Red Angel (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 95 minutes approx.
“Soldiers aren’t human beings. They’re objects… just weapons.”
A cynical view to have especially for a doctor working on the front line, but we can’t possibly imagine the things he has seen day after day. Fortunately, the nurses are more sympathetic which may be per their maternal nature, which is something men feel they can take advantage of.
During the second Sino-Japanese war, young nurse Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is sent to the Tientsin Army hospital in China for Japanese soldiers. She is raped by a soldier Sakamoto (Jotaro Senba) which she reports, and Sakamoto is sent to the frontline as punishment. Later, Nishi herself is sent to a field clinic to assist overworked, morphine addicted surgeon Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), with whom she falls in love.
Whilst there, Sakamoto arrives as a patient and apologises to Nishi when asking her to save him, but he dies soon after. Returning to the main hospital, Nishi takes pity on Orihara (Yusuke Kawazu) a soldier missing both arms, and she agrees to satisfy him sexually to ease his torment. Unfortunately, it was too much for Orihara and he commits suicide, leaving Nishi to feel she is cursed to kill people and not heal them.
Based on the novel by Akai Tenshi by Yorichika Arima with added personal perspective from director Yasuzo Masumura of his own war experience, Red Angel is a bleak, raw, and unflinching look at the effects of war on those whose role is crucial yet always seen as peripheral. This not a knock on the medical staff essentially left to pick up the pieces of the seriously injured, but history always venerates those who pick up a gun and not a hypodermic needle.
Florence Nightingale aside, the doctors and nurses who served during famous conflicts tend to be support players seemingly unaffected by the physical damage of war, likely due to their job entailing such confrontation on a daily basis. The story told here delves deeper into the experiences of serving medical staff, in particular the women, who are naturally outnumbered, rarely seen as a person and more than a commodity.
Nishi’s rape is an example of this; she is immediately crowded by the all-male patients starved of female companionship and contact, their arrogance and sense of entitlement laid bare. As Sakamoto pulls Nishi onto his bed, instead of calling for help, the others hold Nishi down and watch. The matron admits this is the third time Sakamoto has done this; she calls him a malingerer and has him removed, and true to form, he berates Nishi for sending him to his death.
Sakamoto’s attitude changes dramatically when at Nishi’s mercy in the field hospital, begging her to save him, as he is too scared to die. To either her credit or weakness, Nishi cares too much and asks Okabe to perform the transfusion; he agrees but only if Nishi visits him room later. Nishi is a very attractive but this automatic sexualisation of her is shameless, even if circumstances dictate the men revert to base instincts.
Okabe however, proves to have a different motive – he is a morphine addict and decides to trust Nishi to inject him so he can sleep and escape the world outside. Okabe delivers the opening quote of this review, one of many bitterly honest, nihilistic lines that shape the despair incurred via his job. Okabe feels useless as surgeon performing amputations only if he thinks a patient can be saved, his daily routine is predicated on how many men he has to choose to die, not how many can be healed.
Quite why Nishi falls for Okabe is a mystery; maybe it is his lack of libidinous wants – the morphine has rendered him impotent – but Nishi wants to give herself to him. Similar to Orihara, there may be a touch of sympathy, but unlike Okabe, we feel Orihara is playing on Nishi’s kindness because of his condition – after all he was drafted three weeks into his marriage, but doesn’t want to go home fearing his wife will leave him.
Later, when the pair and a trainee nurse are dispatched to a army base, Nishi again is expected to lay down for the soldiers despite having Chinese comfort women on site. However, one of them has cholera and the base is soon quarantined from it being passed around, leaving few active soldiers to fight the impending Chinese attack. The film’s only battle scene is featured here, and whilst brief, it is effective in framing exactly why Nishi and Okabe are needed, whilst giving them firsthand experience as makeshift soldiers.
Made in 1966, the stark monochrome imagery may date this film to decade or so earlier but via this flawless new HD transfer, proves vital in conveying the dank moods of the traumatic atmosphere; the grim sight of discarded skulls, amputated legs, and bloodied corpses is elevated by the lack of colour, whilst the foreboding claustrophobia of the grimy, bijou living quarters give off a veneer akin to that of a shadowy tomb.
Yasuzo Masumura and Ayako Wakao were frequent collaborators, and one can sense the trust between director and star here – Wakao is given freedom to paint Nishi as a divine image but with substance and heart, and in return, she allows Masumura to benefit from her considerable feminine allure which he does. Bedroom scenes occur but are sensuous, not exploitative or gratuitous, although probably steamy even for 1966.
Red Angel is a harrowing blend of wartime drama and ‘60s counterculture middle finger to the act itself, putting the unsung heroes of the doctors and nurses in the spotlight whilst concluding even the good in the world lose the fight eventually. Masumura has an eclectic oeuvre, of which this stands out as one of his more personal and moving entries, bolstered by Wakao’s ethereal, gutsy performance.
If make love not war is a popular anti-war maxim, this film should be its poster image.
Original Uncompressed Japanese Mono Audio
Audio Commentary by David Desser
Introduction by Tony Rayns
Original Theatrical Trailer 1
Original Theatrical Trailer 2
First Pressing Only:
Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ****
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