Starting with sounds of war (gunfire, bombing) over photographs of conflict, Masumura creates a powerful statement about the physical and psychological effects of war, specifically the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945. Masumura doesn't hold back in showing these horrors; soldiers are injured and in gruesome scenes which remind me of the surgery scenes in 'Eyes Without A Face', amputations without anaesthetic are the norm for those "lucky" enough to survive. This is a recurring issue here; whether these men would be better off dead than being amputees for the rest of their lives, isolated from mainstream society. Many of them long to be put out of their misery. Then there's the moral anguish of the medical staff who are responsible for these life and death decisions. Against this backdrop, Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is sexually assaulted by a group of soldiers. It emerges this isn't the first time that has happened, that all nurses are subjected to similar treatment and that behaviour of this kind is pretty much accepted and forgiven by the authorities. War is an unnatural state where social conventions and norms are rejected perhaps and in a world where death or severe injury is likely and human life has no sense of value, humanity falls by the wayside. I doubt this is any kind of excuse for this act, but might act as a sense of explanation for it.
Nishi's commitment to her cause forces her to make serious self-sacrifices - seeing a doctor's compassion but also his erratic behaviour, caused by his reliance on morphine to allow him to endure the horrors of the frontline, Nishi falls in love. At the same time, she tends to one severely injured patient in the most unconventional of means. Unable to relieve his own tensions (his arms were amputated - there's no doubt what he means), they start a short lived affair. These men are the desperate and the dying and Nishi considers it her duty to try to save them. When her lover dies, she blames herself and cannot forget, despite all the contrary advice she receives to think only of herself in this state of war. But the psychological scars don't heal. Proof that this conflict is too horrendous for anyone to possible bear is the outbreak of cholera that coincides with the massacre of the Japanese forces.
'Red Angel' is quite a struggle to get through; it's subject matter of amputation, drug addiction and gruesome conflict was probably just as groundbreaking and taboo-busting as much of Masumura's work at the time, but it also supersedes most other war films in that sense. Very few that I can recall have treated war in such an honest and depressing fashion, nor have they quite approached the subject of war in quite such a bizarre and peculiar way. It's beautiful and gruesome in equal measure with a dash of the erotic at the same time. Certainly unique, it's further proof of Masumura's talent, though I'm not convinced I've seen a truly great film of his yet. 3.5/5