Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Yasuzo Masumura has long been acknowledged as a master of sophisticated and often disturbing satires and genre pictures unlike those of his Japanese contemporaries. If Akira Kurosawa was criticized for making films with a foreign sensibility, Masumura's shockers go beyond consideration of national styles. Several years have passed since the Fantoma DVD label released three of his more notable pictures. Giants and Toys (1958) is a scathing criticism of the Japanese consumer culture and its cutthroat business environment. Manji (1964) is a delirious soap opera of sexual manipulation and emotional blackmail. And Masumura's Moju (The Blind Beast) (1969) is a gory tale of mad love that transgresses into truly dangerous territory.
1966's Red Angel doesn't seem as outrageous as the above examples, simply because it's difficult to top the horrors of war. Ayako Wakao, the cruel beauty of Manji plays an Army nurse who finds her own kind of madness amid the battle lines. What Masumura's film most resembles is a gorier, morbid version of Robert Altman's M*AS*H: Battle surgery is Hell on Earth.
1939. Nurse Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is stationed at a field hospital deep in Manchuria. She learns that maimed soldiers are prevented from returning to Japan, so as to not turn public opinion against the war. Cartain to die if they're returned to the front, the recovering wounded have lost all sense of civility and live day-to-day; one of them rapes Sakura on her midnight rounds while several others hold her down. Nurse Nishi is shipped to a front-line surgery where the surgeons hack off limbs by the hundreds, often just for expediency's sake. Amid all the gore and suffering, she falls in love with the head surgeon Dr. Okabe (Shinusuke Ashida), who has taken to morphine to deal with the psychic stress of the wholesale mutilation. Sakura goes back to the field hospital again and becomes emotionally involved with Private Orihara (Yusuke Kawazu), who has lost both of his arms. She takes Orihara to bed -- a gesture of mercy, but also a symptom of her despair. Sent back to the front lines once again, Sakura enters into a strange love affair with Dr. Okabe, encouraging him to give up the morphine. But an overwhelming Chinese attack threatens the entire front-line unit..
Typically for Yasuzo Masumura, Red Angel dramatizes the psychological effect of an outrageously extreme situation. There's nothing conventional about this film's view of war, not even in anti-war terms. Placed in a stagnant conflict that nobody believes can be won, and faced with the possibility of imminent death, the Japanese soldiers resort to whatever momentary pleasures are available. The soldier responsible for raping Nurse Nishi is shipped back to the front as punishment. But one of his friends eagerly tells Sakura that his turn is next and that he's looking forward to it.
Nurse Nishi starts as a relative innocent. A conventional film might depict her as a Florence Nightingale figure, winning the admiration of her patients and fellow nurses through hard work and kindness. Red Angel has no such illusions. Sakura objects to the Army policy of hiding the wounded from public view, which punishes loyal soldiers for sacrificing themselves. She's warned not to mix in such concerns.
Nursing at the front lines is like working in a slaughterhouse. Dr. Okabe hasn't the energy to care for every catastrophic wound. Badly shot-up soldiers are abandoned to die and infected limbs are quickly amputated simply because drugs are scarce and resources are strained to the maximum. It's a far cry from the top-quality medical care given in M*A*S*H; Nishi holds down screaming men while the doctor works with knives and bone saws -- buckets of shattered arms and legs litter the floor. Worse yet, cholera has broken out. The 'comfort' prostitutes are the carriers, but the soldiers keep visiting them anyway.
Nishi reacts to the overwhelming horror much the same way her patients do, grasping at any positive sensation while she can. The armless Orihara begs her for sexual favors, and she complies partly out of pity and partly to address her own growing needs. Her relationship with Dr. Okabe becomes a personal crusade to shake his morphine habit -- and restore his virility so that they can be intimate.
All of these aberrations can only occur at the edge of doom represented by the fighting, and the conclusion of Red Angel is a battle that wipes out what remains of the Japanese encampment.
The film's real focus is on the warped values and twisted psychology of people under pressure. Nurse Nishi responds to the carnage around her by embracing the victims. When that fails she internalizes the anguish into her sex life. As if commenting on her lack of power in the Army command, Nishi cross-dresses in Okabe's uniform and pretends to be his superior. Her affair with the armless Orihara is sort of a precursor to the fetishistic love-mutilations in Moju. Nurse Nishi remains proud of her name -- which means 'cherry blossom' -- and refuses to withdraw from her personal struggle.
Masumura expert direction clearly defines the characters and the film's utterly convincing production values lend credibility to the surgery scenes. As with Manji there is little direct nudity -- the highly charged erotic atmosphere doesn't need it.
Fantoma's DVD of Red Angel is a good enhanced B&W transfer of this 'scope ratio Daiei production. Blacks are not deep but contrast is otherwise good. The audio is equally sharp and clear. The choice of B&W was a good one, as the frequent sight of dismembered limbs and other special effects would be too distracting in color.
The disc extras are a text bio and filmography on director Masumura, and a still gallery. Earl Jackson Jr.'s insert liner notes provide a helpful historical background.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Red Angel rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Text liner notes, Masumura bio and filmography, still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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