Sunday 15 February 2015

The Japanese Red Army (日本赤軍), Wakamatsu Kōji (若松孝二) & Adachi Masao (足立正生)

Shigenobu Fusako in the 1971 film and (in handcuffs) in 2000.
The decade of the 1970s began with an airplane hijacking (called the Yodogo incident) that elevated the Japanese Red Army from obscurity into front-page headlines; the film-makers Wakamatsu Kōji (若松孝二) and Adachi Masao (足立正生) attached an artistically-respectable "call to arms" to the movement's name soon thereafter.  The hijacking itself linked the Japanese Red Army to North Korea and Cuba, while the 1971 film by Wakamatsu and Adachi linked the radicals to Palestine (explaining, at length, how the Proletarian struggle and the Palestinian struggle were supposedly one and the same).  Thus, a radical dissident group that never led more than a few dozen followers at a time created the illusion that the future of Japan would be contested by an international network of professional revolutionaries.  The illusion didn't last long, and the Japanese revolutionary clique disintegrated due to the same type of infighting (self-criticism and purges) familiar from the history of China --although on a miniature scale.

It is important to imagine how strange this cultural intersection would have seemed at the time: the Japanese Red Army had their "manifesto" produced by a filmmaking partnership (Wakamatsu and Adachi) primarily known for their contributions to Japan's low-budget sex-and-violence cinema.  Although the would-be revolutionaries posed for the cameras with copies of Mao's Little Red Book (and guns), the film-makers had been profiting from a genre of cinema that would have been illegal in the context of China's Cultural Revolution.  If these same film-makers had been living in almost any Communist country at the time (ca. 1965–72), they would have been denounced and persecuted for promoting some of the worst vices of bourgeois society in their movies.

Image from Ecstasy of the Angels, discussed below.
Isolde Standish offers a quotation from a French film critic in 1971 who, at that time, seemed entirely dismissive of Wakamatsu's revolutionary credentials, suggesting that his films were motivated by mere commerce: "bask[ing] in pseudo-revolutionary dreams… only when they stand to turn him a profit". (Standish, 2011, p. 107)  This was a distant and detached view, untouched by the hysteria that surrounded the Japanese Red Army from the 1970 hijacking through to the February, 1972 hostage crisis (referred to as the Asama-Sansō incident).  In retrospect, the political significance of Wakamatsu and Adachi's earlier work (pre-1971) seems obvious, and, instead, it seems difficult to imagine that they ever expected to turn a profit.

Although the threat posed by the Japanese Red Army was largely an illusion, how did Wakamatsu and Adachi become two of the main illusionists?  They had been known just a few years earlier as the makers of the lowest grade of erotic cinema (so-called, "pink films").  Wakamatsu produced twenty films in two years, 1963–1965, under contract to Nikkatsu Corporation; he then had a period of creative independence, engaged in "very low-budget" independent film-making. (Desjardins, 2005, p. 99–100)  Although Wakamatsu did direct some mainstream films in the 1960s, it now seems clear that he did so in order to provide funding for his own (artistic and propagandistic) film-making ventures. (Desjardins, p. 170)  He worked under contract with studios to create mainstream, for-profit films like 1969's The Notorious Concubines, presumably providing him with the income to pursue his other interests on the side.  Conversely, Wakamatsu's early notoreity arose from his inclusion of jarring political images in his supposedly-erotic films, such as this example from 1965's Affairs Within Walls: "A housewife, now married to a union bureaucrat, resumes an affair with her ex-militant lover, their hopeless orgasms taking place beneath a portrait of Joseph Stalin, the man’s flesh distorted by a keloid scar from exposure to radiation at Hiroshima." (Toscano & Hirasawa, 2013, p. 45)
Stalin looms in the background in 1965's Affairs Within Walls.

