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With: Akira Emoto, Kumiko Aso, Jyuro Kara, Jacques Gamblin, Masanori Sera
Written by: Shohei Imamura, Daisuke Tengan, based on a novel by Ango Sakaguchi
Directed by: Shohei Imamura
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 128
Date: 05/17/1998

Dr. Akagi (1998)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Old Man Liver

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Dr. Akagi is a wonderful mess of a movie, including everything but the kitchen sink. But its messiness isn't a sign of ineptitude; it's meant to mirror human life.

Akira Emoto stars as Akagi, a fifty-year-old small-town family doctor in a seaside village in Japan. Akagi runs wherever he goes and cuts an amusing figure scuttling around with his bow-tie and straw hat. He tells us in his narration that if a leg is broken, a family doctor will run on the other leg. If both legs are broken he will run on his hands. Akagi finds that most of his patients are dying of hepatitis. The military doctors stationed on the island do not take this threat seriously and are constantly misdiagnosing patients. The year is 1945 and the military regulates and rations everything, making Akagi's job much harder. Since most of his diagnoses are the same ("it's your liver") Akagi earns the nickname "Dr. Liver." Akagi swears to dedicate his remaining years to battling hepatitis. He receives a microscope as a gift and gets to work.

But Dr. Akagi has help. His misfit companions include; Toriumi (Masanori Sera), a morphine-addicted surgeon; Piet (Jacques Gamblin), an escaped and wounded Dutch soldier who understands microscopes; and Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), a young prostitute who becomes Akagi's assistant as a favor to her parents. Sonoko soon falls in love with Akagi. Since her father was a fisherman, she loves to fish and promises to catch a whale for Akagi, which leads to a beautiful climactic scene.

Dr. Akagi is directed by the legendary Shohei Imamura, who, since the death of Akira Kurosawa, is considered the greatest living Japanese director (though he has serious competition from Takeshi Kitano). Imamura made The Pornographer (1966), Vengeance Is Mine (1979), and Black Rain (1989). He won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival twice, for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997). I saw The Eel last year and found it charming and humbly poetic. It too assembled a group of misfit characters simply trying to get by.

Imamura is interested in people, not just characters or easily defined situation comedies. He looks at peoples' beliefs and the ways that they change, their physical strengths and weaknesses. He looks at the way people fall in love, and the irony and humor in almost every situation. He is also interested in Japanese life in particular, and how it was affected by World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. To Imamura, military thinking is destructive thinking. But he shows us that the others -- the misfits -- can make the world a better place again.

Dr. Akagi has a little of everything; love, lust, fear, strength, beauty, horror, and comedy. Leave your expectations at the door and you won't be disappointed. It's a terrific movie.

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