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.

Good for Nothing (1960) by Yoshishige Yoshida

Ikuko Makino (Hizuru Takachiho) works as a secretary for Mr. Akiyama, whose son Toshio (Yusuke Kawazu) spends his days idling around town with his group of similarly aimless friends. Toshio and his friends, including college student Jun (Masahiko Tsugawa), pick up Ikuko and tell her they are going to rob her. After releasing her the group continue to torment her in various ways. However, Jun and Ikuko begin an awkward relationship, with Ikuko attracted to his carefree attitude towards life.

Written and directed by Yoshishige Yoshida, “Good-for-nothing” is a societal drama with tragic-romantic elements. The characters are interesting, typifying conflicting beliefs about the state of the Japanese economy. Mr. Akiyama is a successful businessman, ably negotiating his way past rivals and representative of the capitalist mindset of ever expanding profits. His son, Toshio, on the otherhand is spoiled, simply living off his father, and his friends in turn leeching off him. Jun, a poor student, is drawn in by Toshio, enraptured by the lifestyle of the young playboy, without a care in the world, seeing everything in life as a game to be enjoyed rather than striving for anything meaningful. Ikuko is in part trapped between these two worlds, longing for the freedom, financial and personal, of Toshio and his friends; while having to work for her living and become a productive member of society. She is strong-willed, capable, forthright, but perhaps conditioned by her environment, while she sees other possibilities in the complete rejection of society exemplified by Jun. The film plays out this contrast in differentiating the city from the beach, the former being a stifling, noisy, unpleasant place where rigid societal norms see office workers repeating the same dutiful yet unfulfilling roles. At one point in the film it is even described as being no place for humans to live. While the seaside is a place where a horizon of limitless potential can be seen. Again, represented by Toshio’s friend who dreams of leaving Japan for America. The film occasionaly spells out its politics and philosophy explicitly, with characters giving on-the-nose analysis of their own situations or that of society. However, it also does a fantastic job, aided by some superb performances, of giving emotional, believable examples of the struggle between the economic system and basic human desires.

In one scene we hear a voice over expounding on the subject of Archaeology. The film itself acts as the sort of cultural artefact that gives us an artistic yet accurate depiction of life at this time, with issues that remain relevant to this day. The romance of Ikuko and Jun appears doomed from the beginning due to their conflicting beliefs. Jun is unwilling to become part of society, despite the financial security it would provide, while Ikuko longs for freedom but is not prepared to sacrifice her position in Akiyama’s company.