PRINT February 1999


Shohei Imamura

THE SEVENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Japanese director Shohei Imamura’s studies in aberrant humanity have been nothing if not singular. The Eel (1997) was undoubtedly the best film ever made about a man’s near-cosmic oneness with his pet fish, and Imamura’s latest, Dr. Akagi (which opened in mid-January in New York), is more accomplished still: It’s the winningest comedy of all time . . . about hepatitis. The title character (fervently played by Akira Emoto) is nicknamed “Dr. Liver” because he diagnoses disease of that organ in virtually every patient he treats. We first catch sight of the doctor in an immaculate white suit, chasing an uncooperative patient along the beach. Akagi is a walking (or rather running) sight gag who looks like he should either be holding a butterfly net or have one thrown over him. But it’s 1945, hepatitis is pandemic, and the explosion from nearby Hiroshima will soon enough provide the doctor a demented epiphany: In his mind’s eye, the mushroom cloud takes the shape of a gigantic diseased liver. Akagi turns out to be the film’s sanest character, but sanity is a relative term in Imamura’s universe, where obsession, perversity, and “hepatitis of the brain” are ubiquitous.

Late in his career, Imamura has attained something of the status of a grand old master, twice winning the Palmes d’Or at Cannes (for The Eel and 1983’s The Ballad of Narayama). Yet his films stand apart, outside the norms of both cinema and society. If his unresolved, rough-hewn sense of poetic displacement has any precursor, it must be Jean Vigo—that early, visionary anthropologist of the unconscious. With Dr. Akagi, Imamura is fondly revisiting—and revising—his favorite themes, giving them an affable, lightheaded bounce (set to an absurdly jaunty, swing-tinged score). This is Imamura’s most purely entertaining film, one more charming than shocking. The struggles of Akagi’s simple country doctor turned public-health crusader are a wildly quixotic variation on the great-man-of-medicine biopic of yore. But while his wartime predicaments are absurd, in the end Akagi proves to be a genuinely humane figure, which is new territory for the director: His specialty has always been the essential indecency of existence and the ways society corrupts instinct.

Since 1963’s stunning Insect Woman, sexual commodification has often served as a touchstone for the director, and Dr. Akagi’s Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), a young prostitute whom Akagi takes on as his nurse, has a primeval tenacity—the waif as force of nature. A flashback finds her as a toddler, receiving her mother’s simple wisdom in a brothel: “No freebie lays!” (Except, she adds, in event of true love.) When Sonoko falls for the avuncular but emotionally remote doctor, drastic measures are called for. As the two are returning from an island house call , she seeks to prove her love to him by harpooning a passing sperm whale. Sonoko follows her impulses the way a virus would (to her mind, germs seem to have “more fun” than people anyway). Dripping wet and half naked after being dragged through the sea by the leviathan, she offers herself to Akagi with this enticement: “I’m bacteria. ”

Only in Imamura would this be a positive statement—indeed the one genuine hope in a senseless world. There is a pervasive mysticism to his films , but it’s a rude, unkempt, organic type embodied by eels and insect women, Dr. Akagi’s whale and the giant carp who watches over The Pornographers (1966) like a primitive, living totem. In that film, a woman believes the fish is the reincarnation of her husband, while a pair of radiation-poisoned Hiroshima survivors in Black Rain (1989) also have a vision of enchanted carp. In the director’s karmic scheme of things, to come back as a “lower” life form would be bliss, a deliverance from man’s insensate cruelty to man, demonstrated most unforgettably in Vengeance Is Mine (1979).

Though The Eel—to give one example—may begin with a jealous murder and end with a provisional, ambiguous redemption, Imamura’s work is predicated on tactile, autonomous, calmly irrational images instead of narrative “closure.” The strange behavior of Imamura’s characters often suggests private rituals, as if his pornographers, fetishists, and prostitutes were acting out forgotten tribal ceremonies in modern dress. His mystical recurring nature images—carp, eel, whale—serve a function similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s emblematic use of fire and water, at once culturally idiomatic and purely, raptly personal. As the whale swims away and the mushroom cloud rises, Akagi and Sonoko are adrift like Imamura’s pornographer floating out to sea with the mechanical woman he was building. The wondrous editing of that 1966 film has the feel of L’Atalante, but as to whether Imamura is the true reincarnation of Vigo’s artistic spirit, only the carp knows for sure—and he’s not talking.

Howard Hampton writes regularly about film for Artforum.