Trailer released for feature-length documentary about Red Army activists

The first trailer has appeared for Red Army People (Sekigun no Hitobito), a new feature-length documentary about former activists from Sekigun-ha (Red Army Faction) and related groups.

Director Shingō Magome has filmed it over the course of several years as he gradually won the trust of the inner circle of original participants in what is possibly Japan’s most famous yet problematic New Left movement. The diligent Magome has traced the paths of the activists that spread out around the globe, including to North Korea, where the hijackers of the Yodogō plane now languish, and the Middle East, where members of Sekigun-ha (and other groups) settled and formed the Japanese Red Army.

The erstwhile revolutionaries are now approaching the December of their lives and not all the interviewees are still alive, most prominently the founder of Sekigun in 1969, Takaya Shiomi. As such, the film will form a valuable record of the raw voices of these ageing men and women who wanted to change so much about their country and world decades ago.

sekigun hitobito yodogo hijackers north korean japanese red army faction

Image from the upcoming documentary film Red Army People (Sekigun no Hitobito), showing remaining members of the Yodogō Group of hijackers living in North Korea

The footage is shot from a unique position in that Magome is both an insider, having spent so long with the activists working on his labour of love, and an outsider, hailing from a younger generation — one that grew in neoliberal Japan bereft of mass student activism — but fascinated with this dwindling band and their legacy.

Interviewees include the film director Masao Adachi (with whom Magome works regularly), Michinori Katō and Yasuhiro Uegaki of Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army), and Kōji Takazawa, who was an editor closely linked to Sekigun-ha.

While the notorious incidents the film examines — such as the Yodogō hijacking in 1970, the Rengō Sekigun purge and subsequent Asama-sansō siege in 1972, and the Lod Airport attack in 1972 — are familiar from their sensational aspects as era-defining “incidents” and media events, only a relatively select number of participants’ voices are accessible to those not inclined to undertake more serious research. The activists who wrote memoirs have succeeded in cementing their version of the history in consumable formats but various other insights and memories have not been chronicled properly. History (and documentary) always has bias and Magome’s film is certainly no different. However, its breadth of interviews will be welcomed by anyone, irrespective of personal stance. (Another commendable project in this vein is Shōgen Rengō Sekigun, an on-going project publishing short testimonial texts by as many as possible of the surviving people who were involved with the Rengō Sekigun.)

Notwithstanding some shorter pieces made for television, Sekigun has surprisingly not, to my knowledge, received a substantial documentary of this kind until now. Part of this is perhaps due to the vast amount of non-fiction and reportage already existing in print, but probably largely also because of the formidable shadow cast by the fictional or semi-fictional treatments — namely, Kōji Wakamatsu’s United Red Army, which was released a decade ago to much acclaim but a somewhat mixed reception by the original participants. Though it gives the impression of being a docudrama, we should not fall into the trap of viewing it (solely) through this filter. (Incidentally, the best critical English-language exegesis of Wakamatsu’s film and others that deal with the Rengō Sekigun came be found in The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory by Chris Perkins.)

Shane O’Sullivan’s Children of the Revolution (2011) was about with two daughters of far-left female activists from, respectively, Germany and Japan. Despite the presence of May Shigenobu and the seemingly obvious appeal for local audiences, however, the film was not shown in Japan until 2014.

While details on the official release of Red Army People are as yet unannounced, the time, fifty years on from 1968 and all that, is surely ripe for a plunge once more unto the breach and address the troubled legacy of Sekigun.


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