Human nature’s dark side is the menacing midwife to the stillbirth of ’60s idealism in the initially challenging and ultimately riveting “United Red Army.” Among the last of Japan’s active New Wave directors, Koji Wakamatsu shows he still has the chops to fashion compelling drama in this depiction of a real-life violent leftist group. Three-hour running time may deter some fest auds and programmers, but pic’s Japanese film award at this year’s Tokyo fest should help to make this a must-see item. Staggered local release begins in Nagoya this December.
Movie roughly divides into three sections of almost equal duration. First act (and the biggest hurdle) sets the stage for the subsequent two acts, with an extended history lesson about the radicalization of Japan’s youth in the ’60s.
Using extensive archival footage, helmer introduces his protagonists and identifies their place in the political scene triggered by Japan’s renewal of its non-aggressive alliance with the U.S. Information comes thick and sometimes too fast, even for those familiar with the original events. Western viewers, particularly, will feel overwhelmed by the myriad personalities (thankfully identified by captions), the alphabet soup of political groups to which they belong and the extent of their activities. Fortunately, helmer’s strong grasp of his material assures auds they are in good hands.
In 1972, two extreme-left factions combined forces to become the United Red Army (URA) and established a military training base in Japan’s Southern Alps. In this second section, pic dispenses with archival footage and takes place almost entirely inside the radicals’ alpine shed.
The dogmatic Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) barks at his charges about their inadequacy as communists, while his second-in-command, Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki) sees political imperfection everywhere and quashes it mercilessly. Paranoia swiftly takes hold as Nagata and Mori harass all members to enact ongoing rites of ideological purification called “self-criticism.”
Nagata’s chief target is the idealistic Mieko Toyama (Maki Sakai), who is repeatedly scapegoated for her feminine naivete. Abuse escalates from the verbal to the physical, in a grueling perversion of the ideals that originally motivated the youth movement. Helmer occasionally punctuates these intense scenes with exterior shots of exquisite mountains as a counterpoint to the rank behavior inside.
Final seg shows a quintet of URA activists in an ill-fated siege of a mountainside hotel. After the tough middle seg, this gun-blazing finale almost comes as a relief. Narrative depicts the group in its death throes, its members ready to turn on each other, but an explosive coda reveals the URA was more than just a bunch of raggedy-ass renegades. Tightly compressed epilogue documents the full extent of the group’s international terrorist activities, driving home potent themes and contempo relevance.
By film’s end, auds will be exhausted by the combination of documentary-style presentation and exacting drama. But even though two-thirds of the pic takes place in only two locations, Wakamatsu still manages, through sheer directing smarts, to prevent the wordy opus from becoming a bore.
Performances are solid throughout. Sharpest turns are provided by Sakai, as the bullied femme, and Namiki, chilling as a mean-spirited torturer.
Except for the brief glimpses of Japan’s alpine wilderness, HD-originated lensing is not at all spectacular, with drab colors mimicking the initial archival footage and later poetically reflecting the decay of the group’s idealism. Soundtrack by Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke keeps pic moving with hard-rocking guitar and some jazzy, more understated moments. Other credits are also deceptively low-key but expertly applied.