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