It has been noted in influential film circles that the cinema of Yasuzo Masumura is the cinema of fanatics. It can imply that one can become a Masumura fanatic or that one can only watch his movies fanatically or that it is of fanatics.. Of the Japanese film masters of iconic status, Masumura should not linger far behind. Fame, that fickle thing relies on many factors. But I am sure Masumura would not mind that. The corpus of his work is luminous. It is my intention to write down a few misplaced thoughts about his work in general and about two movies in particular.
It can be said that Masumura's cinema is a cinema of subversion. By that I do not mean that his movies touch on the usual social alienation theme or social wars that have blotted all post-war and post-colonial societies in general. By that I think I mean the methods of cinematic portrayal, the very acts of catching on screen, with the lasting thuds of big hammers, the essence of characterization, characters that remain with us after art house cinema doors are shut at night or those that remain with us to torture us. I may say without any ounce of exaggerated prolixity that the character of the nurse Nishi, played by Wakao Ayako, the sublimely beautiful, the stunningly beautiful Ayako, in Red Angel, has begun to affect me since these last few days. I mean, I am affected by her discomfiture, I am tortured that she is much tortured.
We claim sometimes that we like imagery in cinema, for instance the Tarkovskian image or the despotic imagery of Herzog but surely, it doesn't mean anything without a story? Masumura says: "Some believe more in the image, others believe in the story. Personally I believe in the story. Because images aren’t absolute, one can’t express everything with them." The stretching of a story, for after all a story is a story, it is in the uncomfortable distance of that stretching that Masumura starts in discomforting the viewer. Personally I like imagery much, but would prefer Pasolini to Tarkovsky any day. There are stories behind the images aren't there? Nature is always malignant. Rain falls and makes us wet, nearly always, except certain rains that never fall.
is set against the back drop of the Sino-Japanese war. Nishi, played by Wakao, is a young nurse who is raped by soldiers one night, and later she leaves for a field hospital where she falls in love with Okabe, a doctor, who is disillusioned with war in general. He saves many lives and yet also cripples many by life saving amputations. On returning to her base, Nishi decides in favour of giving sexual comfort to a double amputee, for that soldier no longer feels like a man. Nishi takes him out, invites him for a steam bath and tells him that he can do anything to her. Next morning, the soldier leaps to his death. Back with Okabe, Nishi declares her love for him and he discloses his morphine addiction. She wants him to make her into a woman and he declares that he is no longer a man. Cholera breaks out and the two withdraw into Okabe's room. Nishi ties him up refusing to inject him with morphine and later, man again, the two must burn together. Out on the front together, the Japanese camp is attacked by the enemy, the Japanese are routed with Nishi as the only remaining survivor. She finds Okabe in the rubble and falls on his chest.
I am not concerned with any indictment of war in Red Angel. Frankly, these things are boring. This world is past any sense of justice. What must concern us now is only how individuals can behave during wars and in periods of inactive bloodshed. Consider the war crimes in Iraq, consider the photographic portrayal of imagery from Iraq, then consider individual responsibility again. The world that Masumura chooses to show us is a sado-masochistic world at times. Once Nishi is raped and she decides to get on with things, after she discloses it to her head nurse who reminds her about a war, everything is upside down. Later, her assent to sexually serve a soldier who cannot touch his manhood, and Okabe's refusal to consider amputees as men, shows the almost militarist regimes in their minds. The scenes in Okabe's chambers are wonderfully claustrophobic, the imagery is essentialist, dark and despairing. Pour me a drink Nishi, pour me more, says Okabe.
One of the lasting images of this movie is the erotic grandeur of Wakao Ayako, as steam pours forth from the bath that she has invited the amputee soldier in. This is grand cinema at its grandest best. You feel her pain but more than that, you feel the soldier's pain too. There is a painful whip in Masumura'a hands, as he whips the viewer. All militarist societies have people that carry whips, and all societies are essentially totalitarian. This is erotic solitude and Wakao seethes and burns. The steam rises, do anything you want says Nishi, everything is thus lost. And later, with Okabe, a genuine bond develops but one wonders how genuine it is. Outside the shells fall and inside Nishi, one sacrifice after another.
Masumura's Ayako Wakao is a strong character and in general, his women are very strong. However, even though his women have a streak of individualism, a streak to reach to some end, they are basically exploited women. Women are no more than commodities he shows. War or peace, Masumura shows how everything gets inverted in the name of ideology. Even an ordinary oppositive view can be subverted by different conditions that are chosen by people over one another. Masumura says:"I don't try to portray women. It's just that women are the more human. Men only live for women, all their lives they carry their burden the way a horse pulls his carriage, and then they die of a heart attack. Only by focusing on women can we express humanity. I don't choose women so I can talk about women. I'm not a specialist of women's issues like Mizoguchi is."
Nishi and Okabe withdraw into the dark enclosed solitude of his chamber, surrounded by gunfire and falling shells. Next to morphine and Okabe's impotency, seethes the raging torrent of Nishi's beauty. The interior, so sparse and so war like in its essentialism, whimpers as the two rage against each other and in a way, against the war itself. I should have met you in Tokyo in earlier times, pines Okabe, I love you. Love or passion, in the hermetic solitude of Okabe's chamber, Masumura triumphs in depicting the sadistic tortures of hell and the impotent loneliness of people.