A late career entry from socially minded director Shohei Imamura, Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Kanzo Sensei) takes him back to the war years but perhaps to a slightly more bourgeois milieu than his previous work had hitherto focussed on. Based on the book by Ango Sakaguchi, Dr. Akagi is the story of one ordinary “family doctor” in the dying days of World War II.
As Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) puts it, much of the the life of a family doctor involves running. If he breaks one leg, he’ll run on the other, if he breaks both legs, he’ll run on his hands, but he’ll do whatever it takes to get to his patients. Some of the villagers have branded him as a quack and nicknamed him “Doctor Liver” because his most frequent diagnosis is for hepatitis. Doctor Akagi is convinced that there really is an epidemic of contagious hepatitis plaguing the population and even has the evidence to back his theory up but with the war in crisis and so much else going on he’s having trouble getting anyone to listen to him. Nevertheless, Akagi fearlessly tries to find out what it is that’s causing this deadly disease to spread and hopefully put an end to it for good.
Imamura strikes an oddly comic tone here. Though the above synopsis may sound overly serious, for the vast majority of its running time Dr. Akagi is the story of a small fishing village going about its everyday life with the war just simply background. The town narrowly escapes being bombed by an American raid because it’s known that there’s prisoner of war camp nearby filled with allied soldiers and red cross personnel and there are certainly a lot of troops on the ground more or less running the show. However, despite the obvious hardships – lack of food being the biggest one, the townspeople are getting on with things in a fairly cheerful way.
Following a spot of pastoral care, Dr. Akagi ends up taking in a local girl as his assistant and housekeeper after her father has died leaving her to support her two younger siblings. Though a married woman with a husband away at the front, Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) has been making ends meet through prostitution with the rather unwelcome result that one of her regular customers wants to marry her (she does not reciprocate and after all already has a husband). Akagi doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the idea of prostitution or of openly expressed sexuality, but accepts that society does object to these ideas and takes Sonoko in so that she won’t have to sell herself (though she actually didn’t really mind very much and still finds herself called upon to provide her “services” even after she’s officially given up).
Akagi’s other supporters include a fellow doctor, Tomomi, who has become addicted to morphine after his wartime service and a drunken and lecherous buddhist monk who proves an essential ally when it comes to body snatching a recently buried corpse. Akagi gets himself into even more trouble when he takes in and treats an escaped Dutch POW who bears the scars of extreme torture by Japanese forces who are paranoid about possible spy action. Imamura is never afraid of raising the spectre of wartime brutality as his soldiers flit between righteous zealots committed to the letter of the law and bumbling idiots who can’t see that each of their actions is entirely counterproductive to their cause.
The most surprising moment comes when Akagi has a dream about his son who is an army doctor serving in Manchuria. After Akagi and his friend have conducted an autopsy to gain a fresh liver sample, Tomomi starts talking about his time in the army and a rumour about a group of doctors doing live dissections and possibly researching chemical weapons. Akagi is aghast and horrified but recounts his dream in which he stood before his son whose bloodied hands are extended towards him with a living patient writhing below. Akagi reminds him that he is a doctor and urges him to stop this barbaric practice but the nightmarish vision of this gloomy, blood-soaked room persists.
At the end of the film Sonoko and Akagi unwittingly end up viewing the giant mushroom cloud which arises after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. Not knowing what it is, Akagi predictably sees it as a giant infected liver and wonders if the donor for his liver sample is angry with him but then thinks again and says the cloud is a representation of everybody’s anger towards this war. Akagi loses himself a little in the quest to solve the hepatitis question and after it leads him to neglect a patient he begins to question himself over his true motives and whether there’s really any point to what he’s trying to do. However, Dr. Akagi is a good and a kind man and eventually remembers what his true calling is – as a family doctor, running from one emergency to the next but always making sure his patients are well looked after. War or no war, life goes on – people get sick and they need to know there are men like Akagi out there that can always be relied upon to do the very best they can.
Dr. Akagi was originally released in the US by Kino Lorber but seems to be out of print. The good news is that the region free Korean disc comes with English subtitles.