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Wakamatsu Koji’s “United Red Army”

Posted in Film,Japanese film by bourdaghs on the November 8th, 2013

Recently I’ve been thinking about film director Wakamatsu Kōji (若松孝二). In part, this was because of his role as an early advocate for the music of Hayakawa Yoshio and JACKS; he hired them to provide the soundtrack for his 1968 independent “pink” film, Haragashi Onna 『腹貸し女』.

This all nudged me into finally watching Wakamatsu’s “United Red Army” 『実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程』. I’d been wanting to see this one since it first came out to great acclaim in 2008–it ended up being ranked #3 on that year’s Kinema Junpō Best Ten list. Finding an opportunity was always difficult, though, in part due to its epic length (three hours plus). But we sat down with the DVD last Saturday and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I’m especially fascinated by what Wakamatsu intended by the first word of the Japanese title: jitsuroku 「実録」. A more literal translation of the title would be, “True Record: United Red Army–The Road to the Asama Sansō Incident.” As someone tangentially involved in 1960s leftist politics, Wakamatsu in his later years clearly felt an ethical, political, and artistic obligation to leave behind a “true record” of the violent faction that became notorious for a series of terrorist acts in early 1970s Japan and elsewhere.

The film begins with a kind of documentary survey of the history of the radical left in 1960s Japan, intercut with shots introducing us to the main characters we will follow. We find ourselves in the hands of a voice-over narrator who speaks in grizzled, weather-beaten tones. I thought the speaker might be Wakamatsu himself; the film has that sort of very personal feel to it. It was only when the closing credits rolled that I realized the voice actually belonged to the actor Harada Yoshio, certainly an apt choice–but one that also foregrounds the fictional, acted-out elements of this “true record.”

The middle hour uses actors to trace in horrific, numbing detail the self-destructive lynchings that took place as the possibility of actual revolution faded and the increasingly isolated faction sought to enforce impossible standards of ideological purity. Then the last hour of the film recreates the infamous 1972 Asama Sansō standoff, the incident that is conventionally depicted as the last gasp of 1960s radicalism in Japan. For the most part, we view the unfolding crisis from the perspective of the five gunmen and their hostage inside the mountain lodge, but at key moments — especially the final police assault on the villa — we see things from the external perspective of the police.

The soundtrack by Jim O’Rourke provides one set of clues as to how we are meant to take the film. In the first hour or so, it consists mainly of psychedelic guitar jams that convey a sense of liberation and possibility; by the last hour, it is almost entirely elegiac string quartet.

The climax of the film, the police raid, calls to mind nothing so much as the final shot in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the heroes are tragically misguided and doomed. What is striking is the non-judgmental tone of the presentation. For all the problems inherent in the idea of a partially fictional film as jitsuroku, it is clear that it was the driving concern behind the work. Wakamatsu neither celebrates nor condemns; he wants us to understand how the participants ended up doing what they did. He wants to leave behind a true record of what happened.

The last visual image in the film is a brief clip from news footage of a JAL jet being blown up on an airport tarmac at the end of a hijacking. It’s hard to know how we’re supposed to take this. Should we revel in the visceral excitement of the explosion footage? Or is it a meditation on the ultimate nihilism of violence as political means? Does it signal victory or defeat? Again, the answer seems to be: jitsuroku. It is what it is.

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