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Duck Soup in Japan | The Nation

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Duck Soup in Japan

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It seems she loves the father who beat her; she believes he could have killed a whale, singlehanded. "One day I'll kill a whale for you," she promises Akagi, when (to his alarm) she falls in love with him. Love is not simple, especially in the summer of 1945. Akagi will not allow himself to accept this bundle of needs and vitality that wants to dump herself in his lap; watch his eyes, and you can see him add her to the list of subjects to be avoided through diligent medical research. Sonoko nevertheless clings to him all the more firmly--perhaps because everyone else wants her to abandon the straight life she took up so recently.

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Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Tomiko (Keiko Matsuzaka), the matronly brothel owner, presses Sonoko to fill in--just for one night!--to entertain the prison-camp commander. It's hard to say no to Tomiko, or to the woman who begs Sonoko to initiate her son. The lad has been called up for the army, and mom thinks he'll be less likely to attract bullets if he's no longer a virgin. Even Sonoko's younger sisters want her to resume the trade. "We're starving," they plead. "Go back to whoring."

Kumiko Aso, who plays Sonoko, greets such pleas as if they're not the whale she was expecting. Rangy and thin, she projects a whiplike energy held in check for great things, though in the meantime she's got enough exasperation to make her twitch. It's a wonderful, half-mimed comic performance, which also manages to be touching, without for a moment resorting to waiflike appeal. (Movie waifs are generally in need of light dusting; Sonoko seems filthy, even after she's cleaned up.) I think she's fully a match for Akira Emoto's Akagi, who reminded me of Groucho in his moments of high, or even middling, dudgeon. He, too, moves low to the ground and is perpetually busy in an obsessed, irascible way. The difference: Emoto clings to the dignity that for Groucho was only a toy.

Perhaps it was another of those miraculous mistakes for him to have retained this sense of gravity and purpose while living through Dr. Akagi. The dramatic-irony meter is on its highest setting, all the way through the film. We know how soon the characters' doings will be made futile; in case we forget, we have a soundtrack full of Americanized music to remind us. Beyond that, we can see how patched-together is the little family that forms around Dr. Akagi. This stalwart of the Emperor keeps company not only with Sonoko but with a drunken Buddhist priest (Juro Kara), a cynical dope-fiend surgeon (Masanori Sera) and even a Dutch soldier (Jacques Gamblin) who has escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp. Which illusions, exactly, can he expect to hold when he casts his eyes upon the people in his own home?

Not the illusions that obsess the commander of the prison camp. That man fantasizes about discovering why Japan is not doing so well in the war. His answer, of course, is of the one-size-fits-all variety and can be easily remedied. There must be a spy in the work camp; find the spy, kill him, and Japan will win. For Akagi and Sonoko this kind of thinking does not simplify life; it complicates matters, in unhappy ways. They prefer to pursue other kinds of dreams: ill-matched, improbable, at once grand and funny.

Shohei Imamura honors them greatly for chasing after their illusions, and he honors the audience by offering us this tragic, home-front Night at the Opera. On the program this evening: the Marx Brothers in Götterdämmerung--and the surprisingly young and lovely Margaret Dumont isn't wearing any underpants.

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