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Movie Review

'Dr. Akagi' an Expert Examination of Human Nature and Emotions


Shohei Imamura's masterful, deceptively mellow "Dr. Akagi" takes its title from a physician whose dedication reminded Imamura of his own father. Based on a novel by the late Ango Sakaguchi, the film is set in a seaside island village in the spring of 1945. As the end of the war draws near, Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) grows evermore concerned with the spread of hepatitis, which he thinks has reached epidemic proportions. However, the army doctor at the nearby base is in as deep denial about the disease as the military is over Japan's imminent defeat.

In this manner, Imamura sets off the two contradictory impulses deeply embedded in Japanese--indeed, world--history and culture: humanism and militarism. As hardships increase and chaos looms, Akagi becomes obsessed with finding the cause and cure for hepatitis.

Under the circumstances, there is something absurd yet noble in his endeavor, and Imamura celebrates the human comedy in all its earthiness and idiosyncrasies against the mounting hysteria of the armed forces. "Dr. Akagi" is as funny as it is serious, and its shifting tones and moods are echoed in Yosuke Yamashita's venturesome modern jazz score.

The doctor, a middle-aged widower with a physician son serving in Manchuria, is a local character, sporting a straw hat and bow tie and dressed in summer whites as he hurries about his rounds; he's a man who never walks when he can run. Imamura takes his time revealing the life of the town, acquainting us with those close to the doctor: the exuberantly libertine monk Umemoto (Jyuro Kara); the disillusioned, morphine-addicted surgeon Toriumi (Masanori Sera); and the attractive, gracious madam of a local brothel, Tomiko (Keiko Matsuzaka). In one way or another they will find themselves caught up in Akagi's obsession, joined by Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), an orphaned fisherman's daughter who matter-of-factly turns to prostitution to help support her flock of younger siblings--even after she becomes Akagi's loyal and loving assistant. A wounded, escaped Dutch prisoner of war (Jacques Gamblin) will become part of Akagi's colorful ragtag research team.

"Dr. Akagi" has something of the warmth, sentiment, humor and expansiveness of Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles trilogy, coupled with Imamura's characteristic interplay of raw, primitive emotions and beliefs and modern, science-minded thought. Sonoko is an Imamura archetype, uninhibited as she is loving. She can take pleasure in discovering how happy she feels, even as she awaits for customers in Tomiko's brothel, dandling her 4-year-old sister on her knee as she lectures the uncomprehending child on not giving away "freebies" when it comes to sex.

Accomplished at expressing the complexities of human nature and emotions, Imamura has captured a sense of timelessness to the extent that we all but forget the time and place. Inevitably, there will be a moment of reckoning for Akagi and his grand project--and it will involve tragedy, but it will also give way to a larger perspective as the doctor himself comes to realize that he inadvertently has started sacrificing the immediate needs of his patients for his research.

Imamura continues deepening his vision, invoking feelings of love and destiny as his film builds to a final image at once as ominous, ironic and darkly amusing as a scene out of "Dr. Strangelove." At 72, Shohei Imamura continues growing as an artist, his status as one of the greatest figures in world cinema long ago secured.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: language, adult themes and situations.

'Dr. Akagi'

Akira Emoto: Akagi

Kumiko Aso: Sonoko

Jyuro Kara: Umemoto

Jacques Gamblin: Piet

Masanori Sera: Toriumi

A Kino International release of an Imamura-Toei Co. production. Producers Hisa Ino and Koji Matsuda. Screenplay by Imamura & Daisuke Tengan. Cinematographer Shigeru Komatsubara. Editor Hajime Okayasu. Music Yosuke Yamashita. Art director Hisao Inagaki. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.

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