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Igi Nashi

United Red Army

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.

Once the smoke cleared from Asama-Sansō, the Japanese Left had completely exhausted any broad public sympathy that remained from their humble early ’60s fight for social justice and an independence from American militarism. The Red Army had stolen guns, robbed banks, hijacked planes, taken hostages, but now they had even turned on their own. If the life of fellow sect members had so little value to the leaders, handing power to anyone of these political persuasions now suggested executions on a mass scale.

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.

Related Articles:
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)

W. David MARX
April 27, 2008

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

14 Responses

  1. jasongray Says:

    I conducted an interesting stage discussion with actor Jibiki Gô (who plays Mori). The film was truly a labor of love for Wakamatsu, with the final scenes in the lodge being its raison d’être, especially the line about courage. Wakamatsu was close with one of the women who later died.

    The bunkachô wouldn’t provide any funding and the members-of-the-public investment scheme on the website didn’t work at all, so Wakamatsu took out a second mortgage on his house as well as using and destroying his own cottage for the final siege.

    I’m glad that its run was extended at Theatre Shinjuku (is that where you saw it?), where it’s doing very well. For anybody in the Shinjuku area today, there’s a talk event with Wakamatsu and five of the cast members in attendance, between the matinee and evening screening.

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    I thought the editing was a bit clunky in places, but the film overall is well done. Jim O’Rourke’s soundtrack adds a lot.

    I did see it at Theatre Shinjuku, where they have a nice exhibition of student movement photos.

  3. Kim Jong-il Hater Says:

    I have a few questions:

    1. Why wasn’t there any counter-cultural movement in Japan coinciding with the leftist movement like with the WUO and, to some extent, Red Army Faction?

    2. How did someone start interpreting Marxism like this? How did such violent self-criticism sessions come about?

    3. Is it available in the US or will it be anytime soon?


  4. W. David MARX Says:

    1) Short answer: there was an artistic counter-culture in the ’60s related to the student movement. See Terayama Shuji’s Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Street for example.

    But it was mainly on the fringes of the student movement instead of being an accompanying aesthetic vision FOR the student movement. There were hippies, but the hippies weren’t part of the student movement, if that makes sense.

    The American and European ’60s youth generally were Bohemian in nature, which was more compatible with a liberal democracy agenda. The Japanese left was hard-line revolutionary Leninist-Marxist for the most part, less interested in drugs, aesthetics, or a new way of life. You can’t be “Peace Now, Man” and also cracking the heads of your fellow students who are in separate sects. Pot would have really helped out the gakusei undo guys, perhaps. The hippies had to settle for huffing airplane glue and paint thinner.

    2) Interpretation of Marxism

    This is a very good question. The actual content of ideology seems to be ignored in hindsight, which lends to the interpretation that Marxism was a superficial fad rather than a philosophy that really changed youth’s perspective on society.

    I hope Steinhoff’s eventual book on the subject tackles this question.

  5. Aceface Says:

    I think Alin had mentioned it once,but check the manga “REDレッド”by Yamamoto Naoki山本直樹(Not to be confused with the western epic manga of the same title by Muraeda Kenichi).It’s about how the red army students met,act and ends up in Asama-Sanso.

  6. W. David MARX Says:

    Which again gets back to the question of why SO many people create narrative fictions based on the URA…

  7. Aceface Says:

    Well,Yamamoto was once a porn-manga artist and started to write story manga from mid 80’s on Big Comic Spirits titled ”極めてかもしだAbsolutely Kamoshida”it was like John Hughes meets Terayama Shuji like manga and probably appealed more to the editors than the readership.But that didn’t made any trend at the times of the bubble.

    And there were series of reactionary narratives come out in the forms of memoirs like 佐々淳行’s「東大落城Fall of Yasuda Hall」and 「連合赤軍あさま山荘事件URA Asama-Sanso incident」of which eventually made into a 2002 movie “突入せよ!あさま山荘事件”The Choice of Hercules”starring Yakusho Koji.

    The trend of radical narrative started to push back from turn of the century.
    The film by Watanabe Humiki “Harahara-Dokei腹腹時計”came out in 1999,Takahashi Banmei “Rain of Light光の雨”came out in 2001,Fukasaku Kinji/Keita’s”Battle Royal2″came out in 2003.Adachi Masao’s “幽閉者The terrorist”came out in 2006.

  8. jasongray Says:

    2. How did someone start interpreting Marxism like this? How did such violent self-criticism sessions come about?

    Now I wish I had recorded the session I did but some (weird) guy in the audience asked Jibiki a similar question, mainly because he found the repetitious scenes of berating and violence annoying.

    The URA members had only their ideology and no real concept of military training, guns (audiences now may laugh at the old weapons they managed to get, but it was a very big deal in Japan at that time) or violence, unlike Germany’s Red Army Faction for example. It was like children in a clubhouse that take authority too far. They even categorized the violence that accompanied the self-criticisms as「総括援助」, like “self-criticism assistance” (according to Wiki).

    It would be great if the upcoming book had a chapter on films that have depicted the various movements.

  9. jasongray Says:

    I just remembered he mentioned bullying at school (famous in Japan) as playing a role in their warped sense of falling in line.

  10. Aceface Says:

    While I agree about school bullying do reflects some shadow over the incident,still my knowledge tells me violent fractional struggle is pretty common among various Marxism sects in both East and West.So I don’t see this issue particulary Japanese phenomenon.

  11. alin Says:

    Aceface , porn-ey as it was Yamamoto’s manga captures (from what i understand) a certain feel of 90s japan in the 90s better then anything i can think of – well, maybe a fishmans record. he’s a zeitgeist artist therefore qualified for the Red job.

    excellent point about bullying being the flip-side of marxism. wow, now that is something that deserves some multi-disciplinary serious study.

  12. Aceface Says:


    Yeah,I agree.What I’ve meant to say was Yamamoto used to do porn works under the alias of Moriyama Tou森山塔.

  13. mozu Says:

    I wonder why the URA has attracted so many people, too. Ideologically speaking, I don’t think the URA was so singular. It is said the unspoken admiration for the URA had to do with Shigenobu Fusako(=female terrorist) fantasy in 70’s and 80’s. But, to be honest, I don’t understand why now. I believe the seemingly forgotten East-Asian Anti-Japanese Military Front was the most important among the 70’s extremists in Japan.

  14. James Ballard Says:

    Is there any answer to Kim Jong Il-hater’s Q.3? A DVD release on its way? I’m in Japan from the end of July – is it still showing? Still, not much use unless they’re subtitling it. Thanks for the awesome bibliographical background.