Fallen Angels, Resurrected 

Shohei Imamura's rowdy humanism

Wednesday, Apr 7 1999
"I AM INTERESTED," JAPANESE NEW WAVE DIRECTOR Shohei Imamura once declared, "in the relationship of the lower part of the human body to the lower part of the social structure." Now 72, Imamura has devoted his working life to unbuttoning the politesse of his native country, as mirrored in the rigorous aesthetic of the director's teachers, notably Yasujiro Ozu. Imamura began his career working as an assistant to Ozu, which if nothing else left him with rules to break. Though his own class background was firmly haut bourgeois (he professes a lifelong indifference to tea ceremonies), in his youth Imamura worked briefly as a black marketeer, during which he cultivated a habit of slumming that was to shape his career. Slumming's the wrong word: Imamura's rowdy, bawdy, untidy films, though peopled with hookers, thieves, pornographers, addicts and other notables of the low life, imbue their sullied characters with redemption, a heroism of the spirit if not of attainment. For an iconoclast, the director makes a pretty good Christian.

Imamura's new film honors the worlds both of his origin and his attraction. Made as a tribute to his physician father, Dr. Akagi is filled with fallen angels rising to the occasion under the leadership of a widowed country medical practitioner serving a prisoner-of-war camp on the eve of Japan's capitulation to the Allies in 1945. Endearingly played with bemused stoicism by Akira Emoto, Akagi hardly seems fashioned from the stuff of sainthood. As he rushes from one suffering soul to another in a white suit complete with bow tie, boater and bicycle clips, the little man looks more like an addled cross between Messieurs Hulot and Poirot than anyone's idea of a savior. Akagi is also a laughingstock, nicknamed "Dr. Liver" by the locals because every patient he sees receives the same diagnosis: acute hepatitis. Oblivious to their mockery and undaunted by the hostility of the Japanese military, who have their reasons for discounting his work, Akagi is dedicated to healing (he cares as assiduously for an escaped Dutch POW as for any Japanese) and obsessed with his research into the causes of the disease. Though the meticulous doctor is the quintessence of Japanese propriety, the muses with whom he surrounds himself are rejects who, in a different kind of movie, would be carelessly tossed off as "colorful characters." There's a whoring, boozing monk; a morphine-addicted surgeon; a canny local bar owner; and, true to the long line of frank, ballsy women who take pride of place in Imamura's movies, the hooker and part-time fisherwoman Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), who, hired by Akagi as a nurse, soon declares her undying love for her unresponsive boss. In Imamura's hands, they form a ragged, warped A-team of resistance to all efforts to thwart Akagi's work.

Though it's frantic with action, there's little plot to speak of in Dr. Akagi, and certainly no resolution. The movie derives its richness from fast-cutting switches of tone, as it leaps from clownish to ribald to elegiac to apocalyptic. What can be said of a film that juggles scenes of a Japanese military commander making demands of Sonoko that would cause the average pornographer to blanch (or giggle), with a long, quiet take of Akagi racked with sobs over his son's death; that follows the eternally scurrying Akagi on his rounds with a jazzy Western score, and closes with a tryst under a mushroom cloud? Though Imamura's movies may be read as mischievous protests against the still formalism of Ozu and other early Japanese masters, his have never been merely a revolt into style. Dr. Akagi is a movie about effort, about community and, finally, about ideals -- the more crackpot or unpalatable to a fastidious liberal sensibility, the more they interest the director.

For Imamura, nobility is never synonymous with purity of character, or for that matter consistency. The hero of his recent movie, The Eel, is a murderer with a strong attachment to a fish. Akagi, determined as he is to find a link between the hepatitis epidemic and the war, is an old-school Japanese imperialist who sees no contradiction between his nationalism and his aiding and abetting an enemy POW. For her part, Sonoko, who, now that she works for Akagi, promises that she "hardly ever" turns a trick, means to obey the injunction of her dead geisha mother to go easy on the "freebie lays" and hold out for true love.

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Dr. Akagi ends where Imamura's 1989 film, Black Rain, began -- on August 6, 1945, as the Enola Gay bears down on Japan. Nothing could be more different from the grimly savage mood of that film than the goofy awe with which Akagi and Sonoko, lying entwined in the bottom of a boat, see the giant mushroom cloud billowing toward them from the horizon. Sonoko wonders if the cloud is the wind of the gods, but the doctor dreamily remarks that it looks like a hypertrophied liver. "It's the ire of all of us against this war," he marvels. If that closing metaphor seems like a war-is-hell cop-out, it can also be read as the purifying wisdom of innocence. In his New Wave salad days Imamura helped lead an earthy, youth-oriented charge against the Japanese masters. Without abandoning his antic exuberance or his fascination for the seamy, irrational underbelly of Japanese propriety, the director has ripened into his own kind of master, a humanist sage to rank with the likes of Renoir.

IT HADN'T DAWNED ON ME TILL NOW, BUT BRITISH novelist Julian Barnes' (Flaubert's Parrot) first work of fiction, Metroland, bears striking thematic similarities to George Orwell's wonderful satire Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Though separated by four decades, both books deal with young men who, discontented with their comfortable middle-class lives, hanker for boho excitement, get in over their heads and come to appreciate the simple pleasures of home. There's honor in that, if only because suburbia is an easy mark for facile social critique and could use a little imaginative promotion. Orwell's novel was charmingly adapted into the movie A Merry War, but after a miserable run in New York, it was all but dumped from L.A. theaters last year by its distributor. Far more deserving of that fate is Philip Saville who, even with high-profile help from Emily Watson and Christian Bale, has eviscerated whatever there was of social critique in Metroland and replaced it with a pat homily on the emptiness of presumptive '60s hedonism. Assisted by a dreadful screenplay from Adrian Hodges that has the main characters declaiming topics rather than talking to one another, Saville has fashioned a doggedly prosaic carve-up of Metroland featuring Bale, sheepish in a '70s shag, as Chris, a married man in his 30s whose vague fantasies of extramarital sex are fanned unto fever by the arrival of his old friend Toni (Lee Ross, an almost-hunk with cruel lips and carefully torn denim shirt). The two insufferable men mull over the '60s, when they were insufferable young snobby louts. There follow innumerable arch flashes back to Chris' stag days as a photographer in Paris, most of which were spent in athletic communion with a sultry but intellectually limited Parisian secretary (Elsa Zylberstein), until he was dragged off to a sensible life by his future wife, Marion (an unaccountably listless Watson). Will Chris cleave to the sensible life or sleep with a hussy he meets at one of Toni's sex parties? Will he ditch the bad hair in time for the '80s? Replete with false dilemmas and directed with all the animation of a tableau vivant, Metroland is such a draggy bore that when the crack of Bale's presentable rear end was momentarily bared to the camera, I sat up straight and greeted it as if it were the Second Coming.

DR. AKAGI | Directed by SHOHEI IMAMURA | Written by IMAMURA and DAISUKE TENGAN | Based on the book Dr. Liver by ANGO SAKAGUCHI | Produced by HISA INO and KOJI MATSUDA | Released by Kino International | At the Nuart

METROLAND | Directed by PHILIP SAVILLE | Written by ADRIAN HODGES | Based on the novel by JULIAN BARNES | Produced by ANDREW BENDEL | Released by Lion's Gate Films | At selected theaters

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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