It's kind of amazing. It's the worst major police action I've ever seen.
Firstly, it's based on a real incident that's super-famous in Japan. Everyone watched it on TV as it happened and everyone still remembers it. The audience figures were over 50% of the population. Crime dropped because no one went out, since they were all glued to their televisions instead. (The film mentions this at one point and it is indeed true.)
The villains were the so-called Japanese Red Army, a communist militant group founded in 1971 to overthrow the Japanese government and the monarchy, en route to starting a world revolution. Their tactics for doing this included attacking embassies and causing the Lod Airport massacre. A few months before the latter, though, they had a bit of a tiff among themselves, which they resolved by beating to death eight members (plus one non-member who'd happened to be present) and tying six others to trees in winter, where they froze to death. The police arrested a number of these pranksters, but five others escaped on foot to the Asama mountain lodge. There they took a hostage and settled in for a siege.
This group also called themselves both the Holy War Brigade and the Anti-War Democratic Front. No comment.
There have been at least three films about Asama-Sansou, including a 190-minute one in 2007 by Koji Wakamatsu that tells the entire story of the Japanese Red Army, right back to their roots in Japan's 1960s student movements. It's a shame that this film doesn't include the fratricidal killings, but that's because it's not about the revolutionaries. They're faceless, until the very end. They're rifles pointing out of windows. They don't talk to the police and they don't interact with the outside world except by shooting at you. No, this film is about the Japanese police response to this situation, which left something to be desired. The film's based on a book written by the officer who was approximately in charge (see below), Atsuyuki Sassa, and what it portrays is extreme enough that afterwards I was asking Tomoko if the Japanese police were really that stupid. (Answer: "yes, and they're still like that today.")
Firstly, they're territorial. The attack happened in Nagano Prefecture, so the Nagano police think they can handle everything and get all sensitive and delicate at any suggestion that it might be a good idea to co-operate with Tokyo on this. (Sassa had travelled abroad studying counter-terrorism and has friends who've studied with the SAS. The Nagano police think their photographer can do the job because he won a competition for Best Still Life.)
Secondly, Tokyo is just as bad, but differently. Sassa's superior gives him the following orders:
(a) Don't let the hostage get killed.
(b) Don't let any of the terrorists get killed.
(c) Don't let any members of the public get killed.
(d) Don't fire any guns.
(e) Don't do anything to upset the media.
Sassa points out that he might have difficulty doing all of those things at once, especially given the "no guns" bit. His boss insists. "Think of yourself as Hercules, with labours to perform." He also sends Sassa to Nagano without anyone senior enough to pull rank and get things done when the Nagano idiots start digging in their heels.
You'll be gaping in disbelief at the first half of the film, after which you'll conclude that these people don't deserve to end up with anyone alive. You can hardly imagine a more toxic combination of incompetence and dick-waving, often with surreal Japanese touches. Look at how long it takes everyone to decide what to call each other and where to sit, or else the way in which an invincible argument in getting permission to attack now is that it's the 28th of February. If they wait another day, you see, it'll be the 29th and so any casualties will only have their memorial day every leap year. Can't have that. Right-ho, better attack now, then.
After that, amazingly, the attack itself is more incompetent still. All these brave, proud young men are determined to show their courage and prove that they're not afraid to take a bullet. They're so macho that, collectively, they're almost uncontrollable. Tactical decisions are made on the basis of what the TV audience are saying. (The police rescue operation was Japan's first marathon live television broadcast, lasting 10 hours and 40 minutes.) You'll either laugh or cry at "we can use pistols!" (They could have done with being given that permission earlier. For preference, ten days earlier.)
Wikipedia notes that "the incident contributed to a decline in popularity of leftist movements in Japan." No kidding. The father of one of the terrorists hanged himself, for instance.
That's real history, but as far as Tomoko and I can tell, the film sticks pretty closely to it. I'm not aware of anyone trying to lynch the filmmakers, which would surely have happened if the police had been even remotely competent in their handling of the siege in 1972. Koji Yakusho plays Sassa and you can't go wrong with him. It's one of those films that benefits from the understated nature of most Japanese cinema, in that there's no false glamour and it feels like a "just the facts, ma'am" presentation with no attempt to jazz anything up for the big screen. The siege location looks like an unpleasant place to be, with (in many cases) unpleasant people you'd like to push through a window.
If you're looking for this on DVD, you might need to buy the Japanese R2 disc, but on the upside it does have English subtitles. Wakamatsu's 2007 film has been released in the West, though, under the title "United Red Army". Tomoko called this an "entertainment film", but I thought it was more important than that. It's shocking. It's about good, brave, noble men (and others who aren't) who know what needs doing, but can't get it done because of cultural issues and departmental pride. It's also up in the mountains, in weather so cold that you have to pour boiling water on your shoes to untie your shoelaces. It's kind of gobsmacking.
"They're aiming for the face!"