Now Here Then Elsewhere: Capturing the Japanese Red Army

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Eric Baudelaire, still from The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (2011)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Saturday, March 16, 2013

In 1971, a radical Japanese left-wing group believing in the need for armed resistance formed in Lebanon, in support of the Palestinian cause and with the aim of instigating a global socialist revolution.

Born from the student-led socialist movement in Tokyo, the group lived and trained with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) gaining international notoriety when three of its members carried out the 1972 Lod Airport attack in Tel Aviv, in which 26 were killed and 80 wounded. The group then became known as the Japanese Red Army (JRA).

French artist and filmmaker Eric Baudelaire’s multimedia exhibition Now Here Then Elsewhere delves into the lives of the JRA’s founder and leader, Fusako Shigenobu, her daughter May Shigenobu, and revolutionary screenwriter and director Masao Adachi, also a former JRA member.

Through films, old photographs, and works on paper, Baudelaire tests the capacities and boundaries of image in recounting history. The power and evocative quality of images are drawn on throughout the exhibition, as a collection of personal and politically-imbued pieces invites the audience to delve further into the narratives of its subjects.

Fusako Shigenobu’s “Family Album,” an array of old photographs covering only half a board, as if a life were interrupted, captures a youthful girl: in some frames, she is seen in traditional dress bearing a shy smile; once in a carefree embrace with a pet; and in another, breastfeeding a newborn child. The sensation of invading the private past of a woman once deemed Japan’s public enemy number one is powerful.

“Prison Drawings,” created by Adachi during his detention in Lebanon’s Roumieh Prison from 1997 to 2000, are projected onto a wall: colorful works from ghoulish, macabre nightmares to flower-filled, wistful depictions of spring and love flicker past, providing an unsettling stark window into the prisoner’s mind.

The show also includes pictures of documents, silkscreens on paper. The images, like photograph negatives, are only viewable from certain angles; as viewers pass, they glimmer like dark mirages then disappear like shadows: a photograph of Fusako pregnant, and then again with May aged three; a Japanese wanted poster for JRA members; and Lod Airport, bloodstained from the attack.

The nucleus of Baudelaire’s exhibition is his 2011 experimental documentary The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images, screened for the first time in Lebanon.

The term Anabasis refers to the ancient Greek story of Xenophon, a history of leaving a homeland and the arduous journey to return to it – “at once a wandering into the unknown, and a return to the self,” as the introduction to the works explains.

As such, the film follows the personal and political journeys of Fusako and May Shigenobu, and Adachi. Interviews with Adachi and May Shigenobu are voiced in snatches over shots of contemporary Beirut and Tokyo, filmed with Super-8 cameras that create a false sense of nostalgia, blurring the present with an idea of the past.

Landscapes play a central role, an approach Baudelaire has borrowed from Adachi whereby the scenery of everyday places tells the narrative of political and personal struggle.

Throughout the documentary, we see only rare glimpses of the three; rather, the audience is immersed in the sensation that we are seeing the world as they saw it. Interspersed with the grainy footage of the time-bending cities are scenes from Adachi’s politically powerful films, as well as clips from news channels from over the years that present yet another perspective on the JRA and on the lives of those who were involved with it.

Other roles of image seep through when Adachi tells of how much of his primary footage of the PFLP and their training and missions was lost during a bombing raid. In describing her life undercover with her mother, May Shigenobu tells of having to rid themselves of photographs, lest they be incriminating in giving away their true identities. These personal tales unfold as the backdrop to an investigation into the relationship between politics and film.

The trajectory of another anabasis unfolds when the journey of the JRA came full-circle, after Fusako Shigenobu returned to Japan in 2000 and was captured by the authorities. She announced the dissolution of the group from her prison cell in 2001.

When Adachi agreed to be interviewed by Baudelaire, his cooperation came with a condition. Due to his involvement with the JRA, Adachi is not allowed to leave Japan. He asked that Baudelaire work with him on creating a new fictional film, Enigma of Memory. Over the first 12 days of the exhibition, Adachi each morning sent Baudelaire part of the script which he then filmed in Beirut. The footage can currently be viewed in the exhibition space and is now being edited for the final cut.

Now Here Then Elsewhere will be open at Beirut Art Center until 16 April 2013. On March 20 and March 27, films by Adachi will be playing at 8pm.

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