soon after the Red Army Faction orchestrated its first hijacking (not shown in United Red Army), another Japanese fanatic—namely writer Yukio Mishima—led an apparent coup attempt, taking a general hostage and then committing ritual disembowelment in the guy's office. Criterion has recently released a deluxe, director-supervised, suitably academic DVD of Paul Schrader's 1985 Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. It's certainly the most ambitious movie Schrader ever directed—so dutiful, respectful, and self-conscious that it's a chore to watch (like grading a master's dissertation). More fun is Criterion's nearly as elaborate reissue of Patriotism—a/k/a The Rite of Love and Death—a half-hour short written, produced, and directed by Mishima, who also stars as a junior officer. Made in 1966, Patriotism adapts a key Mishima text celebrating the failed military coup of 1936. Back in the day, this crude, borderline ridiculous mixture of Noh restraint and Wagnerian bombast was shown on a bill with Flaming Creatures or Scorpio Rising; it might also make a suitably extremist short subject with United Red Army.

 
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