United Red Army

Pinku veteran Koji Wakamatsu’s three-hour film feels a bit like a throwback, and not just because it drops us into the frenzy of Japan’s student protests in the Sixties. Fusing together documentary footage and tense dramatization, Wakamatsu has produced the kind of heterogeneous cinematic object that doesn’t usually get released in the U.S. unless it takes place in the Thai jungle.

Part one of United Red Army marches along with a double-time primer on the decade’s student demonstrations and occupations, from protests against the ANPO treaty and university fees all the way up to the radicalization of the movement and its internal divisions at the turn of the Seventies. Part two zeroes in on the Red Army Faction, whose members become split over how hard-line to be; the climax is the infamous televised mountain-lodge police siege, delivering a suitably theatrical end to the jaw-dropping actions of bona fide extremists. 

It’s a grueling experience all in all, and the events of the second half approach dark comedy in the logical absurdities of the group’s push for ideological rigor. The move from general chronicle to the story of the paranoid enforcement of cadre discipline points up the lonely spectacle of attempted revolution. Wakamatsu—who reportedly used his country house as the stand-in for the besieged lodge—doesn’t glorify the final stand, but he puts this history across with the uncompromising insistence of a nailed-up manifesto.