Red Angel Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: January 18, 2022
Video: 2.35:1/1080p/Black & white
Audio: Japanese LPCM 1.0 Mono
Run Time: 94:48
Director: Yasuzo Masumura
When Sakura Nishi (Ayako Wakao) is dispatched in 1939 to a ramshackle field hospital in Tientsin, the frontline of Japan’s war with China, she and her colleagues find themselves fighting a losing battle, tending to the war-wounded and emotionally shell-shocked soldiers, while assisting head surgeon Dr. Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida) conduct an unending series of amputations. As the Chinese troops close in, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Okabe who, impotent to stall the mounting piles of cadavers, has retreated into his own private hell of morphine addiction. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Between his transgressive masterpieces Manji (1964) and Blind Beast (Japanese: Mōjū, 1969), director Yasuzo Masumura made a harrowing wartime drama called Red Angel (Japanese: Akai Tenshi, 1966). As in the case of those two (perhaps?) more well-known films, Red Angel takes a grim view of romance and humanity with the kind of vulgarity and violence that was rising in prominence during the decade. Ryōzō Kasahara’s screenplay was based on a novel of the same name by Yorichika Arima, though Masumura himself had been active in the Sino-Japanese War and likely drew upon his own experience, as he had with 1965’s Hoodlum Soldier (Japanese: Heitai Yakuza, 1965)*. The film expresses a common public disenchantment with the war and the World War it led to, but is interesting for focusing on the contribution of women, mainly the titular nurse and a collection of prostitutes she helps during the final act’s cholera outbreak (they are referred to as “comfort women” at one point, denoting a particularly dark possibility that they’re victims of human trafficking, rather than sex workers). Masumura explores masculinity through Nishi’s almost impossibly noble eyes and draws as many bleak conclusions about the nature of manhood as he does about the nature of warfare and, in turn, Japan’s failed imperialistic spread (though that last part is implied mostly by modern context)**.
Masumura had studied film in Italy during the early ‘50s and applied lessons learned from the likes of Antonioni and Fellini to his early hit, Giants and Toys (Japanese: Kyojin to gangu, 1958), as well as Manji and Blind Beast. Unlike those films, Red Angel doesn’t abstract its themes with surrealistic imagery (save occasional cutaways, like a shot of a bucketful of severed limbs), opting instead for the austerity of the neorealism that was flourishing during his time in Italy. While certainly more lurid, Blind Beast mostly implies its gore, contrasting Red Angel’s refusal to shy away from the horrible violence and filth of war. The uncompromising intensity of the triage and surgery scenes are stomach-churning and especially shocking (I have not seen Hoodlum Soldier, but am under the impression that it is less graphic, despite being similarly unflinching in its portrayal of war). There’s no ‘fun’ to be found in the bloodshed and no hiding behind the stylish affectations of exploitation or Gothic horror. Masumura also doesn’t temper the mood with levity, like Robert Altman did with his similarly-themed, but ultimately irreverent war hospital movie M*A*S*H* (1970); however, typically sensationalistic sequences, such as the moment where Nishi agrees to masturbate a soldier whose gangrenous arms were amputated, are treated with a tender melancholy that counteracts the harshness of the blood-soaked surgical scenes.
* Midnight Eye review by Jasper Sharp
** Critic Irene González-López offers a concise and thoughtful breakdown of Red Angel’s gender politics in a booklet included with the first pressing release of this Blu-ray.
The only official stateside DVD was released by Fantoma, the small company behind DVD versions of Giants and Toys and Blind Beast, as well. For this Blu-ray debut, Arrow was handed a complete HD scan from Kadokawa Studios, which they cleaned-up and regraded at R3Store Studios in London. The resulting 2.35:1, 1080p black & white transfer is appropriately gritty with only some minor strafing noise to chop up the intended grain. Setsuo Kobayashi’s stark photography, which anticipates an even more extreme style pioneered by Shinya Tsukamoto for Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989), depends on high-contrast, claustrophobic darkness, and blooming, practically throbbing white levels, all of which come across beautifully in HD. The blooming bits feature clean gradations, the darkest areas are pretty darn black, and the necessary details are sharp without unbalancing the compositions.
Red Angel is presented in its original Japanese mono and uncompressed LPCM 1.0. The sound mix is purposefully simple and naturalistic, running largely on incidental sound effects and straightforward dialogue volume. There is some minor hiss distortion, but nothing out of the ordinary, and lead Ayako Wakao’s narration is especially clean. Sei Ikeno’s music helps drive the depressing mood with repetitive motifs and dirge-like pace. His wistful woodwind and string cues contradict the tenderness of some scenes, while underlying the horror of others. The music is among the track’s loudest elements, outdone only by the explosions and gunfire of the climax, but it’s still mixed to sit comfortably beneath the dialogue.
Commentary with Japanese cinema scholar David Desser – The author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema (Indiana University Press, 1988) and Professor of Cinema Studies (Comparative and World Literatures and East Asian Languages and Cultures) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, takes an educator’s approach to this track. He discusses the many collaborations between Masumura and Wakao, comparisons between Red Angel and similar films (including M*A*S*H*), the implication that all of Nishi’s lovers are fated to die, the careers of other cast & crew members, Japanese cinema’s tendency to portray themselves as victims of the Sino-Japanese War, and other liberties taken with the actual historical event.
2022 introduction by Japanese cinema expert Tony Rayns (11:59, HD) – Rayns, whose other work includes writing for BFI, Sight & Sound, and Time Out, and regular commentary track recorder for Criterion and Masters of Cinema, contextualizes Red Angel within Masumura’s filmography and other Japanese films of the era.
Not All Angels Have Wings (13:51, HD) – Co-author of Midnight Movies (with James Hoberman; Da Capo Press, 1983) Jonathan Rosenbaum also talks about Masumura and Wakao’s collaborations, the film’s themes and implied morality, and compares Red Angel to the work of Sam Fuller.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.