The West sees the turbulent era of the late 1960s and early ’70s principally through the lens of its own protesters and radicals, with America’s war in Vietnam the focal point of activist anger. If it thinks about East Asia in this period at all, it is usually the China of Mao and the Red Guards, who became inspirations for the Weathermen and other Western radical groups.

But as Koji Wakamatsu’s docudrama “Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi (United Red Army — The Path to Asama Mountain Lodge)” reminds us, Japan had its own hardcore student radicals, who moved beyond peaceful protest to outright terrorism, while conducting bloody internal purges. The Japanese Red Army (Nihon Sekigun), founded in 1971, became the most notorious of these radical groups for terrorist acts that continued for nearly two decades. Their exploits included hijacking airplanes, attacking embassies, bombing buildings and killing 26 victims and injuring 80 more at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv in May 1972. In Japan they first became widely known when five members took a hostage at the Asama Mountain Lodge in the Karuizawa resort area north of Tokyo in February 1972 and fought a pitched gunbattle with police.

Wakamatsu, a gangster-turned- filmmaker who pioneered the “pink” (soft-core erotic) genre in the early 1960s and baited the censors with his cinematic outrages, not only befriended members of the group but joined them in Palestine as a “trainee,” an experience that resulted in the 1971 film “Sekigun/PFLP — Sekai Senso Sengen (Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War).” These and other contacts with the Red Army have made Wakamatsu a target of investigation by Japanese authorities, as well as an “undesirable alien” to the U.S. State Department.

But whatever his past or current political views (he now claims he is neither on the left nor right), Wakamatsu takes a rigorously distanced stance in “Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun,” which had its international premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. While firmly believing, as he told The Japan Times at an interview in his Shinjuku office, that “only I could have made this film,” he indulges in no special pleading for his former comrades. He refuses, in fact, to editorialize at all.

What he does do, with great meticulousness, using documentary materials and dramatic re-creations, is trace the origin and rise of the group, beginning with the emergence of student activism in opposition to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, signed in 1960, and the Japanese government’s support of the United States in the Vietnam War.

“I wanted to show the youths of today why such things happened, like passing on stories of war,” Wakamatsu said. “Whether the actions are judged good or bad is up to each individual viewer. I didn’t take sides in the movie. I just documented the paths the (radicals) followed. The rest is up to the audience.”

Dramatically, the film truly gets underway in its second hour, after two radical groups merge in July 1971 to form the Rengo Sekigun (United Red Army), a group dedicated to violent revolution by any means necessary. In 1972 the group took to Japan’s Southern Alps for intensive training and indoctrination. The remote, idyllic setting certainly didn’t induce peace and harmony. Instead, the group’s rigidly dogmatic leader, Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki), and his manically loyal second-in-command Hiroko Nagata (Akie Namiki) mercilessly rooted out “antirevolutionary elements” whose zeal for the cause was not sufficiently pure and absolute, and they forced them to “self confess” their sins of intellect, attitude and character.

This was a common modus operandi for the extreme left of the period, including the Chinese Red Guards, but Mori, Nagata and their allies give a uniquely Japanese spin to their inquisitions, beginning with brow-beating their victims about minor offenses against group wa (harmony or conformity). One, the cute, naive Mieko Toyama (Maki Sakai), is pilloried by the obviously envious Nagata for her good looks and “coquettish behavior” (i.e., being popular with boys). But this routine ijime (bullying) soon escalates to mass beatings, starvation, exposure and, finally, the death of 12 radicals, while others run down the mountain to escape their coming “confessions.”

In filming these episodes, Wakamatsu takes a straight-ahead approach whose stark objectivity and blunt factuality (when the victims die, their names and ages appear on the screen) amplifies the horror.

As their numbers thin and the police close in, the radicals split into two groups and escape. One group is soon rounded up, while the other, consisting of five men, find refuge in an isolated mountain lodge called the Asama Sanso (Asama Mountain Lodge) and take its proprietress hostage. Soon, hundreds of police surround them and urge them to surrender, but their response is rifle fire, precipitating a 10-day standoff watched on television by the entire country. Finally, after two policemen are killed and 23 wounded, the police break into the villa and arrest the radicals.

“From the time the actual incident took place, I wanted to make a film about it,” Wakamatsu said. “But it was going to be a lot of effort and I was always hearing rumors about other directors wanting to make similar films. If someone else had made a film that convinced me, there would have been no need for me to make one. But the ones I’ve seen (about the incident) were very different from what I had in mind. So I felt a need to make this film and communicate the truth.”

Among movies taking the Sekigun and the events of 1972 as their subjects are Banmei Takahashi’s 2001 film “Hikari no Ame (Rain of Light),” which focuses rather theatrically, if powerfully, on the torture deaths, and Masato Harada’s 2002 movie “Totsunyuseyo! Asama Sanso Jiken (Choice of Hercules),” a commercial film that takes the viewpoint of the cops in the Asama siege — and according to Wakamatsu, is “full of lies.” His own film, he says, is “about 90 percent true.”

“I have re-created past events in the present, so to some extent there are fictional elements,” he explained.

“The situation inside the Asama wasn’t known — nobody wrote about it,” Wakamatsu added. “Of those on the outside, only me and (director, script writer and ex-Japanese Red Army member) Masao Adachi knew.” Eight years ago Wakamatsu met Kunio Bando, the only one of the five United Red Army members involved in the siege still at large, in a forest in rural Japan. “He said they fought until the very end as a moral duty toward those who died from the purges,” Wakamatsu said. “Bando told me that everyone had pledged to fight to the end. They had committed the sin of purge killings and to make amends, (they) felt they had to fight against authority, even if they had to die.”

The dramatic end of the siege, with millions watching the police break-in on live television, also marked a turning point for student radicalism in Japan. “(Masaharu) Gotoda (chief of the National Policy Agency) was a smart man,” reflected Wakamatsu. “He showed Japanese people the (events at) Asama for 10 days without rest, while characterizing the (United Red Army members) inside as terrorists. After the Asama Sanso incident, student movements in Japan quickly lost steam.”

Now 71, Wakamatsu is at an age when most directors are mellowing out, winding down or just plain giving up. He has no plans to retire, however. “I don’t have much longer,” says the filmmaker, who has a fought a long, and so-far successful battle with lung cancer. “I don’t know how much time I have left, so I want to shoot as many films as possible now. I’d like to shoot a normal movie next time (laughs). But I don’t think any film I’m part of will end up normal.”

Wakamatsu won’t be returning to pink films, the genre in which he created the most celebrated of his films. “Pink films should be guerrilla movies,” he explained. “They should be a hidden thing. I quit pink movies because they started to become known and everyone started to praise them. They were no longer guerrilla movies. Being a guerrilla means fighting the government with a small number of people. I’m not a Che Guevara or Fidel Castro, or anything like that, but it’s no longer fun or interesting when everyone is praising that sort of thing and bringing it out into the open.”

He also doesn’t see any successors among the younger generation to his brand of antiestablishment cinema. “I survived as a director for 40-some years because I managed to slip in my own politics and anger while borrowing the label ‘pink movie,’ ” he said. “But now everybody seems to have forgotten how to be angry. Their stomachs are too full (laughs). A country that’s striving hard to develop tends to produce good movies. A developed country doesn’t. Japan and America have nothing left to strive for, so they don’t make good movies any more.”

“Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun: Asama Sanso e no Michi (United Red Army — The Path to Asama Mountain Lodge)” is screening at Theater Shinjuku in Tokyo and Cinema Skhole in Nagoya. It will open around the nation through May.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.