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A fresh young army nurse (the radiant Ayako Wakao) on the front finds herself the nighttime prey of hungry soldiers and awash in a sea of blood and torn bodies. Despite the hell around her she struggles to maintain her strength and compassion, but her attempts at salvation, with an amputee solider and the morphine-addicted surgeon, could lead to her own sexual and spiritual martyrdom. Alternating between unflinchingly brutal battlefield imagery and tender moments of emotional sacrifice, director Yasuzo Masumuras (Blind Beast, Manji) masterpiece plays like an impossible collaboration between Samuel Fuller and Akira Kurosawa.
Soldiers are not the only ones who go to war. Mobilized along with the battalions of infantry, artillery and commanding officers are supporting squads of medics, surgeons and nurses. They are the ones who attempt to repair the damage done by enemy forces, to stitch the fighters back up so they can either be sent home as useless or sent back into the breech to kill or be killed. They too can become casualties of the conflict.
"Red Angel" ("Akai Tenshi") is the story of one of these nurses, a young and pretty woman named Nishi Sakura (Wakao Ayako) who is sent to support the war in China in 1939, one of the most horrible times in the 15-year long Pacific War. In the film, little is told of Nishi's backstory. Did she volunteer? Was she drafted? Was she a virgin? For us, her life begins the first night of her first shift as an army nurse, where she is brutally raped by one of the recuperating soldiers while the rest of the ward room watches, appreciative of the "entertainment". It is a harsh lesson for both Nishi as well as the viewers. This is not going to be a story about heroes.
Recovering from this initial horror, Nishi is only thrown deeper into the reality of working with men who have been reduced to beasts, who know that they will die soon enough so what does it matter what they do in the meantime. Trying desperately to retain her humanity, she tries to stitch the wounds and relieve the pain as best she can, pulling out hundreds of bullets in a single day and unable to wash the sent of blood from her hands. Into her life comes Dr. Okabe (Ashida Shinsuke), and older man who reminds her of her father.Read more ›
This is only the third Masumura film I've seen, but unlike the others (Blind Beast and Black Test Car) Red Angel kept me awake pondering its message. Not exactly an anti-war film, nor one championing women's rights (though both themes are apparent), this masterpiece, it suddenly occurred to me in the middle of the night, was far more profound than I had first thought. The key is the army doctor's addiction to morphine, and Nurse Nishi's determination to stop it. I won't spoil anything, but suffice to say that this film opened my eyes to this underrated Japanese director. Quite unlike Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa, Masumura distances his audience from the story. The countless amputated hands and feet sticking awkwardly out of buckets in the middle of a makeshift army hospital are not too hard to stomach! With less emotional attachment, what comes through is the story, the symbols, the awakening. Ayako Wakao, whom you might have seen in Mizoguchi's Street of Shame or Ozu's Floating Weeds, IS Nurse Nishi Cherry Blossom: modest, compassionate, dignified. When she puts on the doctor's uniform and boots, it suddenly takes you aback. And in the final, haunting scene (not unlike that of Kobayashi's The Human Condition) you come to understand what angel she really is. Surely an inspiration for Wakamatsu's Caterpillar, Red Angel begs multiple viewings.
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