Our times certainly do color our perspectives. Case in point – Red Angel. Yasuzo Masamura’s war picture has been called a moving love story as well as a grim indictment of war itself. I found it to be neither. To me it’s little more than a melodrama that’s been caught out behind the shed wallowing in its own tragedy. Again, that’s from my perspective as a viewer today, but that’s really the only perspective I have to offer.
The story follows Sakura Nishi, a young, army nurse who serves during the second Sino-Japanese war. Her first posting is at a recovery hospital where she’s raped by a group of patients. Then she’s posted closer to the front lines where she’s accosted with blood, guts, savagery, and not a few erect soldiers. To say this woman goes through hell is an understatement. And yet, she somehow manages to remain idealistic in the face of every horror in the book. That’s really the only bright light in this dark jungle of a film. If Lars Von Trier had written and directed Apocalypse Now, he’d have made something like this.
My difficulty with the film isn’t how morbidly depressing it is. I get that. War sucks. No, my issue is with the fact that every male character is a selfish prick. Literally! Ishi tries to help everyone around her and she receives little more than abuse in return. I refuse to refer to these characters as men because they aren’t men. Even the ones who are grateful for her help end up hurting her in some way. The head surgeon with whom Nishi falls in love, turns out to be a morphine addict who takes from Ishi without giving anything back. If you watch this movie and really think it’s a love story, I believe there’s a lot of therapy in your future.
Most, if not all, of the horrors in the film are faced by Ishi because of her desire to be of service. In a way, the film justifies its horrors that way, much like a rapist who blames his victim because she was wearing revealing clothing. I’m fairly certain that the extreme imagery helped to sell the film during its initial release. Perhaps the film is an attempt at exposing the plight of women in male-dominated, Japanese society, but that attempt pales when the filmmakers exploit their female star and capitalize on her role as a victim.
I’ve seen very few of Yasuzo Masamura’s 50+ features, but I’ve seen enough to know that he has often dabbled with exploitation. With titles like Hanzo the Razor 2 on his resume, it’s hard to look at Red Angel as anything more than a different sort of exploitation film. His direction here is sound, if a little heavy handed. Check out the multiple shots of the bucket that’s overflowing with freshly amputated arms and legs if you need convincing that this is an exploitation flick. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. I just get annoyed when others want to turn it into more than it is. This isn’t high art.
The lead performance by Ayako Wakao is simple and restrained, revealing just how seasoned a performer she had become by the late ’60s. I wonder what her take was on this material. What does an actress think of when she’s being mock raped on camera by a group of actors? Surely, that moment couldn’t have been a high point in her career.
The black and white images are well composed and serve the purpose of telling the story but they seem awfully dim to me. I’m not sure if that’s what was intended or if it’s the result of a bad transfer. I’m not familiar enough with Fantoma, the company that released the DVD I rented, to know what their track record is with transfers. I just found the images here to be muddy and dark and I’m reluctant to blame noted cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi for it.
Sound quality is so-so, with sparse music that was typical Hollywood-copycat fare. Prolific composer Sei Ikeno phones this one in as one of the eight films he scored for release in 1966. The studio system certainly turned out pictures at a phenomenal pace but the end result was that those artists whose work was highly sought after had to occasionally create work that wasn’t quite finished.
If you’re a fan of Yasuzo Masamura or star Ayako Wako, then this is a must see. If not, I’d skip it. Marginally recommended.