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Clipping the Ultra-Left Wing

United Red Army (2008)

Masayuki Kakegawa/Wakamatsu Production

“United Red Army” is a colossal recounting of how the 1960s student movement disintegrated from radical to extremist, with comrades in arms in the midst of a period of prolonged inaction at a remote training camp eventually giving up on daily drills to figuratively reenact “Lord of the Flies” — but with a much higher body count. The film is noteworthy because director-co-writer Koji Wakamatsu self-financed and distributed the $2.4-million production, defying a system and a culture that would rather forget uglier episodes in the nation’s history such as the Nanking Massacre.

The film presents Japan’s concession to the American-dictated security treaty in 1960 (which remains in effect today) as the tipping point for student revolutionary movements. Although one could easily comprehend the deep resentment toward their government for bowing to American whims, “United Red Army” vaguely alludes to how the radicals fancied themselves as part of a greater global force encompassing the American civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the May 1968 movement in France, etc. In fact, this characterization seems most apt for a couple of gamely bimbos seen as lightweight even by their comrades. Then there are tyrannical hypocrites tagging along just for the power trips, such as the homely Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki) who ratted on other women out of sheer pettiness. The group’s overall intellectualization of guerilla warfare — complete with rounds of “self-critique”-turned-systematic torture sessions — is patently absurd, but the real irony has to be the mention of President Nixon’s visit to China in a TV newscast during the climactic 1972 standoff at the Asama Mountain Lodge. The rebel remnants were railing against an enemy that was no more.

Despite the languorous 190-minute running time, “United Red Army” is a brutal and relentless onslaught. But it indeed shows the events taciturnly and doesn’t tell moviegoers how to respond. The film is chock-full of information even in spite of the fact that some of the title cards in Japanese are not subtitled in the review copy (but this might be rectified in the theatrical release). Although what’s left untranslated isn’t integral to the plot (i.e. world affairs concurrent to events taking place in the film, such as the 1961 coup d’état in Korea, President Kennedy’s 1962 approval of a limited nuclear-test ban and his assassination in 1963, etc.), translation would have shed some additional light, especially for this foreign audience. The only real fault with this towering achievement, though, is Jim O’Rourke’s droning, inappropriate and ultimately irrelevant score.


Opens on May 27 in Manhattan.

Produced and directed by Koji Wakamatsu; written by Mr. Wakamatsu, Masayuki Kakegawa and Asako Otomo; directors of photography, Tomohiko Tsuji and Yoshihisa Toda; music by Jim O’Rourke; released by Lorber Films. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Maki Sakai (Mieko Toyama), Arata (Hiroshi Sakaguchi), Akie Namiki (Hiroko Nagata), Go Jibiki (Tsuneo Mori) and Anri Ban (Fusako Shigenobu).


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