Red Angel (1966) by Yasuzo Masumura

Ayako Wakao stars as a young wartime nurse on the frontlines in this harrowing historical drama based on the book by Yoriyoshi Arima. Sakura Nishi (Wakao) begins her work at a field hospital in China, tending to the wounded soldiers of the Sino-Japanese war. As well as witnessing gruesome amputations, she is also a victim of sexual assault by patients. Nishi becomes involved with a double amputee names Orihara (Yusuke Kawazu), blurring the lines between her duty and natural compassion for the suffering she sees. She later moves to a front-line station where she meets Doctor Okabe (Shinsuke Ashida), falling for the older doctor, who himself is battling morphine addiction and seems to have a rather pessimistic view of life. When their field hospital comes under attack, Okabe and Nishi, along with the rest of the staff and soldiers stationed there are forced to fight for their survival.

“Red Angel” gives us a look at what life was like for those working on the frontlines of conflict in the early 20th Century. We bear witness to the the grim field hospitals, with countless bodies lying in agony, groaning for relief, while doctors declare whether they are to be helped or shortly to die; the operating rooms where limbs are severed to save lives; and other depressing details, such as Okabe’s addiction to morphine; Nishi’s assault at the hands of patients; the enforced prostitution of women; and the devastating effects of a cholera outbreak. The film is a bleak depiction of the circumstances, seen through the eyes of the sympathetic Nishi, who provides the heart of the film. Wakao gives a brilliantly nuanced performance, as Nishi deals with not only the horrifict sights and sounds of the hospital, but her feelings towards the other doctors and patients. In one striking moment she attempts to save the life of a man who sexually assaulted her, not wishing him to think that her inaction was a form of revenge. The film’s sound design, the sawing of bones, the retching of cholera sufferers, along with the use of extras in the scenes of injured soldiers strewn around over-crowded hospitals, create a visceral, claustrophobic atmosphere that forces us to be a part of this bloody enterprise. At a little over 90 minutes, the film moves at a brisk pace, and it sometimes feels that we do not get to spend enough time with Nishi or explore her relationships with others, aside from Okabe. But this also speaks to the film’s strengths, and Wakao’s performance, that despite the trauma and horror we want to see more of her life.

The complicated morality of war is explored through Nishi’s decisions, her compassion and sense of duty guiding her throughout. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of conflict alongside Japanese war-crimes such as the rape through enforced prostitution of captured women. While it largely steers clear of political messaging, aside from comments by Okabe on the nature of humanity, the film’s simple act of depicting the gruesome, dehumanising, consequences of fighting are enough to establish it as a supreme example of anti-war filmmaking. Paraplegia, suicide, impotence, drug-addiction, the film delves into the often unspeakable truths behind the propaganda of war, showing us the human suffering that results. But throughout there is the shining light of Nishi, whose calm, compassionate, actions stand in stark contrast to the darkness surrounding her.

Irezumi (1966) by Yasuzo Masumura

Otsuya (Ayako Wakao) elopes with her lover Shinsuke (Akio Hasegawa), who is apprenticed to her father. The two arrive at a nearby inn where they hope to find refuge with the owner Kenji (Fujio Suga) and his wife. They are betrayed by Kenji, who sells Otsuya to a geisha house run by Tokubei (Asao Uchida), while an attempt is made on Shinsuke’s life. Otsuya begins a new life as a geisha and is tattooed by artist Sekichi (Gaku Yamamoto) with a large spider on her back. She is told that she will become a man-eater. Otsuya sets about getting revenge on all those men who have wronged her, leaving behind a bloody trail of revenge.

Based on a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki, with a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo (The Naked Island), “Irezumi” is a violent erotic thriller with a comanding central performance from Ayako Wakao. Wakao’s Otsuya is strong-willed and unbreakable in the face of adversity, soon coming to dominate all those around her, whether Shinsuke, or Tokubei. Men fall at her feet and she is not averse to standing her ground. Ayako Wakao’s fearsome performance is a highlight of the film, as you sense the passion and rage in her eyes in every scene. Her palpable sensuality means it is no wonder the men around Otsuya fall under her spell. Director Yasuzo Masumura creates an active feel to the film, full of life and movement. While the sexual scenes are mostly suggestive, there is no such discretion when it comes to the violence, with brutal slayings depicted graphically. The fight-sequence between Shinsuke and his attacker is a great example of using the set and surroundings to best advantage. The two men battling for survival seems to draw from and parallel the thunderous power of the heavens as the storm rages.

The vengeful woman has been an enduring trope in literature and cinema through the ages and “Irezumi” gives us one of the darkest and most disturbing interpretations of the archetype. As the title suggests there is a peculiar focus on the tattoo that Otsuya is given, with the artist coming to believe that it is this that turned her into a killer. However, it is not all that clear that Otsuya changes drastically through the film, she is very much the same woman when we first meet her as after her ordeals. Perhaps what changes is the male characters reactions to her, or impressions of her. Aside from Shinsuke, who is very much under her control in many ways, the other men continually underestimate her or take her compliance for granted. Alongside the timeless questions around whether villains are born or made, there is a more contemporary idea at play here: around society’s treatment of women and the potential whirlwind they will reap if they continue to underestimate or abuse them. There is an understanding that if women are pushed, just like men, they will bite back.