Running neck and neck with notorious auteur maudit Seijun Suzuki as the most outrageous and breakneck Japanese pulp force of the '60s, Yasuzo Masumura is an all-but-unknown figure here. The two directors, both in their own ways suggesting samurai Samuel Fullers with crank habits, had careers that ran roughly parallel from the mid-'50s; but whereas rock 'n' roll gangsta Suzuki has survived into eccentric lionhood, nihilistic sex fiend Masumura died in 1986. In the DVD epoch, no geyser of movie love is kept secret for long, and cult-specialty house Fantoma has been busy sending Masumura's best films—1958's Giants & Toys, 1964's Manji, 1969's Blind Beast, etc.—out into the hungry void.
Red Angel (1966) is an integral cut of meat in this amazing stew of genres, sexual obsession, and misanthropic élan. Set in 1939 during the Japanese siege of China—a cataclysmic eight-year massacre mission in which at least 23 million Chinese died and which Japan, then and now, struggles to rationalize—Masumura's film stays close to the ground, following the dire path of young nurse Nishi (Ayako Wakao), as she is introduced to maniacal, primitive combat medicine and its human fallout.
The credits are crowded with battlefield skulls. Masumura (working with screenwriter Ryozo Kasahara) is howling in your face and standing on your toes from the outset: In the first five minutes, Nishi is raped in a ward of recovering soldiers; the bodies of dead and wounded arrive in truckloads, and the medical choices are reduced to let the bastards die or amputate something. "Put my foot back on!" says one screaming infantryman, holding up the severed appendage in its boot; "Don't be stupid," the doctor tells him. (You wonder what the Chinese situation was like.) Masumura is not above cutting to a barrel stuffed with hacked hands and feet, or glancing toward mass cremations for a transition shot. Too overwhelmed by carnage to align her emotions, Nishi instinctively trades sex for a pint of blood to help her rapist when he returns near death from the front, and half-willingly becomes horndog prey to virtually every man she meets, including a double amputee begging for a handjob, a platoon of death-facing soldiers who retain the right to just fuck anything, and a morphine-junkie surgeon who considers himself little better than a mass murderer.
It's difficult to recall any American war film as horrified and cynical about the ripple effects of imperial war, or as nearly suicidal with cultural guilt. (Then again, one can't be too surprised in light of Kon Ichikawa's 1959 nitro-flask Fires on the Plain, which dealt with Japanese soldiers' cannibalism.) Masumura was also a brilliantly adept widescreen image-maker. Photographed in rich, silvery black and white (the color Suzuki was using in the mid-'60s would've been intolerable), Red Angel is composed in DaieiScope with Wellesian depth and shadow; not a square centimeter of the long, slender images is wasted.