The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960)

Wandering Princess posterAs in her third film, The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka’s fourth directorial feature, The Wandering Princess (流転の王妃, Ruten no Ouhi), finds her working with extremely recent material – in this case the memoirs of Japanese noblewoman Hiro Saga which had become a bestseller immediately after publication in 1959. Tanaka’s filmic adaptation arrived mere months later in January 1960 which was, in an ironic twist, a year before the real life tale would meet something like the conventional romantic ending familiar from classic melodrama. Nevertheless, working with Daiei’s top talent including Kon Ichikawa’s regular screenwriter (and wife) Natto Wada, Tanaka attempts to reframe the darkness of the preceding 20 years as the defeat of compassionate idealism at the hands of rigid austerity and unstoppable oppression.

Tanaka opens with a scene taking place in 1957 which in fact depicts a somewhat notorious incident already known to the contemporary audience and otherwise unexplained on-screen in which the older Ryuko (Machiko Kyo) tenderly bends over the body of lifeless schoolgirl. The camera then pulls back to find another girl in school uniform, Ryuko, twenty years earlier. A young woman with innocent dreams, Ryuko’s life encounters the usual kind of unwelcome disruption in the unexpected arrival of a marriage proposal but this is no ordinary wedding. Ryuko, as the oldest daughter of a prominent noble family, has been selected as a possible bride for the younger brother of the former Qing emperor now installed as the symbolic leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria. Against the odds, Ryuko and her new husband Futetsu (Eiji Funakoshi) are well matched and endeavour to build a happy home together just as they intend to commit themselves to the creation of a new nation born from the twin legacies of the fallen Chinese empire and the resurgent Japan.

Foregrounding Ryuko’s experience, the film does its best to set “politics” aside but the inescapable truth is that each of our protagonists is a prisoner of the times in which they live. The second scene finds Ryuko in 1937 as an innocent schoolgirl gazing at the young men in uniform as they march past her. She remains out of step with them, walking idly and at her own uneven rhythm while they keep rigorous and seemingly unstoppable time. The family are understandably wary of the implications of the marriage proposal, especially as it comes with a military escort, with Ryuko’s beloved grandmother the only one brave enough to ask to see whoever’s in charge of this outrage only to be told that their fates are in the hands of the nebulous concept known as “army” which knows no individual will.

Assured by her family that the decision rests with her, Ryuko consents – not only to becoming a stranger’s wife (which would have been her fate in any case) but to being a kind of ambassador, the presentable face of imperial ambition. On her marriage she’s presented with a deep red cheongsam and continues to dress in Chinese fashion for remainder of her life in Manchuria where she learns to speak Mandarin and devotes herself to becoming as Chinese as it’s possible to be. Meanwhile, her husband Futetsu busies himself with a complementary desire to become Japanese, intensely worried that the sometimes degrading treatment he and his family receive is exclusively caused by his problematic nationality. When their daughter, Eisei, is born, the couple determine to raise her as the child of a new world, the embodiment of idealised cultural integration.

The world, however, is not so kind and the blunt force of militarism continues to present a barrier to familial harmony. Futetsu is prevented from seeing his brother by the officious forces of the military police while the lonely, paranoid “emperor” suspects that Ryuko is nothing more than a Japanese spy sent to undermine his rule. Ryuko was sent to Manchuria to be the bridge between two cultures. Her, in a sense, feminine energy which attempts to build connection through compassion and understanding is consistently contrasted with the prevailing male energy of the age which prizes only destruction and dominance. Filled with the naivety of idealism, she truly believes in the goodness of the Manchurian project and is entirely blind to the less altruistic actions of her countrymen engaged in the same endeavour.

Confronted by some children in a park while pushing the infant Eisei in a pram, Ryuko is identified as a Japanese woman by her accent while conversing in Mandarin. She assures the children that Eisei is Manchurian like them, and that seeing as she married a Manchurian she is now too despite her Japanese birth. The kids are satisfied, so much so that they warn her that some Manchurians were killed recently in this park by Japanese soldiers, adding a mild complaint that it upsets their parents when Japanese people come to their restaurant and leave without paying. Mortified, Ryuko decides to use some of her (meagre) resources to buy all of the kids and everyone else in the park some sweets from a nearby stand, fulfilling her role as a Japanese ambassador even while insisting that she is a proud citizen of the newly born state of Manchuria.

Nevertheless the Manchurian project is doomed to fail, the kind of idealism fought for by Ryuko and Futetsu crushed under the boot of militarism. Despite everything, Ryuko still wants to be the bridge if only to prevent a catastrophe of this kind happening again (while perhaps refusing to engage with some of the reasons it happened in the first place) but in Eisei’s eventual death, foreshadowed in the melancholy opening, a deeply uncomfortable implication is made that the kind of cross-cultural harmony that Ryuko dreams of may not be viable. In contrast to the salaciously reported real life events (somewhat alluded to by presence of a schoolboy’s cap next to the body) which hinted at a suicide pact or murder, Ryuko attributes Eisei’s decision to end her life to an inability to reconcile her twin heritage coupled with the heavy burden of being the last descendent of the Qing Dynasty. Despite this minor misstep of tying the fate of Eisei to the failure of the Manchurian dream and the loss of its misplaced idealism, Ryuko ends her account on a hopeful note in admiring the flowers she planted finally in bloom and looking forward to a more hopeful age governed by warmth and compassion rather than violence and austerity.


The Wandering Princess was presented by Japan Foundation London as part of a series of events marking the publication of Tanaka Kinuyo: Nation, Stardom and Female Subjectivity.

Red Angel (赤い天使, Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

_1_image_size_900_xRed 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.