Wakamatsu Kōji’s latest film 『実録・連合赤軍：浅間山荘への道程』 (The True Story of the United Red Army: the Road to Asama-Sansō) is probably the final and definitive cinematic retelling of the United Red Army (URA) story. In early 1972, the URA terrorist cell achieved infamy for killing off twelve of its own members during ideological training and then battling police from the inside of a mountain lodge near Nagano’s Mt. Asama. Over the course of three hours, Wakamatsu covers the group’s entire history from their formation and eventual arrest, moving the viewer through a brief history of the student movement, the internecine fighting accompanying the foundation of the Red Army Faction (赤軍派), the brutal lynching of fellow members in its secret mountain training lodge, and the final standoff at Asama-Sansō.
Telling the “full” story of such a fractured and complex set of events forces Wakamatsu to use a no-frills “docudrama” approach, including plenty of on-screen text and voice-over narration. The story could not fit neatly into the conventional three-act film. Almost none of the Red Army members survive or stay free of police custody long enough to act as an emotional anchor or arch-villain for the entire three hours. Some characters are little more than historical bookmarks; for example, future Japanese Red Army leader Shigenobu Fusako shows up in the forward to bond with future URA victim Tōyama Mieko, but soon leaves for Lebanon to found the “international wing” of the Red Army. Likewise, Red Army founder and philosopher Shiomi Takaya is arrested in the first hour and taken completely out of the central story. But so goes the actual history.
Wakamatsu and fellow soft-porn filmmaker Adachi Masao were both Red Army sympathizers and chronicled the early proto-Japanese Red Army / Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Lebanon training camps in their 1971 documentary 『赤軍PFLP世界戦争宣言』Red Army-PFLP Declaration of War. In the last few years, both have apparently felt the need to create new films reflecting on the ’70s Japanese leftist terrorism. Adachi’s lackluster 『幽閉者テロリスト』Prisoner / Terrorist told the story of Lod Airport Massacre attacker Okamoto Kozo losing his mind in Israeli jail. With multiple Japanese fictional films about the United Red Army’s self-destruction already in circulation, however, it may seem odd that Wakamatsu went to such lengths to make yet another film on the topic. He has specifically stated a need to correct falsehoods in the 2002 film 『突入せよ！浅間山荘事件』(Choice of Hercules), which tells the story of the Asama-Sansō hostage crisis from the perspective of law enforcement. Wakamatsu protege Takahashi Banmei’s 2001 film 『光の雨』(Rain of Light) , on the other hand, very skillfully visualizes the horrific URA training deaths, but somewhat tempers it with a distancing meta-approach where the actors are shown “adapting” the novel that lends the film’s name. Although there are slight discrepancies between Takahashi and Wakamatsu’s versions, both generally work from the same historical chronicles and hit the same notes. Wakamatsu’s only real addition is combining the lynchings with the Asama-Sansō tale in a single epic-length film.
The other notable film to pick up the United Red Army narrative is 『鬼畜大宴会』 (Banquet of the Beasts) — Kumakiri Kazuyoshi’s ultra-gory mondo-horror retelling of the early ’70s student movement disintegration — where post-gunshot head-wounds spew blood, men are castrated with knives, and limbs are frequently severed. Beyond twisting this important historical event into purely prurient content, Kumakiri does the URA story great disservice by recasting the event’s true horror — the legitimatization of comrade purging through Marxist utopian ideology — into the result of the evil female leader’s growing “insanity.” When the stand-in for female URA leader Nagata Hiroko is killed late in the movie (by brutal means which I never want to think about again), Kumakiri gives viewers the karmic revenge they ultimately desire. (The historical URA denouement is not so rewarding: sadistic leaders Nagata and Mori were unceremoniously arrested before the Asama-Sansō siege even starts. Mori’s later suicide is always reduced to an afterword.)
Ultimately, Wakamatsu’s defiantly detached approach strongly suits the material. He makes no attempt to create sympathy with any of the characters — other than, perhaps, the 16 year-old Kato Motohisa who must strike his own brother in ideological training and later watch him die as a result. (When Kato starts shooting at the cops at Asama-Sansō, however, he no longer looks so adorable.) Despite the fact that most other Red Army-sympathizers tend to blame police oppression for the sect’s eventual violence, Wakamatsu never really casts the Japanese authorities in any sort of negative light. Yes, the cops arrested more and more protesters through the late 1960s, but the director refuses to create heavy-handed portrayals of overbearing cops and G-men preying on “innocent” and peace-loving students. Throughout the film, the police are mostly an invisible threat, and when shown, serious adults serving warrants.
Wakamatsu’s docudrama approach has the effect of reducing everyone to their historical personage. Instead of being everyday, relatable humans thrown into a difficult situation, we see them only as the participants taken straight from black-and-white newsreels. This emotional detachment generally harms most films: the Star Wars prequels mostly failed because the main characters were reduced to august, humorless historical personalities rather than the sympathetic “ragtag” characters in the original triology. But Wakamatsu may be onto something by using this character framing in United Red Army: the sect viewed themselves first and foremost within the prism of “history.” They willfully abandoned their humanity and legitimized brutality for larger abstract goals of revolution. Leninist hierarchy overrode any sort of natural human relationships within the URA circles. The group members constantly speak in an argot based in theoretical Marxist terminology, almost to the point where the movie feels scripted solely in idiosyncratic Chinese loan words. Common sense was in short supply. Projecting benevolence on any of the characters would betray the true story.
