Film

Dr. Akagi
Co-written and directed by Shohei Imamura

At a time when Japanese cinema is in an uncomfortable transitional state, Shohei Imamura -- perhaps the greatest living Japanese director and certainly, with the death of Akira Kurosawa, the best known internationally -- has been enjoying a bit of a revival. Last year's The Eel, his first film in nearly a decade, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes -- Imamura had also won previously for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) -- and was released in the U.S. to critical raves. Now along comes Dr. Akagi, which is at once messier, livelier and better than its more restrained predecessor.

The time is the closing months of World War II; the place, a small fishing village on a Japanese island. We first see the town from the air, from the perspective of a squadron of gung-ho American bomber pilots on a mission. From the overview of the big world, the war is everything. But, as we follow the bombs down to sea level -- to human level -- the balance shifts. A man and a woman are having sex on the beach, and to them, the bombing is a nuisance, its main immediate effect to interrupt their down-to-earth pleasure. The war may be raging, and its impact is felt by everyone, but at the same time, the rest of life must go on.

The town is too small to afford more than one doctor, particularly with much of the country's medical talent dealing with military casualties. That overworked practitioner is Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto), an honest, devoted man who spends his days and nights running from one home to another, accepting payment in whatever way his patients can manage -- mostly food. Dashing around the island in his boater and bow tie, Akagi cuts a somewhat comic figure. And at first we suspect that despite his good intentions, he is some kind of a quack: No matter what symptoms a patient presents him with, Akagi's diagnosis is the same -- hepatitis. After a quick examination, he explains to one patient, "Mentally, you're a small child; physically ... you have hepatitis!"

It is no wonder that the villagers, though grateful for his ministrations, jokingly refer to him as "Dr. Liver." But we soon discover that Akagi is smarter than we thought. He's right -- in a country decimated by war and privation, hepatitis is a nearly ubiquitous problem that complicates recovery from all other illnesses. As with many visionaries before him, his apparently crackpot ideas are correct. Unfortunately, the military authorities don't know that and are continually threatening to limit what they see as an excessive prescribing of glucose, which is also needed at the front.

When his son, also a doctor, is killed in action, Akagi devotes himself to isolating the microorganism responsible for hep. Although samples of infected liver tissue are to be found in every household, the equipment to analyze them is in short supply. Nonetheless, Akagi's enthusiasm and earnestness attract a ragtag group of helpers, including a morphine-addicted surgeon (Masanori Sera) and an escaped Dutch POW (Jacques Gamblin). The most important of his crew, however, is Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), a teenage girl whom Akagi has been forced to hire as his assistant after promising her father on his deathbed.

Like many Imamura heroines, the uneducated Sonoko is in some ways wiser than her elderly benefactor; at the very least, she is more in touch with both the quotidian and spiritual aspects of life. She is a passive, but not powerless, figure. She promises Akagi to give up her moonlighting as a prostitute, but the rest of the world keeps coming up with good reasons to keep her in that role. ("Please sleep with my son," the desperate mother of an old school friend pleads. "He's heading for the front, and everyone knows that virgins attract bullets.") To Akagi's dismay, Sonoko quickly falls in love with him.

Akagi is clearly a hero, but Imamuracontinued on page 47continued from page 45 doesn't let him off easy. Even the best motivations can lead to immoral consequences, and Akagi's intermittent successes in his quest come at a price. Even the clearest morality is revealed as complex. Imamura has long been a master at portraying the fabric of everyday Japanese life: His concerns draw him to the world of ordinary people, within whom he finds both the extraordinary and the appealingly average. He never overdramatizes emotions; his characters may be stand-ins for larger ideas, but they are always human beings, first and foremost. His eye can see the importance of both critical events and minimal, but telling, gestures.

Dr. Akagi has a broader canvas, a richer texture and a more comic tone than the sharper, more focused The Eel. It overflows with the illusion of real life.

Plays at 8 p.m. June 11-13 at Webster University.
-- Andy Klein

Limbo
Written and directed by John Sayles

In John Sayles' Limbo, which is set amid the rough-and-tumble of southeast Alaska, an ex-salmon fisherman with guilty memories (David Strathairn), an itinerant lounge singer with a lousy voice (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and the singer's melancholy teenage daughter (newcomer Vanessa Martinez) become stranded, Robinson Crusoe style, on a remote island. This thrown-together family must forage for food, share inadequate clothing and put up with each other in a desperate situation. Winter is coming, and there's no guarantee some passing aviator will catch sight of their signal fire before the snows fly.

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