As films were mined each week for Occupy Nowhere, two camps emerged from within the loose genre framework that the column intended to elucidate. It became relatively consistent that for characters that deliberately and knowingly occupied a particular nowhere, the act was one of diversion and avoidance (The Woman With Red Hair) of the greater tides of change. These tales tend toward incongruities of personal growth (Young Adam) and err on the side of defeatism. However, for films in which exile is forced (The Skin I Live In, Woman in the Dunes, Pleasantville), a more substantive course is undertaken. Individuals in the latter camp prove themselves industrious, inventive, and introspective. Certainly, this genre split is imperfect, with the example of Matthew of The Dreamers who is invited into exile and evolves within that shared seclusion where his counterparts Theo and Isa do not. What the draw suggests is that imprisonment foments reactivity and adaptation. Survival instincts streamline human ingenuity, ferocity, and also patience, therefore the more engaged exile is the one who finds themself occupying nowhere (World On A Wire), not the one who decides to.
Though both camps of films are uniquely existential, the result of diversion tends to somatic or bodily (The Dreamers, Young Adam), and where imprisonment is the mandate, the result is something more cerebral. Like The Skin I Live In, which uses sexual reassignment as the material for one man’s undoing and another’s existential evolution, Director/Writer Koji Wakamatsu’s incendiary sociopolitical drama United Red Army inhabits a middle-ground (a nowhere even within the Occupy Nowhere dichotomy) where its matters of deliberate seclusion by radical communist youth in “military camps” yields both an intensely cerebral and deeply somatic product, fusing the connection between physicality and the phenomenon of ideology. URA creates a new paradigm of nowhere, in which nowhere is occupied deliberately, not as a diversion from the tides of change, rather a preparation for them.
United Red Army (URA) is a film I never thought I’d see twice, much less theatrically, but this is exactly what has happened. URA screened at the NY Japan Society in 2008 and quite recently in Washington DC’s Freer Gallery (which boasts excellent free film screenings). Much to this reviewer’s surprise, URA is even receiving a US DVD edition on January 17th from Kino/Lorber. Wakamatsu, who has been making films since the events of URA took place, is no stranger to the unsavory dimensions of the human psyche or to the left-wing political wildfire that lapped Japan’s mid century. He is remarkably unflinching and unsparing in his vision, so much so that in the two years that lapsed between viewings, precious little detail had been swiped from memory, and all the stains of its rigor were in tact.
A perfect candidate for Occupy Nowhere, this three-hour three-act epic is an expository docu-drama about the uniquely radical politics of protest in 1960’s-70’s Japan. Analogous to numerous student uprisings the world over – which the film draws its own connections to - Japan too was creaking and moaning as it grappled with post war reshaping, but these growing pains escalated to a violence unseen anywhere else.
Wakamatsu takes on a reductive strategy with URA. Act one is a quickstep expositional history lesson aided by narration and archival material spliced with dramatization. It sweeps through the constellation of names entwined in the complicated causality that birthed with the National Student League in the mid 60’s, through the formation of the Red Army Faction from several radical sub-groups, and ends with the violent implosion of the United Red Army altogether in the early 70’s. Emerging from the tangled timeline, act two plunges into the radicalization, politicization and militarization of leftist student groups and their consolidation into the United Red Army’s now infamous training camps, with a turn towards visceral dramatization. Act three quarantines the characters and audience even further as it hurtles towards an action-thriller climax with URA members on the run from the police.
As per the second act, in an effort to ready themselves for the inevitable “all out war” that would decide the socio-political fate of Japan and the world, the United Red Army assembles in two isolated woodland camps to commence self-directed military training after unifying under the URA banner. The intent of occupying this nowhere is to sew bonds of friendship, instill the warrior instinct, and clarify the language of their political ideology. In camp is where the ultimately dismantling practice of self-critique, in which individuals are obliged to appraise and dissect their own “ability to be a communist,” takes its grip. In some form, self-critique could have been a helpful ritual of assessing ones actions and their impact on the cohesion and success of the URA’s movement, instead it becomes a stage to “thin the herd” of the weak hearted. The megalomaniacal leaders of these camps drive what becomes a cyclical degradation of purpose and functionality through the redundant practice of self-critique. The impending “all out war” that is the ultimate intent seems impossibly distant, and the camps turn on their own proponents.
Act two of URA bears all the fundamentalist finger-pointing shades of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, in which any infraction, misstep, or objection is put under the microscope of a scrutiny that can never satisfied to the contrary, where the worst is drawn out of people and a grand potential for broadly scaled change is squandered. Petty motivations lead to victimization, and the demand for self-critique becomes a weapon. The critical point of abstraction occurs when self-critique exteriorizes to include the other members of the camp; meaning that, in the communist spirit of universality, the group becomes an extension of the individual, and is expected to critique with their fists. In that sense, all critique is self-critique, no matter where directed. This trend, which in a sense absolves anyone’s culpability through metaphor, escalates to the degree of “death sentences,” handed out by the titular leader. The intensely physical and psychological act-two stretches itself well past the point of the audience “getting it,” and rightly so. The confounding, enraging, and seemingly fruitless practice of self-critique is made as grueling and seemingly endless as possible to simulate the inescapable horror that it was for those encamped. Thankfully it breaks.
Act three is an even further distillation of filmmaking, and takes place as the remaining URA members of the training sessions are chased down by the police to the Asama Mountain Lodge (the director’s own lodge is used and destroyed in the film), knee deep in snow, forced to occupy yet another nowhere. However, this nowhere, like the Occupations on City Hall and Wall Street, is in plain sight, televised across Japan. These final members take the lodgekeeper hostage for 10 days as they are pushed to the brink of their own ideology, to the basest most modes of survival, and confront their ultimate failures as activists and as human beings. This final primal stretch of URA - a futile struggle helmed by cornered wolves raging against the dissolution of their newly consolidated form before any real war could be waged, before any change could be affected through direct action - is a confused barrage of attacks and counter attacks, told entirely from the frenetic perspective of the entrenched URA members. Wakamatsu, in the reductive end to his earnest, even, and ever-refining film keeps the audience cloistered in the lodge, as confused and confined as the trapped URA men, left to grapple with defeat and guilt in nowhere.