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DR. AKAGI (KANZO SENSEI)(director/writer: Shohei Imamura; screenwriters: Daisuke Tengan/based on the book “Dr. Liver” by Ango Sakaguchi; cinematographer: Shigeru Komatsubara; cast: Akira Emoto (Dr. Akagi), Kumiko Aso (Sonoko), Jyuro Kara (Umemoto, a monk), Jacques Gamblin (Piet), Masanori Sera (Toriumi), Keiko Matzuzaka (Sonoko’s mother), Misa Shimizu (Gin); Runtime: 128; Toei Co./Tohoku Shinsha/Kadokawa Shoten; 1998-Jap.)
A strange farcical comedy results, that is often brilliant and at other times too messy to follow in all the cloudy trails it leads to.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It is always fascinating when a great foreign director takes a look at his own country in a way that outsiders can’t. That is what the almost 73-year-old Shohei Imamura (Black Rain/Vengeance Is Mine/The Insect Woman/The Pornographers/The Eel) does here, in his final film, after a long and illustrious career, one in which he started out as an assistant to the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

This is a comedy/drama about the last days of WW11 that tells about Japan, trying to hold back their inevitable defeat by staying the course under orders from their totalitarian regime.

The story takes place in the small backwater seacoast town of Hibi, where those who wish to forget the war might go to the town’s red light district or drown their sorrows with alcohol or drugs. Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) is something of a local joke and comical figure in town, called by most Dr. Liver because his diagnosis for all his patients is that they have hepatitis. Dr. Akagi is always seen in public in his immaculate white suit, straw hat, bow tie, and knickers running around town tending to his patients. They treat him as a local treasure, even if they kid him a bit about being an eccentric. Dr. Akagi seems to have their best interest at heart and they respect that, though the wartime military authorities think of him only as a quack.

Imamura, whose own father was a doctor, based this film on a short novel by Ango Sakaguchi. Imamura and his son, who collaborated on the script under the pseudonym Daisuke Tengan, have, supposedly, retained only the title character and invented everything else.

What struck me as being rather odd was the film’s opening as the first words spoken are English and they come from American bomber pilots flying over Okayama, an island village next to the doctor’s hometown of Hibi that has a PoW camp and a factory. This seems to indicate the influence America and its film industry has had on this quintessential Japanese director and the need he has to show that his country is not necessarily a homogenous place, that all nations are influenced by each other. Imamura will even have his good doctor, at one point of the story, converse in German with a Dutch PoW, Piet (Jacques Gamblin), accused of being a spy. It sets the table for the film’s major theme, that war comes about when people can’t trust each other anymore and that they let their governments take charge of their thinking process. Imamura does not blame the American pilots, even if they are doing something as terrible as bombing a civilian population. It is a rather odd philosophical opinion for one to have in Japan, especially for one who was himself getting bombed during the war (Imamura was a teen at the time of the war).

A more prosaic meaning for the film’s opening is that the bombing interrupts the sexual act of the local prostitute Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) with her boyfriend who is paying her for sex by embezzling funds from city hall, where he is an accountant. His mother, disheartened by this relationship, will accept Dr. Akagi’s advice to seek help from the local priest, Umemoto (Jyuro Kara). The priest is a drunk, unhappily living with his third wife, and demands sake for his services but gets pickled cucumbers instead. No one in this film will get exactly what they want.

This is a chaotic story that covers more topics than you could shake a stick at. They range from some more or less minor concerns such as whale fishing, prostitution, bureaucracy, power trips, small-town superstitions (the belief that a virgin will be more likely to get shot in war than an experienced man), small-town prejudices (a prostitute is not good enough for my son), PoW’s being tortured, Japan’s attitudes towards foreigners being questioned, and grave desecration (Dr. Akagi will need a liver for his research). The big themes are reserved for the following subjects: What role society has in providing medical research into the cause and identification of hepatitis, the finding of love in one’s life, the nuclear bomb, and finding out what causes war.

This Imamura film is not by any means his definitive one, but it shows enough of his lifetime concerns to be an interesting one for him to make his swan song in. What it suffers from is that the combination of comedy and serious drama have too many awkward and slow moments. To see how great a director he is, is to contrast those tepid scenes with some of the scenes that have his magical hand in it and see how simple and moving they were. The last scene of the film is the work of a master, as the cloud-like nuclear bomb is viewed by the middle-aged widower, Dr. Akagi, who is bereaved having recently learned that his doctor son serving in Manchuria (probably involved in immoral research on live subjects captured by the Japanese) had been killed.

