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)

Saudade (サウダーヂ, Katsuya Tomita, 2011)

saudadeReworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in September 2012.


Saudade is one of those words that’s so unique to a particular language that it’s extremely difficult to translate into another. The recent Portuguese film, Tabu, is almost a literal expression of “saudade” itself but offers this brief explanation of it – a feeling of deep yearning or nostalgia for something that is past and can never be regained. Each of the residents in the small town of Kofu (which is, in many ways, a character itself) are all yearning for something, whether for a new life, opportunity or just a simple return to the promise of one’s youth. As the town’s prospects continue to decline its residents continue to long for something different – some kind of progress to lift them out of the tedious downward spiral in which they feel themselves to be trapped.

Seiji works in construction, employed on short term projects – when there is work going that is, something that’s becoming increasingly scarce. Married to a beautician whom he’s come to dislike due to her social climbing ambitions and desire to start a family, Seiji fantasises about running away with his Thai mistress and starting a new life with her in her home country. He’s joined by a new friend, Hosaka, who, coincidentally, has just returned from a long period of time living abroad in Thailand but seems to have his own problems and perhaps serious reasons for his flight and subsequent return. The newest member of the construction crew is the reluctant Amano, a leader of right leaning hip hop group, who has come to blame Japan’s immigrant population for his own inability to find work and progress in life.

There are also, of course, the non-Japanese populations including the Brazilians who came to Japan on the promise of wages ten times those they could earn in their home country but have found only poverty and discrimination. Many have decided to return home, others contemplate moving on – perhaps to the Philippines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Some have been in Japan so long that although they are proud of their Brazilian heritage they barely remember their home country and feel they have nowhere to go besides Japan. Desperately trying to walk the line between integration and embracing their own culture, the non-native residents must also devote time to trying to gain acceptance from the local population. That’s not to mention the Thais working as hostesses or dancers or elsewhere in the entertainment industries – accepted but perhaps only in that specific context.

In painting a portrait of his own hometown, director Katsuya Tomita shows a side of Japan that is often absent from Western perceptions – blue collar workers trying to keep pace with the economic downturn while old prejudices rear their ugly heads in defence. The fact that most of the actors are non-professionals and residents of Kofu themselves gives the film a new weight, indeed the two main stars are friends of the director from childhood. Tomita spent a year researching his subject matter and many of these actors are simply repeating their former conversations in a new context for the camera. As the city crumbles and people pull away from each other in their search for something better, the tensions of everyday life grow stronger and threaten to tip over into violent intensity.

The film, however, seeks to remind us that we are all the same. We all have saudades for one thing or another – something we strive to reattain even though we know it’s impossible. The non-native residents yearn for home or for the acceptance they once felt, the Japanese for the prosperous Japan they grew up in and all the possibilities it afforded them in their youth. Seiji must know on one level that his dream of running away to Thailand with his girlfriend is an impossible fantasy, yet he continues to long for it with varying degrees of intensity. Amano’s problems are perhaps more to do with his own circumstances than the political stance he gives them – longing to be ‘someone’, admired, respected and perhaps loved even if the reason for that acclaim is something abhorrent.

At 164 minutes Saudade takes its time and, being an ensemble drama, perhaps lacks enough narrative focus to engage the majority of viewers. However, for those with long attention spans the film excels in character detail and in building a truly authentic atmosphere in the depiction of the decaying Kofu. Not always an easy watch, Saudade is an interesting and unflinching look at an all too often unacknowledged aspect of its home country.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love & Peace (UK Anime Network Review)

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Another day another Sion Sono – review of Love & Peace from the London Film Festival up at UK Anime Network. Quite liked this one, shame it’s not out in time for Christmas.


