Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Dr. Akagi

By Marc Savlov

JULY 26, 1999: 

D: Shohei Inamura; with Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin, Masanori Sera. (Not Rated, 128 min.)

Two-time Palm d'Or recipient Inamura (1983's The Ballad of Naramaya and 1997's The Eel) is a riveting creative force both visually and in the manner he fashions his smallish, personal tales of domestic confusion and fractured emotions. Like the work of Martin Scorsese in America and Germany's Wim Wenders, Inamura's films are instantly recognizable; his crisp, clear shooting style and vaguely surrealistic storylines are part fantasy, part morality lesson, but never less than ultimately celebratory examinations of the day-to-day machinations of his characters. Dr. Akagi, set in a small harbor island in the waning days of WWII-era Japan, opens with the good doctor reciting his father's philosophy of the profession: "Being a family doctor is all legs. If one leg is broken he will run on the other. If both legs are broken he will run on his hands." And indeed, there goes Akagi (Emoto), racing across the beach - past the tussling couple of local prostitute Sonoko (Aso) and the accountant who loves her (Sankichi) - clad in a creamy white suit and straw election hat, into the village, to treat yet another case of hepatitis, which has reached epidemic proportions during the war. Akagi focuses his practice almost entirely on the virus, which everyone seems to have, and as he races about looking like nothing so much as a sad-faced, comical hybrid of Pop-N-Fresh and Teddy Roosevelt, he stops now and again to dole out free diagnoses and recommend bed rest. Into this flurry of medical activity comes Sonoko, whose mother begs Akagi to take her on as his assistant, and the morphine-addicted surgeon Toriumi, who also assists the doctor in his researches. Because of his comical appearance and the single-minded zeal of his mission, Akagi is mocked by the townspeople, and only Sonoko seems to understand his true nature, which is akin to some war-torn, earthbound angel. Accordingly, she promptly falls in love with the doctor, though he is unable to reciprocate the affection. She loves him so much, she says, she'll even catch him a whale. There's much about Dr. Akagi that feels almost like a fairy tale, though one with a decidedly anarchic bent. Inamura, as he did in The Eel, maps the human heart through a series of grimly comic vignettes, all of which are inscrutably linked together to form an emotional cartographer's dream. The film itself feels like some sort of hyper-realistic dream, with rampant symbolism and an ending that must be seen to be believed. Still, Inamura's work is always deeply personal, and it's that very introspection that lends Dr. Akagi its ultimately hopeful tone. Sheer pleasure to watch, Inamura's film is a smallish work about the complexities inherent in simple people dealing with their own epic emotions.

4 Stars

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