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United Red Army (a J!-ENT DVD Review)

January 20, 2012 by  



Koji Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” is a film that documents the tragic and brutal activities of Japanese ’60s and ’70s student movement, specifically the activities of the United Red Army.   Absorbing, shocking, disturbing and it’s all true!  Wakamatsu’s willingness to confront Japanese past with a no holds barred approach with archived footage, sincere depiction and crushing brutality!  You’re not going to see anything like it!  And it’s a trait that this Japanese filmmaker has continued to showcase throughout his oeuvre.  Recommended!

Images courtesy of © 2011 Blaq Out. 2011 Kino Lorber, Inc. All rights reserved.

DVD TITLE: United Red Army (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama sanso e no michi)

DATE OF FILM RELEASE: 2007

DURATION: 190 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Color, 1:85:1, Japanese with English Subtitles

COMPANY: Lorber Films

RATED: NOT RATED

RELEASE DATE: January 17, 2012

Directed by Koji Wakamatsu

Based on the novel by Masayuki Kakegawa

Screenplay by Masayuki Kakegawa

Producer: Noriko Ozaki

Co-Producer: Asako Otomo

Executive Producer: Koji Wakamatsu

Music by Jim O’Rourke

Cinematography by Yoshihisa Toda, Tomohiko Tsuji

Edited by Koji Wakamatsu

Starring:

Maki Sakai as Mieko Toyama

Arata as Hiroshi Sakaguchi

Akie Namiki as Hiroko Nagata

Go Jibiki as Tsuneo Mori

Shima Onishi as Kunio Bando

Anri Ban as Fusako Shigenobu

Koji Wakamatsu’s epic docudrama explores the political unrest of 1960s Japan, when mass student uprisings coincided with the beginnings of the far-left United Red Army group, which tortured and murdered its “deviant” members during a 1972 training session. An uncompromising piece of filmmaking from one of Japan’s most controversial filmmakers, with a score by American musician (and ex-Sonic Youth member) Jim O’Rourke.

From the 1960’s through the 1970’s,  it was a turbulent time in Japan.

Dismayed about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, dismayed of Japan for the renewal of the Security Treat with the US, allowing the U.S. to refuel in Yokota Air Force Base and the American military presence in Okinawa to dismay of the treatment of students at the university but most importantly, anger towards then Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

Seeing how student revolutions were taking part all over the globe, especially in the United States against the Vietnam War and revolutions taking place in other countries, it was a beginning of the Japanese Student Left.

Massive demonstrations took place in Japan in which protestors (which included many students) would fight against the police and in the process, a few protestors were killed but the demonstrations by students against their universities due to tuition increases would lead to boycottts of classes but others had bigger ideas in mind.  A revolution that would transform a group of students to form one of the most radical groups in Japan, the Red Army Faction.

Using violence and even terrorist methods, the Red Army Faction would be known for hijackings, bank thefts, munition thefts and eventually, these radical ideas would play a part in the demise of the Red Army Faction as distrust among members would lead to internal purging in which several members would kill some of their own because they were not completely dedicated to the Red Army Faction ideals.

The story of Japan’s left movement had not really been fully explored as a feature film until 2007, when filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu known for this pink eiga films of ’70s would release his film “Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama sanso e no michi” (United Red Army), a film that would provide historical background on the Japan’s student movement of the ’60s and ’70s and focusing on the beginning of the Red Army Faction, the military training in the mountains by members and what happens when URA chairman Tsuneo Mori (played by Go Jibiki) and Hiroko Nagata (played by Akie Namiki) feel that a few of their members aren’t completely dedicating their life to the Red Army Faction and communism.

Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” gives viewers a visual sense of what had taken place during the early 1970’s as the United Red Army tried to harden their members in order to dedicate their lives to communism with the use of violence and murder.  What the group did not know was that by going into this violent direction, they would essentially destroy their own group.

