Sunday, February 20, 2022

War Is Hell for the Dedicated Army Nurse of Yasuzō Masumura’s Devastating Red Angel

THE RED ANGEL / Akai Tenshi 
(Yasuzō Masumura, Japan, 1966, CinemaScope, 95 minutes) 

There had been War Is Hell movies before Yasuzō Masumura's The Red Angel, but presenting the battlefront from a woman's eyes was rare at the time. It's still rare. Granted, the women of Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole served on the Russian Front, but that film focuses on one woman's post-war experience. Like Ayako Wakao's Sakura Nishi, Iya serves as a nurse, but unlike Nishi, she entered the field untrained and didn't treat men at the sites where they suffered injuries.

By contrast, 24-year-old Nishi is a well-trained nurse in 1939, stationed at a Tientsin field hospital in Japan-controlled China. She's capable and prepared for what awaits. She's also pretty--a liability. A greater liability: her gender in and of itself. To these men, it only matters that she's young and female.

Though it isn't unusual for a war picture to feature a few bad apples--Platoon and Apocalypse Now come to mind--Masumura, working from screenwriter Ryôzô Kasahara's adaptation of the 1966 novel by Yorichika Arima, takes a more cynical approach, because most every military figure in the film is singularly unpleasant. It's a move that can only have been poorly received in Japan. Irene González-López, a Japanese cinema scholar, confirms my suspicions in her excellent essay for the Arrow Blu-ray, "It did not receive such a positive reception in Japan and still nowadays barely features in Japanese publications on Masumura and Wakao" (even the actress, according to González-López, felt the film was "too much"). 

If Masumura steers clear of sentimentality, he isn't without sympathy, since he's always on Nishi's side. Though she feels responsible for the bad things that happen to her patients, it's clear that she isn't, but the way her good deeds never go unpunished only reinforces the film's central driving thesis that war corrupts everything it touches. 

Though The Red Angel feels epic, it clocks in at a tidy 95 minutes. Masumura introduces Nishi with a few quick brushstrokes before plunging her into the action. She was raised by her aunt, because her parents died when she was young, and that's the extent of her biography. If anything, she might feel unformed if portrayed by an actress of lesser skill, but the role represented Wakao's 15th collaboration with the director. She and Masumura would make five more films (she would also work with Yasujirō Ozu and Kon Ichikawa). 

I was particularly struck by the contrast between her characters in The Red Angel and Irezumi (both 1966), since the sex slave-turned-courtesan of the latter--a tattoo of a spider covers her back--is more of a femme fatale. 

Five minutes after Masumura introduces Nishi, men swoop onto her like vampires. The most vocal, Pvt. Sakamoto (Jôtarô Senba), rapes her while others hold her down or gawk. It's the worst kind of trial by fire, but Nishi is no shrinking violet. She promptly reports the assault, but the head nurse insists there isn't much she can do, except to send Sakamoto back on to the field, and she only takes that measure because Nishi is his third victim.

Though it sounds like she's letting him off easy, the opposite proves true when Sakamoto ends up in Nishi's care after a mortar blow to the abdomen. As she sees it, she can save him or let him die. In truth, survival was never an option, but she feels guilty for reporting the rape that led to the circumstance that made the fatal injury possible. 

Nishi will have life-changing encounters with two other men. She meets the next, Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida, Crazed Fruit), when she transfers from the field hospital to a frontline facility. A new kind of hell awaits as she assists in an endless series of amputations. Dr. Okabe explains that they lack the resources, medicine above all, to implement less extreme measures. If an injured arm or a leg risks killing the patient: off it goes. 

It becomes clear at this point why Masumura, working with cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi (Fire on the Plains, The Burmese Harp), chose to shoot in black and white even as Irezumi blooms with color: the screen would otherwise be saturated with crimson. As disturbing as The Red Angel may be--and it's plenty disturbing--it really could be worse. Nonetheless, the sound of the bone saw and the sight of a can filled with limbs says it all.  

The third man, Pvt. Orihara (Japanese New Wave star Yūsuke Kawazu), is a young soldier who has lost most of both arms. One was lost to an explosive device and the other amputated to stop the spread of gangrene. He's largely healed, except the Japanese army refuses to send him home for propagandistic reasons: if civilians were to see for themselves what happened to him at the front, they would be less likely to support the war: out of sight, out of mind. 

He's the only military figure in the film for whom it's possible to feel any sympathy. He's also open about his needs. After Nishi bathes him and helps him to urinate, he asks if she can provide an even more intimate service. It's clear what he means, and Nishi complies. The virginal character at the film's opening has transformed into a sex surrogate, at least for this stranded, forgotten soldier with a fiancée waiting for him back home. 

In Nishi’s attempt to build his confidence, and possibly her own, she takes things a step further by booking a room for them at a local hotel. His injuries haven't affected his ability to perform, and she wants to prove to him that he can still please his fiancée, even if there are other things he can't do. They have a pleasant evening, but afterward things take a turn Nishi could not have foreseen. Once again: her good intentions end up backfiring.

Since Nishi has no time to bond with the other nurses, she bonds with Dr. Okabe instead. It's a problematic relationship of a different kind. Dr. Okabe wants to sleep with her, and yet he admits that morphine addiction has rendered him impotent. This is doubly dangerous, because it means he's depleting the supply of a desperately-needed painkiller. When he propositions Nishi, it's mostly because he requires her expertise with the needle. Not feeling she has a choice, she agrees to assist him. 

Though there's nothing romantic about the world-weary Dr. Okabe, Nishi falls for him anyway, possibly because her loneliness makes it easy for her to overlook flaws that would loom larger in peacetime. Naturally, this angelic character wants to help him, too, and so she does. In this case, her good intentions don't backfire, but it doesn't matter: war still manages to entirely obliterate her efforts. And that's the pessimistic note on which the film ends. 

From start to finish, The Red Angel doesn't mess around. There are no flashbacks to better times. Everything takes place in the present. It's also one of the more brutally honest films I've ever seen about the connection between war and misogyny. Just as the Nazis had their joy division (freudenabteilung), Jewish prisoners forced into prostitution, the Japanese army had comfort women (ianfu), Chinese and Korean women forced into prostitution. Towards the end of the film, a cholera outbreak takes the lives of several of these women before spreading throughout the soldiers' ranks. 

As David Desser notes in his historically-rich commentary track, rape during wartime, particularly in Japan, went far beyond the experience of the occasional nurse. It was widespread. Only two years before the events depicted in the film, the Japanese army invaded Nanking, slaughtering 200,000 men and raping and mutilating 20,000 women. Though the Rape of Nanking goes unmentioned in The Red Angel, Masumura provides a glimpse of the mindset that could lead to such an atrocity. 

If his film isn't as hallucinogenic as, say, Elem Klimov's Come and See, it ranks among the most uncompromising antiwar films. Though it isn't feminist as we currently define the term, the entire project condemns misogyny, an egregious phenomenon in 20th-century Japan that war would only serve to reinforce. Though it doesn't destroy Nishi after one soul-crushing encounter after another, it's also clear: she's one of the lucky ones.

The Red Angel is out now on Prime Video and Blu-ray from Arrow Video. It includes an introduction from Tony Rayns and a video essay from Jonathan Rosenbaum on Masumura's career. The gist: he did his best work, like this film, with Ayako Wakao and in B&W CinemaScope (or "DaieiScope"). His favorite, which I haven't yet seen, is 1961's A Wife Confesses. Images from Asia Shock, DVD BeaverBarnaby Page, and Wednesday Dreams.

No comments:

Post a Comment