Film Reviews

Red Angel (1966) – Blu-ray Review

A key detail about Red Angel’s director Yasuzo Masumura is that of how he studied film at Italy’s Centro Sperimentale Di Cinematograpfia under the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. Masumura’s passion for what Europe and its culture of cinema gave him can be seen in his difficult yet often absorbing piece Red Angel.

A tragic drama that focuses on a young nurse who falls in love with a cynical older doctor during her time on the front line of the Second Sino-Japanese War. The film’s rigid visual stillness doesn’t feel too dissimilar from a Yasujirō Ozo feature. A filmmaker who is so influential that he’s often the first filmmaker many think about when it comes to Japanese cinema. Yet through Red Angel’s dark narrative and transgressive engagement of sexual politics, the film leans towards the type of philosophical cinema made by those Masumura admired and studied.

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Opening with credits that linger on the broken bodies of conflict before ending ominously with cracked skulls strewn across the floor, Red Angel starts as it means to go on.  Lead character Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is aggressively raped no less than five minutes into the story. The film luckily spares us explicit details. Yet the act primes the viewer for a narrative filled with complicated emotions. After the assault, the culprit, who allegedly was diagnoseded with an unknown illness, is placed back on the frontline. Something the man himself calls a death sentence. Death indeed comes quickly to the assailant. Nishi meets the soldier soon after on the operating table, after he is wounded in the gut.

A simple, binary redemption is expected in such movies. The wound looks to be fatal. An audience would perhaps expect this promising young woman to obtain her sweet revenge. Not so. Nishi asks the head doctor Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida) for a transfusion to save the man’s life, despite the limited resources. Dr Okabe is sour to this at first. His mind is ravaged by the hellish despair brought forth by the war. Yet he obliges the request. This sets forth a harrowing chain of events in which Nishi begins to see herself as a cursed spirit. Hexing those with who she comes into intimate contact.

“This is hell” a character grimly describes. Indeed, it is. Only in such a hellscape could a man commit such a heinous act, only for the victim to look to save the same mans life, only for the result to be so confoundedly without solace. “There’s no tomorrow on the battlefield” Okabe later remarks. At this point, unbeknownst to him, the nurse who drinks liquor with him and provides him with morphine shots so he can rest his troubled mind is slowly beginning to warm to him. Not just as a reminder of a father figure she once lost, but as a lover.

There’s an element of absurdity within Red Angel which may be down to its exceedingly bleak outlook, along with its the subtitled translation of some of the characters’ more straight-edged yet morose dialogue. The grimness of the subject matter along with the film’s dialogue almost leans into a sense of macabre and most likely unintentional humour. Perhaps down to watching the film with the eyes of 2022.

This doesn’t stop Red Angel from being a profoundly absorbing viewing. Masumura uses war to transgressively slant views of masculinity and seems to be hell-bent on finding ways to distort more typical traditional values. This is all wrapped up within a range of beautiful black and white compositions. This includes a lovemaking sequence handled with careful delicacy. One could almost forget all the doom which is draped around the story.

Arrow Video‘s release of Red Angel’s minimum of extras features an audio commentary by David Desser, as well as an informative but dry introduction to the film by Tony Rayns. Rayns remarks upon the era in which the film is made and the near hopeless expectation of death that lies in the film. He is also quick to note the doom-laden despair that flows throughout the narrative, yet impressively manages to drop a Marvin Gaye reference into his chat.

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A video essay from Chicago writer Jonathan Rosenbaum likens Red Angel to the films of American maverick Sam Fuller. He delves deeper into the grisliness of the feature that Rayns stays away from.  Rosenbaum also comments on Masumura’s standing as a social and cultural critic who also worked within exploitation films. This is something certain audience sectors may have trouble with bending their head around, considering the moral absolutism that resides within so much mainstream film commentary currently. The analysis from Rosenbaum is honest, in-depth and a solid introduction into an Eastern studio filmmaker who, while not particularly mentioned heavily in western culture, still managed to carve out an instinctive filmography off his own bat.

Red Angel is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

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