The most celebrated avant garde collaboration between Wakamatsu and Adachi was Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, released in 1969.  The film marks a sort of half-way point between an earlier period of the film-makers' careers, dominated by images of rape and sadism, and a later period dominated by direct political themes.  Although a rebellious spirit pervades the dismal rooftop setting of Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, it isn't yet clear what the film-makers are rebelling against.  Should the film be seen, now, as a call for bourgeois society to be destroyed, or was it instead an act of rebellion against the genre that the director was trying to escape from?  Although seething with discontent, it is misleading to present these early (pre-1971) films of Wakamatsu and Adachi as pursuing a coherent, revolutionary objective.  The point of these films, according to David Desser, "…is not that unbridled sexuality leads to revolutionary politics, but that repressive politics goes hand in hand with repressive sexuality." (Desser, 1988, p. 102)  It is misleading to present these films as Marxist in theme or premise: the struggle here is not "class struggle", but the struggle of a filmmaker against the expectations of the genre he's trapped in.  When the lead actress turns to the camera and directly insults the audience in Go, Go, Second Time Virgin, she isn't calling for them to rise up in revolt against their oppressors; she is, instead, reproaching the audience for witnessing scenes of torture, rape and murder as a form of entertainment.  Toscano sees this mix of "sex, violence, and politics" as an attempt to "explode [the] confinement" of the genre, "like the act of forcing urgent questions of violent rebellion into the mold of the cheap erotic film, it ended up dislocating the genre while remaining within its overt parameters." (Toscano & Hirasawa, 2013, p. 44–5)  At this tipping-point in his career, Wakamatsu is using violent pornography to condemn violent pornography, and the use of extreme political imagery (like Stalin's portrait on the wall during a sex scene, etc.) seems to be merely instrumental in pushing the limits of the "pink film" genre.

Wakamatsu Kōji (若松孝二).

In 1970, Wakamatsu directed his first film to depict a clique of Communist revolutionaries (fictional ones, in this case) under the seemingly-pornographic title of Angelic Orgasm (also translated as Ecstasy of the Angels).  This film subverts more than one set of expectations: the protagonists "take to bombing street corners to show their disdain for the ordinary world, determined to stick to the world of darkness, anarchy and sexuality, until they are killed." (Desser, 1988, p. 106)  Wakamatsu is (at least in part) offering a sardonic critique of the sexually repressive ethos of contemporaneous Communism, probably based on the film-maker's own observation of ultra-leftists within Japan, and possibly also reflecting events reported from China's Cultural Revolution.  Toscano comments that, "[This] is perhaps the film of the revolutionary cell, not in the sense of a realistic portrayal of its internal workings, but in its delirious vision of the psychosexual dynamics of the hunted, confined group set on a war of no quarter against the state and against capital." (Toscano & Hirasawa, 2013, p. 48)  Adachi had addressed similar themes in a (comedic) film of 1968. (Desser, 1988, p. 106)  Even the title of the 1970 film Sex Jack (another Wakamatsu and Adachi collaboration) is a difficult-to-translate pun on "hijack", directly lampooning the Japanese Red Army's airplane hijacking of the same year. (Toscano & Hirasawa, 2013, p. 46)  To be blunt, by 1970 Wakamatsu and Adachi had produced two or three different films that can be seen satirizing the same radical clique that they would be supporting just one year later, in 1971.
Shinjuku Mad, 1970, sardonically portrays the revolutionaries as "the bad guys" (click for a synopsis).

If these films (of 1968–70) establish that both Wakamatsu and Adachi had an ironical awareness of much of what was wrong with ultra-radical, leftist cliques (in terms of sex, violence and politics), had this awareness disappeared a short time later, when Wakamatsu and Adachi turned their efforts toward the (completely humorless) promotion of the Japanese Red Army?  During the same years that Wakamatsu and Adachi had made films ridiculing radical left-wing terrorists they had, apparently, resolved to support exactly the same sort of cause.

