Doctor Akagi

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Doctor Akagi

Set during the last lingering moments of WWII, when Japanese patriotism veered toward lunacy in the face of imminent defeat, Doctor Akagi is the latest, and by all accounts last, film by 73-year-old director Shohei Imamura, who recently announced his retirement. It's too bad, because Doctor Akagi's black comedy is almost as strong as Imamura's previous Cannes-lauded film The Eel. Based on a novel by Ango Sakaguchi, the movie centers on Akira Emoto, nicknamed "Doctor Liver" due to his Quixote-like dedication to the eradication of hepatitis. As with The Eel, Doctor Akagi is filled with a rogue's gallery of eccentrics: There's a young do-gooder prostitute smitten with Emoto, a morphine-addicted surgeon who helps him abscond with a fresh liver to study, and a drunk priest, all of whom support Emoto even as he is branded a quack by the small-town clients who have tired of his proselytizing. Also like The Eel, Imamura switches uneasily from graphic violence to situation comedy, as if the blood he spills on screen serves as penance for laughing in the face of war and death. Doctor Akagi, however, is more than just an anti-war film: It's a movie about life in a small town that won't be hindered or distracted by air raids or epidemics. Though oddly paced at times and often silly—some of the acting is straight out of a '40s screwball farce, like a Japanese Billy Wilder movie—Doctor Akagi is a nice, sweetly nostalgic portrait of a brief and strange moment in history, one squeezed between the surrender of Germany and the dropping of the atomic bomb.

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