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By Christoph Huber
“It is something new that is always old; something old that is always new.”—Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Eternity Through the Stars (1872)
Undeniably, there is some poetic justice to the fact that United Red Army, Wakamatsu Koji’s monumental chronicle of the excited emergence and devastating disintegration of Japan’s ultra-left movement, towered head and shoulders above this year’s pimply Berlinale edition. After all, it was 43 years ago at the Berlin film festival that Wakamatsu’s career kicked into high gear. The commotion following the selection of his pink picture Secrets Behind the Wall (1965) for Competition allowed Wakamatsu to take matters into his own hands: His sudden fame/infamy led to the founding of Wakamatsu Productions, which gave this prolific giant of Japanese cinema (United Red Army is—at least!—his 100th film) the freedom he needed. Although he was not above work for hire, in between he realized touchingly personal, increasingly furious, and radical—both in style and politics—dispatches from the spiritual wasteland beneath Japan’s veneer of economic-miracle-sheen, films about the violent insurrection against society’s hypocrisy. Sex and violence remained (not just) genre necessities for the productions of this failed yakuza (and former confectioner) turned revolutionary-filmmaker; anger and anarchy were the driving forces. Controversy was common, and not only as a reaction of reactionaries: Consult your copy of Amos Vogel’s Film as Subversive Art for more-than-ambivalent-accounts.
The controversial selection of Secrets Behind the Wall for Competition may seem incredible in retrospect; it was, unsurprisingly, the outcome of a series of coincidences. Japan’s official submissions—including the Masumura Yasuzo masterpiece Hoodlum Soldier (1965)—had been turned down, but the festival still wished to represent the country, and be it with something “flawed, yet interesting” rather than “conventional mediocrity.” In Japan the preference of a disreputable pinku eiga sex film was considered a “national disgrace” and even caused what is politely called “a diplomatic incident.” Yet for all the misguided negative reviews Wakamatsu’s “scandalous” work inevitably drew in the (German) press, at least there was a willingness to challenge and be challenged. Today, it is inconceivable that something like United Red Army could grace an emasculated Competition, one that strives for the very conventional mediocrity once disdained. Rather, it was shown in the Forum, and laudably accompanied by three earlier Wakamatsu works: of course, the coup d’éclat of yore, plus the two major films also out on western DVD, Go Go Second Time Virgin (1969) and Ecstasy of the Angels (1972). Still, it ostensibly helped with the rediscovery of a neglected master, even as those inevitable (and misguided) Godard comparisons trickled in, a Pavlovian reflex caused by anything somewhat elliptically conceived and politically themed from the era. (As Wakamatsu himself says, the influence is all but indirect: “When I saw Breathless I realized you can really have freedom making films, you do not need rules or grammar. Which is how I worked. So it was rather the mental attitude than any filmic impact.”) And given how Wakamatsu’s comeback film, Cycling Chronicles: Landscapes the Boy Saw (2004), was mostly ignored on (and off) the festival circuit, it sure is gratifying that United Red Army drew positive notices even from decidedly middlebrow publications (the competition wasteland obviously proving intolerable even for the mainstream it imagines to condescend to). Quite ironic, too, in comparison to earlier, agitated, and shocked responses to Wakamatsu’s work. Even more ironic is the quite unenthusiastic response of the director, ever the (god bless him) contrarian: “When I see now how people react to my new movie about the United Red Army, where everybody just finds it ‘interesting,’ I must admit feeling disappointed.”
“All the atrocities of the victor, its long series of crimes are coldly transformed into a regular, inescapable evolution, like that of nature.”—Louis-Auguste Blanqui,Notes on Positivism (1869)
Indeed, “interesting” seems a diminutive description for Wakamatsu’s meticulous, gripping, and intermittently grueling 190-minute docudrama that doubles as a summation of his career and a stocktaking of his life. The fact that he shot the notorious Asama-Sansô incident—the ten-day siege of the surviving United Red Army members by the police in February 1972 that serves as the film’s culmination—in his own country house, and even destroyed it for the sake of the final battle, takes on symbolic weight from this perspective. But United Red Army was also conceived in part as a rebuttal to recent, biased portrayals of the event, most notably Harada Masato’s big-budget action-thriller The Choice of Hercules (2002), based on the memoir of the high-ranking security officer in charge of the siege. “What he shows is completely wrong. It’s a hymn to the cops, who pushed those kids to go as far as they did,” says Wakamatsu, and certainly his astonishingly factual film’s original title spells out the self-avowed mission—Jitsuroku rengô sekigun: Asama sansô e no michi, which roughly translates as “The True Story of the United Red Army: The Way to the Ski Lodge on Asama.” What’s more, whereas Harada’s film exclusively privileges the point of view of the police, Wakamatsu steadfastly holds on to the perspective of the radicals, according to his credo: “A true filmmaker doesn’t make films from the point of view of those in power. To me that’s a fundamental rule: you have to make films from the perspective of the weak. Take Kurosawa Akira, for instance: His films were always about the downtrodden.”
