Red Angel (1966)

Masumura’s brilliant adaptation of a novel by Yoriyoshi Arima tells the story of a young nurse (Ayako Wakao) stationed at an army hospital in 1939, at the time of the Sino-Japanese war. Appearing at a time when Japanese studios are producing largely escapist fare; when independent distributors in the UK and in the US are unearthing more sensationalist work: pinky violence, roman porno and yakuza eiga of the 70s and 80s; while Tartan Video releases J-horror under its Asian Extreme banner and Criterion continues to burnish its catalogue of digitally re-mastered Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi — the DVD release by Fantoma of Masumura’s early B&W war film Red Angel is truly a newsworthy event. The film adds enormously to our appreciation of Masumura, of whom we know only a fraction of the 58 feature length films he shot during his long and productive career.

Produced at a time when the Golden Age of Japanese cinema was rapidly drawing to a close, Red Angel was utterly unlike anything that preceded it. The Japanese public’s hunger for entertainment after the defeat of 1945 was aided immeasurably by the fact that the studios, if not the cinemas, were still intact, and the industry did not as yet have to deal with competition from television. From 1945 to 1958, the number of movie theatres grew exponentially, from 845 to 7,067. The industry went from producing 69 films in 1946 to 215 in 1950, to 302 in 1953, to a peak of 555 in 1960, to drop to around 300 in 1980, 2/3 of which were erotic films. It was in the 1950s that Japanese movies began to achieve recognition in the West. In 1950, Kurosawa’s Rashōmon took the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Western audiences’ preference for exoticism, combined with the success of Rashōmon, spurred Japanese studios on to emulate that formula. Consequently, many of the films that won prizes at festivals and reached a movie-going public were heavy in folklore, took place in rural settings and set in 19th century Japan. For decades the “holy trinity”– Ozu (Tokyo Story), Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) and Mizoguchi (Ugetsu), favored by certain intellectuals and film festivals the world over – tended to overshadow the work of other Japanese directors of the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, a flourishing industry gave certain directors an artistic license they might not otherwise have enjoyed. Hence, in the 60s, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes (1964) took the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film Oscars. Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965) also picked up the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. As unique as these films are, there can be no denying the power of Masumura’s fiercely uncompromising portrait of wartime Japan, and his seeming disdain of entertainment for its own sake. If his intellectual independence earned him admirers, not a few detractors derided Masumura for working for the major studios.

Film lovers whose knowledge of post-war Japanese cinema extends no further than the works of Kurosawa and Ozu might be alarmed at the graphic violence depicted in Masumura’s film. Others, familiar with the biting satire of Giants & Toys and the sexual shenanigans of Manji and Blind Beast, might be surprised at the greater visual finesse, range of emotion and youthful vigor of this early work. Technically, the film leaves little to be desired. Special mention must be made of cinematographer Kobayashi’s deep-focus photography, which captures every nuance of sets so gloomy and full of foreboding, that Dore’s illustrations of Dante’s Inferno leap immediately to mind. Each frame is so crammed with detail that the eye wants to linger even as the conscience is repelled by the spectacle of so much agony. Least of all are we prepared, in a film overflowing with so much gore, for the exquisite compositions and painting with light that recalls the etchings of Rembrandt.

Red Angel contains many of Masumura’s pet themes, chief among them an overpowering, animalistic passion. The film wastes no time in lengthy prologues, thrusting the viewer headlong into makeshift operating rooms and sickbeds filled with groaning patients. We are confronted with buckets of severed limbs, operating tools and uniforms soaked in blood; doctors who are little more than butchers and nurses called upon to hold down screaming patients as they are amputated for lack of anesthesia; piles of cadavers and limbs disposed of in mass graves; rotting bodies and faces disfigured beyond recognition, identifiable only by dog tags. Even the maimed never return home for fear of alarming the Japanese public. And when the ingenuity of mankind is wanting, cholera is rampant and ready to claim still more victims. Subject matter as grotesque as this could easily become, in the hands of a lesser director, no more than a cheap horror film. Yet Masumura accomplishes all this with admirable virtuosity and a refreshing absence of cloying melodrama, elliptical narratives, or annoying flashbacks.

