Somehow it is only the cinema of duration, of dragging out the minutes and the tedium for those in the film as well as those in the audience, that can evoke a particular sense of dismay, catastrophe in-progress, and, eventually, wherewithal. In a spirit of sustained mood and obsession similar to that of Satantango and Out: 1, longer movies that don’t feel much longer, Wakamatsu Koji’s United Red Army picks its moment—the mountain retreats and eventual cabin siege of the eponymous Japanese radical militant leftist student group in the winter of ‘71/’72—and hits the same notes, the same brutal actions again and again, with tremendous results.
Bookended by an encyclopedia’s worth of archive footage, title cards, dates, events, and names, the film sets the rigor and tone of the students’ intensified isolation and political self-cleansing with a historical background as extensive and detailed as Wakamatsu’s eventual—and total—submergence into cabin-fevered radicalism in the throes of creative self-destruction.
In the spirit of Japan’s teeming protest movements coming out of World War 2, the atomic bombs, and Japan’s security arrangements with the United States, the film catalogs the varied splintered militant student organizations and their scattered trials and tribulations until they reach the singular point of the creation of the United Red Army. Fleeing to remote mountain cabins as much for paramilitary training as to escape the authoritative, centralized power of the conservative government, the two main leaders of the group—one male and one female—use the isolation and cramped quarters to consolidate their limited power, liquidate weak elements in the organization, and force the rest to go through endless—and endlessly vague—self-critique and ideological cleansing exercises. The process starts off as reflection and physical labor, but soon turns far more sinister and bloodthirsty as the winter wears on, requiring those confused by the specifics of “self-critique” (as everyone but the leaders are) to be beaten into communist consciousness.
Echoes of the claustrophobia and utter frustration of confinement, impossible new ideas, limited futures, and little action from Wakamatsu’s 1964 Secrets Behind the Wall are all over this film. But the extremity of such feelings is much, much higher: we see little constructive discussion or study, and instead see only the winter nights, endless trials of baffled confessions and weepy beatings. Such a tight focus on the fruitlessness of the militants’ ideologically-driven lives climaxes during the stunning siege of the final act. It is a forlorn sequence that shears away the insanity of the mountain retreats and almost succeeds in purifying the action and intentions of the group into something positive, capturing a feeling of close to a day-to-day real-time treatment of the experience of those stuck in the cabin with the police outside.
The determination and resilience of these livid, dedicated students the film surprisingly honors, even as it tragically stages their desperate, self-destructing brutality, social impotence, and inhumanity. Wakamatsu’s gripping docu-drama uses its techniques of duration and repetition well to create the atmosphere of a time when youths were feverishly desirous for political and social change, yet also fundamentally crippled in their understanding of human beings on an individual level.