3.5 out of 5 stars

The Second Sino-Japanese War, fought between China and Japan for eight years in the late-1930s and early-1940s, remains relatively little-known in the west. But the casualties Japan experienced were about the same as it suffered in World War II; although there were more wounded and fewer killed in the Chinese conflict. And from a Japanese perspective it must have made potent subject matter for Red Angel (赤い天使, Akai Tenshi), an anti-war film produced over two decades later at a time when scepticism about the country’s past militarism was intense.

Even if the film, like the conflict, isn’t familiar today, Red Angel wasn’t a minor movie. The prominent and prolific Yasuzo Masumura made it for Daiei (one of the dominant studios of post-war Japan), not long before its collapse, and the lead role was taken by Ayako Wakao, a major star and frequent Masumura collaborator. Like Masumura’s Black Test Car (1962), it’s an intelligent film unafraid to challenge, and only very lightly cloaked in genre clothing.

It is, as one would expect, vehemently critical of the war. One character describes it as “stupid” and unwinnable, and the opening montage ends pointedly on a skull. But it goes further than the standard war-is-hell movie by presenting not only the brutality of the battlefield, but also the aggression and abuse that its characters experience away from it.

There’s precious little sense of camaraderie among the Japanese forces here, and perhaps the film raises an open question: has war made them like this, or has something vicious inherent in their nature led to war?

Red Angel traces the experiences of Nurse Nishi (Wakao), first at a medical facility behind the lines, then at a field hospital closer to the fighting, and finally on the front line itself. Everywhere she encounters savagery, coming from those nominally on the same side as her as often as it comes from the enemy. Toward the end of the film, for example, the focus for some time isn’t on the war with the Chinese at all, but on illness spread by one of the “comfort women” whom the Japanese army enslaved to provide sexual services to soldiers.

Similarly, one of the movie’s first scenes depicts Nishi’s rape by the hospitalised Private Sakamoto (Jôtarô Senba); and the way he and his fellow soldiers hold her down is exactly paralleled by a nearly adjacent scene where she has to hold down a patient struggling in agony while a crude operation is performed on him.

Throughout, then, Red Angel is suffused by hurt and death. The bloodiness and roughness of field surgery is brought home strongly in many scenes, particularly toward the beginning of the film (produced only a few years before Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H dealt with a similar milieu). Wounds are frankly and unflinchingly shown with a level of detail relatively uncommon at the time. A soldier’s foot is almost casually removed; amputated body parts are collected in a barrel.

“Soldiers aren’t human beings. They’re objects… just weapons,” says Dr Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), whose strange developing relationship with Nurse Nishi provides a counterpoint to the film’s less extensive, more conventional war-movie sequences. (Which are themselves well-done, especially the climactic battle). But this morphine-addicted, impotent man loathes himself for conducting so many amputations and depriving so many men of future potential, and it’s easy to suspect he is simply trying to justify his actions to her—or to himself.

Even amputation doesn’t necessarily provide a ticket home. Nurse Nishi also conducts a brief kind of romance with the armless Private Orihara (Yûsuke Kawazu) who is not permitted to go back to Japan lest he be seen as a symbol of defeat. All the same, another soldier deliberately removes a bandage to allow flies into his wound, in the hope it’ll become infected. “Living as a cripple is better than dying,” he reasons.

The narrative of Red Angel is dramatic enough in itself, but Masumura heightens its impact through his direction. Despite the lack of close-ups, his film’s intimate in feel, placing the audience right there in the mostly enclosed spaces where the action plays out. Red Angel is a claustrophobic movie even if it’s a widescreen one. Artful composition and quietly well-judged editing do much to increase the effect, too, while an intermittent voiceover narration from Nishi is far from over-used.

Red Angel is more a director’s and writer’s work than an actor’s, and characters are mostly not explored in much depth. Still, among the men Senba is striking as the vicious Sakamoto—not a large role but an important one—while Ashida, as Nishi’s doctor/lover, persuasively captures both the character’s desperation and the ways in which he still tries to cling to authority and respect.

Wakao herself in the title role can occasionally come across as something of a blank onto which the film’s meanings are inscribed; her feminine reticence and subservience are factors here, of course. But in her relationships with the men of the film she can also show more assertiveness, and her reaction to her travails is convincing. 

Tony Rayns, on one of the Blu-ray’s extras, suggests that Wakao is an angel in the sense she brings succour to the few men with whom she becomes close. But, of course, she can do little for the majority of the men she encounters as a nurse, and although her story provides the framework for Red Angel it’s not really about her.

What seems to interest Masumura most of all is the sheer degrading effect of war; Japan’s record of atrocities in the conflicts of the mid-century isn’t overtly mentioned, but clearly forms a moral backdrop, and almost nothing in this movie is good. The most fundamental human values seem to have withered away, to the point that they can only be grasped for fleeting moments by Nishi when she’s with Private Orihara or Dr Okabe. Operations on wounded men are perfunctory and seemingly uncaring. Many die for lack of basic supplies. There’s almost as much destructiveness in the relationships between the Japanese as there is in their struggle with the Chinese. 

Red Angel is hardly an optimistic movie, then, and certainly not a comfortable one. Though it may be possible to find some glimmers of hope at moments, the overwhelming atmosphere is one of despair and disgust, powerfully conveyed by Masumura in a film that feels big and small at the same time. 

It’s small in its concentration on the individual experience of war rather than the broad picture; but it’s bigger in its cumulative effect than many of those more conservative war films which prioritise combat itself and put less emphasis on its effects, physical and moral.

JAPAN | 1966 | 95 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | BLACK & WHITE | JAPANESE

frame rated divider arrow video
Click image to buy through our Amazon affiliate link

Blu-ray Special Features:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation. A serviceable, high-contrast transfer with what little print damage there is being barely visible.
  • Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio.
  • Optional English subtitles.
  • New audio commentary by David Desser. An excellent, in-depth accompaniment to the film from the emeritus professor of cinema studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, who specialises in Japanese film.
  • New introduction by Tony Rayns. A brief but perceptive talk by the veteran British film writer, also a specialist in Asian cinema.
  • Not All Angels Have Wings, a new visual essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. The American film critic analyses the film and its meanings in detail, as well as setting it in the context of other, non-Japanese war movies.
  • Original trailer.
  • Image gallery.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella. Not made available for review.
  • Illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Irene González-López (first pressing only). Not made available for review.
frame rated divider

Cast & Crew

director: Yasuzô Masumura.
writer: Ryôzô Kasahara (based on the novel Akai Tenshi by Yoriyoshi Arima).
starring: Ayako Wakao, Shinsuke Ashida, & Yûsuke Kawazu.