It Is His Patriotic Duty to Cure a Nation of Swollen Livers

Shohei Imamura’s Dr. Akagi , from a screenplay by Mr. Imamura and Daisuke Tengan, based on the novel Doctor Liver by Ango Sakaguchi, materializes in all its formal splendor as a gloriously multilevel pop entertainment. It may remind you from time to time of many simpler and more superficial movies in its wildly varied parts, but it ends up as a richly textured panorama of Japan, awakening painfully from its long imperial nightmare on the eve of the horrifying cataclysm in Hiroshima.

Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) comes on screen with all the comic style of Will Rogers and Jean Hersholt as he trots as fast as he can from patient to patient in the small seaside village where he practices in the venerable country-doctor tradition of 30’s Hollywood hick flicks. A character at first less written than choreographed, Akagi is attired in an all-white suit and a black bow tie, prudently protected from embarrassment by a belt and suspenders, and topped off with a white straw hat worn at a nonrakish, all-business lack of angle. Gradually, there floats an even stronger whiff of Warner Brothers’ Great Men of Medicine–in the mold of Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Edward G. Robinson in Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940)–in Akagi’s shoestring crusade to eradicate the frequently misdiagnosed hepatitis outbreaks throughout the swollen-liver-afflicted Japanese population.

Though Akagi remains a humbly heroic figure throughout, his few moments of triumph and vindication are overshadowed and almost overwhelmed by the film’s stronger depiction of the Japanese’s self-punishing mindset and the external horror imposed on them by Hiroshima. In a breathtaking scene, Akagi sees, in his first glimpse of the mysterious white cloud over far-off Hiroshima, a celestial expression of Japan’s swollen liver, with an attendant need for a moral rebirth.

Still, in its strange mixture of low comedy and high irony, Dr. Akagi is closer to a problematic mixed-genre enterprise like Preston Sturges’ The Great Moment (1944), in which the discoverer of anesthesia is hounded to his grave. American audiences at the time couldn’t appreciate either Sturges’ pessimism or his farcical interludes with such a serious subject. Heaven knows what they would have made of Mr. Imamura’s lighthearted bawdiness, his tolerance of drug addiction, and his ultra-emancipated view of women. For Akagi, despite his single-mindedness, is far from alone in his idealistic crusade. He is selflessly adored by his ex-prostitute assistant Sonoko (Kumiko Aso), who spears a whale to impress the farcically terrified doctor, and who represents for Imamura the sublime indestructibility of the most socially oppressed women. Akagi receives invaluable assistance also from Toriumi (Masanori Sera), a drug-addicted and disgraced surgeon who assists Akagi in a dangerous bit of graveyard bodysnatching to get a liver for research purposes. Piet (Jacques Gamblin), an escaped Dutch prisoner of war, helps Akagi with the lenses on the microscopes until he is recaptured and fatally beaten by the local military, whose blindly patriotic point of view is fully respected as a shameful fragment of Japanese history.

Indeed, when Akagi learns of the death in combat of his son, a military doctor in Manchuria, he dedicates the remainder of his life to his son’s memory only to have his paternal commitment clouded by rumors of Japanese doctors performing surgical experiments on living enemy prisoners. Akagi, like Mr. Imamura, is truly troubled by the moral ambiguities inherent in loving one’s country too much, but he does not shrink from facing the truth. A most unexpected delight, Dr. Akagi manages to juggle the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the carnal, the civilized and the savage, with consummate mastery of both form and content.

All This Fuss About a Flutist?

Anand Tucker’s Hilary and Jackie , from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, based on the book A Genius in the Family by Hilary and Piers du Pré, has roused a roaring mob of musicologists and professional debunkers to a frenzy that is banal, predictable and especially nasty in its snide questioning of a moderately talented sister’s telling tales about her genius sibling. It is almost as if Salieri had written a malicious biography of Mozart, and had made it into an Oscar-winning movie. Come to think of it, that’s what happened with Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1984).

I must admit that I, like most Americans, was not brought up on the real-life tabloid celebrity, Jacqueline du Pré, who besides being acknowledged as one of the world’s most renowned cellists, was also celebrated until her death at 42 in 1987 for her cheery indomitability in the face of multiple sclerosis. The book reportedly and the movie assuredly paints a somewhat darker picture of Jackie than her most fervent admirers seem willing to accept. In the long and somewhat silly tradition of musical biography on the screen, the tendency until very recently was to touch up the censorable smudges in the subject’s hagiography. Such titans of American pop music as Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart could never even be suspected of being gay in the incarnation of the former by Cary Grant in Night and Day (1946) and the latter by Mickey Rooney in Words and Music (1948). Nowadays, the tendency is to highlight the smudges so as to make the subject more lifelike, and this is all to the good as far as dramatic narrative is concerned. Although I admire Matisse more than Picasso as a painter, I would probably fall asleep during the first reel of a movie on Matisse’s life.

Hilary and Jackie is not without faults, even as a movie biography, but the stirring performances of Emily Watson as Jackie, and Rachel Griffiths as Hilary, are worth all the alleged distortions and exaggerations. For one thing, the style is unabashedly lyrical and expressionist, as well as just a wee bit mystical. The childhood scenes of the sisters as they gain ascendancy in the musical family–first young Hilary (Keeley Flanders) on the flute, and then and forever Jackie (Auriol Evans) on the cello–reminded me of the early childhood scene of Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), but genius in a character is a much harder cross to carry in terms of guilt and envy than mere talent and success. And there is no doubt in the film that Jackie is regarded by all as a musical genius. That this in itself does not make her happy, even before God or nature or fate slaps her down for the final count, takes us into the realms only pure fiction can invade with any confidence.

Ultimately, the film is an absorbing dramatic vehicle for two electrifying actresses, who transform even the sordid reason the movie was made at all into something tragic and ennobling. And in the background Jacqueline du Pré’s cello sounds loud and clear like a chorus from the angels.

Proof That There’s No Substitute for Sex

Paul Greengrass’ The Theory of Flight , from a screenplay by Richard Hawkins, is a much more winning entertainment than its very mixed reviews would lead one to expect. Is this one terminal-disease movie too many? Think again. Helena Bonham-Carter is nothing short of magical as Jane, a victim of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Jane is determined to live what little is left of her life to the fullest by somehow surrendering her virginity despite the enormous physical and emotional obstacles to such an act of pure will. Jane has the good fortune to encounter Richard (Kenneth Branagh), a lunatic performing community service for attempting to reinvent flying from the roof of an office building. After being her temporary custodian, Richard evolves into her platonic lover–his impotence is just one of his many symptoms as a congenital loser. Jane somehow persuades Richard to let her attain a spiritual union with him through partaking of his obsession (flight), after he has been unsuccessful in arranging hers (sex).

The Theory of Flight is clearly the most original love story of the past movie year, and one of the most satisfying. A great deal of the credit must go to the two leads, who manage a form of communication that must be seen and heard to be appreciated. Merely the way Ms. Bonham-Carter tilts her head in a mixture of brash coquettishness and heroic, womanly defiance of the cards she has been dealt, makes her an unforgettable icon of the romantic imagination.

Clarification

Because of mental and typographical glitches in last week’s copious column I inadvertently omitted Jon Bon Jovi in No Looking Back , and Dennis Quaid in Savior and The Parent Trap from the roster of noteworthy male performances.