If you saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry you may recall a joke told by the Turkish taxidermist: When a man complains to a doctor that every part of his body hurts—”When I touch my chest, that hurts; when I touch my arm and my leg, my arm and my leg hurt”—the doctor suggests that what’s actually bothering him is an infected finger. Similarly, when we think about Japan we may be prone to confuse what we’re pointing at with the finger that’s doing the pointing—especially given how much of a role our country played in the rebuilding of Japan after the war. (Perhaps significantly, scant attention is paid to Japanese movies about—and made during—the American occupation, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s devastating and uncharacteristic A Hen in the Wind and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Utamaro and His Five Women, a period film whose theme of artistic imprisonment is clearly addressed to his contemporaries.)
Even when it comes to Japan before the occupation, we may tend to overlook or misinterpret American influences, seeing them instead as Japanese traits. For instance, Ozu (with whom Shohei Imamura worked as an assistant) is commonly regarded as the most Japanese of Japanese filmmakers, but Shigehiko Hasumi’s fine book on Ozu (the final chapter of which can be read in English in David Desser’s recent critical collection devoted to Tokyo Story) explains that “calling Ozu ‘very Japanese’ is based on a lack of understanding of his works.” For starters, Hasumi argues persuasively, the sunny, clear weather usually found in Ozu’s films is the weather not of Japan but of southern California—a reflection of Ozu’s passion for American movies throughout his career: “In Ozu’s world, not only is there no rainy season, there is not even anything like a seasonable shower. In fact, nothing could be further from Ozu’s work than the rhetoric referring to the seasons found in haiku poetry.” More generally, Hasumi’s argument reminds me of Dizzy Gillespie’s claim that he forged his own style by trying and failing to imitate Roy Eldridge; similarly, for all the focus in Ozu’s films on the lifestyles of Japanese families, certain aspects of their style derive from his unsuccessful efforts to imitate the American movies he loved.
One can’t assign the same motivation to the work of Shohei Imamura, but signs of American influences are as notable in Dr. Akagi (pronounced Ah-ka-gee, with a hard G) as they are in The Eel, his previous film. Both films evoke the small, closely knit, and highly interactive communities of John Ford movies such as Judge Priest, Wagonmaster, The Sun Shines Bright, The Quiet Man, and Donovan’s Reef; furthermore, the Nation’s Stuart Klawans has recently proposed some suggestive links between Dr. Akagi and Marx Brothers movies such as Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera. Dr. Akagi is set during the last days of the war, and the first bits of dialogue we hear come from American bomber pilots flying over Okayama, an island village with a POW camp and factory where most of the action is set. Moreover, the film features a perky and largely anachronistic jazz score by Yosuke Yamashita that reeks of American big-band charts of the 50s and 60s, with occasional stretches of free jazz that seem to come from a slightly later period.
The point isn’t that Dr. Akagi is an American wannabe—nothing could be further from Imamura’s intentions or spirit. It’s that he knows enough to realize that what Americans habitually call Japanese has often been filtered through other national and cultural ideas. Just as America absorbs ideas from other national cultures no matter how strenuously our official culture strives to screen them out, Japan at the end of World War II, even at the height of its imperial and anti-Western phase, had incorporated democratic and Western elements—as Imamura’s movie makes abundantly clear. (One partial analogy to this phenomenon is all the ways in which America and the Soviet Union came to resemble each other during the cold war.)
Imamura, who turns 73 this year, has announced that Dr. Akagi will be his last film. It’s far too eclectic to qualify as “characteristic”—perhaps an unsuitable adjective for any of his free-ranging works—yet it’s every bit as personal as another twilight “testament” movie playing this week, Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Imamura, whose own father was a doctor dedicated throughout his life to his profession, got the idea for the film from a short novel by Ango Sakaguchi (whose title, Kanzo Sensei, translates as “Dr. Liver”), yet Imamura and his son, who collaborated on the script under the pseudonym Daisuke Tengan, reportedly retained only the title character and invented everything else. Imamura was a teenager at the end of the war, and one comes away from this film feeling that a settling of accounts was a major motivation for it. As a project Dr. Akagi predates The Eel, having been conceived around the same time as the 1989 Black Rain, but it took Imamura the better part of a decade, during which The Eel shared the grand prize at Cannes with Taste of Cherry, to raise enough money to make it.
I’ve been slow to get a handle on Imamura’s work and have seen only 7 of his 19 features. I recently caught up with his 1979 masterpiece Vengeance Is Mine, a creepy epic about the exploits of a remorseless real-life serial killer that complements Dr. Akagi: Vengeance Is Mine is about a cipher willing and able to kill just about anyone (except his father, whom he hates the most); Dr. Akagi is about a compassionate doctor willing and able to help just about anyone.
