Thursday, April 04, 2013


 Red Angel is a decidedly nonhysterical movie about madness, specifically, the madness of war, but also the delirium of love, the levels of humiliation and ecstasy which can often be the final destination of romantic and sexual desire, and how the one can inform and overwhelm the other. In fact, the movie is frequently and paradoxically beautiful, visually, in its measured view of both the ghastly horrors of violated bodies, on the battlefield and spread out on the floor of a mobile army hospital, and in the repose from those horrors taken by Nurse Nishi (Ayako Wakao), the titular scarlet-stained merciful vessel, an inexperienced Japanese army nurse who finds herself confronted with violence from expected and unexpected places while serving on the Chinese front during World War II. 

Ayako is quietly spectacular in the role, a sturdy, graceful performance which, for all its incumbent harsh surroundings, couldn't be less ostentatious. Her introduction to the grim circumstances of the war comes first courtesy of a harshly matter-of-fact head nurse, who details expectations in the military hospital where she is first stationed, and rapidly thereafter at the mercy (or lack thereof) of a group of hospitalized soldiers who first sexually intimidate her and then carry through on their threats by viciously gang-raping her. Nishi, nicknamed Sakura-- Japanese for “cherry blossom,” a bloom noted for its short life-- is as idealized a character as that nickname implies. She bears up under the assault, and the prospect of more to come, with a steely reserve that never betrays the cold heart of anger or even apparent fear. She fully looks as though she’s resigned to taking as much abuse as these maddened soldiers, specified emblems and victims of the war itself, can dish out. It’s a resolve that is matched only by her tireless and unflinching efforts in the operating room, where director Yasuzo Masamura, filming the script by Ryozo Kazahara which was itself adapted from Yoriyoshi Arima’s novel, holds back little in the way of ghastly visions of limbs sawed and separated from bodies in often vain attempts, sans anesthesia, to save already shattered lives.

Director Masamura early on makes a strange but thematically resonant connection between the rape and Nishi’s duties as a nurse which ripples through the film and heighten its emotional effect. Nishi is held down by her attackers, all four limbs rendered helpless against the assault, in much the same way that Nishi, in concert with the rest of the surgical staff, must restrict the movements of soldiers whose limbs they must amputate. Later, fate reunites Nishi with her first attacker, and this time it is he who is immobilized and at her mercy, on the operating table. Rather than neglect him, she does her best to preserve his life, not wanting him to die thinking that she allowed to slip away from life out of a sense of vengeance, even though her efforts are ultimately futile. The operating theaters are dark and cold and forbidding chambers where the meaning of acts of morality tend to get blurred, lost in the shadows and the pools of blood gathering on the filthy floors.

Masamura’s wide-screen, black and white imagery serves the murky atmosphere of these makeshift corpse factories well. His mise-en-scene has a strange serenity about it, simultaneously documentary in quality-- you never mistake the gushers of blood and sounds of screams and breaking flesh for anything but realistic-- yet also subjective and slightly woozy, as if the camera itself had been anesthetized, taking in the gruesome sights and sounds with a calm that is clearly reflective of Nishi’s own, yet still able to clearly convey the pain stitched through the imagery like compromised fields of nerves and veins. The documentary and the surreal often get tangled up in images too, like the one of a basket full of arms and legs looking not as much like the discards of military surgery as surgical implements stacked neatly in a container, awaiting their moment. I had to quickly look, look away, and look back to make sure I was seeing exactly what it was I was seeing.

Masamura further escalates his strange emotional brew when Nishi is assigned duty at a hospital on the front under the command of Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida). She quickly bonds with, and becomes a sort of merciful lover to an armless soldier; Masamura’s handling of their encounters are beautifully rendered, deftly comingling eroticism with imagery of extreme physical scarring that somehow manages to denude that imagery of its most sensational, prurient aspects.  But it is to Okabe that Nishi seems most instantly attracted, to his forthrightness and sense of duty, of course, but also to his sense of helplessness in the face of such overwhelming human need, and to the doctor’s wavering conviction—he’s no longer sure that saving, or prolonging, some of these lives is even the right thing to do. When Okabe orders Nishi to his quarters after their shift is over, we brace ourselves for yet the next humiliation to be visited upon this strangely composed woman. But we soon discover that he longs only for Nishi’s company, and her medical skill at administering the nightly doses of morphine he needs to dull his psychic pain and allow sleep to overtake him. The naturalistic pace and tone of their scenes together are wonderful. These two drift around each other’s military assignations and professional attachments toward a mutual love—one which, on Nishi’s part, may also be informed by a serious case of father replacement syndrome. Their scenes together waiting for dawn, for sleep, for an unlikely connection, make nuanced, painful yet also delightful dances of delayed gratification.

With just the wrong emphasis or shift in tone, Red Angel might be easily dismissed as lurid romantic trash hiding under the pretensions of an antiwar statement. But it is a measure of Masamura’s achievement that the film avoids becoming a wallow in either political opportunism, the swooning theatrics of longing under extreme duress, or even the uncomfortably realistic surgical nightmares which it occasionally makes us privy to. And it resists the temptation to fall into these traps in the most subdued of means, through a directorial style that might seem at first detached, but whose careful attention to detail and restraint and genuine feeling actually reveals a heartfelt humanist sensibility which blossoms without the need for excessive congratulation—even Nishi’s measured response to her own trials at the beginning of the film come to seem marked more by a recognizable humanity than simply by impossible fortitude, and that’s because of the way Masamura guides us through what she sees and feels, as she makes her way toward the inevitable transcendence of the film’s conclusion.


Before making his own films, Yasuzo Masamura trained with the likes of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni (Antonioni would one day even name Masamura as one of his favorite directors), and though he has not been universally acclaimed he is considered in some circles to be one of the greats of the new wave of Japanese filmmakers that also included Akira Kurosawa and Yazujiro Ozu. And up until this viewing of Red Angel, I was unfamiliar with the name Yasuzo Masamura. Considering that my previous adventures in the White Elephant Blog-a-thon, for which this piece has been respectfully, if somewhat tardily submitted, have sent me down the respective rabbit holes of Stewart Raffill (Mannequin 2: On the Move) and Alan Parker (The Life of David Gale), it is quite an unexpected treat to get to write about a movie for this annual festivity that is actually good, and to discover Masamura, definitely a subject for my own further very interested review. I don’t know who I have to thank, but I shall thank them nonetheless. Stacia, who had to review the movie I submitted, Robert Mulligan’s stagnant 1979 adaptation of Bernard Slade’s Broadway chestnut Same Time Next Year, is probably not feeling so generous toward me. You can check out links to Stacia’s hilarious, outrage-filled piece, and all the reviews for this year’s White Elephant Blog-a-thon, at Paul Clark’s Silly Hats Only.


1 comment:

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I'm so glad you liked this! This was my submission. I'm glad that you were able to get a hold of the film. When Steve Carlson told me that Red Angel was on "short wait" on Netflix, I was a little bit worried. (My second choice, A Snake of June, was also not a film I would call "bad"--I may not be getting into the spirit of sadism when it comes to throwing movies into the hat).

Masamura is one of my favorite directors. When Nagisa Oshima kicked off the Japanese New Wave in the late 1950s by condemning Japanese cinema as "foggy history and flower arrangements," he exempted Masamura. It's easy to see why. Giants and Toys or A Wife Confesses are dramatically different in tone, style, and subject matter than anything you might see from Ozu or Mizoguchi (or even Kurosawa). I can only imagine what Red Angel might have looked like in the hands of Mizoguchi, who had a tendency to go for the tear jerker.

Anyway, a wonderful write-up. Thank you so much!