Soldiers are not the only ones who go to war. Mobilized along with the battalions of infantry, artillery and commanding officers are supporting squads of medics, surgeons and nurses. They are the ones who attempt to repair the damage done by enemy forces, to stitch the fighters back up so they can either be sent home as useless or sent back into the breech to kill or be killed. They too can become casualties of the conflict.
"Red Angel" ("Akai Tenshi") is the story of one of these nurses, a young and pretty woman named Nishi Sakura (Wakao Ayako) who is sent to support the war in China in 1939, one of the most horrible times in the 15-year long Pacific War. In the film, little is told of Nishi's backstory. Did she volunteer? Was she drafted? Was she a virgin? For us, her life begins the first night of her first shift as an army nurse, where she is brutally raped by one of the recuperating soldiers while the rest of the ward room watches, appreciative of the "entertainment". It is a harsh lesson for both Nishi as well as the viewers. This is not going to be a story about heroes.
Recovering from this initial horror, Nishi is only thrown deeper into the reality of working with men who have been reduced to beasts, who know that they will die soon enough so what does it matter what they do in the meantime. Trying desperately to retain her humanity, she tries to stitch the wounds and relieve the pain as best she can, pulling out hundreds of bullets in a single day and unable to wash the sent of blood from her hands. Into her life comes Dr. Okabe (Ashida Shinsuke), and older man who reminds her of her father. Okabe has lost his struggle, giving up his skills as a doctor and simply becoming a hacker at a butcher's shop, cutting off arms and legs whether they need it or not, simply because it is the easiest thing to do. A morphine addict, Okabe steals supplies to feed his habit, an addiction that has rendered him sexually impotent, and thus a perfect match for Nishi to fall in love with.
Director Masumura Yasuzo is not one of the most famous Japanese directors. He does not have the reputation of Kurosawa or Ozu, or even Gosha or Kobayashi. While not a genius or innovator, he is a skilled craftsman who can bring to life difficult scripts with inspired imagery. He often works with uncomfortable sexual situations, such as in his films Blind Beast, Manji and Afraid to Die. There is often a brutality associated with sex, and Red Angel is no exception. However, what is different here is the tenderness allowed between Okabe and Nishi, where Okabe's impotence allows him to be a non-aggressor. He still takes pleasure in pretty women, but pursues things no further than his condition allows him. Nishi, on the other hand, is desperate for sex coupled with affection, as opposed to the sex/death connection that has been her experienced up till now.
Aside from the sexual aspect of "Red Angel", the realities of a war-time surgical tent are shown in bold strokes. Limbs are cut off and carried away like an assembly line, and human beings are just so much meat. What Masumura could not do with color, this being a black and white film, he did with sound, with saws grinding bone and flesh producing more horror than any slasher flick. Soldiers come and go, one minute breathing and talking, the next minute a face in a body bag. But the doctors and nurses just keep on working through the gore, stitching up what they can, deciding who will live or who will die with nothing more than a few seconds triage.
I am really glad that Fantoma has brought so many of Masumura's films to DVD for Western audiences. He is an often overlooked director, although all of his flicks are worth watching. "Red Angel" is among his very best.