Two new documentaries about events that bookend Japan’s Long Sixties

Two new documentaries released in Japan this spring explore events and movements that effectively bookend Japan’s Long Sixties.

Showing from 27 March, Searching for the Wolf (Ōkami o sagashite) deals with the East Asia Anti-Japan Armed Front (Higashi Ajia Hannichi Busō Sensen), the little-understood, immensely controversial militant group that launched a series of bombings in Japan in the mid-1970s, most notoriously the attack on the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries headquarters in central Tokyo that killed eight and wounded hundreds. The title of the documentary references the name of the original, main cell in the “front”, which was responsible for the Mitsubishi bomb. The arrests of most of the members of the group in May 1975 generally brought the New Left protest cycle in Japan to an end, at least in terms of major “incidents” and unrest, though with the notable exceptions of the Narita Airport struggle, which continued to mobilise large numbers of far-left activists for many years, various other copycat attacks on sites similar to those targeted by the EAAJAF, and the internal fighting among certain factions that would spill out into the subsequent decades.

east asia anti japan armed front documentary

Released in April, Whiplash of the Dead (Kimi ga shinda ato de, literally “After You Died”) examines the so-called “first Haneda struggle” of October 1967, which resulted in the death of a student protestor. The New Left factions descended on Haneda Airport in a bid to prevent the prime minister, Satō Eisaku, from leaving for his state visit to Vietnam. This was during the war in Southeast Asia, of course, in which Japan was a silent partner as the host for many United States military bases directly involved in the conflict.

The airport would become a flashpoint for further protests: in November 1967 to block Satō’s departure for the United States; then in November 1969, again over Satō’s trip to America; and the airport was also the location of one of the most striking incidents of the Anpo movement a decade earlier. The tactics employed by the protestors in October 1967 — especially wearing helmets, carrying staves and engaging in quixotic clashes with well-equipped police forces for maximum spectacle and symbolism — would become the norm for the various incidents that unfolded over the next years.

whiplash of the dead japan documentary sixties protests haneda airport

The film is directed by Daishima Haruhiko, who previously made two well-received documentaries about the Narita Airport protest campaign: The Wages of Resistance: Narita Stories (2014) and The Fall of Icarus: Narita Stories (2017). Though those two films covered decades of history from the twin perspectives of the farmers and the New Left activists who joined their struggle against the airport, this new documentary is possibly even more ambitious in scale: it is three hours and twenty minutes long, split into two parts, and focuses on the protestor who died, Yamazaki Hiroaki.

They are initially showing first at two leading venues for independent cinema in Tokyo: Whiplash of the Dead at Euro Space and Searching for the Wolf at Image Forum.

Four and a half decades after its bombing campaign against Japanese corporations, the EAAJAF remains largely misunderstood. Though not the only urban guerrilla group at the time, its practices as an underground network of cells as well as the backgrounds of its members and the language of its discourse were idiosyncratic. But its position within the tapestry of the New Left and mesh of movements unfolding during the 1960s and 1970s is frequently blurred by the shocking details of the incidents — especially the Mitsubishi bombing, which resulted in fatalities — and the inevitably repellent tone of its name and ideology. This new film forms is an attempt address this neglect and its title emphasises the necessary task of “searching” for the truth amidst both the trauma and condemnation: what were the activists motivations and aims? Why did they, Japanese citizens, so abhor their own country?

Though frequently mentioned within journalistic and scholarly accounts of the Long Sixties, the EAAJAF has received surprisingly little dedicated attention — perhaps in part because its discourse is arcane and inaccessible. The writer and environmental activist Matsushita Ryūichi wrote a well-known non-fiction book about the group in the 1980s, focussing on the leader, Daidōji Masashi. It is difficult but not impossible to buy photocopied versions of the group’s infamous underground tract, Hara Hara Tokei (The Ticking Clock). Another self-history text first published in the late 1970s was reissued in 2019, as was Matsushita’s book and Kiriyama Kasane’s controversial 1980s novel about the EAAJAF in 2017. The scholar Tomotsune Tsutomu, a specialist in modern buraku history, published a book that positions the EAAJAF alongside other minorities as post-war subaltern struggles against state and capitalist hegemony. Few foreign historians of modern Japan have tackled the EAAJAF, though Till Knaudt has written about it in German and Chelsea Szendi Schieder contributed a good English-language overview for The Funambulist in 2019.

Searching for the Wolf, which is years in the making, includes interviews with surviving members of the cells no longer imprisoned. The two others still alive and imprisoned cannot be interviewed as they are either on death row or serving a full life sentence. (Incidentally, two other members remain at large, having been freed as part of the demands of the Japanese Red Army, and are presumed to be overseas; another member was never caught and is nominally still a fugitive.) This makes Kim Mi-re’s film at the very least an important resource, since these former militants are very circumspect about giving interviews to the mainstream media. In a sign of the trust that Kim has been able to build (and of its sympathetic tone towards its subject), the film received the backing of the support group for the imprisoned EAAJAF members.

Though dealing with a far better-known and chronicled part of the Long Sixties than Searching for the Wolf, Whiplash of the Dead also features many valuable interviews with participants, mixed with images from some of the best-known photographers of the militant period, such as Kitai Kazuo and Watanabe Hitomi. Daishima’s two documentaries about Narita Airport interlaced archive footage with on-site interviews and footage of the current lives of the people involved.

Films about Narita are, of course, indelibly associated with the pioneering Ogawa Pro, which set the standard for such politically engaged, activist cinema. (The first of Daishima’s two Sanrizuka documentaries was co-directed by a former Ogawa Pro cameraman.) Like elsewhere, the New Left in Japan had close ties to non-fiction film, whose practitioners frequently strayed across the lines between observer and participant. The Ogawa Pro cycle of Sanrizuka films is perhaps the most celebrated in this respect, though the outputs of Tsuchimoto Noriaki and the Nihon Documentarist Union are further examples. And then there are films like Adachi Masao and Wakamatsu Kōji’s The Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971), which is frequently dismissed as mere propaganda for the PFLP but was actually a radical attempt to prompt viewers’ engagement with the issues and challenges of world revolution alongside self-reflection and criticism of the the movement in Japan at the time.

The period has inspired an immense number of novels, non-fiction books, documentaries and films, with many of the most notable coming in this century, several decades after the events. Being a visceral medium, narrative/fiction films serve a particularly problematic role when it comes to depicting the Long Sixties and thus contributing to their legacy. In The United Red Army on Screen: Cinema, Aesthetics and the Politics of Memory (2015), Chris Perkins has explored in more detail the issues involved with film portrayals of the Rengō Sekigun. Non-fiction cinema, while not free of problems of bias and misrepresentation by any means, is perhaps better able to present the complex nature of these movements, to focus on the first-hand accounts without the need to dramatise or sensationalise. These two new documentaries are sympathetic to the social movements they investigate, but that does not mean they will overlook the negative impact of militant activism.

It is not insignificant that a newer (though not necessarily “young”) generation of film-makers is tackling this material, rather than the tōjisha — the people directly involved (and implicated), already responsible for the mounds of memoirs about the era. A later generation brings more objective distance and fresh perspective, of course, and is sometimes able to navigate the reefs of public memory and come out with a more substantial result. Alongside Daishima (b. 1958) and Kim (b. 1964), we can add Nakamura Mayu, who made Watch Out for the Patriot! Kunio Suzuki (2020) about the legendary New Right figure, and Magome Shingō, who is now making Red Army People about the various associates and members of Sekigun-ha.

As her name suggests, Kim is South Korean (though she has made films related to Japan before). Searching for the Wolf was already screened in Korea last year and won two awards there. The Korean “origin” of this new film is germane to the subject matter, since the EAAJAF occupied a specifically anti-colonialist position within the New Left. While the major factions adhered to anti-imperialist, Marxist and anti-war ideologies, and aspired for world revolution within those contexts, the EAAJAF belonged to a fringe confluence of Asianist tendencies that also included outliers like Umenai Tsuneo and Ōta Ryū, who were obsessed with the revolutionary potential for the “inner colonies” of Japan and their Lumpenproletariat population of Koreans, Okinawans, burakumin and day labourers.

That is not to say that other sections of the New Left or the Left in general ignored Japan’s colonial guilt — or were not transnational in their outlook. Far from it, war guilt was a compelling issue for virtually all intellectuals and activists, and arguably the raison d’être for the very internationally minded Beheiren and the anti-war movement during the Vietnam conflict. But the EAAJAF was distinct in that these issues of colonial guilt were utterly fundamental, developing into an ideology of “anti-Japaneseism” that viewed the members’ own country as incorrigibly aggressive towards its neighbours (like Korea) and peripheral and indigenous peoples (like the Ainu and Okinawans). This ultimately led to the cells’ determination to attack Japan: concretely, bombing places associated with the Japanese military dead, symbolic targets of the colonisation of Hokkaidō, and Japanese corporations involved in wartime forced labour and in post-war neocolonial activities in Asia, and even planning to assassinate Emperor Hirohito. Extraordinary as these ambitions and choices may seem to us, their motivations sprang from anger at exploitation, oppression and war crimes — issues that still drive people of many ilks and beliefs today. As Chelsea Szendi Schieder has written: “One does not have to condone the violence of the EAAJAF to try to understand it.” The EAAJAF refused to see the pre-1945 era as “history”, settled and forgiven. And likewise, neither should we simply consign the militant group to history, nor those events at Haneda Airport in 1967, nor the various other movements that transpired during the Long Sixties.


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