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)

Hee (火, Kaori Momoi, 2016)

heeOne of Japan’s best known actresses with a career spanning over forty years, Kaori Momoi is perhaps just as well known for her outspoken and refreshingly direct approach to interviews as she is for her work with such esteemed directors as Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Yoji Yamada, and Shohei Imamura. One of the few Japanese actors to have made a successful international career starring in Hollywood movies such as Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha and international art house fare in Alexander Sukurov’s The Sun, Momoi currently lives in LA and is even reportedly preparing to play Scarlett Johansson’s mother in the upcoming US live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. It’s perhaps less surprising then that in choosing to adapt a short story by one of Japan’s best young writers, Fuminori Nakamura, Momoi has chosen to shift the story to LA whilst maintaining its Japanese characters.

We first meet Azusa (Kaori Momoi) as she’s washing her foot in a public sink near a beach. A strange conversation with an American man implies that she’s involved in some kind of sex work and the pair head into a hotel where they’re stuck in a crowded lift with a collection of noisy strangers. Aside from this lift scene which is replayed with slightly different emphasises throughout the film, the narrative, such as it is, is provided by Azusa’s two sessions with passive psychiatrist, Dr. Sanada (Yugo Saso). In the first of these she discusses her feelings of guilt over the death of her family, killed in a fire started (perhaps not) by accident as she carelessly played with matches as a child. Later sessions see her accompanied by an official looking American man, seated in the corner but unable to understand much of what’s going on. Now Azusa is suspected of a violent crime but finds herself confessing to various other moral and criminal transgressions, but then again perhaps “confessing” is the wrong word.

Transposing the story from Japan to LA brings an additional layer of alienation to Azusa’s story as she finds herself alone and set adrift far from home. The slightly rundown, beachside faded glamour of the outside world contrasts neatly with the cool, ordered interior of the psychiatrist’s office where Sanada appears almost indifferent to Azusa’s monologue as he makes coffee in a vacuum pot and stares blankly straight ahead. It’s little wonder why Azusa remarks that perhaps he’s just not suited to this kind of work during her first session and even later states that he’s really just a sounding board for her – she’s monologuing for real, applying the talking cure to herself.

Intercut with Azusa’s monologues and the reoccurring lift scene in which Sanada also appears, Sanada is seen with his own, not quite happy, family. Married to a fellow doctor working at the same clinic, Sanada seems a little uncomfortable with his confident, dominant wife. Conversing in English at home the couple share extravagant meals prepared by their housekeeper with their little daughter but as Azusa’s monologues continue the family scenes become ever more strange and disjointed and Sanada is even seen wolfing down a plate of high grade beef in his pyjamas whilst sitting next to a bright burning fire inside a patio chimney heater. Azusa maintains control, both in the room and out, with Sanada left behind as passive observer.

Expertly played by director and lead actress Momoi, Azusa is a necessarily unreliable narrator as she offers her series of sad stories each of which leads towards a fire. Betrayed by men from her father onwards leading to a failed marriage, inappropriate relationship with another Japanese man in the US, and an ill fated assignation with an American possibly more interested in her daughter, Azusa’s only constant has been the fire but it also seems to spark her madness. It’s impossible to tell how much of what Azusa is saying is “true” at any given time as her oddly circular narratives fracture off yet return to the same point but what she appears to crave from Sanada is the simple act of acknowledgement – of being seen, understood, and respected as a human being.

Reportedly shot in just ten days for a minuscule budget, Hee is anchored by a strong performance from its leading lady but is occasionally undercut by Sanada’s passivity which leaves her without the necessary pushback. The English language actors offer their lines in a slightly surreal manner which adds to the heightened atmosphere of the piece but does not always gel with the other theatrical elements and, at times, proves jarring. Though sometimes too obtuse for its own good, Hee takes an interesting, experimental approach to its material and displays a nice flair for composition even if the cinematography itself remains more conventional. A frustrating, if sometimes fascinating, experience, Hee is the story of woman trapped in flames with only the last remaining hope that we will be able to see through the smoke and heat haze to finally acknowledge her presence.


Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)