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.

Godzilla Minus One (2023) by Takashi Yamazaki

In the dying days of World War Two, kamikaze pilot Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki) abandons his mission, returning to a nearby base on Odo island. When the island is attacked, by a sea monster the locals call Godzilla, only Koichi and the chief engineer Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) survive. Koichi returns to Tokyo in shame where he meets a young woman, Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and child Akiko, who have been orphaned by the bombing raids on the city. The three of them begin living together, but their peace is threatened when Godzilla, now supersized by post-war nuclear tests in the ocean, re-emerges to devastate large areas of the city. Koichi, along with a minesweeper crew he is working with, joins a group of ex-navy civilians, who hatch a plan to take down Godzilla when it appears again.

Written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, “Godzilla Minus One” takes place in the years following the Second World War, capturing the thematic resonance of Ishiro Honda’s 1953 “Godzilla”. Godzilla can be seen as a representation of the horror of nuclear war, and the incredible sequences when the creature attacks depict this perfectly. Humans are insignificant and their weapons woefully ineffective in stopping the rampaging creature. It is a war film that replaces battlefield scenes with a symbolic representation of the sheer terror and incomprehensible violence of war. A Godzilla film is only as strong as its human protagonists, and Koichi’s journey, from his shame at running from his suicidal duty to realising his true calling in taking care of Akiko and Noriko, provides a great focus for the drama. We also have great supporting characters, such as Tachibana, an engineer whose entire crew is wiped out by the creature; the young Mizushima, who feels he has missed out by not being conscripted to the war; Shikishima’s neighbour Sumiko (Sakura Ando), who berates Koichi for shirking his kamikaze mission when so many others have died for the country; and many of the ex-naval officers, who fear that they are to be plunged into another unwinnable conflict after barely surviving the last one. The film’s special effects are a marvel, showing the incredible size of Godzilla as it devastates the city, knocking buildings aside and blasting areas with its nuclear beam. The sequences at sea are also amazingly well done, with the human characters feeling very exposed in the face of this leviathon. The film also does a superb job with the period setting, feeling completley believable, with the bombed out remnants of Tokyo suburbs, and the historic train networks and Ginza district, as well as the military ships and planes. The film owes a debt to the 1954 original, and could be seen as a retelling or an homage, albeit with new characters and story. This is brought home by the use of Akira Ifukube’s origiginal Godzilla theme which adds a dramatic and nostalgic touch. The score by Naoki Sato provides an epic, sentimental and awe-inspiring accompaniment to the action.

Godzilla has always had a strongly anti-war and anti-nuclear message, with the creature being the perfect stand-in for the harrowing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that closed out the Pacific conflict. “Godzilla Minus One” questions the Japanese involvement in the war, with Koichi’s role as a kamikaze pilot being the prime example. He feels ashamed that he saved his own life rather than dying for his country. However, it becomes apparent that perhaps having young men throw their lives away for the Emperor was not only cruel and unecessary, but actually counter-productive. As they prepare to tackle Godzilla, Noda is at pains to point out that they intend to save lives and that suicide missions are at odds with their newfound respect for life and protecting civilians. It is a change in mindset that marks a shift from enforced self-sacrifice imposed at the will of a dictatorial militaristic system to a belief in preserving life at all costs. That saving yourself and your family is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing noble or honourable about war or dying, instead it is a necessary evil in a world in which terrors and external threats exist. An incredibly powerful film, not only in the stunning visual effects and awesome monster attacks, but in the emotional heart of the film, Koichi, Noriko and Akiko’s surrogate family finding a path through the horrors they have witnessed.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999) by Hiroyuki Okiura

In the years following the Second World War Japan suffers a series of economic and social crises. With violence on the streets the government establishes an elite Capitol Police, heavily armed and armoured to counter the threats from various terrorist groups. Among these groups the most dangerous are the Sect, a band of revolutionaries. Kazuki Fuse (Yoshikatsu Fujiki), a member of the Capitol Police, runs down a young girl with a bomb yet refuses to shoot her. The girl detonates the bomb, killing herself and injuring Fuse. As he recovers after this narrow escape, Fuse’s superiors question him about the incident and force him to re-train. Fuse later meets Kei (Sumi Muto) at the grave of the young woman, who tells him that she is the girl’s sister. Kei and Fuse’s relationship develops, with both harbouring secrets that if revealed could jeopardize their safety.

