A Revolution Eats Its Own in United Red Army


The hectic first hour of Koji Wakamatsu’s grueling, engrossing three-hour United Red Army 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 softcore porn (and director of the recently released Caterpillar), 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.

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