Receiving American release some four years after its international premiere, United Red Army performs a public service by focusing on the Japanese student radical movement often given short shrift in accounts of late '60s and '70s political turmoil. There have been several Japanese films about the titular group, whose hijackings and terrorist exploits culminated in a 1972 shootout with police at a winter resort, yet none have been so prominent and certainly none so personal; director Koji Wakamatsu trained with some of his subjects in Palestine, and to this day isn't allowed to enter the United States. Packed with more than enough fever-pitch paranoia and escalating madness to fill out its lengthy running time, United Red Army starts in confusion and slowly builds to a frenzy. Commercial prospects for this functionally filmed and politically detailed work will be sadly limited.
Wakamatsu devotes his first 45 minutes or so to recapping the escalating fury and violent highlights from Japan's student activist groups in the late '60s and early '70s, parading a series of young men and women at speeds too fast to keep up with, which seems to be the point: they're all meat in an ideological grinder that grows increasingly dogmatic. The eventual focus is on Tsuneo Mori (Gô Jibiki), leader of the militant student forces that retreat to the Japanese Alps to train for the coming revolution.
Matters quickly deteriorate from there, with Tsuneo and right-hand-man Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki) putting recruits through agonizing sessions of "self-criticism," which usually end in physical abuse. Soon, beatings at group meetings turn even more savage: infractions are punished with naked captivity outside and, eventually, death. The brutality outside is compounded when the police show up, making for a chaotic finale in which the radicals' hideout lodge is decimated. (Wakamatsu burnt down his own house for the film's climax.)
The actual members of the United Red Army have a cameo appearance in a botched heist in Carlos, which suggests a celebrity in which this film doesn't quite indulge. This exhaustive examination of their domestic origins and downfall serves as a useful flip-side to both the standard American mythology of the '60s and Euro-centric films like Carlos, Regular Lovers and The Dreamers. Over 3 bitter hours, the tone escalates from a matter-of-fact portrait on the fast turnover of student movements as they repeatedly factionalize into a hallucinatory nightmare that approaches The Shining's snowbound cabin fever. The footage is digital, the lighting murky and visual pleasures non-existent, but the film has a narrative grip and pitiless portrait of idealism run amok that's hard to resist.
Distributor: Lorber Films
Cast: Maki Sakai, Arata, Akie Namiki, Gô Jibiki, Shima Ohnishi
Director/Screenwriter: Koji Wakamatsu
Producer: Muneko Ozaki
Genre: Drama; Japanese-language, subtitled
Running time: 190 min.
Release date: May 27 NY