Credit: BAM/Masao Adachi/Koji Wakamatsu
by Vicky Huang Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Craft as Political Praxis or: Fuck That, Free Palestine — Masao Adachi & Koji Wakamatsu’s Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War

June 10, 2024

The 1960s to early 1970s was a truly utopian moment. In the hangover of Imperial Japan, the concomitant decolonization of the “Third World,” and the communist victories in Cuba and China (and their progressive changes in social structures), the prospect of a successful revolution felt evident. A better future for mankind teased the horizon while a hunger for change rumbled in the great social stomach. Needless to say, these political happenings textured cultural and artistic production of the time. Two filmmakers to emerge from this red wave were Masao Adachi and Koji Wakamatsu: a duo who built their fame by churning out low-budget pinku films. Often wacky, formally challenging, and always base, their transgressive cinema delighted the public, and pleasured many in private. Yet despite the focus on erotica, their work also reads as deeply political; hidden beneath the pornography was always a substrate of critique against the post-war state and its oppressive institutions.

As the New Left erupted in numbers, filling the streets with roars of dissent, Adachi and Wakamatsu’s radical politics grew in tandem. By the late ’60s, the co-conspirators were no longer satisfied with oblique messaging in narrative cinema; they wanted their entire craft to become a political praxis, an explicit means of provoking social upheaval. This very desire is what inspired Adachi to develop a new mode of filmmaking which he called “landscape theory” (fûkeiron). Echoing Foucault, Adachi rejected the idea that political power is a visible, centralized force that whips its subjects in heats of brutish anger. Instead, he argued, the dispositif operates with sophistication; it not only takes the form of paternal discipline, but also silently shapes one’s comportment through seemingly benign institutions, cultural products, and even space itself. Nothing escapes the intervention of the state. If power has become naturalized, imbricated into the everyday, then cinema must work to expose its camouflage. Adachi advocated turning the lens toward the banal circumstances under which politicization actually takes place. Once the relations of power are exposed, the apparatus is thus opened to scrutiny and deconstruction.

Fûkeiron positions itself as an alternative to not just dominant cinema, but also trends in leftist filmmaking. For Marx, history is pushed forward by human agency. Progress is a result of man’s dialectical clashes, which, teleologically, bring forth a rupture into the next epoch. Documentaries made in Marx’s name have thus privileged dramatic stories, passionate direct addresses, and an emphasis on the proletarian as a unit of action, to convey history’s frenetic movement. In contrast, fûkeiron is much less sensational: rather than focalizing antagonism in its most exciting form, Adachi places a microscope on the undramatic every day to investigate the immanence of power in our social formation. Compared to the blazing agitprop from the Soviet Union, or Solanas and Getino’s raucous Third Cinema, his vision is like the familial outcast, more aesthetically related to the structuralist avant-garde than the impassioned revolutionary left.

In May 1971, Adachi and Wakamatsu attended the Cannes Film Festival with their features Okasareta Byakui (Violated Angels, 1967) and Sex Jack (1970). On their return, they stopped by Lebanon to visit the Japanese Red Army (JRA), a Red Army Faction (RAF) committee focused on Palestinian liberation. Notoriously, the JRA/RAF had working relations with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist resistance group. Although the filmmakers were not formally associated with the alliance, they nonetheless worked tirelessly during their months-long stay to document both organizations’ activities in the region. What resulted from those months is Red Army/PFLP: Declaration of World War, an experimental newsreel combining didactics and fûkeiron to represent the RAF-PFLP brotherhood.

From commencement, the film boldly declares its intention to propagandize for Palestine. From a liberal perspective, the idea of Japanese guerillas transplanted into an Arab conflict seems oddly random, if not suspicious — a postmodernist’s puzzle. Such crude analysis, however, overlooks how these seemingly disparate groups are united against the common enemy of world imperialism. As an unknown narrator in the introduction explains, Zionism is bookended by finance capital, which has material and geopolitical interests in the Middle East. With the collapse of capitalist hegemony, then, so too will Israel; likewise, the overthrow of Zionism entails the weakening of global imperialism. To support one movement, therefore, means to strengthen the other. It is precisely this intimacy between national liberation and proletarian revolution that the film seeks to impart.

