by Afra Nariman
Red Angel (1966)
Director: Yasuzō Masumura
Stars: Ayako Wakao, Shinsuke Ashida, Yūsuke Kawazu
There’s a short but memorable scene in the beginning of the final act where the camera is set up in the POV of the bottom of a mass grave as the bodies of deceased soldiers are dumped nonchalantly into it. By this time, about an hour into the film, the sight of such a horrific image is what we’re accustomed to. Nevertheless, this is one of the frames in the film that stuck with me most.
Rarely, if ever, has the horrors of war been filmed as literally as is done in Red Angel. It is more than simply an anti-war film in the classic definition. Through its lighting, cinematography, and score it is shot like a horror film, creating an atmosphere as dark and frightening as the events taking place. Much of what happens to the film’s protagonist, an army nurse named Sakura Nishi, is deeply shocking and disturbing, as she navigates the dying world around her — a world dying in both a literal and spiritual sense. Through the film’s structure and use of narration, we are offered a glimpse into her psyche as she witnesses the horrors of war in real time.
The film exhibits a tension between hope and hopelessness through its often represented theme of nihilism that is at the center of almost every character in the film’s actions and thoughts — everyone but Nishi.
Another main character of the film, Dr. Okabe, at one point says and at other points reiterates:
“We live from day to day. What happens today, whatever we do, it all fades away tomorrow.”
For Okabe and most others in the war-riddled world of the film; meaning in actions are wiped out, and with it any sense or care for morality in how we carry out our actions and day to day interactions with others. In other words, the film communicates that a world devoid of meaning is a world devoid of morals. And that is the biggest horror of war: the utter collapse of morals. Morals during wartime are twisted until they’re so ambiguous that they’re unrecognizable from one moment to the next — there is no laws of morality in midst the horrors of war — just life and death.
Nishi continuously resists this nihilistic worldview, even when death, hopelessness, hatred, and grotesque immorality is all around her. She is treated the worst of any character in the film, and although she survives in a literal sense (and she isn’t crippled, etc.) — she suffers greatly in a myriad of ways. Yet, her hope remains intact. While the war has led to the complete collapse and destruction of moral compasses, she attempts to keep hers in line. So much so that over the course of the film, she wrongfully blames herself for the death of three (by the very end maybe even four) people — people who she endured suffering at the hands of, but who she still sacrificed for to try to save. In other words, she was definitely not to blame regardless. She assumes responsibility, through compassion, for all those around her — no matter how despicable the person (the first death especially). In a world full of hate, she approaches hatred with kindness.
Many of the biggest insights of the film’s commentary also come in the “side scenes of the plot” rather than the main plot points. Two examples from characters in the film that stand out the most in regards to this are:
“Soldiers aren’t human beings. They’re objects… just weapons.”Dr. Okabe
2) A man with both arms amputated says that the reason why he won’t be allowed to return home and will remain institutionalized is because:
“If people at home saw me, they’d realize how terrible war was and hate it. Some people would think we were losing the war.”Private Orihara
Red Angel is ultimately the story of an army nurse who during a time ravaged by war, resists the horrors that overtake others; by attempting to let life prevail over death, compassion over hate, and to stay morally afloat amidst chaos, uncertainty, hopelessness and the complete collapse of morality taking place around her. It is also important to note that she does this through not merely showing sympathy for the afflicted, but empathy — a big difference that is clearly shown in Nishi’s actions and thoughts throughout the film. Red Angel is a film about humanism.
MY RATING /5:
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