One of the exciting aspects of the film, not remarked by other critics, is the outstanding construction and excellently judged pacing which keeps the story moving briskly along. The furious activity of the daytime scenes, from the gathering of the wounded and the grisly operations, to the disposal of the corpses, is juxtaposed against relatively still evening scenes, preventing the mind from going numb from a surfeit of horror. The story of a nurse satisfying the sexual needs of amputees — with its extreme violence and lack of a comforting historical distance — was decidedly unlikely to appeal to audiences accustomed to the comparatively genteel films of Ozu and Imamura or the reassuringly familiar works of Kurosawa. Grim, horrifying, at times unrelentingly violent, Masumura’s Red Angel is also filled with some of the most agonizingly tender moments to be seen in any film.

Red Angel not only significantly enlarges our understanding of Masumura, it also provides valuable insight into an obscure period of Japanese history. Little or no documentation dealing with this shameful part of Japan’s past — the brutal conditions under which men and women served, the widespread phenomenon of wartime rape – has been made available to the public. Grim and realistic, it is diametrically opposed to today’s blockbusters which would try to restore a semblance of valor, heroism and nationalism to the tarnished notions of a bygone era.

Japan | 1966 | Directed by Yasuzo Masumura | Starring Ayako Wakao, Shinsuke Ashida, Yusuke Kawazu, Ranko Akagi, Jotaro Senba

Rampo Noir [Rampo Jigoku]

“Why couldn’t the lens capture on the spot the cerebral life, the chemical reactions of the brain, the silver bath of the association of images, the over- or underexposure of the principal idea and the marvels of the surge of the subconscious, revealing all?”

“Pourquoi l’objectif ne saisirait-il pas sur le vif la vie cérébrale, les réactions chimiques du cerveau, le bain d’argent de l’association des images, la sur- ou sous-exposition d’une idée-force et les merveilles de l’afflux du subconscient, ce révélateur ? ».
Blaise Cendrars. Une nuit dans le forêt, p 45. (1929).

Reading this passage from Une nuit dans le forêt, Blaise Cendrars’ (1886-1961) semi-autobiographical novel recounting his experiences as a filmmaker in Rome, I was struck by its prescience. Cendrars was the first poet to recognize the creative possibilities of the new medium of motion pictures. The notion of capturing on celluloid the very essence of the life of the subconscious, while perhaps the extravagance of a poetic imagination, comes very close to describing what these four very different filmmakers (two making their debut here) have attempted to accomplish in Rampo Noir, a collection of four short films based on the work of Japanese novelist Edogawa Rampo (Taro Hirai). Japanese filmmakers – most notably Tsukamoto and Masumura – had already adapted Rampo’s work for the silver screen. Among the better known, we cite: Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf (2001) Ishii Teruo, starring Tsukamoto Shinya; Gemini (1999) Shinya Tsukamoto; Mystery of Rampo (1994) Okuyama Kazuyoshi; Stroller in the Attic (1976) Tanaka Noboru; Blind Beast (1969) Masumura; Horror of a Deformed Man (1969) Ishii Teruo; and Black Lizard (1968) Fukasaku Kinji.

Mars Canal, the first and most experimental of the shorts in this collection, is calculated to throw off the viewer’s equilibrium from the very start. Jittery camerawork, an Asano Tadanobu exerting himself physically to the utmost and an (almost) non-existant soundtrack ensure that the audience will not remain passive observers throughout this adventure. For some, the segment will seem blessedly short-lived.