The overall treatment of both subjects is mainly realistic, a legacy of Imamura’s stint as a documentary filmmaker and his subsequent self-definition as someone who wanted to explode the idea of film fiction. But it’s part of his freedom as a filmmaker to swerve into poetic and allegorical fantasy whenever it suits his purposes. Vengeance Is Mine ends unforgettably with the father and widow of the serial killer, years after his execution, attempting to scatter his cremated bones, only to discover that each clump of bones thrown from the receptacle remains suspended in the air, courtesy of a freeze-frame—as if to imply that any attempt to obliterate the killer’s memory is doomed to failure. And late in Dr. Akagi, when the title hero gets a message that his son, also a doctor, has perished in Manchuria, he shreds the message in front of a small Buddhist shrine in his home and tosses the pieces into the air, only to see them fall back down in a continuous snowfall. An artificial suspension in the first case, an artificial extension in the second; yet both scenes have an uncanny capacity to capture the emotional essence of losing a son and transform that essence into a kind of destiny.
In spite of its solemn theme, most of Dr. Akagi plays as cockeyed, knockabout farce, accounting for Klawans’s evocation of the Marx Brothers. The aforementioned Amer-ican planes flying over Okayama interrupt the lovemaking of a prostitute, Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), and a gawky town-hall accountant who says, “I love you, Sonoko,” then, “I paid you—you can at least make an effort.” We later learn that the accountant is siphoning off funds at work to pay for his sessions with Sonoko, and his mother, eager to bust up this relationship, takes the advice of Akagi and goes off to see Umemoto (Jyuro Kara), a drunken monk cavorting with his “third wife” (whom he begins calling Eva Braun after hearing a radio broadcast). Umemoto agrees to do what he can in exchange for a supply of sake, the mother promises to deliver pickled cucumbers instead, and another thread of hyperactive local intrigue gets woven into the plot.
Akagi (Akira Emoto, who played a sinister and mean-spirited ex-con in The Eel) is a comical middle-aged figure who dashes across town in a fast waddle from one patient to the next, usually sporting a straw hat, white suit, and bow tie. It turns out that he depends on marginal types such as Sonoko, Umemoto, and Toriumi (Masanori Sera), a surgeon addicted to morphine, to assist him with his work—fighting a hepatitis epidemic that he believes is overtaking wartime Japan. One of the film’s running gags is that he diagnoses every patient he sees with hypertrophy of the liver—which is what earns him the nickname “Dr. Liver”—but no effort is made to demonstrate that he’s wrong; on the contrary, at a meeting of his colleagues in Tokyo he’s applauded for his insight.
Akagi’s monomaniacal conviction and frantic research—he makes a trip to Tokyo just to search for a better lens for his microscope and digs up the fresh corpse of a local movie exhibitor and former patient to extract the liver—eventually bring him into conflict with the POW camp commander after he and Sonoko shelter and care for Piet (Jacques Gamblin), a wounded Dutch prisoner who escapes from the camp after being tortured for suspected espionage. Piet, who’d worked with cameras before joining the army, helps out with the microscope, and as a result the war against hepatitis and the larger war effort are brought into direct conflict. (To compound the anomaly, Akagi and Piet converse exclusively in German.)
Imamura is fascinated with the way the camp commander’s paranoia and Akagi’s liver fixation become opposite sides of the same coin, both men selflessly serving the emperor even when they become hopelessly at odds with each other. It’s clear that the movie’s heart belongs with the marginal freaks in Akagi’s camp, but it’s equally clear that its head can see the comedy of Akagi’s self-denials as the complex interweavings of the various factions on the island bring a whole society into view.
The movie thrives on these contradictions and all the poetic metaphors and implications they summon up. Sonoko, whose husband is off fighting at the front, leaves prostitution, her late mother’s profession, to assist Akagi and then falls helplessly in love with him. She ignores the entreaties of her siblings to keep whoring to help pay for groceries, but often recalls her mother’s sage advice, “No freebie lays.” Akagi accepts Sonoko’s help—which on occasion extends to surreptitiously servicing the kinky fetishes of the camp commander in exchange for favors—but her love for the doctor is unrequited.
This theme becomes crossed with the liver research when Akagi and Sonoko, in finely inflected performances, peer in turn through the microscope.
Sonoko: “How beautiful!”
Akagi: “Yes, beautiful. It’s a species of bacteria. That microcosm is full of life. In the eyes of God, perhaps we are that small.”
Sonoko: “Are there men and women bacteria?”
Akagi: “Neither male nor female, just perpetual reproductive motion.”
Sonoko: “No prostitution?”
Akagi: “That doesn’t exist in nature. Everyone copulates freely. Only humans value chastity. Still, prostitution is bad, since you were born among humans.”
Sonoko: “Better off being bacteria. More fun.”
This conclusion could be Imamura’s motto, staking his trust in the subversive rather than the orderly and, incidentally, signaling that this is Sonoko’s movie as much as the good doctor’s—the awesome finale belongs to them equally. And it’s telling that a filmmaker as self-avowedly “messy” as Imamura—by turns raucous and lyrical, tragic and homely, relaxed and passionate—can be so decorous about placing his credits within the film frame or composing entire sequences so they seem to flow effortlessly out of his consciousness and into ours. As Roberto Rossellini once said in defense of Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York, this is the film of a free man.