Revisionist accounts of the brutalities of war have become so legion in recent cinema that they now constitute something of a sub-genre in themselves. The most recent of these was the twin Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima project in which Clint Eastwood was supposed to have re-examined the heroic struggle respectively to take and defend a small but strategically placed island in the Pacific during the Second World War. Although avowedly ‘anti-war,’ it’s a liberal ploy to present the story ‘fairly’ from both points of view and in Flags of our Fathers the framing narrative of avuncular old men looking back at the horrors of war from the comfort of their middle-class living rooms envelops the whole enterprise in a Werther’s Original wrapper of cosy sentimentality. Throw in the story of the heroic Native American and the entire project basks in self-congratulatory worthiness.
The same can by no means be said of Masumura’s Red Angel, which is a much more perverse though, for very different reasons, no less conflicted account of the plight of a nurse from Tokyo working in a series of field hospitals in China during the 1939 Sino-Japanese war. Having a female protagonist might make us think that this is going to be a reappraisal of the hitherto undervalued role of women in modern conflict and although we are presented with the day-to-day details of her work it is by no means the focus of the film. Indeed it’s precisely what Masumura does with the genre of the war film that makes it so intriguing and from the title alone we should know that this nurse is not going to be your average Florence Nightingale.
The red angel in question is Sakura Nishi. We first encounter her as she is warned by the Head Nurse to be on her guard against the recuperating soldiers who will go to any lengths to avoid being sent back to the front. What she isn’t warned about is their pent-up sexual boredom and on a night-round she is lured by Sakamoto, a fellow Tokyoan, and raped by him whilst pinned to a sickbed by his ‘bored’ accomplices. So far this account doesn’t seem to have taken us out of the relatively ‘safe’ bounds of the historical re-enactment of everyday life in a field hospital where the fact of a rape, though horrific, is perhaps not in itself that surprising. What raises this scene above the level of documentary however is the way it’s shot. The viewer is shown Sakamoto lifting up successive layers of Nurse Nishi’s undergarments but at the point of penetration the camera cuts to an exterior shot of the ward through a window which is quickly closed by a vigilant onlooker. Visually, the incident is closed off from the viewer and what we are ‘left’ with is a brief muffled scream before the next scene, of Nishi informing the Head Nurse of the event, is upon us.
It would be easy to overlook the way this scene ends but it’s a signal for much of what’s to come. Not only does it reinforce the sense of claustrophobia within which the whole film operates – most of the ‘action’ happens inside in a closed-off world and when we are shown ‘outside’ it’s often shot from inside – but it’s also the first point in the film where we suspect we are not in a nuts-and-bolts war drama. The denial of audience involvement in the rape scene is also one of a number of moments where Masumura withholds what the viewer can and can’t see and these become more intense as the film proceeds.
As a result of his transgression, Sakamoto is redrafted to the front and Nishi herself soon moves closer to the frontline where she becomes assistant to the field hospital surgeon, Dr Okabe. Here we are shown the full-on consequences of battle as wave after wave of casualties enter the hospital and it’s for Okabe to decide their fate. More often than not he is required to amputate limbs because of a lack of suitable drugs. Early on Nishi is forced to hold down a patient whilst his leg is sawn off and from the way it is filmed there are clear parallels between this and the previous rape scene, the difference being we are allowed to watch this time. I find this problematic because although we are invited to view these scenes as versions of each other it’s difficult to see to what extent they are equivalent even given the power relations involved in both acts. Indeed this is the first in a number of incidents which expose the film’s conflicted sexual politics. The second of these isn’t far behind as a badly wounded Sakamoto is brought into the field hospital needing a blood transfusion. However transfusions can only be given to soldiers of superior rank and it is only through Nishi’s pleading with Dr Okabe on his behalf that he undergoes treatment. Do we applaud Nishi’s selfless act, that she is able to forgive her former aggressor? It’s a difficult question and one that we aren’t allowed to linger over as Sakamoto dies anyway having wasted precious blood.
One significant result of Nishi’s actions is that it attracts the attention of Dr Okabe who summons her to his quarters. Here he secretly admits that he no longer thinks of himself as a real surgeon but as a caricature turning all his patients into cripples. The conversation that follows is extraordinary for its combination of crudity and compassion. Okabe’s policy of mass amputation means he is effectively emasculating a generation of Japanese men yet Okabe is himself sexually non-functioning – the job has driven him to drink and morphine which has in turn rendered him impotent – and he implores Nishi to inject him so that he can sleep. There’s clearly a role reversal here. The hacker-off of limbs, the impotence machine, is feminized whilst Nishi assumes the role of male aggressor, syringe in hand (in a later scene this is made more explicit as Okabe makes her dress up in his uniform). Sexual analogy is played out very blatantly but the scene is filmed with a sustained lyrical tenderness that makes it also heart-warming (though this too is undercut by the gentle but austere soundtrack which sounds like some of the quieter of Bach’s organ pieces). It’s an altogether unsettling combination and it makes for at times uneasy viewing. This is reinforced when Okabe tells Nishi to undress because a man of his rank can’t get drunk in front of a nurse, yet ‘undressing’ in this context means leaving on her chemise. There’s a child-like theatre to the whole affair which is reinforced when Okabe asks Nishi to wait by his side until he falls asleep, which casts Nishi less as angel than as mother.