The next work in the collection, entitled Mirror Hell (Kagami Jigoku), is by Akio Jissoji, no stranger to the world of Rampo. While appearing at first to be a continuation of the first tale, it turns out to be nothing of the kind. This may be as good an opportunity as any to question the producers’ decision to link these unrelated films together, where even the chapters on the DVD do not correspond to the beginning and end of the individual pictures. But this is a small quibble for a production in which evident care has been lavished on every detail, from start to finish. The universe inhabited by Rampo may reflect a time gone by (a belligerent Japan just opening up to Western culture), but it still exerts a strong attraction for filmmakers like Jissoji, who has already made three films based on the writer’s mysteries. Jissoji has said that he prefers going to art museums to watching movies, and this preoccupation is manifest in each and every one of the exquisitely constructed ‘display cases’ that constitute the sets of this, perhaps the most narrative-based of the four films. The director takes evident delight in framing his actors in elaborately composed mirrored décors, each unique and memorable, and lovingly photographed in monochromatic color: the tea ceremony room, the funeral service at the mortuary, the autopsy room, the hotel in Kamakura, the Kamakura police station — but perhaps most fascinating of all the riches on display are the scenes in which the handsome Toru Itsuki (Hiroki Narimiya) is at work in his studio, creating the dreaded ‘shadow mirror’. There is no denying the stylistic virtuosity of Jissoji , who spent his youth watching the films of Fellini and Antonioni, as well as the French filmmakers of the 1930s through the Nouvelle Vague. Mirror Hell is a genuine feast for the senses, which may or may not enable the viewer to forgive the most transparent of detective stories (in which Tadanobu tries valiantly to fill out his shell of a role), a gratingly annoying operatic soundtrack, and gratuitous scenes of bondage and S&M.

Many of the themes of Rampo’s oeuvre have already been developed in the first two episodes — eroticism, voyeurism and lack of genuine communication – but they reach their paroxysm in the third installment entitled Caterpillar.  This grim tale tells the story of a battered war hero (Nao Omori)who has returned home to his passionate wife (Yukiko Okamoto) – only to be subjected to the cruel sexual and sadistic whims of her unbalanced mind. Of the four films in this collection, perhaps none have matched so perfectly story and director as in this episode. Hisayasu Sato freely experiments with camera movement, lighting, intentional use of blur and high contrast, and color (an inky-blue sequence is reminiscent of Tsukamoto’s singular A Snake of June) but miraculously, the individual images all hold together as one. Of particular note is a scene where the wife shatters a mirror held by her deceased uncle’s assistant (Matsuda Ryuhei), the shards of glass reflected in angular splinters of light about the darkened room. Although there is an abundance of suffering in Caterpillar, what interests the director most are not torments of the flesh, but the psychic trauma endured by generations of Japanese unable to communicate with one another. One of the side-effects of this inability to express oneself manifests itself as voyeurism, which has reached epidemic proportions in Japanese society.

The fourth and final installment, Crawling Bugs, distinguishes itself from the preceding three by its rich use of color, a lively Afro-Cuban jazz soundtrack, and superb costumes and sets recalling the 1920s.  Tadanobu Asano here takes on the role of a pathologically reclusive germ-obsessed chauffeur, who develops an infatuation with a movie starlet (Tamaki Ogawa). I especially enjoyed the darkly humorous scenes at the dermatologist’s office, underscored by the sounds of a common household appliance. Sole distraction – the overuse of a particular sound effect, which my nephew called ‘frying eggs’. Both morbid and droll, Kaneko Atsushi’s debut film proves the manga artist of Bambi and Her Pink Gun to be a filmmaker to watch for. This set comes highly recommended and, while distinctly different, will inevitably draw comparisons to last year’s outstanding horror omnibus Three…Extremes. The HK R3 NTSC DVD distributed by Universe Laser & Video is flawless.

Japan | 2005 | Directors: Takeuchi Suguru, Jissoji Akio, Sato Hisayasu, Kaneko Atsushi | Starring Asano Tadanobu (The Man/Detective Akechi/Masaki), Narimiya Hiroki (Toru), Matsuda Ryuhei (Hirai), Okamoto Yukiko (Sunaga Tokiko), Omori Nao (Sunaga), Ogawa Tamaki (Kinoshita)

Ganeon Entertainment, Micott & Basara, Kadokawa Herald Pictures, Toei TV
Writers: Takeuchi Suguru, Jissoji Akio, Yumeno Shiro, Kaneko Atsushi
Producer: Miyazaki Dai
Directors of photography: Takeuchi Suguru, Hachimaki Tsuneari, Ashizawa Akiko, Yamamoto Hideo
Production designer: Kitamura Michiko
Music: Puppypet
Editors: Abe Naoko, Shinozaki Hiroshi, Saitou Ryota, Yousuke Yafune, Kunihiko Ukai, Kaneko Naoki.
Budget: $1.5 million
Running time: 134 minutes