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United Red Army
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by Jay Seaver

"As thorough a document as a feature can be."
4 stars

There are two ways to look at Koji Wakamatsu's three-hour film "United Red Army". The glass-half-full version is that it is a fantastically complete and detailed history of the titular group that gives special attention to some of that history's most (in)famous chapters. The other perspective is that it is a harrowing true tale of horror surrounded by exposition and epilogue that serves to distract from the really good parts. It's not a bad sign that even the glass-half-empty version admits that the film has a very solid core.

Wakamatsu's film separates into three acts even easier than most. The first tells us in documentary style how various protest movements in 1960s Japan formed and later radicalized, leading to two of the most radical, the Red Army Faction and Revolutionary Left Faction, combine to become the Unified (later United) Red Army. The second has the URA holed up in the Japanese Alps, hiding from police as the leaders grow more and more autocratic, visiting violent punishment on their followers. In the aftermath, five members hole up in the Asama Mountain Lodge ski resort, taking the manager's wife hostage while the police laid siege for a month.

Wakamatsu's ambition with United Red Army is impressive and admirable, but also quite frankly daunting for those without prior knowledge of the subject. The film has literally dozens of characters, many of whom seem to be included for completeness's sake. People will be introduced and built up as if they were major characters only to be arrested and disappear twenty minutes later (don't get too attached to Tak Sakaguchi, likely the most familiar member of the cast for western audiences). The opening act covers roughly twelve years and features an odd combination of narration, stock footage, and scenes that seem more like crime-show recreations (in black-and-white to match the stock footage) in tone than part of a dramatic feature. The end gives us information on what happened to the group's members over the ensuing thirty years, enough information that the subtitles may change faster than the audience can read them. It is without a doubt informative, and Wakamatsu does an admirable job of not making these purely informational segments dry, but it is occasionally overwhelming.

What is somewhat dry, oddly, is the film's third act, as five escaped URA men barricade themselves in a cottage with a hostage. This is a genre film staple, but stuck on the tail end of this movie, it has a lot of issues: It brings some very minor characters to the forefront, and it never gives us a glance of the other side of the siege. In some ways, that's consistent with the rest of the movie - though there is some exposition to set the stage in the first act, Wakamatsu tells the story almost entirely from within the URA - but it reduces tension, especially since hostage Yasuko Muta (Karou Okunuki) is barely a factor. It's also hard to return to seeing them somewhat sympathetically after what had come before.

And what comes before, the middle of the movie, is dynamite. Wakamatsu is known in part for his sympathies with radical politics, but he doesn't flinch from how the months in the Japanese Alps are a microcosm on how communism went horribly wrong around the world: A movement dedicated to liberating workers from the ruling class develops its own despots, and failing to adhere to slogans and dogma is considered treasonous. Go Jibiki and Akie Namiki portray Tsuneo Mori and Hiroko Nagata as a terrifyingly complementary pair of true believers, Mori loud and bullying and Nagata icily terrifying - when Nagata comments that a pregnant member of the group is a threat because she thinks of her child as belonging to her rather than the party, the horrifying sincerity comes through even via subtitles. They stand in stark contrast to their victims, especially Maki Sakai's Mieko Toyama. Toyama is one of the characters we've seen since early on in the film, and though the film doesn't present her as an innocent, Sakai makes her sympathetic; we get the feeling that she followed her best friend into the movement, and winds up suffering because she is not at heart a violent person.

This central section has its problems as a movie, at least from a certain perspective. Many screenwriters would probably streamline the movement between bases and composite some characters, as at one point the same basic story (one woman and two men are tortured for not being able to "self-criticize" properly) is playing out in two locations. Even with that, it's devastatingly effective, as Wakamatsu escalates the violence and madness at a perfect clip, making it even worse by interspersing scenes showing that certain characters going to be are in trouble for just not being hardcore enough. The violence is brutal and comes across that way - it would be easy for this section to become a horror movie where the various deaths give us a secret thrill, or for the filmmaker's sympathy to the general cause to inject a hint of justification, but that doesn't happen - what we see is horrible in every way.

It's so good that at times I wished it were the whole movie, with a little narrative streamlining and just enough of what precedes and follows it included to give context. But, as the film reminds us, history is messy, and doesn't fit the standard form of a narrative feature.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19987&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/11/09 23:20:09
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Directed by
  Koji Wakamatsu

Written by
  Koji Wakamatsu
  Masayuki Kakegawa

  Maki Sakai
  Akie Namiki
  Go Jibiki
  Tak Sakaguchi
  Anri Ban

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