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Memphis Flyer This Is the End

Shohei Imamura makes his final bow; Julia Sweeney deals with death.

By Chris Herrington

DECEMBER 20, 1999: 

Dr. Akagi directed by Shohei Imamura, Kino on Video

When master director Akira Kurosawa died last year, the title of greatest living Japanese filmmaker was inherited by a figure whose work is perhaps no less substantial, even if he's not nearly as well known in the U.S. Septuagenarian auteur Shohei Imamura's 19 films include two Cannes film-festival winners, but he's still mostly an unknown quality in a U.S. market that tends to shun subtitles unless they are accompanied by the face of a cute child (see Life Is Beautiful, Ponette, Central Station, Kolya, Children of Heaven … ). The odd thing is, though: No sooner did the wickedly subversive Imamura move into the spotlight than he abdicated the throne. Dr. Akagi is, according to the 74-year-old Imamura, his final film. If that's the case, then it's some kind of special farewell.

Thriving on its own chaos, this sprawling, ambitious blend of apocalyptic poetry, black humor, and reverie for a lost Japan is an intensely personal film that definitely feels like a summing-up for Imamura. Set in a small island village near Hiroshima on the eve of the Japanese surrender in World War II, Dr. Akagi peers at the insect-like business of life in the village much like the title character studies bacteria with his microscope. Only the viewer knows that everything will change when the big bombs fall.

It seems likely that Imamura would return to this event for his final film, as the atomic catastrophe is surely the defining moment in the lives of all Japanese people of Imamura's generation. But the film's two protagonists further intensify Imamura's identification with the mileau. The film centers on Dr. Akagi, a middle-aged practioneer who earns the name "Dr. Liver" because he diagnoses every patient with hepatitis ("Up there bombs, down here hepatitis," Akagi explains), and his protege Sonoko, the teenage prostitute half-heartedly trying to reform. Imamura's own father was a country doctor, and the director himself was a teenager when the war ended.

Like The Eel, the Cannes-winning Imamura film that played in Memphis theatres briefly this year, Dr. Akagi centers on a small, closely knit society of outsiders, led by the middle-aged Akagi. Akagi is a comical figure who, literally, runs from patient to patient, wearing a white suit and straw hat, pursuing his life's work — combating a hepatitis epidemic he believes is overtaking wartime Japan.

The film opens with the streaking Akagi interrupting the love-making of Sonoko and a local city-hall accountant, who whines, "I love you, Sonoko," then, "I paid you — you can at least make an effort." Sonoko was raised by her mother, also a prostitute, who gave her daughter some sage advice: "No freebie lays." After allowing her to become his assistant, Akagi forbids her from going back to prostitution, but reform is no easy task, considering the pressure she receives from her family: "Dear sis, we're starving. Please go back to whoring."

Akagi and Sonoko are joined by the likes of Umemoto, a drunken monk, and Toriumi, a morphine-addicted surgeon. As with The Eel and the early deadpan Imamura classic, The Pornographers, Dr. Akagi shows the director's heart squarely on the side of those that proper society marginalizes. His beautifully messy cinema trusts the natural chaos of life over any imposed sense of order. The spirit of Imamura is perhaps best summed up in a small scene between Akagi and Sonoko, as they look through the good doctor's microscope:

Sonoko: "How beautiful!"

Akagi: "Yes, beautiful. It's a species of bacteria. The microcosm is full of life. In the eyes of God, perhaps we are that small."

Sonoko: "Are there men and women bacteria?"

Akagi: "Neither male nor female, just perpetual reproductive motion."

Sonoko: "No prostitution?"

Akagi: "That doesn't exist in nature. Everyone copulates freely. Only humans value chastity. Still, prostitution is bad, since you were born among humans."

Sonoko: "Better off being bacteria. More fun."

God Said, "Ha!" directed by Julia Sweeney, Miramax/Buena Vista

God Said, "Ha!" is a filmed version of a one-woman show from ex-Saturday Night Live cast member Julia Sweeney (best remembered for her gender-confused character "Pat"). Sweeney, who also wrote and directed the film, delivers an hour-and-a-half monologue about a year in her life in which her brother Mike is diagnosed with cancer and her whole family moves into her new house to care for him. Sweeney is a surprisingly awkward performer in this context, though the intensely personal nature of the material may have something to do with that.

The film is insufferable for the first 20 minutes, where Sweeney drones on about how "provincial" her parents are, apparently because they say "noodles" instead of "pasta," and "marinara" isn't a regular part of their vocabulary. On the other hand, the self-conscious Sweeney likes to sip wine with her friends while listening to Tchaikovsky and gabbing about the latest Coen brothers flick (a telling cultural talisman, if you ask me, since their work is about as undeservingly smug as Sweeney seems to be early in the film.). The cultural differences Sweeney shares with her parents may be worthy of comedic exploration, but she seems oblivious to the fact that the humor cuts both ways. Besides, we later learn that Sweeney's father is a former U.S. attorney who reads The New Yorker in the waiting room, so who knows where she's coming from.

Luckily — for the viewer, at least — Sweeney's story is compelling enough to transcend her performance limitations and class-bound snobbery. The narrative of her brother's illness and eventual death is wrenching, but filled with life-affirming moments. At one point, Mike's doctor mentions giving him a "shunt," a sort of permanent spigot inserted in a patient's head to help with chemotherapy. The doctor insists, to the disbelieving Sweeney and her brother, that his other patients who have received the device "love" their shunts. Thereafter, when the family would gather to watch ER, and a patient would land in a precarious situation, Mike would yell, "Give him a shunt! He needs something to LOVE!"

Ordering information: Kino on Video (1-800-562-3330), Buena Vista (1-818-295-5200).

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