directed by Shohei Imamura
The first time we see Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto), he’s running. Not jogging, really running. Lungs heaving, arms pumping, shoes going slap-slap-slap on the ground as he rushes madly through the streets of his seaside hamlet. Like a man desperately hoping to prevent a murder a mile away–or a man hounded by unseen furies. “Being a family doctor is all legs,” says an unseen narrator. “If one leg is broken, he will run on the other. If both legs are broken, he will run on his hands.”
The title of Imamura’s 1981 film Eijanaika–about a Japanese peasant who experiences culture shock after returning to his home country after living in America–literally translates as “What the hell!” The phrase could easily describe the typical American reaction to Dr. Akagi, or to most of Imamura’s movies for that matter. The master Japanese filmmaker, who’s 72, makes pictures that are as weird and energetic as those of a wunderkind just out of film school–and as cheerfully arrogant about reassuring the audience. The director of The Ballad of Narayama (1983), Black Rain (1989) and most recently The Eel (1997) isn’t big on characters who explain themselves to us. His people are small and hard and packed tight with secrets; figuring them out is like trying to open a walnut with your bare hands. They’re bundles of contradictions who live life with puckish aggressiveness, like especially dense and desperate screwball comedy characters–question marks who think they’re exclamation points.
Consider the main character’s full name, which doubles as the Japanese title of the movie: Kanzo Sensei. “Kanzo” means liver; “Sensei” is an honorific that in this context means “Doctor.” Akagi is literally the doctor of livers, or a doctor obsessed with livers, but the jokey nickname has another level: The liver is the organ that filters impurities–that absorbs the punishment
inflicted by toxins and attempts to keep the body healthy. Which could mean that Akagi, despite being a strange little man with an inexplicable medical obsession, could also be the metaphoric liver of his town. He’s clearly the most optimistic, can-do guy around, fixated on curing an epidemic nobody else can see. He doesn’t care whether people snicker at him–and he’s so driven, so certain of his rightness, that his detractors don’t dare laugh in his presence.
This sort of gamesmanship is par for the course in Imamura’s films. Dr. Akagi is different from his other work, but only superficially. In movies like Black Rain, which was about the lingering effects of the atomic bombing of Japan, and The Eel, about a paroled wife-killer who has an almost sexual fascination with eels, the mysterious funny quality that suffuses Imamura’s characters and situations can seem dark and twisted and a little menacing. You catch yourself laughing, but you’re not sure that you should be laughing or what you’re laughing at. Dr. Akagi is much lighter and more pleasing, but deep down it, too, has a melancholy soul and an elusive quality. And like previous Imamura works, it stresses the relative smallness of human concerns, and the fact that humanity, despite its delusion of grandeur and immense destructive power, is ultimately no more important in the cosmic scheme of things than an insect,
an eel or a defective liver.
Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Akagi is a man on a mission. To slay the dreaded hepatitis demon, he assembles an unlikely team of assistants whose ranks include a morphine-addicted surgeon named Toriumi (Masanori Sera); Umemoto (Jyuro Kara), an alcoholic priest; Piet (Jacques Gamblin), a Dutch prisoner of war; and a prostitute named Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), who becomes Akagi’s assistant. The disreputable quality of these characters’ lives reminds us that during times of intense national deprivation and misery, the people most likely to risk everything on a seemingly foolish crusade are the people who have the least to lose–the fringe-dwellers and weirdos who don’t fit into so-called polite society.
As in The Eel, whose paroled murderer-hero resisted getting into another relationship for fear he’d dice the woman up the way he did his late, unfaithful wife, Dr. Akagi presents nearly all of its major characters as prisoners of their (possibly animal and instinctive) appetites.
“Now that you work here,” Akagi warns Sonoko, “stop selling yourself.”
Sonoko perkily replies. “Hardly ever!”
“No,” Akagi says firmly. “Not ever.”
Akagi wants Toriumi, the surgeon, to get off morphine or at least cut back on his consumption, because the medical supply people say that Akagi is using too much of it already and are reluctant to give him more. Toriumi, too, leaves a backdoor in his promise to Akagi.
“Personal use must be cut down,” Akagi says.
“Don’t worry,” Toriumi replies. “I hardly use it anymore.”
Akagi has a cranky and unrepentant attitude toward just about everything in his life. He’s not interested in compromise with either enemies or friends. He likes rules. He’s an absolutist. But he’s not a tyrant. He’s a decent guy with a moral code, though he rarely talks about it explicitly. He keeps having recurring dreams about his son, an army doctor, doing horrific “experiments” on prisoners of war in the guise of patriotic medical research (shades of the Nazis). At first, you might think this is a simple contrasting device–Akagi the good country doctor, too old to serve in the war, is spared many of its moral horrors, and wishes the same could be true for his son. But once again, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. In a sense, Akagi is worried that his son is consumed with a moral sickness; the moral sickness equates to physical sickness–to Akagi’s Ahab-like pursuit of the dread hepatitis virus. The war-as-sickness idea, alluded to but rarely addressed directly, is eventually confirmed: The Dutch soldier Piet compares the mindless rage that infects whole nations during wartime to hepatitis. If only there were a cure. But there isn’t.
What makes Akagi’s crusade both comical and moving is his ability to spot evidence of infection everywhere, even in conversational slips, stray bits of body language and blind recitations of bureaucratic rules and procedures. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Akagi tries to get more morphine from the supply officers but is rebuffed because he uses to much glucose. The absurd exchange that follows is worthy of Dr. Kellogg from T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, or Groucho Marx in full-on jerk mode.
“I worry for my patients,” Akagi blusters. “For my nation. And most sincerely, for His Majesty, the Emperor!”
At the mention of the Emperor, the supply guys stand up straight and bow deferentially. Then one of the officers warns that they can’t fulfill Akagi’s request because they have to report to the army.
“Like little children?” Akagi demands.
“Well, in a way,” the clerk replies.
“How old are you?”
“Going on 50.”
“Mentally, you’re a small child,” Akagi says bitterly.
“And physically…you have hepatitis!”