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)

Otakus in Love (恋の門, Suzuki Matsuo, 2004)

koi no monReview of Suzuki Matsuo’s Otaku’s in Love (恋の門, Koi no Mon) first published on UK Anime Network in February 2014.


The word “otaku” is a difficult one to pin down. In the West, it’s often come to be a badge of pride and respect, a label that many fans of what most people would perceive as a niche subculture actively identify with and eagerly apply to themselves. However, the roots of the term are much darker and in its native Japanese, “otaku” can be far from a nice thing to call another person. Of the central couple in this film perhaps only one can be thought of as a traditional “otaku” the other being more of a “tortured artist” whose eccentric behaviour makes it difficult for him to survive in the real world. Well, to be honest finding a base line for “normal behaviour” in this film is a pretty tall order, we run into bizarre anime conventions, cosplay obsessives, broken hearted ex-mangaka (manga) bar owners and a bizarre cult like office environment where the only rule is you must be “happy!” all the time. Otakus In Love is an endearingly odd film that is jam packed full of in jokes and meta references that knows its audience very well and never fails in the humour stakes as a result.

Mon is a down on his luck, in fact totally broke, manga artist. Well, he calls himself a “manga artist” but his work isn’t exactly what most people would expect. In a touch of the avant garde, Mon makes his manga out of rocks. Mon’s “manga” are, in fact, a collection of rocks painted with a single kanji character and arranged inside a custom made wooden box. Needless to say each of Mon’s works is a one off piece and his sales record is not exactly going to get him on the best seller list. He can’t seem to hold down a part time job either due to his extreme reactions to people not taking his art seriously and his strange appearance which is something like a seventies guru come glam rock god whose ragged clothes have an oddly deliberate look to them. One fateful day he has an interview for Tsugino Happy Inc which turns out to be a cult-like office environment which seems to advocate happiness through total subjugation. He lasts about an hour at this job before punching his new boss in the face for failing to appreciate his artistic qualities.

However, on the way there about to pick up a particularly fine looking rock, he meets Koino who turns out to be a colleague of his at Happy Inc. The two go out for drinks which ends up at Koino’s apartment where upon Mon wakes up the next morning to find out he’s been a victim of forced cosplay! Unwittingly dressed up as Koino’s favourite character from Soul Caliber II, he’s quickly posed by Koino for her cosplay wall and dragged into a world of doujinshi, comiket, cosplay and all things geeky. Koino is an amateur manga artist who claims to have made a small fortune selling her home made manga at conventions and is well and truly an otaku. Can two such different people really find love? There’s only one way to find out!

Otakus in Love is based on Jun Hanyunyuu’s manga Koi no Mon (also the original Japanese title of the film) and as such carries over various extremely clever meta visual references. Directed by well known actor Suzuki Matsuo (Ichi the Killer) the film is often about as close as you could get to being a live action manga as Matsuo manages to make standard manga tropes like reaction shots and surreal action scenes work in a totally believable way. In the course of the film we’re treated to full on musical sections and ridiculous comic motifs that resurface at fairly predictable moments which could all end up just being far too much, but under Matsuo’s steady hand the film comes out on the right side of crazy and is never anything less than totally zany fun.

The film isn’t afraid to wear its otaku badge on its sleeve, either. Jam packed with references from video games, anime, and manga, Otakus in Love gets its audience completely and trusts it to understand all of its allusions and homages without needing to repeatedly bash the viewer over the head with tie-ins. It also takes an affectionate side swipe at fan culture with some bizarre interactions with cosplay, conventions and ani-singers which any anime fan can probably relate to. The film also has a fair few cameos from such well known personages as Hideaki Anno, Shinya Tsukamoto and Takashi Miike to name but a few.

At a 114 minutes it does run a little long and occasionally feels like it’s going to run out of steam but for the vast majority of its running time Otakus in Love is a genuinely hilarious, truly bizarre, romantic comedy. Full of warmth and exuberance, it’s difficult to image anyone not being swept away by its surreal humour and though it’s certainly on the broader side of comedy it never feels particularly over the top (or at least not in a bad way). Otakus in Love is a romanic comedy that no self confessed otaku should miss out on seeing.


Reviewed at the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2014.