Directed by Shohei Imamura
Written by Imamura and Daisuke Tengan
Based on the novel DOCTOR LIVER by Ango Sakaguchi
With Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin and Masanori Sera
Distributed by Kino International
Shohei Imamura was a theorist of chaos long before chaos theory became a fashionable buzzword. Nevertheless, age has mellowed him. His 1997 comeback film, THE EEL, adopted a relatively serene tone towards the kind of disorder that fills his films. It was often compared to the late films of John Ford, and while I don't know Ford's work well enough to know if the comparison is accurate, it felt like an old man's film in the best sense of the term, full of the kind of calm that age supposedly brings and free of the preachiness and self-indulgence that marred the final films of directors like Fellini and Satyajit Ray.
Serge Daney described Imamura's 1979 serial killer saga VENGEANCE IS MINE as the story of a man who has to kill in order to say no. The protagonists of Imamura's 60s and 70s films are people who struggle to say no, usually through stubborn force of will rather than conscious intent. However, starting with THE BALLAD OF NARAYAMA, he became interested in people who say yes, for better or worse, to a certain ideal of community life. The change may be most evident in BLACK RAIN. While much of his earlier work focused on marginal characters (prostitutes, gangsters, backwater "hicks"), BLACK RAIN centered around people trying to live "normal" lives in the face of a most abnormal event: the bombing of Hiroshima. In it, Imamura expressed a great deal of sympathy with his characters' desire to carry on with their lives as if they were characters in an Ozu film, with no more than the usual amount of grief and difficulty, as well as a concealed rage at the way they accept the dictates of "normalcy."
Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto, who also appeared in THE EEL) would never make that mistake. He's an eccentric, bowtie-clad physician who races about 1945 Hiroshima (to the tune of a jazzy, vibraphone-driven score that could've come from a French New Wave film) ministering to his patients, whom he's convinced all suffer from hepatitis. "Dr. Liver" is his nickname, as well as a literal translation of the Japanese title. Working alongside him are a number of fellow misfits, including a prostitute-turned-nurse Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) and a morphine-addicted doctor who has to interrupt surgery to shoot up (Jyuro Kara). Although Akagi is obsessed by his private concern with liver ailments, he and Sonoko make a daring judgment in deciding to nurse Piet (Jacques Gamblin), a Dutch prisoner-of-war who's broken out of prison and taken shelter in their clinic, back to health.
Imamura is in full gear for the first 90 minutes of DR. AKAGI, albeit more concerned with character and place than setting narrative wheels in motion. His view is nonjudgmental, even when Akagi and crew exhume the fresh corpse of a patient in order to examine his liver . Nevertheless, the early signs of the sea change that occurs in the final half hour are visible. The military presence is inescapable, even if the soldiers seem happily occupied teaching housewives how to bayonet American soldiers in the heart. Dr. Akagi's qualms about the army come to a head once he learns that his beloved son (and fellow doctor) has died of illness on the Manchurian frontline. History makes its presence felt, just as it does in BLACK RAIN. If previous Imamura heroes and heroines were people who said no, Dr. Akagi is a man who says both yes (to a warmhearted, Renoirian brand of humanism) and no (to the pressures placed on him by the Japanese military.) Once Piet is captured, something snaps, and the relatively gentle, comic narrative suddenly turns brutal and gory, even though all the Japanese are eventually released. The shadow of the most brutal and gory event of them all lurks close by.
The 71-year-old Imamura has declared that DR. AKAGI will be his last film, and it feels like a summation of sorts. Its shares a Hiroshima setting with BLACK RAIN, while the militarized port setting reminds me of the somewhat more urban one dominated by American soldiers in PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS. The finale, set on a boat in between two islands, recalls that of LEGEND OF THE SOUTH SEA ISLES, while its animal symbolism is an Imamura fixture. For him, an animal is never just an animal, just as an eel was not just an eel for the protagonist of THE EEL and a liver is not just a liver for Dr. Akagi. Even so, the symbolism of the final scene of DR. AKAGI appears to have been written in a code known only to Imamura and his characters. Whatever a liver and a whale mean in this context escapes me. Furthermore, the sudden shifts in tone taken in DR. AKAGI's final 30 minutes, as Imamuran as they are, are not accomplished with his customary finesse. When younger Asian directors like Wong Kar-wai and Takeshi Kitano mix tones and genres, there's usually a stable conception of character underneath, which serves as a kind of chord structure to improvise upon. In its final scenes, DR. AKAGI overreaches and misses the changes entirely. Even so, it's three-quarters of a great film.