With its opening shots of war-torn landscapes, skulls absent flesh and sinew, and other indicators of lifelessness, Yasuzô Masumura’s 赤い天使 (Red Angel) is quickly determined to be anti-war, the bleakness on display never softening from the beginning to the ending. Like recent Arrow Video restorations before it (Irezumi and Blind Beast), Red Angel incorporates a sexual freedom with the commentary of war, none of which is likely to win it any popularity contests. At the forefront is a character whose clear agency wouldn’t be approved of today, but, within the context of the film, makes an incredible amount of sense as the further into the film we go, the more depravity appears. Unlike Blind Beast, which falls under “Pink Cinema” for its use of naked flesh, there’s far more modesty with the sexual content than there is for the violence. This might seem like an idea in opposition, but they are far more in concert than one might initially expect. Marking the fifth restoration of Masumura’s work, Arrow Video offers Red Angel, for the first time available to a global audience, in High-Definition 1080p, including a feature-length commentary track, two featurettes, trailer, image gallery, and an illustrated booklet for first pressing buyers.
Set during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Nurse Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) narrates a period of great importance in her life as she begins her career treating soldiers who fought on the front line. Her initial station includes caring for soldiers who are nearly ready to return to the front, while her second places her by the side of renowned surgeon Doctor Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida). Even as she jumps between assignments, Nishi and the doctor forge a strange bond as they try to survive the endless madness of separating those who will survive treatment and those who aren’t worth saving. The only way to survive such choices is to embrace the madness, but at what cost?
Red Angel is one of three adaptations Masumura’s done of Yoriyoshi Arima novels and appears to be the only time the director worked with writer Ryôzô Kasahara. It’s a film which wears its pain out in the open, shielding none from the physical and mental violence impacting all who take part in war. What’s particularly interesting is that the two characters at the center of the story are both profoundly affected by the constant violence, yet react in diametrically opposed fashions. Nishi constantly puts those in her care first, even if it means making her body available to them. She’s human, of course, so there’s a difference between being a willing participant and being a victim and the way in which the script delineates the two is fascinating, though it may not win over audiences. There’s a constant sense that the men are driven wild by the fact that they don’t expect to live, making their daily activities more or less meaningless, therefore why not do what brings them pleasure. This conflicts with Nishi who merely wants to make them as comfortable as possible, but doesn’t see her body as belonging to anyone other than those she grants entry. Yet, when faced with the choice of wasting supplies to try to save someone who attacked her or leaving them to certain death, she chooses to try to save them. I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed her for allowing the man to die (this reviewer certainly wouldn’t), yet the script makes it plain that if justice is to come for the man, Nishi wants to choose that moment for herself. Allowing him to die is not taking action, but passively allowing it to happen. That she is unwilling to stoop to revenge is fascinating when one considers the constant repetition with which the soldiers would attempt to avail themselves of any helpless woman if it distracted them from their closing mortality. In this way, Nishi is stronger than any of the men, maintaining a semblance of morality despite being surrounded by those who’ve so given up their own in an effort to survive. Similarly, there is Dr. Okabe, a revered surgeon, a man who gets promoted because of his work, and yet he couldn’t be more detached from what he does. It’s not his morphine addiction that creates this dulled sensation, it’s the repetition of cutting, scrapping, and severing of limbs all day for men who are not so likely to survive the procedure and/or unwilling to live should they heal from surgery. For each man he makes ready to return to the front or head home, there is a back log of fodder waiting to be seen. It’s massive, unending, and can only be survived by removing his own humanity, dissociation being the only cure for the illness of war. While I found the relationship between Nishi and Okabe uncomfortable, as well as their differing methods of coping with their situations, (a) the film is only a snapshot of their lives and (b) I don’t think we’re supposed to find sympathy for them so much as empathy. We should feel for them, even if we can’t understand. None of us know what we’d do in their shoes, though, considering the final act involves reacting to a cholera outbreak (which mostly fails), perhaps we do have some sense and we’re all just one fight away from going wild ourselves.
Like the previous Masumura releases, Red Angel is a HD 1080p restoration, so don’t expect a great deal regarding quality compared to other 2K or 4K restorations Arrow has released. While the video presentation is clear and the audio clean, there’s a great deal of grain and aura in the black-and-white presentation. In an early scene between Nishi and Okabe, her slightly in the background, he in the foreground, her face appears to radiate light, diminishing the clarity of composition. According to the liner notes in the booklet, the master for Red Angel was produced by and supplied by Kadokawa Pictures (worked on both Irezumi and Blind Beast), with additional grading completed by Arrow Films at R3Store Studios. There’s no mention of the source used to create the master for the audio and video, but they do say the restoration is presented in its original aspect ratio (2.35:1) with mono sound. Given that the film hasn’t been made available outside Japan, it would be nice to confirm the source to better understand the quality of the reproduction. That said, while the visual elements do possess a certain age to them, the thematic material within helps transcend any qualms an audience might have as the intention cuts through.
For those interested in special features, Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns returns with another featurette exploring Red Angel through the lens of Masamura and his working relationship with Wakao (they worked on a number of films together). Taking a wider approach to Masamura’s work is a video essay from film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Both featurettes total about 26 minutes and rarely cross-over in terms of information. What’s nice about these materials is that, even after four Masamura home release reviews, there’s still so much to learn about the man, his work, and his personal philosophy regarding Japanese politics and cultural repression. If these two featurettes aren’t enough, Japanese cinema scholar David Desser once more provides feature-length commentary on the film. Of the four Masamura films I’ve reviewed, Desser has only provided commentary for one other: Irezumi. The final piece of new material comes in the form of a single essay from Japanese cinema scholar Irene González-López, who previously provided the feature-length audio commentary for the restoration of Giants and Toys. If you want to read her thoughts on this film, particularly her thoughts on the complicated Nishi, you have to snag a first pressing of Red Angel. So if you’re the type who wants to have everything included with a restoration, don’t wait for this one to go on sale.
Red Angel is difficult to ascribe such a simple reaction as “enjoyed” or “disliked” to. The film is profoundly uncomfortable in its presentation of the moments between battles. So often the depiction of war is of the soldiers on the battle field that it’s more than a little disconcerting to see the kind of triage the medical teams were focused to make when supplies are running low and patients are at an all-time high. Impressively, even when the film is racy or sexual, Masamura remains modest (certainly moreso than the unabashedly sexual Blind Beast) but, then, it isn’t nudity that makes Red Angel uncomfortable, it’s about the lengths one goes to when striving to maintain agency. The film is set sometime in the mid-to-late 1930’s, well-before the atomic bombings in World War II would end Japan’s conflicts for a time, yet it feels oddly prescient for how we currently continue to abuse our own health professionals as we fight a different battle that constantly strips their agency. A war without gunshots and bombs, one of ideology-versus-science across the globe. Who’s to say what these professionals have been forced to endure, what choices they’ve had to make over who lives and who dies and how, all just so that they don’t run out of supplies for greater tragedies. We may never know or understand their choices. We can only hope that they don’t lose themselves as entirely as the characters within Red Angel do. If so, there may be no turning back for anyone.
Red Angel Special Features:
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Irene González-López
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
- Original uncompressed Japanese mono audio
- Optional English subtitles
- Brand new audio commentary by Japanese cinema scholar David Desser (1:34:49)
- Newly filmed introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (12:00)
- Not All Angels Have Wings, a new visual essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum (13:51)
- Original Trailer
- Image Gallery
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Tony Stella
Available on Blu-ray January 18th, 2022.
For information, head to Arrow Video’s website.
To purchase a copy, head to MVD Entertainment Group.