Adachi and Wakamatsu’s pedagogy operates in a twofold fashion. While there are indeed scenes that directly communicate political urgency, it’s the film’s form that strongly impresses the notion of solidarity. Consider the opening sequence: loud trumpets blare the Internationale — a leftist anthem — as the frame is subsumed by a rapid flicker of montage. Over this, an authorial voice explains that in 1970 the RAF hijacked an airplane, which they flew to the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea in hopes of creating a global communist base. A cut switches to a sepia-toned filmstrip taken at a Palestinian airport. In September that same year, the voice continues, the PFLP also took hostage and bombed several American planes. The connection between the parallel sequences, though not explicitly stated, is glaringly obvious; by matching their actions and cutting between the similar images, the filmmakers signal how the RAF and PFLP mirror each other in tactics and goals.

Sound, too, is another formal strategy aimed at stoking critical contemplation. Many sections of the film are narrated in Arabic by members of the PFLP, overlaid with Japanese subtitling. Crucially, the translations do not overpower the original recording and the fedayeens’ musings still clearly pierce through, resulting in a powerful symphony between Japanese and Arabic phrases. To diaphanously layer instead of replace is itself a gesture of equality. It recognizes that one speaker is not more privileged than the other, whereas a complete eclipse signifies a difference in whose voice is valued. The use of contrapuntal sounds thus serves two critical purposes in this film: retaining the subjects’ right to articulation (and thus avoiding the error of speaking for the “Third World”) and creating a shared, horizontal soundscape between PFLP and RAF comrades.

Having established the importance of global unity, the film — informed by an RAF revision of Trotskyism — moves onto the next step toward revolution: global armed struggle. But first, what does radical militancy actually mean? Is it strategic heroism of war, or blasé destruction? While guerilla tactics are sometimes useful in advancing immediate goals — such as, in the case of a hijacking, inconveniencing capital — the most important consideration is attracting eyes and ears. In building a revolution, an organization needs to garner public support, or the radical’s flowery chants and slogans will remain just that: sanctimonious posing. But so long as the state remains in the tight grip of the bourgeoisie, proletarian interests will forever be marginalized or censored. If no platforms exist, the film argues, then the oppressed must create their own propaganda through force. To wage armed struggle is, therefore, akin to staking one’s truth in a landscape that seeks their very erasure. It is the language of freedom, the stepping stone to liberation, without which the oppressed shall forever remain mute. For Adachi and Wakamatsu, the fight for self-determination is hence inextricable from the fight for self-expression.

If armed struggle is propaganda, then, by implication, the filmmakers are also part of the war. Aiming with their cameras, shooting on rolls, Adachi and Wakamatsu become militants in the salvation of Palestine. But instead of direct action, their enemy is the “propaganda system of American imperialism” that “provide people with false information and movies by maliciously saying whatever they want.” Adachi and Wakamatsu’s remarks ring especially true in today’s media landscape: spinning fables about beheaded babies, using dehumanizing language, publishing headlines which paint Israel’s war crimes as earnest mistakes, and deplatforming pro-Palestine voices in media because of weightless accusations of antisemitism are just a few ways the “American propaganda system” has manufactured consent for the destruction of millions of Palestinian lives, today and historically.

