Monday, March 29, 2010

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Red Angel

In 1996, an ailing Michelangelo Antonioni willed himself out of bed to attend a retrospective of Yasuzo Masumura’s work. Of course, they would not have been the same films without his frequent muse, the great Ayako Wakao, one of three actresses featured in the Japan Society’s new film series, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties. Though perhaps their best known collaboration internationally, Masumura’s Red Angel might be something the outlier of the series when it screens this Thursday.

Nurse Nishi is not bad, and frankly she is entitled to be a lot madder than she is. However, knowing her, or anyone else on the Sino-Japanese frontlines during WWII, is certainly dangerous. For Nishi, even her patients represent a clear and present danger. Still, she does her duty faithfully, but is wracked with guilt none the less. Two cases especially trouble her conscience: a wounded soldier who had once attacked her and the multiple-amputee she had shared brief intimate moments with out of compassion.

Despite all the gore and suffering around her, Nishi falls in love with her senior officer, Dr. Akabe. Once a skilled surgeon, he has become little more than an amputator, making triage decisions as quickly as possible. Now addicted to morphine to dull his conscience, Nishi struggles to reawaken his emotions.

While the nurse-doctor relationship might sound like the stuff of weepy melodrama, Angel is a starkly realistic depiction of the staggering human cost of war. Indeed, the sight of severed limbs is relatively common throughout the film. Though not as epic Kobayashi’s Human Condition film cycle, it is far more graphic, perhaps surpassing its revisionist depiction of the Imperial Japanese military’s brutality.

When considering Wakao’s body of work, Angel is an indispensible film. Though she considers herself a murderess, Nishi is really a sympathetic figure, suffering from massive survivor’s guilt and multiple other traumas. Still, she is something of a cinematic survivor in the Scarlett O’Hara tradition. It is an achingly compelling performance, nicely matched by Shinsuke Ashida’s understated turn as Akabe.

Though Masumura’s visuals shockingly illustrate the horrors of war, he handles the personal dramas with extraordinary sensitivity. It is in fact, quite a humanistic film that resists condemning the often brutish Japanese soldiers, blaming instead the nature of war for their specific crimes (in some cases to an extent that is actually problematic).

Over forty years after its initial release, Angel is still a viscerally powerful anti-war film. While it takes a bit of shoehorning to get it into a film series devoted to wicked femme fatales and action rebels, it is worth the stretch. A classic collaboration between Wakao and Masumura, Angel screens at the Japan Society this Thursday (4/1) as the Mad, Bad, and Dangerous series continues.