But United Red Army also feels foremost directed at a present, in which most young people are apolitical (then again, the former activists of the ‘60s—“almost all from well-off, middle-class families,” notes Wakamatsu. “When you’re poor you’re too busy worrying about surviving“—are part of today’s establishment). Which gives the conviction of the film’s opening shot a tinge of anger and despair: As the group marches through the snow towards Asama, an intertitle proudly proclaims: “Once, armed youth cried for revolution.” Just as Wakamatsu then flashes back to 1960 to recount the origins of the movement, it makes sense to look back at his career for a bit of context.
“Aristocracy by birth was abolished in July 1830. It was replaced by the aristocracy of money, which is every bit as voracious as the preceding one…In the name of the republic, I swear eternal hatred to all kings, all aristocrats, to all of humanity’s oppressors. I swear absolute devotion to the people; fraternity to all men, aside from aristocrats; I swear to punish traitors; I promise to give my life, to go to the scaffold, if this sacrifice is necessary to bring about the reign of popular sovereignty and equality.“—Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Reception Procedure of the Society of the Seasons (1830)
Although he had made quite a few features since his 1963 debut, Wakamatsu (born in 1936 as Ito Takashi), it really was the affair around Secrets Behind Walls that transformed the pinku eiga godfather from routine director to agit-pop-sexploitation artist: the film belongs to an artistic protest movement that tried to deal with the political apathy after the left’s defeat in opposing the US-Japanese Security Treaty (at home known as anpo—or ampo, depending on spelling issues), a spiritual and ideological void further increased by the capitalist bustle around the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad. Using actors of the Kyoto University Theatre Group (who had played in Oshima Nagisa’s 1960 student-movement self-inquiry Night and Fog in Japan) and abusing iconic images for shock value—a Hiroshima victim has sex underneath a Stalin portrait—Wakamatsu addressed the isolation, obsession, and wounds inflicted on the inhabitants of a conformist high-rise-world. It ends in death, like most of his films—in a wry explanation for the repetitive nature of his titles, Wakamatsu has pointed out that his basic theme remains the same: “The fight against authoritarianism, the individual hate and revenge against authority and repression, which explode in lust and violence.”
As in Go, Go Second Time Virgin, whose sparse (65-minute) account of a rooftop meeting between girl (who keeps getting raped) and boy (who massacred his parents and swinger friends) conjures an eternity of despair. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” warbles a chanteuse on the excellent soundtrack (a specialty of Wakamatsu, who has consistently worked with progressive musicians, especially jazz), and neither philosophizing about their fears and pain nor killing his abusers brings redemption, just like the wind visibly churning up their hair never registers as a cool breeze: The black-and-white ‘Scope frame is one blistering, scorching hell. Neither the headlong rush of a handheld camera swoop down to the cellar nor the repeated lightning flash of (preferably bloody) colour photography can ameliorate the claustrophobia paradoxically reigning supreme over the open area (a recurring Wakamatsu motif, which he attributes to his claustrophobic tendencies, but—see below—is much more complex theoretically). It’s part of the director’s perverse dialectics, like the mixture of detached nihilism and doomed romanticism that accompanies the young couple on their way to a deadly plunge. In the end, only the way their bodies lie in the street, seen from high up, has unsettling grace.
Go, Go was written by Adachi Masao (as Deguchi Izuru, a regular pseudonym at Wakamatsu Productions), an important collaborator and a remarkable theoretician and director in his own right. Adachi was co-developer of the crucial “landscape theory” (fûkeiron) in Japanese film, which emphasized not, as usual, situations, but landscape itself as expression of political and economical power relations. Oshima’s strangely depopulated Tokyo in The Man Who Left His Will On Film (1970), but especially A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969), a film co-directed by Adachi that retraces the life stations of an underage murderer as a series of landscape shots, are important expressions. Wakamatsu’s work is clearly related: Cycling Chronicles similarly follows a matricidal youth biking across Japan, the nature vistas interspersed with defiant memories (of a Korean comfort women or a soldier recounting war crimes)—a landscape of resistance.
