Two-time Palme d’Or winner Shohei Imamura returns to the festival with one of his most personal outings in “Dr. Akagi.” But the wartime saga of a country general-practitioner doggedly pursuing a cure for hepatitis lacks the international appeal of much of the helmer’s earlier work. A sturdy piece of classical-style cinema, pic lacks the universality that’s made Imamura one of Japan’s best-known filmmakers. On the sheer force of his name, the film could snare some foreign sales, but outside its native land it will unspool primarily at fest settings.
The title character is a tireless medic who lives by the credo: “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.”
The setting is a coastal island village in 1945. The tide of the war has turned, but the local troops manning a prisoner-of-war camp continue to fight as if victory were still at hand. For Akagi (Akira Emoto) they are merely a nuisance, rationing his supply of glucose needed to fight the virulent spread of hepatitis.
In pursuit of his medical goal, he has assembled a close circle composed of a former prostitute (Kumiko Aso), a ribald monk (Jyuro Kara), a morphine-addicted surgeon (Masanori Sera) and a Dutch escapee (Jacques Gamblin), each contributing in his own unique way to Akagi’s quest. Sonoko, the one-time call girl, also tries to convey to her single-minded patron that they should be lovers.
While the medical research provides the spine of the story, the film covers considerable dramatic terrain. Imamura’s script is particularly adept at conveying the texture of the close-knit town, with the humanity of its inhabitants far outstripping their provincial manners and attitudes. Death and war are simply one part of the fabric, albeit the most resonant.
Handsomely produced, “Dr. Akagi” has a lively pace enhanced by a sprightly jazz score. Emoto gives the film the sort of bedrock performance that cements careers, and Aso is an effective foil, both sexually and comically.
Imamura’s father was a doctor, and one senses that his experiences imbue this portrait. At times that closeness to the material hinders the narrative flow, however. Much is made, for instance, of acquiring a microscope and securing a potent light source, yet we are denied the opportunity to see what Dr. Akagi sees on his slide.
Still, “Dr. Akagi” is an impressive depiction of the era. It’s certainly unconventional, and one of the most humanistic portraits of wartime Japan to reach out internationally.