RED ANGEL (Yasuzo Masumura, 1966)

“The last vestiges of my professional pride made me go through the motions.” Dr. Okabe, in 1939 a battlefront surgeon during the Sino-Japanese War, who has been reduced to an amputator, says this. In an appalling scene, after sawing off the leg of a soldier who hasn’t the benefit of anesthesia, Okabe proceeds: “Now the arm.” It’s “a stupid war,” Okabe pronounces in a quiet moment. What war isn’t? Wars make sense only to stupid or evil people.
     From Yoriyoshi Arima, Yasuzo Masumura’s Akai tenshi revolves around Sakura Nishi, a Japanese nurse in China. At a field hospital, she is raped by one of the patients; he has already raped two of her sister nurses. The soldier feels entitled, explaining afterwards that a man in his situation must have a woman. One of his brother soldiers tells Sakura that he is “next.” Sakura complains and is sent to the front. There, her own sexual life is seamlessly folded into her wartime medical experience. She has needs, too: a touch of intimacy in a monstrous war.
     How I wish I liked this movie more than I do. It expresses what I feel about war, its horror, viciousness, futility. It is in black and white. It comes from the depth of Masumura’s conviction. But, thinning out into posturing, it is schematic, and Ayako Wakao, so striking in Kenji Mizoguchi’s last film, Street of Shame (1956), is anemic here. No Joan Fontaine, she can scarcely sustain the voiceover, and this is the only halfway convincing part of her performance. Masumura’s antiwar film fails to achieve the power and eloquence of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari (1953) or Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp (1956).
     Masumura has made a sober, dark and honest film. But not a particularly good one.

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