Red Angel (Akai tenshi)

Director: Yasuzô Masumura
Screenplay: Ryôzô Kasahara (based on the novel by Yoriyoshi Arima
Stars: Ayako Wakao (Nurse Sakura Nishi), Shinsuke Ashida (Dr. Okabe), Yûsuke Kawazu (Pvt. Orihara), Ranko Akagi (Head Nurse Iwashima), Jôtarô Senba (Private Sakamoto), Daihachi Kita (Private Nogami), Jun Osanai (Special Duty Sergeant Major), Daigo Inoue (Advance Guard Company’s Fifth Chief), Takashi Nakamura (Head of infantry), Ken’ichi Tani (Wounded soldier)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1966
Country: Japan
Red Angel Blu-ray
Red Angel

Yasuzô Masumura was both a prolific studio-contract director who churned out movies at the rate of three or four per year for Daiei and a conformity-bucking iconoclast who helped define the early contours of the Japanese New Wave with his directorial debut Kisses (Kuchizuke, 1957), a romance about a young couple whose fathers are both in prison. Masumura was an avid moviegoer as an adolescent, studied filmmaking on scholarship at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and worked for a short time as an assistant to both Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before launching his own career, which spanned nearly three decades and almost 70 feature films. His work was contemporaneous, but largely distinct from, other notable figures of the Japanese New Wave, including Seijun Suzuki, Shohei Imamura, and Nagisa Oshima, the latter of whom wrote glowingly as a critic about Kisses, tagging it as a film in which “the new generation took its place in Japanese cinema as an intense, irresistible force that no one could ignore.”

Intense is an appropriate word for Masumura’s films, many of which revel in visual and tonal excess and play their melodrama seriously, which is perhaps why he is so often compared to the American maverick independent filmmaker Sam Fuller. That comparison is particularly apt in considering Red Angel (Akai tenshi), which is exactly the kind of no-apologies war-is-hell psychodrama that Fuller would have made. Set almost entirely within various field hospitals along the front line of the Sino-Japanese War in China in 1939, the story follows Nurse Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao, who appeared in more than 20 of Masumra’s films), a gentle soul in a hellish environment who wants nothing more than to help the men around her, all of whom are wounded physically, psychologically, spiritually, or some combination. She is surround by the ravages of violence and is herself a victim, falling prey to a gang of sexually ravenous soldiers led by Private Sakamoto (Jôtarô Senba) who rape her. When later confronted with Sakamoto after he has been fatally wounded on the front lines, where he has been sent as punishment for the assault, she does everything she can to save him just so he knows that she has no desire for vengeance.

Much of the film concerns her relationship with two damaged men. The first is a soldier (Ken’ichi Tani) who has lost both of his arms. In a desperate bid to console him, she provides him with sexual favors, but it turns out that her efforts were in vain and only made things worse for him. She also develops a long-terms relationship with the head of the field hospital, Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), whose experiences amutating hundreds of limbs as the only means of saving lives has left him depressed, cynical, and addicted to morphine. More so than any character in the film, Dr. Okabe represents the ravages of war, as he sees day in and day out the horrors of bodies mutilated by bullets and shrapnel and can do little more than cut off the most damaged parts, leaving the men alive, but permanently disfigured and disabled—potent symbols of the cost of not just war, but the kind of unchecked aggression that defined the militaristic imperialism of Japan and was seen with such a critical eye by subsequent generations.

Based on a recently published novel by Yoriyoshi Arima, himself a war veteran, Red Angel was adapted by the prolific screenwriter Ryôzô Kasahara. It was the third of three war films Masumura made between 1965 and 1966, the previous two being Seisaku’s Wife (Seisaku no tsuma, 1965), a homefront melodrama set at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, and Hoodlum Soldier (Heitai yakuza, 1965), the first in a series of nine yakuza (gangster) films featuring a former gangster and a conscientious objector who are drafted into the Japanese army. Red Angel is distinct from both of those films, though, as it grounds its human drama in the grisly realities of war, eschewing the cathartic comedy of Hoodlum Soldier and the homefront setting of Seisaku’s Wife (although all three films can be viewed as critiques of Japanese militarism). Red Angel is a raw, bloody, uncompromised drama that takes as its central subject the destruction of humanity as seen through the mutilated soldiers and the psychically scarred medical personnel who must attend to them.

The film was shot in widescreen by cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi, who spent five years on the front lines of World War II. He had already shot nearly 30 films in less than a decade, one of which was Masumura’s Hoodlum Soldier and another of which was Kon Ichikawa’s brutal war film Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1957). Throughout Red Angel, Masumura and Kobayashi favor long takes and wide shots, rarely move in for anything that might be deemed a close-up. This keeps the characters constantly trapped in their environs, surrounded by wounded soldiers and chaos. The sustained air of violence is both lyrical and documentary-like (the opening credits are placed over actual war photographs, ending on piles of skulls). Even the moments of respite in Dr. Okabe’s private quarters have a suffocating sense of enclosure, as if the war is ready to break through the walls at any moment. Wakao, who had already starred in 15 of Masumura’s films, and Ashida are both excellent in their respective roles, and even when their relationship turns conventionally romantic when she helps him kick his morphine addiction and reclaim his sexuality, it still has the dark edge of assurance that the horrors of war are always just a breath away.

Red Angel Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • Japanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by Japanese cinema scholar David Desser
  • Video introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns
  • “Not All Angels Have Wings,” visual essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • Original trailer
  • Image gallery
  • Illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Irene González-López
  • DistributorArrow Video
    Release DateJanuary 18, 2022

    COMMENTS
    The liner notes don’t provide a lot of information regarding the new 2K transfer except that it was provided by Koadokawa and that Arrow added additional grading. Nevertheless, for the film’s debut in Region 1, I don’t think I could ask for it to look much better. The black-and-white 2.35:1 widescreen frame is very nicely rendered with good detail and clarity. The film uses a lot of sharp contrast, and blacks hold up nicely, with strong shadow detail and plenty of nuance (note how well rendered the gauze around the bed is in the doctor’s private quarters). There are a few instances of damage here and there, but it is otherwise very clean. The original monaural soundtrack is provided on a lossless Linear PCM track, and it sounds good for its age. Most of the soundtrack is dialogue and environmental sounds around the hospital, although the final portion of the film takes place during a battle, giving us some fairly significant explosions and gunfire that hold up relatively well. In terms of supplements, Arrow has brought quite a bit to the table, starting with an enlightening and well researched audio commentary by Japanese cinema scholar David Desser, who seems as comfortable discussing Masumura’s filmography and aesthetic choices as he is the types of artillery that would have been used in the Sino-Japanese War and the sounds they would have made. We also get a 12-minute video introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns and a 13-minute visual essay titled “Not All Angels Have Wings” by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who went to Japan to study Masumura’s films (most of which are not available in the U.S.). Finally, there is an original theatrical trailer, image gallery, and an illustrated insert booklet with an essay by Irene González-López, a lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of London.

    Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Arrow Video

    Overall Rating: (3.5)




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