The film would chronicle the student protests in Japan from the ’60s leading up to the creation of the United Red Army and what took place at their training camp.  The story is non-fiction and while true, there are some elements that are fictional to humanize each character before they left to training camp.  And also featuring the murders of a dozen of the Red Army Faction members through the decisions made by Mori and Nagata and the infamous “Asama-Senso Incident”.

VIDEO & AUDIO:

“United Red Army” is presented in 1:85:1 color (and archived footage).  The historical footage is as one can expect, not in the best quality but when the film focuses on non-historical footage, picture quality was good for DVD.  If anything, the combination of historical and modern footage helped to document the student protests and the creation of the United Red Army.

Audio is presented in stereo, Japanese with English subtitles.   Japanese dialogue was clear, while subtitles were white with a black background and was easy to read.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“United Red Army” comes with the following special features:

  • Trailers – Trailers for “Army of Crime” and “Kimjongilia”.

“United Red Army” is absorbing but also a horrific chronicling the leftist Japanese student protestors as they dedicate their lives to become terrorist seeking for a new revolution.  Koji Wakamatsu’s film provides insight to this true story of how a group with the same ideals would end up having severe internal problems and lead to the murders of their own members.

As a person who has covered so much about Japanese culture, one area that I have never delved into is the political activism that took place during the ’60s and ’70s.  Like many other countries which were going through turbulent times especially with the Vietnam War affecting the United States and other students protesting it in their country but also using it as a way to unify other students to protest their dissatisfaction of their university or own government, it’s one thing to read about the clashes with the police and those who have been injured in those clashes.

But when you watch “United Red Army” and then research further of how these young individuals ended up destroying themselves in the process, it’s a film that is quite absorbing but also can be difficult to watch as we see how these internal problems become quite violent.

As their leader Mori wants each member to “self-critique” themselves and their failures and each time these members come back with an answer of “this situation has made me become a better person and dedicate myself to the revolution”, it’s not the answer he wants.  And because these members enforce the “self-critique” to their mentally and physically weaker members, we see how other members start to resent the violence, while those who are hard dedicate, start to resent the weak minds of the others.

Needless to say, the weak become fodder and instead of focusing their anger towards getting anything accomplished in their revolution, the group starts to self-combust and the United Red Army starts to focus their anger more towards themselves and their ways of doing it, if torturing is not your cup of tea, “United Red Army” may not be easy for some to watch.

Where Koji Wakamatsu was able to bring some realism is its characters.  While, I’m not so sure the characterizations are factual, there is somewhat of a chilling factor when you see Hiroko Nagata (played by Akie Namiki), when she starts seeing the negativity around her.  In some way, the look on her face is sinister, while the other female members are normal.  Each time she shows up on screen, I was always feeling dread that someone is going to get hurt or killed.

While Tsuneo Mori (played by Go Jibiki), you knew that he was always not happy with the way things are going with his group.  He was the URA-chairman and it was interesting to see how his character evolved, from a weakling to the leader but to see him become more maniacal and demanding, obviously he has come to terms with death and trying to force others to not be afraid of it.

Unfortunately, his tactics as seen in the film may have made a few members dedicated to their cause but also scared and made others feel that perhaps the URA was not what they expected.  These people joined to create a revolution but instead, they were forced to become hardened soldiers which many could not be and were punished for it.

In some way, “United Red Army” resembles a horror film because of the amount of violence and deaths that take place, but the intention is to give the viewer an idea of extremism of any sort and how people change because of it.  While here in the United States and other countries, we have seen it with terrorist groups and religious cults, every decade always has its share of extremism.

But in a country like Japan, while the country is seen for being peaceful in modern times, from the feudal era to 1995, the country has had its share of extremism as well.  Even from the ’70s United Red Army, Japan would face tragedy from the Aum Shinrokyo cult responsible for the 1995 sarin attacks on Tokyo subways and other murders.

While there have been films on groups vying for a revolution, may it be “Che”, “Carlos” or “The Baader Meinhof Complex”, there really hasn’t been a Japanese film that would go in-depth into showing one group’s extremism, but most importantly how extremism can destroy a group within.

Koji Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” is absorbing, intriguing but also shocking, unnerving and brutal!

 






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