What's up, Doc?

Shohei Imamura's latest is a dizzying, twisted ride.

AN ATMOSPHERE OF WARTIME desperation and recklessness permeates the opening scene of Dr. Akagi. Three American fighter planes soar through the cloudy skies above Japan. It's during the few months between the fall of the Nazis and the surrender of the Japanese. The planes zoom down over a seaside village, but the presence of a POW camp stops them from bombing the town. Below, on the beach, a young accountant flounders with a younger prostitute. Suddenly, a man in a bright white American-style suit and a straw boater runs with devout determination across the beach, following a young boy whose parents are ill. It's Dr. Akagi!


directed by Shohei Imamura

plays April 2-4 at Egyptian

The opening credits roll over various shots of Dr. Akagi—always dressed in a white or light gray suit and running through alleys while holding his hat in place. It's like the title sequence of an American sitcom, filtered through a Japanese sensibility. By the end of the credits, Dr. Akagi has collapsed, presumably exhausted, in a small garden by the side of a road. He pulls an enormous tuber from the ground and chomps into it. Revitalized, he leaps to his feet and begins running anew, gnawing at this sustenance all the while.

From here, the movie becomes impenetrable. The plot can be followed—Dr. Akagi, despite ridicule and the resistance of the entrenched military, strives to find a cure for hepatitis, which is flourishing in the terrible conditions produced by the war—but the tone refuses to stay put. Is this a serious biography of a heroic historical figure? If so, what's up with the young prostitute? She gives up her trade and becomes Akagi's assistant, but the local mothers keep begging her for charity sex with their sons because they believe virgins attract bullets. Her young siblings, for whom she's responsible, leave her a note reading, "Dear Sis, we're starving. Go back to whoring, please."

Meanwhile, Akagi's friends include a morphine-addicted surgeon and a dissolute priest. There's also a Dutch prison escapee who helps Akagi improve his microscope so that the doctor can isolate the cause of hepatitis. The movie takes the time to follow just about every character; even the accountant from the opening has his own story line. In one scene, little old ladies are being trained to bayonet invaders; in another, Dr. Akagi bursts into tears as his medical efforts are recognized by a convention of his peers; in another, an army lieutenant brutally tortures the Dutch POW. Kinky sex, political intrigue, and dripping sentimentality walk hand in hand to a conclusion that fuses magic realism and apocalyptic foreboding.

In an interview, director Shohei Imamura said, "I want to make messy, really human, Japanese, unsettling films." By that standard, Dr. Akagi is a success. It left me bewildered, but I don't regret seeing it; the film's dizzying twists of tone and style will stay with me long after I've forgotten many tidier movies. Imamura's previous films include The Eel (for which he won his second Palmes D'Or at Cannes) and Black Rain (the one with subtitles, not the one starring Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia). The 72-year-old director has suggested that Dr. Akagi, his 25th film, will be his last. If every director finished his career with a movie this crazed and energetic, we'd be living in an amazing world of cinema.

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