Wakamatsu Kōji, 2010 interview.
Adachi's 1969 film A.K.A. Serial Killer, could have been a turning point for both men.  This film was made in rapid response to the arrest of Nagayama Norio (永山 則夫), who explained the reasons for his crimes (including four murders) in terms of his poverty and (lumpenproletariat) social status.  In Adachi's film, the killer becomes a sort of symbol for Marxist social theory, and also for the particular cinematic theory that Wakamatsu and Adachi jointly developed (the "landscape theory" of film-making, shifting the emphasis from particular persons to the conditions surrounding them, both literally and figuratively).  Nagayama Norio wrote a best-selling book while in prison, Tears of Ignorance, published in 1971; for the film-makers, the emergence of such a hit book after their own film had come out must have seemed like pre-ordained fate, especially as the book was (reportedly) compatible with their own Marxist-Materialist approach to the events.  If Wakamatsu and Adachi had read Tears of Ignorance in 1971 this could have been a catalyst in their own radicalization.  In his interviews, Wakamatsu identified his own origins as criminal (specifically Yakuza); the New York Times obituary for Wakamatsu claimed that his work as a low-level gangster resulted in him "[enduring] six months in prison, where he was tormented by guards, an experience that fueled an enduring distrust of authority." (Weber, 2012)  A theoretical approach explaining (and perhaps excusing) crime in terms of the social context (and "landscape") surrounding the criminal may have been especially meaningful for Wakamatsu, personally. (See the image provided, from an interview supplied to the 2010 film Children of the Revolution.)  Nagayama Norio is an unlikely hero for conventional Maoists (or for any Party-line Communists), but he provided an example of a creative artist who managed to overcome his criminal "context" to become an influential author (and social critic), even from within a prison cell.  It seems likely that this would resonate with Wakamatsu and Adachi more than the political claims made by the same militant rebel factions they had formerly ridiculed (in their films of 1968–1970).
In 1971, Wakamatsu and Adachi collaborated in making a film that proved to be fateful for everyone involved, on both sides of the camera: Red Army/P.F.L.P.: Declaration of World War is a humorless 80 minute propaganda-reel, with revolutionary slogans (both spoken and appearing as text on-screen) calling for immediate violence, and celebrating the group's prior violent acts, including the airplane hijacking, as victories.  The "landscape" includes many lingering images of guns and weaponry, just to remove any doubt as to what kind of violence is being called for.  Sometimes, tomes of Communist ideology are shown amidst the munitions.  Mao's Little Red Book appears as a prop in the hands of the protagonists, too, but it seems impossible to believe that the Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong provided the inspiration for Wakamatsu and Adachi to make their transition from pornography to political satire, and then from satire to propaganda.

Shigenobu Fusako (重信 房子)
Despite the film-makers' cynical commentary on sexuality in ultraleftist groups in their earlier films, Red Army/P.F.L.P. effectively made a "star" out of the relatively good-looking female rebel Shigenobu Fusako (重信 房子).  She became an icon of Japanese radicalism, and published several books on her life and politics; her suspected involvement in terrorist activities brought her name and image back into the newspapers intermittently until her arrest in the year 2000.  Contrary to the principles of both Communism and the "landscape theory" of film-making, it can hardly be doubted that Shigenobu's rise to fame resulted from the rarity of a pretty face amongst armed radicals, and the Japanese public's fascination with the female minority in extremist groups.  This prurient interest was the stuff that "pink films" were made of, and was one of the themes that the 1970 film Sex Jack satirized (showing a revolutionary cell with only a single female member, sexually exploited by the male majority of the group, etc.).

Sex Jack, 1970 poster.
Given that the Japanese Red Army already was an illegal, terrorist organization when the film was made, the movie is directly incriminating for everyone involved with it.  The film directly presents the link between the airplane hijacking (of 1970) and the Japanese radicals subsequently supporting an armed revolution in Palestine.  In 1971, some viewers may have dismissed this radicalism as exaggerated for the cameras (as the French film critic, quoted above, had dismissed Wakamatsu's "pseudo-revolutionary dreams"); after all, it would have been hard to take a group of disaffected student intellectuals seriously when they called themselves "an army", and made a "declaration of World War".  Perhaps it was even more difficult to take them seriously when their cinematic manifesto was made by two infamous avant garde pornographers, who had themselves expressed scorn for such movements, and who were primarily known for exploiting extreme sex, violence and anti-establishment sentiments on film.  Could it all just be a joke or a sort of performance art, crying out for attention (rather than blood)?

Less than a year after the "Declaration of World War" was released, the mythic connection that Wakamatsu and Adachi's film had established between the Japanese Red Army and Palestinian terrorism became all-too-real: the Lod Airport massacre of May, 1972, was more deeply shocking for the Japanese than it was for the Israelis.  The guns were fired by three members of the Japanese Red Army and, suddenly, it seemed that the absurd posturing of a Communist fringe-group had to be taken very, very seriously.  If there had been any irony or detachment in the film-makers' flirtation with extreme politics, it was now impossible to maintain.  In 1974 Adachi went to Palestine and joined the same group he had once satirized (in armed exile, if not in armed rebellion).  He ended up, eventually, in a Lebanese prison (in 1997).  After a total of twenty-six years in Palestine and Lebanon, he was extradited to Japan, and resumed his film-making career.

