Running Time: 126 mins.
Release Date: November 22nd, 1980
Director: Kazuki Ohmori
Writer: Kazuki Ohmori (Screenplay),
Starring: Masato Furuoya, Ran Ito, Masahiro Mitsuta, Akira Emoto, Moeko Ezawa, Kai Ato, Yoshio Harada,
Kazuki Ohmori is probably most famous for his Godzilla movies but he started out making dramas and his filmography is packed full of them. Disciples of Hippocrates is one he made with Art Theatre Guild, a production company that ran from the 1960s to the 1980s and released many Japanese New Wave films from the likes of Nagisa Oshima, Koji Wakamatsu, Kaneto Shindo, Yoshimitsu Morita, and Shohei Imamura.
Disciples of Hippocrates is, as the name suggests, a medical drama of sorts. Kazuki Ohmori had studied medicine and uses his experiences to show the medical training of a diverse group of undergrads in the Japanese healthcare system at the end of the 1970s. This is a time of student radicalism as pacifists’ took to the streets to protest a defence treaty between Japan and the US and even some of the medical students in this film are caught up in protests.
Set in Kyoto at the fictional Rakuhoku Medical University Hospital, we see the daily lives of a group of six doctors, each of whom are learning different disciplines to earn enough credits to graduate from medical school. The medical system has since changed, but at the time, students could specialise in a number of fields and learn all sorts of things in order to gain credits. When you consider the enormity of the world of medicine, taking the ensemble cast approach to showcase it to an audience is a brilliant idea.
Due to the flexible nature of the system, people can spend years studying and so you get a really diverse array of people at the heart of the story, all with different motivations. There are eighteen year-olds and people who are well into adulthood. The sons of doctors, who are merely following family tradition, work next to political firebrands who want to change the system. There are people who are studious and in it for the academia and there are those making a calculated move into what appears to be a lucrative job or following an ideal that may or may not carry them through the realities and rigour of medicine. There are others who are going to drop out since they are more into watching and making films and those who have to balance family life, raising kids and studying at the same time. It’s a real microcosm for Japanese student life which allows for different views of medicine and society to be expressed. Everything is done naturalistically, so we spend time with these men and woman at the hospitals and in the bars and dormitories. The more informal areas allow for moments of fun as these characters clash.
The action takes place over the course of an academic year and this allows the Kazuki Ohmori to pepper various vignettes in different areas to give a broad overview of the different fields in the medical profession. We get insights into paediatrics, psychology, ER training, spinal taps and the introduction of new technology at the time like CT scans. All sorts of medical techniques and jargon are delivered but in an easy to understand way.
Although comedy is a big part of the proceedings, especially in the interactions between students, there are some parts shot with the seriousness of documentary realism. The scenes of comedy are cleanly contrasted with more tense moments when a camera will swing around an operating theatre to capture the faces of concerned characters as they observe medical procedures and study what is going on intensely. These emergency room moments serve to show the importance of the profession (literally life or death) and the dedication of the professionals operating, a feeling reinforced by stern lectures given by senior doctors that cushion those sequences. One of those doctors is played by Osamu Tezuka, the legendary mangaka, who appears at a particular light-hearted moment when one student has a mishap with a baby who needs to relieve himself.
If there are candidates for lead actors they are Ran Ito as Midori Kimura and Masato Furuoya as Aisaku Ogino. Midori is the beautiful girl next door type, studious and mostly serious. She is led more by academic determination. Ran Ito was a popular singer back when the film was made as a member of the idol group Candies so getting her to appear in this film must have been a scoop since it is her first dramatic role and not her last as she continues working to this day. Aisaku is a sort of everyman, slightly immature and selfish in his immaturity, but ultimately good-natured and with a girlfriend named Junko who works at the university as a librarian and falls pregnant. His lackadaisical attitude to work and selfish attitude when it comes to Junko forms the basis of an ongoing plot thread which may infuriate viewers but serves as a clear example of how the characters grow from personal experiences like being in the position of a patient. Masato Furuoya was slightly more experienced as an actor (he won awards for his role in this film) but his life was tragically cut short due to suicide.
This film has the feeling of a coming-of-age drama as the people in the story learn more and mature and then graduate from medical school, finally finding a place in the world as they become fully-fledged doctors. While many characters in this drama are quirky, there are always serious moments to remind us that medicine is an important profession. The film doesn’t shy away from the psychological aspect of becoming a doctor. The aforementioned plot concerning Aisaku and Junko is an example as the youthful and naïve young man comes under intense stress due to bad decisions and looming tests. At these times of emotional stress, the director chooses to cut up the actual film stock or make the editing wilder as the soundtrack gets fuzzier. It is an effective way of showing how disorientating and disabling emotional traumas can be. The one misstep the film makes is in the fate of its leading female protagonist, Midori whose fate seems particularly absurd given how strong her character is. Apart from that, the film is an excellent and informative watch. Some may find it meanders but it is never without incident or interesting scenes, characters and sequences.