Wakamatsu takes time getting going because he needs to present the political context that makes the story plausible. Like similar groups around the world, the United Red Army (I'll spare you the details of its institutional evolution) arose from anti-imperialist anger against the American war in Vietnam, and from specific Japanese anger at their own government's complicity in the war. Like the Weather Underground, the URA was a fringe extracted from a mass movement through a commitment to "all-out war" against the establishment. They were the people presumably most frustrated at communist parties' failure to spark popular revolution or even seize power through a coup d'etat, and the most likely to take their frustration out on each other. The joie de vivre and solidarity of youthful idealistic radicalism curdles into holier-than-thou recrimination and an overpowering urge to see someone punished for everyone's sins.
One reason the first hour seems slow is because it takes a long time for our main cast to make the cut, so to speak, as early members are captured or killed by the authorities. It could be frustrating to see characters introduced who seem to be important, only to see them end up in jail or fleeing the country. One attractive woman seems set to be the primary character, only to depart for Lebanon; we learn later that she survived the decades to officially disband the URA in the 21st century. But this is all necessary to see how power ends up in the hands of a singularly unworthy individual by default. Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) is shown chickening out of an early action and exiling himself to a backwater town to be a labor organizer. He is forgiven and invited to rejoin as a common soldier because the rapidly-depleted revolutionary bands need manpower. As more leaders are caught, Mori rises to the top, where his presumably guilty conscience leads him to become a pitiless judge of everyone else's revolutionary inadequacies. He makes a point of saying that other people's records of actual activity or heroism won't count in the future. All that seems to matter, once the URA settles in for a Valley Forge-like winter in the mountains, is that revolutionary communists "self-criticize" at the drop of a hat.
If Mori or his eventual consort Hiroko Nagata (the austerely yet demonically beautiful Akie Namiki) isn't satisfied with the detail or sincerity of the self-critique, it's up to the whole URA to break down the recalcitrants' resistance by physically beating them down. At this point, in the arduous central act of the picture, the Army seems less like a revolutionary cell and more like a cult -- I'll leave it to the political philosophers to clarify the distinction. If you don't join in beating someone, you become suspect and subject to beatings. If you stupidly play along and confess to some personal ambition, Mori hypocritically labels you a "Stalinist" and has you put to death. More horrific yet than outright murder is the punishment meted out to Mieko Toyami (Maki Sakai), a good-natured, slightly frivolous revolutionary who's clearly out of her depth in military training. Her supposed vanity -- demonstrated by brushing her long hair -- provokes lethal hostility compounded by contempt in Nagata. When Toyami cluelessly confesses that she doesn't really understand what's required in a self-criticism, but is willing to do one because she wants to live, even that's the wrong answer. Wanting to live is counter-revolutionary. But the leaders accommodate her at first by allowing her to do a self-criticsm by dragging the body of a previous victim (all of whom, it must be understood, actually died of "defeatism") and digging a grave for it. It isn't enough; Nagata and Mori goad her into doing a true self-criticsm, without "help" from the rest of the gang, by beating her own face into a bloody pulp. In a moment of sadism, Nagata then mockingly puts a mirror in Toyami's face. Her face and hands ruined, Toyami is tied to a post and left to die deliriously despite Mori's command to shut the fuck up. In the end, history and the film tell us, the URA killed nearly half its own members, 12 out of 29, over the winter of 1971-2.
The final act begins with the URA's dispersal from winter quarters. Mori and Nagata manage to get captured, presumably without a fight, while another band makes a desperate march across a snowy mountain. Wakamatsu shows us the faces of all those killed as this band struggles on, as if to say that their comeuppance is imminent. Actually, it isn't. A handful of survivors invade a household and take a woman hostage, holding out for days against an eventual police siege. A break in the revolutionary tension finally comes when one idiot dares criticize another for taking an extra cookie from the confiscated stores. The guilty one has finally had enough of the insanity, protesting, "There's no such thing as an anti-revolutionary cookie." But the ultimate confession, perhaps the one real self-criticism in the group's history, comes as the band prepares for a last police attack. They start to talk about owing a brave sacrifice to all their lost comrades, as if they themselves, for never resisting Mori and Nagata, were not responsible for all those deaths. Finally, one of them breaks down and denounces the lot, including himself, for having been cowards all along. They are all taken alive. Mori found it in himself to commit suicide in 1973, while Nagata died in prison less than a year ago, after nearly forty years in captivity.
United Red Army can't help raising the old question of whether there's something inherently murderous about Marxism-Leninism, and parts of it could well be run on Fox News as proof for the proposition. But the film itself is a vindication of nothing. If anything, Wakamatsu appears to agree that the leftists were right in their original protests against imperialism. What happened afterward may be as much a question of cult dynamics as of ideology. In any event, to state the obvious, this sort of vanguardism is no substitute for a popular mass revolutionary movement, however necessary a vanguard may seem to be for the existence of such a movement. But enough of politics. If you can get past the dry docudrama newsreel-fueled opening, Wakamatsu's film becomes a powerful and often visually striking film that makes the most of locations including the director's own home. Heretofore, Wakamatsu has been more a cult than canon director in America, best know for sex-and-violence films like Go Go Second-Time Virgin. United Red Army represents a dramatic rise in stature in his mid-seventies, late in a long career. Like his peers in the failed-revolutionary genre, Wakamatsu has told a necessary tragedy, forcing our attention to a subject that requires the attention of intelligent, conscientious people. Whether you conclude that the URA's means discredit their ends, or that the idea is still good but desperately requires different means, United Red Army is one of a class of movies that might be considered objectively indispensible.