Wakamatsu Kôji’s United Red Army - the Path to Asama Mountain Lodge was the the final installment of the “films that got away” at this year’s LA Film Festival. Its Japanese premiere was in Yufuin back in 2007 and it has since played to great acclaim in Berlin, London and Turin, finally making its way to the US last night.

The film divides roughly into three sections across its three-hour running time and culminates in the infamous 1972 mountain lodge siege, the last stand refuge of five members of the radical leftist student group, the United Red Army. A title announces at the start that the film is factual, but with fictional elements interposed, and it begins with a dizzying documentary recap of radical student action from 1960 to 1971, comprised of newsreel footage, statistics of actions and arrests, and a frankly bewildering number of name and age captions for the actors and actresses who gradually pop up. From the humble beginnings of objections to raised tuition fees the various student groups combine, divide, get bitten by the bug of communism, fight amongst themselves, hijack aeroplanes, train in Palestine and eventually two of the paramilitary factions join forces to become the United Red Army.

The group retreated to a base in the mountains at the start of 1971 ostensibly for military training. But here in the second part of the film, in an isolated, claustrophobic cabin, we are witness to the terrible face of ideological fanaticism as the standard practice of self-critique is taken to extremes.  Rather than fighting the war on the outside, the Army’s attention turns itself inward as the intimidating and unflinching leader Mori Tsuneo and his homunculus 2IC Nagata Hiroko pick on one member after another, and the quest for ideological purity becomes a purge: the first individuals are tied, beaten and left outside to die of exposure, and the later ones simply executed. So powerful is the sway of the leadership and the intensity of the revolutionary ideal that one young woman is induced to beat her own face to a bloody pulp. There’s no doubt that Mori’s demented zeal is in part due to shame over his desertion of a group operation in the late ’60s, before begging to be readmitted; and evil-eyed Nagata seems to relish her power no more than when jealously needling one of the attractive young women and effectively sentencing her to death. We see all of the twelve victims meet their end, each commemorated with a caption of name and age (all in their early twenties) and the whole extended sequence is frightful; and if the fundamental roots of how the striving for ideological purity can become so twisted are not investigated, the path it takes to this sort of insanity is at least laid clearly and horribly before us.

With the police closing in, the remainder of the group splits and disperses. The leaders are picked up and most of the others arrested, but five pursued men make their way through the snowy mountains to a ski-ing lodge, where they hole up with the inn-keeper’s wife while the police surround them. It has the tragic air of a last stand, as they prepare to fight and die for the memory their murdered comrades. As in the secret retreat, we are kept entirely inside the lodge, hearing only voices from outside, and experiencing the impressively disorienting water and smoke attacks with the subjectivity of the radicals. As it turned out, after ten days the five were taken alive and the film closes with a textual wrap-up of Japanese radical activity since then, beginning with Mori’s suicide in jail and culminating in the self-immolation of a former member in 2001 in protestation over the treatment of Palestine. It is an incisive reminder that if what we have just seen is history, the commitment of the protagonists has a directly traceable relevance and importance to present-day international politics.

Wakamatsu’s film was a project close to his own heart. He had affiliations with the radical left in the sixties, even joining the Red Army for training in Palestine which resulted in his making a film about them and the PFLP in 1971 (his 100-strong filmography consists otherwise, and rather bizarrely, of “pink” movies ie underground soft-core porn). He mortgaged his home to make it, and used and destroyed his own house for the finale. But the viewpoint here for the most part is detached and objective: the first third is almost pure documentary, with brief re-stagings of meetings, and the second third is unflinchingly detached, a cold eye the only way to try and comprehend the insane spiral of zealotry, with no excuses made. Allowing us no view of the outside, the third section encourages closer identification with the radicals, but on a more humanistic than political level as, isolated in the lodge, their political ideals become more abstract than ever: Nixon is shaking hands in China; fear and futility reign; the eating of a cookie can become anti-revolutionary; and the only remaining action in which meaning can be found is resistance on principle. It’s on this more subjective ground that Wakamatsu makes his only false move, as a pleadingly plaintive song lyric plays under a moment of emotional desperation; otherwise the score by Jim O’Rourke is impressively low-key, chugging urgently along to the first section’s barrage of information and elsewhere underscoring with a distant guitar reminiscent of Neil Young’s Dead Man. For the rest, the film is note perfect: long and involved to be sure, harrowing in places and too dense for the casual viewer, but a ultimately an important and heartfelt bearing of witness.

rating: 8.21

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image: subway