Combatting imperialism and settler colonialism requires, more than just tactile fighting, a global revolution in the realm of narratives and images. For the condemned PFLP, which would later be labeled a “terrorist” organization in 1997, their name exigently needed rehabilitation. Adachi and Wakamatsu take on this task by inverting representational strategies used by the mainstream media. Conventionally, a terrorist is imagined as a monstrous Other that encroaches on the safety of the Symbolic; here, however, the filmmakers present a very different picture of the group. Drawing heavily on fûkeiron, the film shows the revolutionaries being not-so-revolutionary, slicing together scenes and sights of quotidian life: dusty bedrooms decorated with resistance posters and Arabic translations of Lenin; fedayeens dabbing their foreheads after a sweaty training session; curious children approaching the camera before squealing and running away; a woman squatting while frying potatoes without ever losing her balance. We are shown a profoundly humanist portrait of supposedly rabid terrorists — the undramatic images that we, too, encounter in our everyday.

It’s for this reason that the film lacks a star. Although high-profile revolutionaries such as Leila Khaled, Ghassan Kanafani, and Fusako Shigenobu are featured, they are not privileged in the frame as in a typical documentary. Instead, the opposite takes place: they are anonymized. Close-ups of their visages appear onscreen, for only a fleeting moment, before a cut sweeps in unrelated montages of Beirut’s desiccated landscapes, the shadows on the wall, or tiny abstracts of non-schematic images. Only their disjointed voices remain, preaching revolution. Stripped of faciality, the figure thus becomes unidentifiable, and the spectator’s desire to behold it in deep focus is thwarted. The de-subjectification here also reflects the Marxist aversion toward political idolatry. As Khaled explains in her interview segment, the guerilla does not speak about themself as a hero because “revolution is always born of the people, for the people, and [for] general humanity.” The individual is insignificant. To treat Leila, Ghassan, or Fusako like an icon, any more glamorously than the collective, would betray the fundamental principle that history is not constructed by cultish personalities, but by the locomotion of collective action.

The film’s points on internationalism and the strategies of representation are absolutely relevant to the present moment. Since the Al Qassam Flood, the Israeli Defense Forces have launched a mega-information campaign to buttress their violent assault in Gaza. Fabricated stories, out-of-context photos, and AI-manipulated videos are deployed to confuse spectators — or worse, make them indifferent to the ongoing genocide. To borrow from Adachi and Wakamatsu’s lexicon, the current moment urgently necessitates an international resistance against the worldwide system of discursive propaganda, for people across the globe to recognize and counter the lies disseminated by Mossad that justify bombing Palestine back into the Stone Ages.

These days, the term “stand in solidarity” has become hollow, a “heroic” declaration of one’s sympathy. But to stand with Palestine is not as simple as expressing indignation over Israeli war crimes or huffing and puffing at the news. As the film suggests, internationalism entails direct action, be it in the form of militancy, combatting Zionist narratives which degrade Palestinian lives, boycotting companies that make Israel’s genocide possible, or stirring sentiments for liberation — meaningful engagement that transcends comfortable viewing. And when one fires a proverbial gun, their status as an outsider immediately changes; no longer are they parrots of the sidelines, squawking performative slogans they’ve learned from pamphlets, but they now become a comrade fighting against the shared enemy.

Near the end of the film, Ghassan Kanafani asks the viewer to “support [Palestinian liberation] by any means. Send us medicine, and anything else. But the best support is that our [international] comrades rise up and strike blows against the monster that is American imperialism.” Today, his words are echoed on campuses across the West. In Columbia, NYU, Cal Poly State, UC Berkeley, Cornell, UofT, and McGill, students have set up encampments to protest their university’s investment in Israel’s war crimes — to do what they can while living in the belly of the beast. But for the crime of having a political compass and the ability to love others, activists have been threatened with, or faced, expulsion and police crackdowns. In response, a poster from my school’s liberated zone reads: “fuck that, free Palestine!” The unwavering internationalism and commitment to drastic action of today’s youth echoes the spirit of the 1960s–1970s student movements, the rhapsody of radical leftism in which Adachi and Wakamatsu’s newsreel was conceived. Except, this time, equipped with historical insights and lessons from past failures, the people will surely win.