Imagine a conventional 40s Hollywood biopic such as Madame Curie or The Story of Dr. Wassell as written and directed by a subtle surrealist with a strong nihilistic streak and youll have some idea of the temper and tone of Shohei Imamuras Dr. Akagi. Imamura, now 72, has been making cracked and corrosive films about what he has called the "real Japan" for 40 years now and if Akagi, like his last feature The Eel (1997), displays a new sense of whimsy on his part, its a lighter touch that pulsates with the old iconoclasm, punctuated by flashes of often brutal absurdity.
The film is set in a small town in Japan during the last days of World War II where the fictional Akagi (Akira Emoto) has become obsessed with finding a cure for hepatitis a cure which he believes will turn the tide of the waning war and secure a victory for Japan. Obviously mad as a hatter, he seems sane and responsible in the chaotic context of his countrys encroaching Armageddon and even more so when compared to his two best friends, a perpetually drunk and lecherous priest and a fellow doctor in the last, whacked-out stage of morphine addiction ("Hit me if I get violent," he says in the middle of a delicate operation).
Dr. Akagi doesnt have the coherence and bite of Imamuras best films e.g., Vengeance is Mine (1979), Black Rain (1989) but just when its meandering becomes discouraging it zaps you with a vivid image, a bravura sequence or an uncomfortable bit of squalor. Like a late-Buñuel film, its the work of an old master who was once a spiky punk and whose jaundiced view of humanity has become nearly lyrical.