Judge Brendan Babish thinks losing both your arms is almost a fair tradeoff for a sharing a bathtub with Nurse Nishi. Almost.
"Please say that you love your Sakura cherry blossom."
For a sober war movie, Red Angel is actually quite erotic. The film features Ayako Wakao (accurately described as "radiant" on the DVD back cover) as Nurse Sakura Nishi, a comely health care worker stationed with the Japanese Army during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). Nishi works tirelessly on the front lines, sifting through mountains of dead and dying soldiers, assisting in gruesome operations, and caring for convalescing amputees. The men she cares for have become warped by homesickness and violence, and they lust for her with a naked craving. Early in the film she is gang raped by a group of soldiers, but soon learns this is standard practice for all nurses. Nishi becomes torn between maintaining her purity and patriotic duties; but when she falls for the enigmatic Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), love trumps all other concerns.
As different as the tone of the two films are, Red Angel reminded me of the psychedelic comedy Candy, a wacky 1960s film in which an earnest high school girl is seduced by nearly every adult male she comes in contact with. Like Candy, Red Angel features an earnest female protagonist whose pulchritude proves irresistible to men, and a plot that is a series of sexual encounters. But while Candy is an absurd comedy which provides little else but titillation, Red Angel is a sober and gruesome depiction of love and lust amongst almost suicidal soldiers. And while Candy is coarse, Red Angel is a sensual and moving picture.
This is achieved largely by contrasting gruesome scenes of war—legs being sawed off, innards shoved back inside bodies—with a delicately piquant lead actress who only seems to exist in antiquated black and white movies. However, for a film from the mid-1960s, especially a foreign film, Red Angel's gore surprisingly rivals more recent fare, such as the opening scenes of Dances With Wolves or Saving Private Ryan. However, the movie lacks the nudity and graphic sexuality that is becoming standard in modern cinema. This not to say Red Angel is chaste. There are some achingly beautiful shots of Nishi in a bathtub with an amputee soldier, and rolling in a bed with her beloved doctor. In 1960s Japan, these scenes were probably scandalous, but now—with shadows and steam covering the nudity—they seem tactfully restrained, and far more affecting for it.
While Red Angel may lack enough character development to satisfy modern movie audiences, it still provides great insight into the culture of the Japanese during World War II. With shockingly high casualty rates, it is somewhat understandable—though still horrifying—that so many young men would go mad with lust at the sight of a comforting young woman. Their brutal rape of nurses, or any available woman, is probably not uncommon in any environment marked by so much death and brutality. And in a society that so promoted the collective good over the individual, it is understandable—yet so foreign to modern sensibilities—why Nishi is so hesitant to take action against her perpetrators. Additionally, with so much interest and mythmaking in America over World War II, Red Angel presents a unique perspective of that conflict. Though sex and violence are both exploited in American cinema, Red Angel shows how they can be used to their ultimate effect.
Fantoma deserves kudos for unearthing this obscure Japanese war film. Red Angel is presented in a digital 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, though the picture shows some signs of its 40 years, and the colors are a bit dim. Still, for anyone interested in Japanese culture or World War II films, Red Angel is a must see.
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