Dr. Akagi


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Dr. Akagi
directed by Shohei Imamura

Thefirst time we see Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto), he's running. Not jogging, reallyrunning. Lungs heaving, arms pumping, shoes going slap-slap-slap on the groundas he rushes madly through the streets of his seaside hamlet. Like a man desperatelyhoping 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. "Ifone leg is broken, he will run on the other. If both legs are broken, he willrun on his hands."
The title of Imamura's1981 film Eijanaika?about a Japanese peasant who experiences cultureshock after returning to his home country after living in America?literallytranslates as "What the hell!" The phrase could easily describe thetypical American reaction to Dr. Akagi, or to most of Imamura'smovies for that matter. The master Japanese filmmaker, who's 72, makespictures that are as weird and energetic as those of a wunderkind just out offilm school?and as cheerfully arrogant about reassuring the audience. Thedirector of The Ballad of Narayama (1983), Black Rain (1989) andmost recently The Eel (1997) isn't big on characters who explainthemselves 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'rebundles of contradictions who live life with puckish aggressiveness, like especiallydense and desperate screwball comedy characters?question marks who thinkthey're exclamation points. Consider the main character'sfull name, which doubles as the Japanese title of the movie: Kanzo Sensei."Kanzo" means liver; "Sensei" is an honorific that in thiscontext means "Doctor." Akagi is literally the doctor of livers, ora doctor obsessed with livers, but the jokey nickname has another level: Theliver is the organ that filters impurities?that absorbs the punishment inflicted by toxins and attempts to keep the body healthy. Which could meanthat Akagi, despite being a strange little man with an inexplicable medicalobsession, could also be the metaphoric liver of his town. He's clearlythe most optimistic, can-do guy around, fixated on curing an epidemic nobodyelse can see. He doesn't care whether people snicker at him?and he'sso driven, so certain of his rightness, that his detractors don't darelaugh in his presence. This sort of gamesmanshipis par for the course in Imamura's films. Dr. Akagi is differentfrom his other work, but only superficially. In movies like Black Rain,which was about the lingering effects of the atomic bombing of Japan, andThe Eel, about a paroled wife-killer who has an almost sexual fascinationwith eels, the mysterious funny quality that suffuses Imamura's charactersand situations can seem dark and twisted and a little menacing. You catch yourselflaughing, but you're not sure that you should be laughing or what you'relaughing at. Dr. Akagi is much lighter and more pleasing, but deep downit, too, has a melancholy soul and an elusive quality. And like previous Imamuraworks, it stresses the relative smallness of human concerns, and the fact thathumanity, despite its delusion of grandeur and immense destructive power, isultimately no more important in the cosmic scheme of things than an insect, an eel or a defective liver. Like Don Quixote tiltingat 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-addictedsurgeon 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 ofthese characters' lives reminds us that during times of intense nationaldeprivation and misery, the people most likely to risk everything on a seeminglyfoolish crusade are the people who have the least to lose?the fringe-dwellersand weirdos who don't fit into so-called polite society. As in The Eel, whoseparoled murderer-hero resisted getting into another relationship for fear he'ddice the woman up the way he did his late, unfaithful wife, Dr. Akagipresents nearly all of its major characters as prisoners of their (possiblyanimal and instinctive) appetites. "Now that you workhere," Akagi warns Sonoko, "stop selling yourself." "Okay!" Sonoko perkily replies. "Hardly ever!" "No," Akagisays firmly. "Not ever." Akagi wants Toriumi, thesurgeon, to get off morphine or at least cut back on his consumption, becausethe medical supply people say that Akagi is using too much of it already andare reluctant to give him more. Toriumi, too, leaves a backdoor in his promiseto Akagi. "Personal use mustbe cut down," Akagi says. "Don'tworry," Toriumi replies. "I hardly use it anymore." Akagi has a cranky and unrepentantattitude toward just about everything in his life. He's not interestedin 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, thoughhe rarely talks about it explicitly. He keeps having recurring dreams abouthis son, an army doctor, doing horrific "experiments" on prisonersof war in the guise of patriotic medical research (shades of the Nazis). Atfirst, you might think this is a simple contrasting device?Akagi the goodcountry 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'smore going on here than meets the eye. In a sense, Akagi is worried that hisson is consumed with a moral sickness; the moral sickness equates to physicalsickness?to Akagi's Ahab-like pursuit of the dread hepatitis virus.The war-as-sickness idea, alluded to but rarely addressed directly, is eventuallyconfirmed: The Dutch soldier Piet compares the mindless rage that infects wholenations during wartime to hepatitis. If only there were a cure. But there isn't. What makes Akagi'scrusade both comical and moving is his ability to spot evidence of infectioneverywhere, even in conversational slips, stray bits of body language and blindrecitations of bureaucratic rules and procedures. In one of the film'sfunniest scenes, Akagi tries to get more morphine from the supply officers butis rebuffed because he uses to much glucose. The absurd exchange that followsis 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, theEmperor!" At the mention of the Emperor,the supply guys stand up straight and bow deferentially. Then one of the officerswarns that they can't fulfill Akagi's request because they have toreport 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!"

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