Red Angel (赤い天使, Akai Tenshi) sees Masumura returning directly to the theme of the war, and particularly to the early days of the Manchurian campaign. Himself a war veteran (though of a slightly later period), Masumura knew first hand the sheer horror of warfare and with this particular film wanted to convey not just the mangled bodies, blood and destruction that warfare brings about but the secondary effects it has on the psyche of all those connected with it.
The story begins as idealistic young nurse Sakura Nishi is sent to a military hospital in mainland China as the Japanese army continues its expansion into Manchuria. At this point the situation isn’t desperate, however, Nishi has barely settled into her new work when she’s grabbed by a patient who attempts to assault her. Far from coming to her rescue or raising the alarm, some of the other patients hold her down or guard the door while Nishi is raped. Reporting the incident to her superior the next morning, Nishi finds out she’s the third nurse this has happened to and only now the matron decides to have the patient (whom she brands a malingerer with mental problems) shipped back to the front lines. The soldier even has the audacity to say goodbye before he leaves whilst leering unpleasantly and if that wasn’t enough the friend also remarks that he enjoyed “the show” and is looking forward to “his turn”.
Things only get worse as Nishi is sent to the front line field hospital which is overrun with the dead and dying. The new patients are delivered by the truckload and the resident surgeon, Dr. Okabe, has to make split second decisions about who is most likely to survive and will receive treatment. Operations here generally result in amputations (whether strictly necessary or not) as this is the best way to prevent the onset of gangrene and other life threatening infections. Okabe was a top surgeon before the war but now he wonders if he’s even a doctor at all – let them die or mame them for life, these are his only options. Eventually, Nishi and Okabe develop a bond but in this desperate and dangerous environment, can you really trust anything or anyone or is every action simply part of the final death throws of those facing the ultimate horror of war?
The frontline field hospital is barely distinguishable from a charnel house as limbs are severed with terrifying efficiency by the conflicted Okabe. There’s little anaesthetic or even medication available and the men scream in agony, asking for their mothers until they finally pass out. Nishi retains some of her youthful compassion wanting to do the best for her patients but Okabe is already lost to a kind of fatalistic blankness.He knows the war itself is hopeless and repeatedly exclaims that China is just too big with too many people in it and they’ll make no impact at all here. At home at least he felt as if he could do something positive, save people’s lives, but here even if he manages to help someone they’ll be sent straight back to fight. They won’t even let the amputees go home for fear that the sight of so many limbless men will damage the nation’s morale.
Okabe, like most of the other men in the film, also has a preoccupation with sex and specifically how these men’s injuries may impact their later quality of life. As for himself, he’s been addicted to morphine for some time which has made him impotent and also places a barrier between himself and his developing relationship with Nishi. Perhaps for this reason he suddenly changes his mind about operating on a patient because it would mean interfering with an area of nerves directly related to sexual arousal and with so little time he’s worried it may be botched and ruin the man’s life so, as it’s likely he may survive without the surgery, he opts to leave it to the more capable hands of a homeland surgeon at a later date. Similarly, a sympathetic patient of Nishi’s who’s lost both of his arms later asks her to provide the “relief” that he is no longer able to supply for himself. Nishi comes to regard this as another of her duties of care and gives the man a few last minutes of comfort. However, this abundance of kindness proves to much for the man and only leaves Nishi feeling even more conflicted than before.
Despite the harshness of the environment, Nishi maintains her youthful and idealistic vision of the world. Okabe cautions her not to get attached to the patients and that the only way through is to view everybody as a stranger, she however refuses. Gradually, Nishi’s love and perseverance reawaken Okabe’s desire for life but in a world as chaotic and fragile as this one all human connections are fleeting and born of the proximity to death.
Red Angel plays out like a horror film full of blood and mangled bodies. Having opened with a series of broken skeletons, the film does not skimp on the macabre imagery and the scenes of buckets full of limbs and corpses being flung from sheets into mass graves are some of the most hauntingly authentic captured on screen. It’s raw and it’s grim, the frankness of its desire to address the murky sexual life of the wartime forces is also surprising from a film made in 1966. Yet there is passion and real connection here too. Throughout it all, Nishi never loses her desire to help or her commitment to love even in the darkest hours. She doesn’t, and cannot, win but her spirit remains unbroken. A harsh look at the animalistic nature of war and its destructive effect on basic human civility, Red Angel is one of the few films to deal with wartime sexuality in a frank way and is still, unfortunately, well ahead of its time.
Red Angel is available with English subtitles on R1 DVD from Fantoma and in the UK from Yume Pictures.