More infamously, Adachi became a member of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), about which he and Wakamatsu made the landscape-theory-fuelled agitprop piece PFLP—Red Army: Declaration of World War (1971) when they stopped in Beirut on the way home from Cannes. Before Adachi returned to Lebanon to join the fight, he penned (again as Deguchi) Ecstasy of the Angels, whose allegorical portrayal of armed struggle in the streets of Tokyo took on a visionary air, as the very police station bombed in Wakamatsu’s fiction got attacked for real a few days before the premiere—which took place 12 days after the Asama-Sansô incident.
Remarkably, even the structure of Ecstasy of the Angels predicts United Red Army, giving a whole new notion to the idea of a remake after the fact(s): Opening and closing sections fulfill—kind of—duties of exposition and action finale, but in both cases the decidedly longer middle section is devoted to internal struggle, as paranoia and power plays between various splinter groups of the militant ultra-leftists take over. In Angels, the alienation and persecution complexes are intensified by Adachi ingeniously borrowing a strategy from the French Marxist revolutionary thinker Louis-Auguste Blanqui. The members of the cell stay anonymous by using days or months instead of names, which often adds an absurd twang to the dialogue—a prime example of the kind of surrealist touches that give Wakamutsu’s work an extra edge. (The lyrics of the opening song, performed in a curiously vacant nightclub, are another: “The crying swallow flies at dawn/the sun’s radiance is also very sad/even the sound of the wind/pierces a stony heart.”) Nevertheless, the film also proves how the director is as capable of subtle touches as he is of flamboyant ones: the nervy sound of a doorbell repeatedly and perfectly captures or heightens paranoia, since it preceded a violent raid by another radical fraction the first time around. On the other hand, there are agit-excesses like joyful cries—often during sex—along the lines of “Smash! Smash! Destroy it all!” and inter-terrorist come-ons like “We wipe our own ass!” Not to mention the explosive bit near the end in front of Mount Fuji, one of the scenes intensified remarkably by sudden, eye-popping intrusions of colour.
Whereas Wakamatsu had wanted to shoot Go, Go completely in colour, but could only use bits of colour stock because of budgetary constraints, by now he had perfected the technique of mixing formats: The delirious rush of different dyes near the end has a perplexing centre in the shining blue eyes (and visions) of a man blinded during battles without honour and humanity. By then Wakamatsu clearly was a master of that Asian specialty of working fast and a lot without losing inspiration—although in a 1976 interview he amusingly admitted that “these days” he prefers the more relaxed approach of not making “more than four or five films a year.” This was also the time of his best known credit in most Western circles: Mostly as a gesture of friendship towards Oshima he helped produce In the Realm of the Senses (1976), whose subject matter he had repeatedly considered filming himself—ending with Abe Sada being transported through time after castrating her lover right into Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
“This is how one perishes through absurdity!”—Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Manual for an Armed Insurrection (1866)
Whereas Angels intermittently delivers self-criticism of Blanquism, United Red Army observes how the procedure escalates into self-destruction. Before, there is an amazing act of compression: In 45 minutes of archive material, abetted by Jim O’Rourke’s propulsive score, Wakamatsu gives an overview of the student movement’s post-anpo formation and radicalization. The attention to historical detail is impressive (even as those already challenged by Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate recently may fully despair), the calmly expanding, lyrical introduction of the main characters via recreated vignettes announces the poetic nature of the project, like its little idiosyncratic liberties. As the disclaimer vouches, “The events portrayed in this film are all true—but some fiction has been added.” Occasional uses of slow motion, fades, and superimpositions prepare for that Wakamatsu blend of the hallucinatory and claustrophobic that will reign supreme over the harrowing middle section, in which the newly formed United Red Army (the movement’s name piercing the screen in huge red-on-black letters) erects the landscape of its own agony: a shack in which excesses of Maoist “self-critique” caused the death of 12 out of 29 members (another two had been executed right before). Rare, and thus all the more striking shots of the tranquil, autumnal nature outside serve as brief respite from the escalating madness: an orgy of sealed-off self-destruction, which is staged by Wakamatsu at the height of his powers as metteur-en-scène in an apotheosis of his blocking strategy to arrange the characters in a way that seemingly emphasizes depth, but actually calls attention to the constriction of space. Combined with another diabolically dialectic characteristic of his compositions—alternately isolating the players or herding them into groups to intensely oppressive effect—the cumulative power is overwhelming. Not least because the accompanying reasoning for the supposed purification so quickly devolves into tragic absurdity. How else, when in the beginning it is announced that, in demanding critique, “We have to make them lose consciousness.”