Akagi’s young assistant, Sonoko, a former prostitute, is taken on by him as a favor to those who want to save her from being a prostitute. Sonoko views the doctor as being a great man and has fallen in love with the older man and is ready to let him have sex with her for free, as she recalls her mother’s (Keiko) advice who trained her to be a whore: “Don’t give a man a freebie unless he is your true love!” The two are returning from a medical call made to one of the remote islands and Sonoko has just missed catching a whale, tipping over the small boat but, nonetheless, she feels exhilarated and shows off her nude body to the modest doctor. In the background appears the nuclear bomb, something that they don’t recognize for what it is, at first, as it looks godly and spectacularly magnificent as if it could temporarily solve all the problems that plagued the world and end all worldly conflict. There is no moral judgment that this is an American bomb, as the philosophy here is that when you live by the sword you must expect to die that way. The better choice for his country would have been one of partaking in a more loving nature, something that seems obvious but what is also obvious is that the world has not learned that simple lesson and continues to rely on military might to fight its battles. Behind Imamura’s kindly doctor alter ego there is a despondency that the sickness of his country couldn’t be cured, and that there was so much needless suffering for his people and for the people of the world.

Dr. Akagi is fighting a single-handed battle in war time Japan to alert the country that hepatitis is a contagious disease and that it is destroying the liver so that it can no longer process toxins and therefore it is destroying the body. Dr. Akagi treats his victims with glucose, which the local army PoW commandant says is being misused by him. What Imamura is also pointing out, is that this disease is symptomatic to what is happening in Japan: it is destroying the country because the problem is being ignored and the disease and the war are similar in nature, they are rapidly spreading unchecked across the country.

To enlist Dr. Akagi’s help in the battle against hepatitis the doctor is only able to muster the support of those with weaknesses in their character, who are not esteemed members of the community but in their hearts are good people and when given a chance will try to work through their problems. These are the drunken monk, the morphine addicted surgeon (Sera), the Dutch fugitive from the PoW camp, and the ex-prostitute Sonoko (she still plies her trade when convenient).

While Akagi and Sonoko are viewing the deadly bacteria that is under the microscope, Sonoko on seeing it exclaims how beautiful it is. Sonoko: “Are there men and women bacteria?” Akagi: “Neither, just perpetual reproductive motion.” Sonoko: “No prostitution?”Akagi: “That doesn’t exist in nature. Everyone copulates freely. Only humans value chastity. Still, prostitution is bad, since you were born among humans.” Sonoko: “Better off being bacteria. More fun.”

The big events of the film center around Dr. Akagi getting a microscope, a liver, and movie equipment with a powerful arc light needed to view the bacteria; and, by him going to Tokyo and enlisting and getting support for his project from his educated and prominent colleagues. The praise and applause Dr. Akagi receives for his efforts at a reception honoring him is enough to make anyone filled with pride and it makes the doctor forget for once that his patients come first. On his return home, Dr. Akagi fails to immediately respond to an old lady with a heart attack. Instead he is busy working at his microscope, seeking praise from others for his research work rather than taking care of his patient who dies the next day.

Things come to a climax on Dr. Akagi’s return from Tokyo, when he finds that the army is looking for an escaped PoW. Sonoko tells him that she hid him in the house and the doctor without hesitating — he is willing to help any human being in trouble — operates on the tortured fugitive with the help of his oddball friends. One good turn leads to another, as the Dutchman in civilian life was an expert in cameras and gets the microscope needed for the hepatitis research to work properly.

When the army recaptures the Dutchman, they also take the doctor’s equipment and he realizes that he can’t stop what seems to be destined. That the war and the disease cannot be cured, as of now.

This film might not be a masterpiece (which I don’t think it is) but it is clearly a film by a great man, a man who sees the contradictions in life in an amusing and contentiously cynical way. Imamura is someone who can put the virtuous doctor in the same boat with the whore and not be bothered by any moral judgments about who the better person is. For Imamura, they are both beautiful. And in the same breath, he can understand all those in Japan who served their emperor, even the PoW commandant whom he views as not that different from Dr. Akagi in his allegiance to authority. They both have connections to the rulers of the country and use this influence when it suits their purposes. A strange farcical comedy results, that is often brilliant and at other times too messy to follow in all the cloudy trails it leads to.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”