“Jin-Roh” is part of a larger franchise including films, radio plays, and manga, devised by writer Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell). An exposition heavy preamble means that those unfamiliar with the rest of the series will easily follow the story, and “Jin-Roh” can be enjoyed as a stand-alone film. It takes place in an alternate history, one in which the Third Reich won the Second World War and occupied Japan. This is evident in the authoritarian designs and naming of the Panzer Corps. The film does a great job of depicting this alternative 1950’s, with a bleak cityscape infused with post-war noir aesthetics. The grimy streets and subdued colour palette create a sense of deprivation drawing on real-world environments but with anachronistic twists, such as the black, science-fiction inspired design of the Kerberous division. While Oshii clearly delights in world-building, and includes background about the political and judicial organization of this society, the central plot is a strikingly human affair. The relationship between Fuse and Kei is motivated by genuine emotion and believable threats based on their beliefs. There are occasional bursts of bloody violence, with bullets tearing through people, and the militarised police raiding terrorist hideouts, but for the most part it is a quiet, contemplative drama focussed on the turmoil that our protagonist is going through.

“Jin-Roh” questions the morality of its characters, putting their actions under the microscope and asking the audience to consider carefully their own notions of right and wrong. There is no black and white in the Capitol Police and the terrorists, and the film deliberately blurs the lines between their actions, with plotting on both sides. The second strand of the film concerns human nature, in particular the character of Fuse. Fuse’s vision of wolves viciously tearing a person apart seems to be an echo of his underlying nature, a violent individual further dehumanised in this dog-eat-dog society. The film’s bleak assessment is that he is not able to shake this predatory inclination. Whether it is society that has made him a monster, or simply that the society finds value in these latent atavistic tendencies, it makes for a uniquely interesting lead. A fantastic alternate history noir thriller with genuine depth of character and theme.

The Sea and Poison (1986) by Kei Kumai

Following the second world war, a captured Japanese doctor is facing interrogation by an American officer for his role in the live vivisection of 8 American captives during the war. Suguro (Eiji Okuda), the well-meaning junior doctor recounts his time working under doctor Hashimoto (Takahiro Tamura) at a medical facility, leading up to their infamous experiments. His fellow junior doctor, Toda (Ken Watanabe), does not share his qualms about the goings-on at the hospital, including lying to patients about deaths in surgery, or their live autopsies, all of which he believes furthers medical knowledge. The doctors and nurses at the facility continue with their jobs under constant threat of air raids and influence from the military.

Following the Second World War, many of the war crimes committed by the Japanese army, including the infamous Unit 731 were uncovered. In “The Sea and Poison”, based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, director Kei Kumai attempts to shed light on this, creating a moral drama that is chilling in its revelations and implications. Masao Tochizawa’s black and white cinematography creates a stark visual metaphor in the darkness that gathers in pristine white operating theatres. The hospital, ostensibly a place of hope, is nevertheless swarming with the shadow of death which seem to grow darker as the place is overtaken by concerns other than the health of the patients. The characters themselves are caught between the worlds of medicine and war, of helping to save life and taking lives. Eiji Okuda’s performance as Suguro captures the character’s anxieties and discomfort at what he is witnessing, along with his sense of impotence to stop it. The two scenes where we see operations are shown in gory detail, with exposed organs and viscera reminiscent of the most brutal horror films. Largely dialogue free save from the particulars of the operation, the actors explore the complex emotions of the staff as they witness these events, scientific curiosity; a vicarious sense of revenge from the soldiers; and the moral complexity of doing something so heinous for the greater good. The score by Teizo Matsumura has elements of the macabre and theatrical, with warped melodies alongside operatic arias that reflect the contrast in the film itself of terrible acts and the higher moral concerns of some characters.