Adachi Masao (足立正生)
In an interview provided to Harry Harootunian, Adachi did not portray himself as having been misled by radical politics nor as trapped by circumstances: he refers to himself as "a romanticist" for whom "to be a cineaste and to be a guerilla are almost interchangeable". (Harootunian, 2006, p. 74)  In this lengthy interview, it seems as if Adachi is still engaged in propaganda and myth-making to this day --although he has now outlived the political movement he formerly made propaganda for.

The personal side of Wakamatsu's life is missing from the obituaries that were published (in English) after his death in 2012, but we have to imagine that his period of mainstream acceptance as a filmmaker (circa 1969-1970) coincided with his own resolution to support the adamant, violent and immediate revolutionary path of the Japanese Red Army.  This self-proclaimed "army" had only come into existence in 1969, breaking away from other Japanese Communist groups of the time, and they didn't have much of a public profile prior to the hijacking that made them infamous in 1970.  Unlike Adachi, however, it is clear from Wakamatsu's later films that he did come to reject the ideologies he had been involved with in 1971.  In 2007, five years before his death, Wakamatsu made a very different film with "Red Army" in the title.  Considered his last successful work, United Red Army was a psychologically detailed exposé of the political movement he had formerly supported.

The 2007 film depicts the interrogation and torture of Communists by Communists, as the Japanese Red Army underwent its own series of purges (in parallel to so many events in China's Cultural Revolution), killing 14 of their own members.  "[The radicals'] initial Boy Scout enthusiasm as they hike and build a log cabin [is] an ironic prelude to the harrowing Maoist "self-criticism" that escalates from verbal humiliation to bloody beatings and executions with ice picks." (Lee, 2008)  The persecution within the clique was followed by hostage-taking and a ten-day armed standoff with police.  This was the 1972 Asama-Sansō incident that, in combination with the Lod Airport Massacre, contributed to the disillusionment of a whole generation with Japanese radicalism in general.  Wakamatsu did more than anyone else to create the myth of the Japanese Red Army in 1971, and yet he will also be remembered for exploding that myth in his damning portrayal of the movement in 2007. 

In telling this story in 2015, I'm writing in a era of ongoing recapitulation and regret, when the would-be revolutionaries of that era are making new films, writing autobiographies, and publishing their obituaries.  However, most of the new materials have not yet been translated into English, and some of the players in the game are still facing potential criminal charges, leaving many of the questions unsettled or evaded.  At the same time, the radical cinema of Japan's 1960s and 1970s is now taking on a ghostly second life, distributed in digital formats (such as Youtube) after many decades of being nearly impossible for anyone to see.

[Photo-Caption:] A few cells of the Japanese Red Army still exist to this day: the last six members in North Korea (generally connected to the airplane hijacking of 1970) now have their own website and Twitter page, where they attempt to portray themselves in a more sympathetic light, and suggest that they would like to return to Japan.


Desser, David.  1988.  Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema.  Indiana University Press: Bloomington.

Desjardins, Chris.  2005.  Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film.  I.B.Tauris: London.

Harootunian, Harry, and Sabu Kohso, Fall 2008, "Messages in a Bottle: an Interview with Filmmaker Masao Adachi", in: Boundary 2 (journal), Duke University Press: Durham, North Carolina.

Lee, Maggie.  2008.  "United Red Army: Film Review."  The Hollywood Reporter (& Associated Press), Sept. 2nd, 2008.  Available as a digital article:

MaGee, Chris.  2010.  "Review: The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War."  Digital article at the website JFilmPow-Wow: (As seen in Feb. of 2015)

Standish, Isolde.  2011.  Politics, Porn and Protest: Japanese Avant-Garde Cinema in the 1960s and 1970s.  Continuum Publishing: New York.

Toscano, Alberto & Hirasawa Go.  2013.  "Walls of Flesh: The Kilms of Koji Wakamatsu (1965–1972)."  Film Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 4, p. 41–49.  University of California Press: Oakland.

Watts, Johnathan.  2002.  "Japanese hijackers go home after 32 years on the run".  In: The Guardaian (newspaper), Sept. 9th, 2002.  Available as a digital article:

Weber, Bruce.  2012.  "Koji Wakamatsu, Self-Taught Movie Director, Dies at 76."  The New York Times, Oct. 20th, 2012, as seen digitally: