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Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2001

The revolution will be cinematized

Hikari no Ame

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Banmei Takahashi
Running time: 130 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Back in the days when I was a radical hippie freak, I attended a couple of meetings of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a group already nationally notorious for its violent protests against the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But even at the University of Michigan, where it had gotten its start, the SDS was still considered very much on the fringe. Not just against the war, in other words, but standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Mao, Fidel and Uncle Ho.

News photo
Mansaku Ikeuchi in "Hikari no Ame"

The group, as I remember it, was a peculiar mix of all-American openness and equality -- anyone was allowed to pitch in with an opinion or rant -- and fanatic hatred of everything institutional America (or Amerika) then represented. Some members, such as leader Bill Ayers, were intelligent, if totally committed Marxists, while others were loons, and still others were government plants, who might as well have been wearing FBI pins (i.e., white-bread guys mouthing left-wing slogans as though they had learned them at Berlitz).

Ayers and other hard-core SDSers later formed the Weathermen -- which even then I regarded as a band of crazies whose revolution existed only in their bad acid flashbacks. They bombed their way into the headlines just as the anti-war movement and the youth culture that spawned them were in their death throes.

Based on a novel by Wahei Tachimatsu, Banmei Takahashi's "Hikari no Ame (Rain of Light)" chronicles the similar spiral into oblivion of the Japanese Red Army, whose excesses make the Weathermen look like the gang in Sesame Street.

Though Takahashi, born in 1943, knows whereof he speaks, he realized that, for young Japanese today, the radicalism of the Red Army is as alien as the theology of the Taliban. To make it more comprehensible, he uses that standard device of Japanese filmmakers dealing with "difficult" recent history: framing the past within a modern story. Often this is a way for older directors to soften and sentimentalize -- to show young folks that tokkotai suicide pilots were not fanatics dying for Imperial glory, but pure-spirited youths every bit as human as the film's glittery-eyed present-day heroes.

Takahashi's aim, however, is not to make a dark past more palatable, but to present it as vividly as possible, so that even the most ideologically ignorant will at least feel the beat, even if they can't understand the words. He largely succeeds, though a few of his riffs sound anachronistically off-key.

The film begins with a quick survey of Japanese student radicalism in the 1960s and early '70s, from its beginnings in the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty protests to its descent into sectarianism and criminality.

The story proper begins with a producer (Sansei Shiomi) inviting a young director named Anan (Masato Hagiwara) to shoot a video on the making of his latest film. Called "Hikari no Ame," it depicts the deaths by torture of 14 members of a Red Army sect at the hands of their comrades, mostly in the winter of 1972. Eager to be involved in such a meaty project, Anan accepts.

But when he interviews the film's young actors, he finds that few know anything about the Red Army or the ideas it espoused. Also, the film's middle-aged director, Tarumi (Ren Osugi), has spent much of his career making TV commercials -- "Hikari no Ame" is his first feature. He even jokes that he drifted through the early 1970s "playing mah-jongg."

As the shoot progresses, however, Anan discovers that Tarumi is closer to his material than he admits. (So close that he gets an anonymous postcard cryptically accusing him of selling out a former comrade.) Meanwhile, working under harsh winter conditions in the mountains, the actors begin to assume the identities of their characters, even after the director yells "cut."

Tarumi's "Hikari no Ame" is a documentarylike retelling of how two radical sects -- both Red Army offshoots -- come together to prepare for revolutionary battle, including rigorous self-criticism to purge themselves of corrupt bourgeois thinking. The aim is to unite as one fist to smash the state. Solidarity forever! But fingers that fail to close must be amputated.

Two of those failures, a man who wants to write novels and a woman who is suffocating from the pressure to conform, try to escape, but are captured and put to death. As a precaution, their comrades move their hideout deeper into the mountains. The leader of one group, Tetsutaro Kurashige (Taro Yamamoto), announces that they are merging into a new unit, the Revolutionary Partisans, and intensifying their struggle.

More self-criticism, in other words, with Kurashige and other leaders serving as judge, jury and executioner. Among the most vigilant in the pursuit of thought-criminals is the soft-featured but gimlet-eyed Kazue Uesugi (Nae Yuki), who begins to take more than a comradely interest in Kurashige.

Like gangsters, the leaders really kill less for ideological reasons than to eliminate potential rivals and informants. The conclusion Kurashige and Uesugi finally arrive at is the same as that of Robert De Niro's mob enforcer in "Goodfellas" -- whack 'em all.

In bringing these thugs to life, Takahashi does not try to dumb down their dense Marxist rhetoric or soften the horror of their deeds. If anything, he is too faithful to a past that, for kids who think political involvement means buying a Koizumi poster, is forbiddingly remote. Playing the actor who is playing Kurashige, Taro Yamamoto finds it so hard to get his mouth around his lines that he writes them on large sheets of paper with brush and ink. It doesn't help -- interrogating his trembling victims in rough Kansai dialect, his Kurashige still sounds like a yakuza loan shark shaking down insolvent clients. But who, one wonders, could have done it better? In a way it's good that the answer is, today, hardly anyone.

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