“The Sea and Poison” is an important film that discusses the immoral acts carried out under the veil of war and in the name of scientific inquiry. Suguro is not a heroic character, failing to stop what happens or even to decline taking part in the experiments. Nurse Hilda, a German married to the head doctor, asks another nurse about god’s justice, and this is a theme that is repeated throughout the film. The idea that humans are operating without a set moral code, or with one that is flexible enough to accept such atrocities as a natural or unavoidable part of progress is a terrifying one. We see in the film that the military encroach on the hospital, later physically as they crowd into the operating theatre, suggesting that evil is intermingled with good and occasionally overpowers the better natures of people. In its cold, clinical, dissection of human nature the film finally settles on a chilling conclusion, that perhaps evil is as much a part of human nature as good. It offers a faint hope in the character of Suguro, who in his strolls by the sea is able to see society for what it is, suggesting that individuals have within them the power to ignore orders to do evil and are instead able to think morally and rationally outside of the system.

Hiroshima (1953) by Hideo Sekigawa

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a tragic landmark in world history, a painful reminder of humanity’s capacity for violence and the devastating power of technology. The destruction of the city, the incredible death toll, and the subsequent suffering led to a long period of contemplation on the morality of this attack. Hideo Sekigawa’s film begins with a class of students in 1953, some of whom are suffering the consequences of the bomb through leukemia (known as the atomic sickness). In a powerful monologue one of the students rails against the short memories of the people, suggesting that not only the world is quickly forgetting the horror of what happened, but even citizens of Hiroshima itself. We are then taken back to a period shortly before August 6th 1945, introduced to several people living in the shadow of war, but entirely oblivious to the coming atrocity. The film depicts the day of the bombing and what followed in heartbreaking detail, showing the loss and agony of the victims as they struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of this terrifying new weapon.

Yasutaro Yagi’s screenplay is based on real life accounts from the time, which were collected by Dr. Arata Osada in his 1951 book “Children of the Bomb”. Filmed in 1953, the memory of Hiroshima would still have been fresh in many people’s minds and its shockingly explicit depiction of things such as burn victims, mental anguish, the death of children, and other horrors, shows a determination to confront head-on this tragedy that left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche. The film does not have a singular narrative, instead showing various vignettes of different people and events that symbolise the period. Whether it is a class of children trapped beneath the rubble; a soldier who clings desperately to his sense of duty; or the wailing of infants for their mothers in makeshift refuges, the film takes us to the human heart of what this attack meant to those affected by it. “Hiroshima” righthly maintains a firm focus on the victims, rather than complicate it with unnecessary historical detail or attempt to retrospectively contextualise the attack, with only a brief mention of events such as Pearl Harbour and the Bataan Death March. The film’s recreation of the devastated city, rubble strewn streets, unquenchable fires burning, smoke billowing, is shocking to witness, giving a limited yet impactful sense of the reality. There are occasional clips taken from contemporary documentary footage, showing doctors at work on victims, or destroyed streets, that help remind the viewer that however extreme the portrait seems, if anything it does not capture the true horror of what occurred. The main cast comprises several stars of the period, Yumeji Tsukioka (who had previously starred in “The Bells of Nagasaki”, another film about survivors of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan), Eiji Okada, Yoshi Kato, and Isuzu Yamada, alongside an incredible supporting cast which includes many young actors. The performances capture the excruciating physical pain of the victims alongside the shock and sheer terror of what they witnessed and experienced. The sequences of people hobbling and crawling, each step an agony, are particularly moving. The use of large numbers of extras helps gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy, with entire neighbourhoods devastated by the blast. The score by Akira Ifukube is a thrilling orchestral composition that highlights the enormity of what befell at Hiroshima, a devastating eulogy to those who were lost.

“Hiroshima” is an attempt to document and recreate the pain of this event. One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end when we see the ghosts of those who were killed rise up in silent groups, a powerful memorial to the victims of the bombing. Throughout the film there is a focus on children too, understandably as the script was based on the testimony of young witnesses in Dr. Osada’s book. The film begins with a class full of young people and children feature throughout. Many of these children had their future stolen from them on that day, either through the illnesses they developed, or through the mental strain of dealing with the aftermath. We later see a roving band of orphans begging for food and scavenging for scrap metal to sell, their lives overturned in an instant. The film presents a stark depiction of the events, without dramatizing or exaggerating, simply allowing us to experience a part of what happened and the aftermath. A film that pricks the conscience, with a forceful message that such things should never be forgotten nor repeated.