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)

The Fallen Angel (人間失格, Genjiro Arato, 2010)

fallen-angelThe Fallen Angel (人間失格, Ningen Shikkaku), based on one of the best known works of Japanese literary giant Osamu Dazai – No Longer Human, was the last in a series of commemorative film projects marking the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth in 2009. Like much of Dazai’s work, No Longer Human is semi-autobiographical, fixated on the idea of suicide, and charts the course of its protagonist as he becomes hopelessly lost in a life of dissipation, alcohol, drugs, and overwhelming depression.

Even when we meet him as a small child, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), feels himself set apart from his peers. Unable to connect fully with the people around him, Yozo gets through life by playing the clown. As a teenager, he meets another boy, Takeichi, who can see straight through his mask and encourages him in his artistic pursuits. Eventually, Yozo moves to Tokyo where he meets another artist, Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), who introduces him to the seedier pleasures of the city including drinking and hostess bars.

Yozo still feels adrift and is unable to cement his new found friendship with true connection. After asking Horiki to die with him (which he laughingly refuses to do), Yozo begins an ill-starred romance with a melancholy bar hostess with whom he does actually attempt double suicide. She dies, he doesn’t but his life is changed when he loses access to his familial wealth and is kicked out of university because of the scandal. Yozo has another shot at conventional happiness by briefly forming a family with a single mother and her little girl before leaving them because of problems resulting from his alcoholism. Eventually marrying a kind hearted woman, Yozo kicks the booze for a while and builds a career in manga but sure enough Horiki finds him and ruins his marital bliss by setting him back on the road to dissipation.

Arato makes a few changes to Dazai’s novel, mostly streamlining the book’s tripartite structure by eliding two events into one, but perhaps because of the well known nature of the story, he feels comfortable in making abrupt cuts and wide ranging shifts in terms of time. Dazai’s novel is much more focussed on the mental condition of its protagonist, whereas Arato has opted for a more overt display of the increasingly tense political environment with soldiers lurking in the background, later occupying a train shortly before the scene turns into a surreal segment in which Yozo reacquaints himself with all those he’s wronged throughout the course of the film.

Yozo’s tragedy is his inability to connect with other people even though he leads an ostensibly successful social life. Making himself an amiable presence, Yozo keeps people around him by making himself a figure of fun – a mask which gradually becomes far too heavy to wear. This buffoonish aspect of his personality is not very much in evidence in Arato’s film which focusses much more on his underlying depression than the joviality he uses to try and prevent anyone noticing just how broken he is inside. For this reason it becomes harder to see why everybody lets Yozo get away with his extremely bad behaviour for so long. Toma Ikuta captures Yozo’s listlessness and despair but without the necessary intensity to back them up and, ironically, without his sad clown routine Yozo does not always seem like someone anyone would want to hang out with for any great length of time.

Arato has recreated the novel’s pervading sense of numbness and despair to the letter with the consequence that his film remains resolutely cold. As appropriate as that may be, it makes it harder to achieve the kind of connection forged through Yozo’s first person narrative in the book. This approach brings out Yozo’s unpleasant qualities – his selfishness, weakness, cowardice, and propensity to addiction, but fails to display his better ones which lead to him being characterised as the ruined “angel” of the title. In distancing us from Yozo, Arato encourages us to see him either as a metaphor for the political turmoil taking place in his country during his lifetime, or simply as a someone whose intense self loathing eventually destroys his sense of self. What it does not encourage us to do is see that Yozo’s struggle is our own struggle, his despair is our despair felt to a greater or lesser degree. Too obtuse to be affecting, The Fallen Angel fails to capture the overwhelming nihilism of Dazai’s novel and ironically remains far too distant to achieve true connection.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police (ぼくたちと駐在さんの700日戦争, Renpei Tsukamoto, 2008)

700days-of-battleThose golden last few summers of high school have provided ample material for countless nostalgia filled Japanese comedies and 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police (ぼくたちと駐在さんの700日戦争, Bokutachi to Chuzai-san no 700 Nichi Senso) is no exception. Set in a small rural town in 1979, this is an innocent story of bored teenagers letting off steam in an age before mass communications ruined everyone’s fun.

In the summer of 1979, a group of teenage high school students get their kicks pulling pranks around the neighbourhood. They finally meet their match when a new policeman, Chuzai (Kuranosuke Sasaki), arrives in town intent on actually enforcing the law. When one of the boys is fined for speeding after coming down a steep hill on his bicycle, the guys decide to make Chuzai their new enemy, virtually daring him to arrest them with their constant trolling.

However, things take a turn when the boys move their prank planning meetings to a local cafe and discover the beautiful waitress working there, Kanako (Kumiko Aso). Instantly smitten the boys step up their romance game (donning some fancy outfits in the process) and semi-forget about their mission. Unfortunately Kanako is a married woman and worse than that she’s married to Chuzai! This whole thing just got real.

Chuzai, for all his uptight authoritarianism is onto the boys and their generally innocent mischief. Finding it all very irritating rather than actually dangerous, Chuzai gradually starts playing them at their own game by attempting to prank them back such as in one notable incident where he makes them attend a public behaviour seminar but gives the entire lecture through a ventriloquist’s dummy called Taru-kun. As a slightly older man, Chuzai can see the boys are just hopelessly bored in their backwater town. Breaking with his hitherto austere persona, Chuzai drops the authoritarian line to offer some fatherly advice to the effect that these summers are precious times,  soon the boys’ high school lives will be over and they’ll most likely leave their pleasant small town for the bustling metropolis of Tokyo so they’d better make the most of these aimless days while they can.

Idyllic as it is, the nature of the boys’ mission changes in the second half as the war against Chuzai takes on a slightly more affectionate quality. At this point they decide to use their pranking powers for good to help a little girl who’s stuck in the hospital finally enjoy the summer fireworks she’s been longing for even though the doctors won’t let her out to go to the festival. With the fireworks heist hovering in the background the guys get into various romanctic difficulties while enjoying archetypal teenage summer adventures.

Infused with period detail, 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police has an authentically ‘70s soundtrack with some of the biggest hits of the era running in the background. Frequent cultural references such as a brief appearance from Ultraman add to the atmosphere which has a kind of retro, nostalgic innocence behind it as these kids live in a golden era of friendship and bike riding when the sun is always shining and graduation is still a long way off.

Director Tsukamoto keeps things simple though the production values are high and visual gags are spot on. Somewhat episodic in nature, the tale is split up into various chapters by means of title cards which helps to break up the seemingly endless summer as the boys attempt to fill their otherwise empty days. Apparently this was only the beginning of the “war” against the police, occupying only 108 days of a “conflict” which would finally run to 700. Presumably the guys have finished up their high school days by that point but at least they’ve succeeded in making some amusing memories of their elaborate and sometimes fiendishly clever schemes to take revenge on the surprisingly patient Chuzai-san. Filled with innocent, witty and whimsical comedy 700 Days of Battle: Us vs. the Police offers no great leap forward even within the realm of quirky teen comedies but still manages to provide some old fashioned, wholesome summer themed fun.


Original trailer (English subtitles)