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A story about the rise and fall of United Red Army, a real life 70s short-lived Japanese armed revolutionary communist movement similar to more famous Red Brigades in Italy or Baader-Meinhof Group (a.k.a. Red Army Faction) in West Germany. Written by
Japan's infamous Red Army emerged from the tumultuous anti-Anpro demonstrations of the 50s and 60s. Anyone who has encountered Japan's current crop of apathetic, myopic undergraduates will be surprised to know just how active and radical their parents' generation were. Japan's present malaise seems to be a hangover from the excesses of those times, and Koji Wakamatsu sets out to chronicle in detail the worst of it, the events that led to the siege in a mountain lodge and a shoot out with police.
As much as the detailing for the historical cinematic record is the central concern, the film is also finely attuned to the depictions of a descent into collective madness. Idealists are taken in by demagogues as claustrophobia engenders paranoia and murderous intent. Maki Sakai as the ill-fated Toyama falls furthest, a naive college girl spouting creed she does not understand. Even before the darkness descends, she seems out of place. Go Jibiki is unfaltering as the relentless Mori, while Akie Namiki wears an evil stare that is positively unnerving. But it is perhaps unfair to single out certain performances in what is a collective triumph.
A three-hour-plus running time is gruelling at any time, and with a film that authentically serves up historical incidents that are difficult to stomach, it becomes a double punch. But there is something commanding about Wakamatsu's mise-en-scene, which along with the sublime performances, and hypnotic soundtrack, make one feel the viewing itself is a mission that must be completed.
As a record of an important episode in Japan's 20th century patchy flirtations with mass murder, the film is an outstanding triumph. As a representation of the chilling banality of evil, it is also shockingly plausible. The viewer is reminded of all manner of human failings, and of a singular triumph - the power of cinema to inform and edify. United Red Army is quite simply a masterpiece.
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