Nishi’s time with Okabe is cut short and she is forced to return to the former field hospital where she now treats Orihara, an armless amputee who is a living example of Okabe’s butchery. Stuck in the hospital he is not allowed home because he is visible evidence of the horrors of war, the admission of which would be detrimental to public morale. Because he has no arms he is also an embodiment of Okabe’s secret guilt. One night as Nishi washes him he implores her to masturbate him as his missing hands have left him sexually unfulfilled and he fears he will never see his wife again. The previous scene between Nishi and Okabe is ratcheted up a notch here – indeed one wonders whether it’s not again another ‘version’ of this scene – with Orihara’s pleading drawn out to the extent that it’s nearly unwatchable. As Nishi’s hands are about to disappear under the sheets the camera cuts to the one of Okabe’s implements rhythmically sawing through a patient’s leg back on the frontline. Again this is a rather crude reminder of the link between amputation and sexual deprivation and it is followed by Orihara’s request that he masturbate her with one of his feet which have become as sensitive as his hands once were.
It’s at this point I think we realise how far we are from a ‘straightforward’ war drama and this is confirmed when Nishi takes Orihara to a hotel for sex. The ensuing sequence is remarkable for the way in which Masumura photographs the bodies. As Nishi bathes Orihara in the starkly photographed hotel bathroom we are shown his stumps, his partial body, yet we are afforded only partial glimpses of Nishi’s own ‘whole’ naked torso as she pirouettes close to the camera. Later in bed they lie across each other, the amputee’s torso covering the parts of Nishi’s body that can’t be shown because of the laws governing what can and can’t be revealed on film in Japan. In another shot Nishi covers her own breasts and Masumura has her head completely out of the frame, effectively beheading her. It’s a magnificent and complex instance of internal and external cinematic permissions coming together.
There’s another telling moment in this scene. Orihara asks Nishi why she is doing all this for him and her reply, ‘for no reason’, is oddly emblematic of her character which is throughout much of the film, certainly up to this point, more of a non-character. Although I’ve said rather flippantly that she’s ‘no Florence Nightingale’ I also kept wondering to what extent Nishi is the ‘red angel’ of the title, a moniker that seems to paint her as a force of destruction. At times the film tries to make us believe this or more accurately it tries to make us believe that she believes this is what she is but it’s not that convincing. For instance she blames herself for the death of Sakamoto and then for Orihara’s suicide – he jumps from the roof of the hospital to his death after Nishi tells him coldly that their encounter is never to be repeated – but there’s a blankness to her ‘sadistic’ rejection of Orihara as well as her burgeoning sense that she is responsible for both deaths. Perhaps the ‘red angel’ label sticks to her despite herself and it’s a comment by Masumura on the hopelessness and emptiness of choice available to those caught up in war – whatever course of action she decides on will inevitably end in death – but the problem with this view is that it can lead to the removal of agency from the equation and thus to a laissez-faire politics which is as disastrous in wartime as it is in times of (so-called) peace.
We might read also Nishi’s blankness as passivity and consequently no more than Masumura’s registration of the constraints placed on women during the war and immediate post-war years. This would be to read Red Angel as a comment on the ‘caring’ role of women who are forced to service a male-dominated Japan but this would hardly be news even in 1966. And what the film doesn’t do either is present us with the emergence of the new woman. After Orihara’s suicide, Nishi is sent back to Okabe’s hospital and the film is structurally locked in a rigid pattern of exile and return which won’t allow for any development of character or otherwise. Witness the scenes between Nishi and Okabe – although occupying different rooms they’re all shot to look the same, enclosed and unchanging and when Nishi does eventually tell Okabe that she loves him – because he reminds her of her father – we’re locked into another set of controls with which we’ve become all too familiar, certainly in the West.
The film’s final section which sees Okabe called yet closer to the front – farther and farther from Japan as he says to Nishi – is no less easy to watch than the rest. Accompanied by a more-than-willing Nishi they are diverted to a beleaguered military outpost where cholera becomes rampant reducing it to a handful of men awaiting an imminent Chinese attack. Intercutting the urgent scenes of expectant soldiers outside, Nishi forces Okabe to give up his morphine habit by tying him down in his quarters and making him go through cold turkey before his manhood is restored and he can die a fully reconstructed male. There’s little sense that Nishi has gained much from this final encounter except to pry the words ‘I love you’ from Okabe after he has achieved his long-delayed orgasm.
If this sounds cynical there is another way of reading it – as a blindly romantic transcendental tryst whose participants must remain oblivious to imminent death – but I think Masumura himself undercuts such a reading by the way he ends the film. After the Chinese attack, Nishi is the only survivor and scouring the camp she discovers Okabe’s corpse, drawn samurai sword in hand. The temptation to see this as evidence of a newly-discovered capacity for heroism is undermined by the fact that his sword has been reduced to a mere stump not unlike the limbs of his unfortunate patients. It’s an unsettling end to a film that constantly denies resolution and I was left with the distinct impression that the landscapes, both interior and exterior, through which its characters move are as much indicators of psychological states as the backdrop for the playing out any kind of ‘story.’ This is unsurprising perhaps for a so-called ‘new-wave’ director and there’s clear evidence throughout Red Angel of sophistication in Masumura’s handling of the mechanics of film. I was still left wondering however, after the death of all three ‘lovers’, what Nishi was left with. As with many of Masumura’s counterparts in Europe the handling of sexual politics is fraught and difficult to ignore.