[Marxism] Japanese Soft-Core Auteur Turns Attention to Radicals
Ruthless Critic of All that Exists
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Mon Jun 23 23:44:08 MDT 2008
The New York Times
June 22, 2008
Soft-Core Auteur Turns Attention to Radicals
By DENNIS LIM
A scene from "United Red Army" by Koji Wakamatsu, about the
revolutionary Japanese student militia groups of the 1960s and '70s.
The film is set to receive its United States premiere on July 6 at the
Japan Society in New York (where it is being presented by the New York
Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts festival). Masayuki Kakegawa,
who wrote the film with Mr. Wakamatsu, will introduce the screening,
after which Mr. Wakamatsu, who has been unable to obtain a United
States visa because of his political affiliations, will answer
questions by video hookup from Tokyo.
A former construction worker and gang member (who did some jail time
for robbery), Mr. Wakamatsu stood apart from many of his peers by
combining rough sex with avant-garde shock tactics and some semblance
of New Left politics. In 1965 he put pinku eiga on the international
map when his peeping-tom skin flick, "Secrets Behind the Wall," was
invited to the Berlin International Film Festival, much to the horror
of the Japanese film establishment. (One sex scene involves a
Hiroshima victim and a poster of Stalin.)
Mr. Wakamatsu was back at Berlin this year for a mini-retrospective in
the festival's Forum sidebar, where "United Red Army" screened
alongside "Go, Go Second Time Virgin" (1969) and "Ecstasy of the
Angels" (1972), an account of a radical cell's implosion with an
abundance of agitprop pillow talk, and an obvious predecessor of the
Like Philippe Garrel's "Regular Lovers" (2005), another epically sad
post-'68 portrait, "United Red Army" opens on a note of exhilaration
before lingering on the painful hangover after the thwarted
revolutionary moment. Much of the first hour is devoted to a
breathless summary of the decade's radicalizing events, beginning with
the 1960 signing of the United States-Japan Mutual Security Treaty
(the target of widespread opposition and the subject of Mr. Oshima's
"Night and Fog in Japan").
The Vietnam War was a catalyst, as it was with all student movements
of the period, and the American military presence in Japan fueled the
fire. By 1968 violent clashes between protesters and riot police were
commonplace. Striking students shut down Tokyo University. A
demonstration escalated into bloody chaos at Shinjuku Station.
The events are recounted primarily through a vivid collage of archival
news footage, set to a rousing rock score by Jim O'Rourke. Drama
gradually takes over from documentary as Mr. Wakamatsu introduces his
characters, outlining the internal schisms and external forces that
caused the student groups to unravel and splinter into extremist
factions. After this whirlwind history lesson, which culminates with
the merger of two depleted ultra-left brigades into the United Red
Army, the film becomes a harrowing chamber piece.
In the purposefully grueling middle section of "United Red Army," with
the ragtag group holed up in a rural cabin, commanders start to behave
like cult leaders. For all the talk of "world revolutionary war,"
their orders are motivated by power-grabbing paranoia and petty spite.
The Maoist practice of self-criticism takes on lunatic dimensions:
members perceived as ideologically weak are shamed and beaten
unconscious in the hopes they will be "reborn" with a new
In its final hour the film turns into a tense action thriller as Mr.
Wakamatsu restages the part of the story most familiar to Japanese
audiences. With their comrades dead or arrested, the five remaining
Red Army members escape to a mountain lodge, where they hold a
caretaker hostage and face off with the police. (Much of the siege,
which lasted 10 days in February 1972, was broadcast on Japanese
Mr. Wakamatsu, who shot this sequence in his country house, which he
went so far as to destroy for the wrecking-ball finale, has said he
intended to refute a previous depiction of the incident. "The Choice
of Hercules," a big-budget 2002 film, relates the event from the
perspective of the police. In "United Red Army" the policemen remain
Mr. Wakamatsu underscores the tragic failures of his characters
without trivializing their urgent desire for change. The film's
opening image, of students trudging single file through the snow, is
accompanied by an on-screen title at once mournful and proud: "Once,
armed youth cried out for revolution."
One of the last lines of dialogue, blurted by a chastened radical, has
quite the opposite effect. "We had no courage," he sobs. Both
literally and metaphorically "United Red Army" is a movie that
transpires between these two statements, in the chasm between fervent
hope and cruel reality.
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