Duck Soup in Japan | The Nation


Duck Soup in Japan

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Has no one informed Dr. Akagi that he's living in a complex and serious drama about the morale of Japanese citizens toward the end of World War II? Apparently not, to judge by the way he behaves like one of the Marx Brothers. Here he is, hurrying through his seaside village----

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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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A more apt comparison would be between the surviving staff of the satirical magazine and the brave abortion providers who carried on after the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

But I've committed a redundancy. Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) knows no form of motion other than the headlong. Despite his middle-aged heft, despite the white in his mustache, he goes everywhere at a trot, huffing and sweating and pumping his arms as if God had called, "On the double!" So, to start again: Here he is in his seaside village----

But in what sense is Dr. Akagi "in" the village? His jog carries him over bridges by fishermen's shacks, across fields planted with vegetables, up the hill near an old factory (which now serves as a work camp for prisoners of war). En route, he pauses to examine people in their homes, in his office, in the brothel that's been turned into an officers' club. But do any of these spaces contain him? How much less is he held in by their aggregate? Whereas another film might patiently assemble its settings into the mental image of "village," Dr. Akagi lets them bounce past one another, like rainbow-colored balls in the drum of some cosmic lottery game. So, again: Dr. Akagi----

But that's not what people call him. They prefer to use a half-affectionate, half-mocking nickname, bestowed in honor of his single diagnosis. No matter which patient he sees, no matter for which ailment, he invariably declares, "Hepatitis!" So he's now known as Kanzo Sensei: Dr. Liver.

I'll try once more:

Past vegetables, prostitutes and prisoners of war trots an out-of-breath man, crying "Hepatitis!" By acting this way, he claims, he does his bit to serve the Emperor, and help "liberate Asia from the white race." So long as Dr. Liver pursues his private, all-out war against hepatitis (which he wants to make known as epidemic), he need not think too much about his son, who is stationed somewhere in Manchuria; or about Germany, which now presents a woeful example of a nation in defeat; or about the less meritorious habits of Japan's soldiers, which may be observed even in the village.

Singlemindedness may insulate Dr. Akagi from these troubles, but it cannot forever keep him from falling apart. Like the Marx Brothers toward the end of Duck Soup--another important war movie--the doctor is already in pieces, unable to stay in the same costume from one shot to the next. First you see him puffing along in a straw boater, bow tie and ice-cream suit; then, after the cut, he's running in the same direction but in a different outfit.

Is this merely a mistake in continuity? Not likely. Dr. Akagi is the work of Shohei Imamura, who in his 70s has tapped into a new vein of his prodigious talent. Last year saw the belated release in the United States of his fantasia on redemption, night fishing and UFOs, The Eel. I struggled in these pages to convey something of its brilliance. Now I have to chase behind Dr. Akagi, hoping again to catch a few of the bright fragments Imamura scatters in his wake.

Speaking of fragments and mistakes: When Dr. Akagi receives bad news in a letter, he rips up the paper and flings its pieces into the air. Of course, they tumble back down--but then they keep tumbling, as if his grief, so endless and impossible, had turned into a snowfall. In Dr. Akagi, apparent ruptures in the natural order can be decorative (like that shower of paper); or stupefying (like the finale, which cannot be anticipated and should not be described); or mordant, grotesque and generative all at once, like the momentary resurrection of a fisherman.

While you try to think of another film that treats resurrection as just a passing incident, I will explain that the fisherman died (though not completely) while administering a disciplinary beating to his daughter Sonoko, a tall, lithe, bronzed young woman who has been working as a prostitute. With his dying breath--the real one--the fisherman commends Sonoko to Akagi's care, thereby bringing into the doctor's house a character who is in every way his equal. I suppose the film might just as well have been titled Sonoko. We meet her before we see Akagi, and her dreams and memories inform the film as much as his.

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