Red Angel is about a war-time nurse, and it lives up to themes implicit in the name. Nurse Sakura Nishi has the intent to bring the comfort and peace that are implied in the term “angel”, but the world she inhabits is so grim and horrific even that comfort is soaked in blood.
She arrives in Tientsin, which is on the frontlines in Japan’s occupation of Manchuria. It’s 1939, and combat is constant. The dead and wounded seem to be unending. Nishi first arrives in a field hospital, where on the first night of her rounds she is captured and raped by one of the less wounded soldiers.
Later, when she is sent to the front where the real carnage is dealt with, she finds that same soldier again. The doctors don’t think he’s worth saving, but Nishi promises to come to the doctor’s tent at night if he tries a transfusion. It doesn’t work, and so Nishi is in thrall to Dr. Okabe for the failed attempt to save the life of her rapist.
That’s a central theme is this grim, unflinching portrayal of the physical and spiritual cost of warfare. Sakura tries to eke out some humanity, whatever position she is in, and finds it leads to the worse, and worst. Visually, the film is like scenes from a depiction of hell. Trucks full of soldiers emptied of dozens of bodies on stretchers. Doctors sift through them to sort out the dead. The hospital tents are filled with buckets of amputated limbs. That seems to be Dr. Okabe’s primary medical treatment: sawing through bones. It’s all they’re prepared to do in the dank blood-filled tents. Cut off limbs, sew up wounds, hope somebody survives.
Okabe survives by having cut off his humanity with an opium addiction. This is how he makes Sakura serve him: she administers the opium, and stays with him as he nods off into his own brief little peace. Ultimately, when Sakura’s own project of trying to preserve the humanity of the soldiers she treats proves impossible, she turns her healing to the doctor.
Red Angel‘s depiction of wartime carnage is frank, graphic and brutal. The scenes of amputation may suffer a bit from special effects technology when the film was made (1966) but they still have a squeamish power to them. And Red Angel is a powerful film, with a committed performance by Ayako Wakao.
It’s directed by Yasuzo Masamura, who regularly directed Wakao in his films. She was the spider-tattooed murderess in Irezumi. There, her ordeals wrung the humanity out of her and left her with nothing but a desire for revenge. In Red Angel, she plays almost the opposite character, refusing to let the horror she must confront day in and day out contaminate her soul. Less flashy in its style that that film, also released in 1966, Masamura still uses frames within frames to compartmentalize his scenes. The black and white cinematography is beautiful and looks extremely good on this Blu-ray release.
It’s a harrowing, dark depiction of a completely terrible world. From the first dingy hospital scenes to the climactic frontline battle, Red Angel is a film about little glimmers of hope being snuffed out. Or maybe it’s about the need to cling to those little flashes of light, lest all the world become dark. Either way, it’s a grim cinematic experience.
Red Angel has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. Extras include a feature commentary by Japanese expert David Dresser. Video extras include an Introduction by Tony Rayns (12 min) and a video essay on the film, “Not All Angels Have Wings” (14 min) by Jonathan Rosenbaum. There’s also a pair of trailers, and an essay on the film in the included booklet.