Proto-Stalinist power struggles and petty prejudices—“Why did you put on make-up this morning?”—give way to something like suicidal mass hypnosis as the death toll rises through starvation (chalked up to as “bringing on one’s own death through defeat”) and, ultimately, executions. “Even in death she is anti-revolutionary,” is the verdict on one, who is buried by a friend, deferentially asking for more trials. Upon which, in the most painful and staggering set-piece, she sets about methodically beating her face to a pulp for minutes on end. “Now take a good look at yourself,” the leaders say, handing her a mirror, and as she starts crying—first seen as reflection, then “for real”—the perverse failure of the whole project sinking in, to shocking effect: These young people were probably right, but they fucked it all up. As the lines chronicling each death—all in their early to mid-20s—pile up to O’Rourke’s plaintive music, the sense of waste that underlies Wakamatsu’s radical visions becomes overpowering.
“The grenade, which people have the bad habit of calling a bomb, is generally secondary, and subject besides to a mass of disadvantages. It consumes a lot of powder for little effect, is very dangerous to handle, has no range and can only be used from windows. Paving stones do almost as much harm but are not so expensive. The workers do not have money to waste.”—Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Manual for an Armed Insurrection (1866)
The last 45 minutes, detailing the flight to and fight at the Asama lodge, are an exemplary bit of action direction, an expertly augmented exercise in disorientation, culminating in swaths of smoke, blinding white light and wanton destruction, as the police overwhelm the revolutionaries. Although some of the warped self-laceration continues—in particular the prolonged debate about the anti-revolutionary cookie (next to which Daniel Day-Lewis’ milkshake drainage surely is second in anticapitalist food metaphor) which yields the unforgettable line in the face of death, “I criticize myself for eating snacks during duty!”—Wakamatsu rather emphasizes the bond, the humanity (which includes the delusions) and the tragic remove of the five survivors, this time underscored by O’Rourke with an emphatic pop anthem. “Whatever happened to anti-American patriotism?” one radical asks incredulously, staring at the TV, their only connection to the outside world.
But there is also the coda, in which—again, like in Angels—a big explosion serves as a reminder of the movement’s traces in history. It is followed by detailed accounts of the members’ fates, and staying true to his understanding, yet critical approach, Wakamatsu does not fail to imbue it with a just sadness. A lack of courage may be the diagnosis of the last line of dialogue (“What I need now is true courage”), although the last lines of text, laconically devastating, denote this fate: “2002 Mar 30: Former JRA member Takao Himori protests Israel’s slaughter of Palestine civilians. Pleading for freedom of Palestinian children, he self-immolates in Tokyo’s Hibina Park.” The End.
And then there is former Palestinian fighter Adachi, arrested 1997 in Beirut, brought back to Japan and, after serving imprisonment, now a filmmaker again (the material he kept shooting in the 35 years in between in Lebanon is lost). Premiered in Rotterdam, his film The Prisoner/Terrorist, inspired by the story of JRA member Okamoto Kozo, is about the spiritual and physical prison tortures of a terrorist who survived a suicide attack—his hand grenade malfunctions. Not only does The Prisoner/Terrorist feature a cameo by Wakamatsu (and a transcendental excursion into Blanqui’s eternity), but it’s a perfect companion piece to United Red Army, with a similar relevance for the present, as well as certain analogous shots: the hexagon of the Asama five mirrored by a compass rose of Adachi’s departing radicals; the fate of Adachi’s hero mirroring the “first revolutionary trial—the final leap” sequence in the finale of United Red Army, astonishing in its abstract address. For otherwise, Wakamatsu’s masterpiece is full of concrete facts and ambivalent, whereas Adachi’s is abstract and proudly unapologetic: indeed, the struggle never ends, only the willingness to contribute.