Sakura Nishi is an army nurse who is sent between two hospitals in the war between China and Japan in 1939. While on duty she has to go through several difficult meetings, some which she bonds strongly with but has to see die. The young nurse stays strong through this hell of Earth, even though she is met by challenge after challenge.
History has never been my favorite subject. In fact, I am still to this working to get through my history classes in school, as that's one of the classes I have yet to finish and have to catch up on now. Not only am I bad at it, but it has rarely interested me in the least. It's only when I stumble upon some films dealing with history that I wish I knew what I was talking about, other than that it's completely out of my zone of interests. Some films are rough to review because of this, although historic films are rarely about that very historic event, and rather about the characters, so I usually manage. "Red Angel" is a film like that - the historic aspect of the story matters, but it's not the main focus. I know, though, that some details in "Red Angel" are based on history, and the harsh working enviroment for the nurses and doctors were one of those things. Not only because they were working during war times, but because they were reduced to only being able to give amputations as means of "operating".
Enough about that, let's get into the story on a more personal level. This film is about Sakura Nishi, the young nurse working back and forth on two hospitals near the front during the 1939 war between China and Japan. Early on she's raped by a few soldiers, one in particular, only to later having to try and save them once they're wounded in action. But it gets personal for her, as she doesn't want them to die because then she'd feel like they'd think she let them die as revenge, which wasn't the case. When the rapist dies, she feels a lot of guilt but she continues to work hard and do her best to save people. That's when she stumbles upon the next obstacle - the morphine-addicted doctor in charge, who can only give out orders. His orders are more often than not that they should amputate - the only operation he is still able to perform. It's not that the doctor is a bad guy. Not at all, he's in fact one of the more important characters in the film, and the one Sakura Nishi falls in love with. But between being sent to different hospitals, and him dealing with his addiction, her love isn't immediately answered. Meanwhile she meets a young man who lost both his arms in battle 6 months ago, but isn't allowed to go home. He just spends his days in the hospital bed, and Nishi doesn't understand why they won't let him go back home, especially when they are in need of beds. She bonds with this amputee, and their relationship becomes both depending and sexual - on a shallow level, as she does it to relieve him. But yet again, Nishi has a death on her concious once he commits suicide after having had sex with her. This is just a few of the major things Sakura Nishi has to deal with on duty during the war, and it only gets worse from there.
To point at "Red Angel" and say that it's just a war movie would be absolutely ridiculous. It's such a powerful piece on history/war, humanity, love, sexuality and reality, and it's impossible to shrug this movie off as just "this" or "that". It's absolutely devastating in terms of drama and reality, but at the same time it carries a certain eroticism through-out between Sakura Nishi and the men she meets, whether it's a rapist, a soldier in need, or a drug-addicted doctor that she falls in love with. I can't class this as exploitation, but it's definitely not free from exploiting.
What really drew me into the movie is exactly that - it's not a movie you'll classify as one thing. It goes all over the place (in a reasonable radius, of course) and even has some great, light-hearted moments. What's so messed up is that these moments are right at the end when the war has come closer and closer to the field hospitals that we can sense that the end is near for our characters. The characters know that they might not survive this attack, and their moment together becomes so filled with joy, laughter and love. For the audience it leaves a weird taste, as we've come to like the characters and wouldn't want to see more crap coming Sakura Nishi's way. Yet we also know that they are in war, and most war movies take a tragic turn at some point. It doesn't make it any less hard to accept, though.
Knowing that I have more films by Yasuzo Masumura to explore leaves me excited. "Red Angel" was a pleasure to watch, even though it's a hard movie to get through. It's not a film that is only good on a deeper level - quite the opposite, it has a lot of meaning but it's always near the surface. This movie proves that a really powerful story is all you need to get a shock reaction. Even though the movie does have gory scenes for its time, I think I would've enjoyed the film exactly as much if it hadn't. But it's very interesting to see a film from 1966 that is so unflinchingly showing us the hell that field hospital staff has to go through, and all the brutality that they have to deal with. Our lead lady Sakura Nishi is a wonderful figure who comes off as both naive and smart, sad and happy, strong and weak. I highly recommend the film to anyone who likes film. It's as simple as that - don't miss "Red Angel".