April 6, 2012

Reader's Choice: Red Angel (1966)

Directed by Yasuzo Masumura. Starring Ayako Wakao ("Nurse Sakura Nishi"), Shinsuke Ashida ("Dr. Okabe"), Yûsuke Kawazu ("Pvt. Orihara"), and Ranko Akagi ("Head Nurse Iwashima"). Not Rated.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Fantoma)
Running time: 01:34:44
Country: Japan

Picked by Laurence R. Harvey

Sakura Nishi is a nurse for the Japanese Army who's stationed in China during World War II. Seeing as the film takes place during the very early stages of the war, she's immediately thrust into a dangerous situation without much notice when she's relocated from her duty station to a makeshift hospital on the front lines. Under the tutelage of the well-respected Dr. Okabe, who secretly battles a morphine addiction, Sakura tends to truckloads of damaged war victims on a daily basis who pour into the hospital one after another. Patients with missing limbs and other gruesome injuries are simply part of the daily routine. Because of the constant flow of patients, Dr. Okabe makes decisions with peoples' lives by simply giving them a quick look-over; within seconds, he decides who gets to live and who gets to be put out of their misery. The methods of surgery and treatment are barbaric (amputation without anesthesia) but necessary.

Named after the Cherry Blossom, Sakura (or "Nurse Nishi" as she's more commonly referred to as), is the ideal nurse you wanna have taking care of you should you find yourself hospitalized, and I say this because she goes the extra mile and gladly gives sexual pleasure to an armless patient of hers on more than one occasion. Following her brief affair with the war victim, she gradually falls in love with the impotent Dr. Okabe. The relationship between the two is interesting; not so much for the much older Okabe, but rather regarding the logic behind Sakura's fondness for him. It's revealed that her father passed away shortly before she was born, so it could be a case of Sakura being drawn to Okabe as a father figure, or it could be because she needs some sort of light amidst the darkness of war and bloodshed that surrounds her. Whatever the case, their relationship "blossoms" as attack is imminent and their final hours could be upon them.

RED ANGEL lets you know right from the start that it will not be a pleasant film, visually speaking, but then again it's not exactly common for a film to romanticize and make light of World War II. The gorgeous black and white is cinematography is effective, regardless of whether it was a necessity to hide the abundance of gore or if it was simply a natural filmmaking choice given the state of cinema at the time (color was introduced in Japan over a decade before this film was made, but many films still utilized black and white cinematography at the time).

While RED ANGEL doesn't necessarily beat you over the head with it, one could interpret the film as being one that deals with female empowerment, as Sakura gradually establishes herself as strong female character amongst large groups of men without letting it get in the way of her job performance, although her tendency to be sympathetic could easily contradict that claim. The female empowerment aspect (if there even is one) is inherent since Sakura is essentially in an ironic position of power and control despite her duty being to serve and help other people. RED ANGEL goes to some undeniably bizarre places, but it never feels like an "exploitation movie" that features shock for the sake of shock, and part of this has to do with how Sakura is portrayed in the film; at one point she's raped and victimized on screen, but, in an ironic twist of fate, the man who assaulted her later finds himself injured and at the mercy of Nurse Nishi.

Despite the setting of the film and the brutal imagery, RED ANGEL is ultimately somewhat of a sweet love story that never compromises whatever statement it's trying to make on World War II. Love and human emotions in general are much more powerful when you know your time is limited, which is something that this film brilliantly addresses.

Score: 8

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