Most of the URA member deaths centered around the concept of sōkatsu (総括) — a word normally meaning “summarization” or “generalization.” In ’60s Leftism, however, the term means “to judge and reflect upon past actions”: essentially, “self-criticism” in order to grow stronger as a revolutionary. URA leaders Mori and Nagata charge their followers with insufficient sōkatsu, and when the members cross the threshold, they ask the other members to punish their lack of self-criticism through physical violence. Sect members are beaten to a pulp and then tied up to poles in the cold outside. Female Tōyama Mieko’s punishment forced her to literally punch herself to death. These sōkatsu training sessions provide the film’s most harrowing sequences, and Wakamatsu barely projects any sort of remorse or regret onto the faces of the aggressor comrades. While dying women are urinating themselves and mumbling nonsense within the icy cabin, the other members eat dinner and study their maps and Marx with only the slightest discomfort.
Although Wakamatsu never fully explains the specific arcane theories that propel this Marxist-Leninist revolutionary guard, we see “ideology” in a broad sense slowly separate the young pioneers from any semblance of reality. After the fratricides, Nagata and Mori leave the scene to have sex at a hotel. When Nagata’s boyfriend Sakaguchi shows up to check in, she calmly explains that the revolution needs her to pair off with Mori for the time being. Later inside of the Asama-Sansō cabin, Sakaguchi tells the young female hostage that their rag-tag group of six young motley terrorists is “the revolution.” When an Asama-Sansō team member is caught eating cookies, a serious discussion on sōkatsu breaks out. Despite the grave circumstances, these scenes elicit a chuckle. In the first case, Nagata quickly hides behind ideology to absolves her love life betrayal. Sakaguchi in the cabin, on the other hand, is so far detached from his actual hopeless situation that he can only see the group’s actions like sympathetic narrators in a future post-revolution history textbook.
Wakamatsu spends the last hour of his film faithfully recreating the conditions inside of the cabin during the Asama-Sansō siege, but in comparison to the tragic second-act lynchings, this hour feels less essential. His detailed attention, however, stems from his need to “finish” the historical retelling at group’s eventual arrest. The Japanese collective memory of the URA mostly centers around Asama-Sansō, a product of how the URA story was mediated to the public. The mountain lodge siege was televised in real-time, whereas news of the lynchings could only transmit through textual and verbal recollections after the fact. Wakamatsu’s film, therefore, has a value in restoring the proper balance in the tale’s emotional weight, by creating a powerful visualization of the comrade murders. On paper, killing twelve people seems somewhat pedestrian compared to the millions purged in the USSR, China, or Cambodia. But seeing an enthusiastic, highly-educated group of students in their early 20s needlessly murder their peers one-by-one is usefully traumatic. This is petit-Stalinism on a human scale. And Wakamatsu never milks these murders for shock’s sake: seeing an eight-month pregnant woman’s bleeding corpse is crucial for understanding the abject brutality of what happened.
The URA also made the master mistake for winning sympathy in post-war Japan: in an attempt to free the nation from its feudal-capitalist structure, they ended up re-staging the morality play of WWII — as the villains. Communism came out of the war as the only legitimate voice of anti-imperialist dissent, but the extremes of the student movement transformed the Marxist praxis into something as dangerous and ideologically-rigid as the wartime imperialist dogma. Just like the Japanese government’s decision to continue the war in the spring of 1945, the URA is holed up, surrounded on all sides by hostile forces with no exit, yet refuses to surrender. The obvious and glorious solution is a greater death toll — inflicted on both allies or enemies — in order to secure a fairer settlement. Army leaders believed that the 1945 surrender would shame those who had died for that meaningless war, and in an eerie echo, Wakamatsu stated in a Japan Times article that Asama-Sansō participant Bando believed that, “Everyone had pledged to fight to the end. They had committed the sin of purge killings and to make amends, (they) felt they had to fight against authority, even if they had to die.” The URA showed in vivid colors that it wasn’t the actual content of ideology that led to the most nightmarish forms of Japanese organizational behavior, but the Japanese approach to ideology itself that was at the heart of the matter.
Unfortunately, however, the Leftist baby went out with the terrorist bath water, and any sort of left-leaning socioeconomic liberalism died an almost permanent death with the arrest of the URA terrorists. At that time, the main opposition party to the hegemonic conservative Liberal Democratic Party were the “Socialists” rather than a moderate social democratic party, and judging by Asama-Sansō, handing power to anyone on the entire semi-Marxist left wing may have suddenly seemed like a very bad idea. But this is exactly why the URA story is so attractive to novelists, journalists, filmmakers, and manga artists. This is the ultimate tragedy and final episode of progressive post-war politics — a micro-social event at the scale of human relationship that caused the macro-social collapse of Japan’s long flirtation with Marxism. For those who wish that progressive democratic politics played more of a role in the Japanese government and mass culture, the URA’s self-destruction is a total heartbreaker. Wakamatsu’s cinematic portrayal, however, hints at the most obvious observation: perhaps the mutation of Marxist ideology in Japan was best off dying on the vine. As punishment for a failure to meta-sōkatsu, the United Red Army murdered the entire Left.
• Interview with Dr. Patricia Steinhoff (Parts 1,2,3,4,5)
• Documentary Footage of Japanese Student Protests and Leftist Terrorism
• Aru Hi, Totsuzen (New Left Sect Reactions
if the Revolution Suddenly Erupted One Morning)