Last time we met Sion Sono it was for a street style rap musical about gang warfare. Before that we’ve mostly been admiring him for his epic and irreverent tale of panty shot perverts and bizarre religion Love Exposure, bloody serial killer true crime thriller Cold Fish or poetic exploration of a woman looking for love in all the wrong places in Guilty of Romance, not to mention a tale of teenage rage and post Earthquake anxiety in Himizu or state of the nation address in Land of Hope. Recently prolific and varied enough to give even Takashi Miike a run for his money, it should come as no surprise that Sono’s latest effort is, essentially, a family film about a man’s love for his pet turtle.

Ryoichi Suzuki is a mild mannered office worker with dreams of becoming a rock star. Belittled by his colleagues, Ryoichi has no friends – that is until he falls hard for a tiny turtle sold by a strange man on a rooftop. Hatching plans together for Ryoichi’s rise to superstardom the pair become inseparable. However, after another round of humiliation at work Ryoichi flushes “Pikadon” down the toilet! Full of remorse, Ryoichi pines for his lost friend meanwhile, Pikadon arrives at the lair of a mysterious sewer dweller who rescues broken and discarded creatures. When Pikadon is given a “wish” pill by mistake, Ryoichi’s life soon begins to change!

In case it needs saying, Love & Peace is in no way a “serious” film – much as that may sound like a pejorative comment, all that means is that it’s delightfully absurd and heaps of fun and where it harks back to some of Sono’s key concerns it does so in a light hearted, even mocking manner. The plot maybe conventional in a lot of ways – down trodden loser suddenly makes something of himself with magical help but ends up becoming arrogant and forgetting his true self before being redeemed by a massive fall from grace but as usual Sono has managed to bring something new to even this comparatively tired tale.

Largely, that’s thanks to his bizarre side story of the land of misfit toys being cared for by a mysterious yet kindly old man who lives in a tiny alcove in one of Tokyo’s sewer complexes. Cheerfully harking back to some of those classic ‘80s kids movies, the strange collection of broken robots, damaged cat toys and lovelorn dolls do their best to tug at the heart strings with their stories of loss and abandonment while the mysterious old man keeps them going with tales of hope and magic pills which grant the power of speech or wishes.

However, as Ryoichi’s dreams grow bigger so does Pikadon himself and its not long before the cute little turtle’s devotion to his master becomes a dangerous threat to the entire city. Ryoichi chose the name “Pikadon” seemingly at random and without realising that it’s become a byword for the atomic bomb. Thus Ryoichi’s eventual ballad of love and regret for his lost turtle buddy is misunderstood as a lament for modern Japan and a pledge to “never forget” the wartime nuclear attacks. Of course, this “subversive political rock song” becomes a giant hit catapulting Ryoichi on the road to superstardom. However, there is more heartbreak for Pikadon to come as he’s continually betrayed by the ever more ambitious Ryoichi who’s only too quick to sell out his beloved friend to get ahead with cruel and potentially tragic consequences.

Of course, the one thing that needs mentioning is the amazing music in the film including the title song which is tailor made for waving a lighter in the air and is sure to become your latest ear worm. Ryoichi only writes a few songs but Sono also manages to throw in a musical self reference to a previous film that makes for a fun Easter Egg for his avid fans to find and the rest of the soundtrack is equally catchy too.

In short, Love & Peace is the Christmas themed punk rock kid’s movie you never knew you needed. Yes, it goes to some very dark places – the least of which is the accidental destruction of the city of Tokyo by the now colossal kaiju incarnation of Pikadon whose only wish is to make his best friend’s rockstar dreams come true, but it does so with heart. In true family film fashion, it addresses the themes of true friendship, the importance of being true to yourself and that the love of man and turtle can be a beautiful, if terrifying, thing. Strange, surreal and totally mad, Love & Peace is the ideal Christmas gift for all the family and Sono’s most enjoyably bizarre effort yet.


I wrote this review before I’d seen Tag which is also “enjoyably bizarre”, it has to be said. Love & Peace will be released in the UK in 2016 courtesy of Third Window Films.

Some other Reviews of Sion Sono movies written by me: