United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

Koji Wakamtasu had a long and somewhat strange career, untimely ended by his death in a road traffic accident at the age of 76 with projects still in the pipeline destined never to be finished. 2008’s United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Jitsuroku Rengosekigun Asama-Sanso e no Michi) was far from his final film either in conception or actuality, but it does serve as a fitting epitaph for his oeuvre in its unflinching determination to tell the sad story of Japan’s leftist protest movement. Having been a member of the movement himself (though the extent to which he participated directly is unclear), Wakamatsu was perfectly placed to offer a subjective view of the scene, why and how it developed as it did and took the route it went on to take. This is not a story of revolution frustrated by the inevitability of defeat, there is no romance here – only the tragedy of young lives cut short by a war every bit as pointless as the one which they claimed to be in protest of. Young men and women who only wanted to create a better, fairer world found themselves indoctrinated into a fundamentalist political cult, misused by power hungry ideologues whose sole aims amounted to a war on their own souls, and finally martyred in an ongoing campaign of senseless death and violence.

Dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, Wakamatsu begins with a lengthy history lesson starting right back in 1960 with the birth of the student movement and the first casualty of the unborn revolution as a young woman loses her life protesting the rise of tuition fees. Despite the lack of success, the student movement intensifies during the turbulent 1960s with the renewal of the ANPO treaties and the perceived complicity of the Japanese government with America’s anti-communist warfare in Asia. Mixing archive footage with reconstructions and on screen text detailing timelines, names and affiliations these early segments are hard to follow but bear out the complexity and chaos which contributed to the inefficacy of the student movement. Soon, each of the leaders we have been introduced to has been removed from the scene leaving the older but inexperienced Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) in charge of what was then the Red Army Faction.

Mori had only recently rejoined the movement after leaving in disgrace at fleeing a protest and thereby evading arrest. The Red Army Faction then merges with another sect, the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF), to form the United Red Army. Led by Mori and a female commander, Nagata (Akie Namiki), the United Red Army holes up in a cabin in the woods in order to undergo military training for the upcoming armed insurrection. Prior to this, there had been a series of purges and executions in the city producing an atmosphere of terror and paranoia which only intensifies in the incestuous and claustrophobic environment of the ascetic mountain retreat.

Out of his depth and eager to prove himself, Mori’s revolutionary consciousness developes into a dangerous cult of personality in which his iron rule is more akin to fundamentalist religion than a serious political movement intended to change the world for the better. Wakamatsu’s depiction of these events is as terrifying as it is absurd. Maoist doctrine becomes a holy scripture as each of these would be revolutionaries is forced to undergo self criticism in order to devote themselves fully to the revolution and become a “true communist”. Brainwashed and naive, the cadre comply seeming not to realise that no self criticism they can offer will ever be good enough for Mori’s constant need for identity erasure and that each fault they offer will only be used to form the basis of the next charge levelled against them. What begins as questioning develops into screaming before descending into bloody violence and eventually murder.

If Mori’s fault is a kind of madness born of fear and insecurity, it is Nagata whose mania takes on an almost gleeful quality. A plain woman with unremarkable features and a sharp personality, Nagata, as she’s portrayed in the film, displays extreme issues relating to femininity. When an idealistic young woman arrives dressed in typical city fashions necessary to blend in with the capitalist bourgeoisie, Nagata wastes no time in berating her for her stylish clothes and makeup. Threatened both by the woman’s conventional beauty and high ranking position in another faction, Nagata takes especial care to make sure she herself remains on top. Despite being in a relationship with one cadre member and later leaving him for Mori (because it’s “right from the communist perspective”), Nagata cannot bear any hint of sexual activity and it is an ill judged kiss which ends up leading to the first set of mercilessly violent self criticism sessions eventually resulting in death as both parties are beaten and then tied up in the freezing mountain air where death by exposure is all but inevitable.

Mori declares that “leadership means beating” but when this is no longer enough the death sentences come thick and fast. Eventually, some members manage to escape and the mountain hideout is discovered. Splitting up and heading on the run, Mori and Nagata are captured while a group of five break into a mountain lodge where they take the caretaker’s wife hostage and remain under siege for nine days until the police eventually break in, arrest the terrorists and rescue the woman all of which became the first such event to be live broadcast on Japanese TV. The Asama-Sanso incident, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of the left wing protest movement in Japan as the terrorist violence of the renegade protestors forever coloured public perception.

Wakamatsu does not end his story here – returning to the captions which opened the film, he reveals to us the legacy of the failed student protest movement in the overseas activities of the Japanese Red Army, most notably in North Korea and the Middle East. The protest movement in Japan resulted in abject failure – the ANPO treaty survives, the Sanrizuka villages were destroyed and an airport built, the capitalist future arrived at speed heading into the bubble economy where the only revolution was consumerism. The glorious future of which these young people dreamed, free of class, gender, and social inequality, would not materialise as their idealism devolved into introspective dogmatic rhetoric, violence and murder. Trapped inside a fundamentalist cult, the true tragedy is that this was a children’s revolution – the vast majority of its victims under 25 years old, one just 16 and forced to participate in the death of his own brother. How much good could each of these socially conscious young people have gone on to do if only they’d found a less destructive cause? Would anyone want to live in the world born of this revolution? Contrasting the joyous camaraderie of the peaceful protests with the escalating, internecine violence of the URA, Wakamatsu’s vision of the movement he was once a part of is a necessarily bleak one but resolute in its gaze. Ugly, cold and unforgiving United Red Army is a warning from history which has only sympathy for those caught up in its terrible machinations.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kuro (はなればなれに, Daisuke Shimote, 2012)

poster2All these years later, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the wheezy, breezy youthfulness of the French New Wave was. Kuro proves that there’s life in this whimsical, summer seaside feeling yet as three misfits find themselves holing up at a disused small hotel to think about what they’ve done until they learn to grow up a little.

Kuro starts our story as she mournfully chows down on some of the pastries at the bakery she works at whilst treating a customer in a very disdainful way. She wanted to be a baker but her boss never really lets her do anything and when they argue about her guzzling half the stock she quits in a fit of pique. Roaming around the city doing absurd things like partying with a jazz band before running off with their change can or messing around with a sharp suited guy in a hotel room she meets womanising stage actor Gou who’s had a tiff with his actress wife after paying to much attention to the new girl. He flirts with and eventually semi-kidnaps Kuro for a road trip where they meet photographer Eito who has also had a tiff with his woman over having neglected to file the marriage papers at city hall. He’s heading up to an old hotel his uncle used to own where he was meant to spend his honeymoon and invites Gou and Kuro to join him.

Kuro’s original Japanese title, はなればなれに “Hanarebanare ni” literally means “scattered pieces” and was, coincidentally, the same title used for Godard’s 1964 masterpiece Bande à part. First time director Daisuke Shimote wears his influences on his sleeve with an atmosphere that recalls early period Godard which is all whimsy minus Godard’s slightly arch, confrontational irony. Leading lady Kuro, played by Airi Kido, has a definite touch of Anna Karina running through her from the way her retro haircut neatly frames her child-like face to her striped top and colourful red skirt. Taking her cue from Karina’s innocent insouciance, her absurd, pixyish pranks take on a cute and quirky quality which is backed up by a youthfully punkish disregard for the normal order of things.

Kido dances with the jazz band like Karina dancing in the bar in Vivre sa Vie and the gang even fake die in a water gun and finger shoot out a la Franz and Arthur in Bande à part. There’s also something of Tati in the intricate way Shimote sets up what are actually quite small and simple jokes like the Wii tennis match that suddenly turns into an entirely different kind of “virtual” game. At this point, the photographer who’s been perpetually on the sidelines, observing, finds himself joining in and experiencing his very own Natasha at the dance moment which, perhaps, finally allows him to break through something that’s been causing a rift in his personal life.

Through their season at the sea, each of these disparate characters comes to a kind of personal realisation that leaves them, well, more or less the same but much more settled. Kuro learns that sometimes you just have to buckle down and do as you’re told, Gou perhaps learns to be nicer to his wife and Eito maybe realises that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s leaving you. Each of the characters is quite depressed, in the best new wave tradition, or just filled with ennui but perhaps you can’t have these kinds of absurd adventures in any other mood. That said, the heavier side of new wave surrealism with its nihilistic overtones is almost entirely absent leaving the atmosphere light and bright with the feeling that everything will (probably) be alright in the end.

Light on conventional narrative and high on sight gags and surrealist humour, Daisuke Shimote has crafted a charming and amusing new wave inspired ensemble comedy that, yes, wears its influences on its sleeves but isn’t afraid to bring its own moves to the dance floor. It might seem a little bit like a curveball from someone who’s spent so much of his previous life studying the work of Ozu with his formalist compositions and inclusory tatami mat viewpoint, but then Ozu was also a master of subtlety who could make peeling an apple into one of the most profoundly moving scenes in cinema history and Shimote is able to harness a similar fastidiousness here only in more of a comedic bent. Charming, whimsical, absurd but absolutely internally consistent, cinematically literate and beautifully made Kuro is one of the most impressive feature length debuts of recent times and hints at a promising career for its still inexperienced director.


Bonus videos of people (mostly Anna Karina) dancing in Godard films: