ディア・ドクター 「Dea Dokuta-」
Release Date: June 27th, 2009
Running Time: 127 mins.
Director: Miwa Nishikawa
Writer: Miwa Nishikawa (Screenplay/Original Novel)
Starring: Tsurube Shofukutei (Dr. Osamu Ino), Eita (Keisuke Soma), Kimiko Yo (Akemi Ohtake), Teruyuki Kagawa (Masayoshi Saimon), Kaoru Yachigusa (Kaduko Torikai), Haruka Igawa (Ritsuko Torikai), Ryo Iwamatsu (Lieutenant Yoshifumi Okayasu), Yutaka Matushige (Sergeant Hatano),
Miwa Nishikawa follows up her perfect twisted Tokyo-based family drama Wild Berries with this title about a countryside doctor who may not be what he appears to be. Despite the bucolic setting replacing Tokyo the themes are much the same as in her debut film, deception and desperation.
Dear Doctor takes place in a remote town in the middle of the countryside. It’s nighttime and creatures lurking in the rice fields croak and murmur in the darkness. A man riding into town on a bicycle along a poorly lit road stops and puts on a doctor’s coat he finds lying on the ground. He continues cycling all the way to the clinic where a cluster of elderly villagers and police officers question him. Where did he find the coat? Where’s the doctor it’s normally attached to?
Lieutenant Yoshifumi Okayasu (Ryo Iwamatsu) and Sergeant Hatano (Yutaka Matushige) are on the case. The man they are looking for is Dr. Osamu Ino (Tsurube Shofukutei), a fifty-something unassuming-looking chap and he has been the town’s only doctor for a few years.
He works long hours either in the town’s small clinic or making house calls and treating the ailments of the elderly residents. He knows the intimate details of the town, the social and medical histories of every family, and he knows he is the only doctor around and seems to relish it until a diagnosis gets complicated. Fortunately he is more than ably assisted by a loyal nurse named Akemi Ohtake (Kimiko Yo) who takes on a lot more responsibility than her position demands. She has had experience in emergency rooms and seems more confident in more technical situations than doctor Ino himself and occasionally takes the lead. Even Ohtake has no idea where Ino has gone or why. Nobody in town knows and they are desperate to get him back including a new young medical intern named Keisuke Soma (Eita).
Keisuke is the son of a rich doctor and rode into town in a flashy red BMW convertible with the expectation of staying in what he regards as hicksville for a couple of months for an easy assignment looking after old folks. Despite his money, city-slicker bravado and fancy transport he is someone looking for a road to follow in the medical profession. His stay with Ino gives him that inspiration. Here is a traditional doctor working selflessly for others. However, the more Keisuke works with Ino the more he begins to have suspicions that the man may not be as qualified to serve as a doctor as he should be. There are hesitations during treatments and he notices that Ino hands work to him as well as Ohtake. Is a doctor dodging tough calls really the best person to learn from? Keisuke puts those issues aside as he is swept up in Ino’s charismatic presence and the need to believe in something other than making money from medicine.
So why did Ino, the much-loved doctor, disappear?
Miwa Nishikawa gradually delivers answers by splitting the narrative into two parts, one set in the past and the other in the present. Flashbacks to a month before the disappearance inform the present and these glimpses of the past are invoked through the police investigation as Okayasu and Hatano question the townsfolk and discover Ino isn’t as innocent or as qualified to be a doctor as he seems and maybe the residents weren’t as duped by his performance as they pretend to be.
The film uses the investigation as a lens to look at the characters and environment so the central performance from Tsurube Shofukutei and understanding the dynamics of the town is equally important. What looks like a case of a good doctor driven to disappearing by depression is gradually undermined from witness testimonies. Audiences will initially be charmed by Ino’s image of dedication in medicine. Shofukutei plays up his character’s jovial and confident demeanour which helps put his patients at ease. His bedside manner is inspirational but Shofukutei leaves enough markers to make us doubt the man and so the more the detectives dig the more we pick up how uncomfortable he is in the position especially when his patients ask him to make potentially fatal decisions.
On the surface he is calm but he is struggling to maintain himself. Nishikawa uses the power of cinema to pick up on this. The camera closely frames each character and we see cracks. Every diagnosis Ino makes is flawed and he is reliant on nurse Ohtake and Keisuke to back him up. Ohtake in particular holds together the façade of confidence that Ino projects as the increasingly complicated emergency procedures they face are done under her guidance through hand signals and glances. When Keisuke praises Ino he unwittingly unearths the guilt and self-hatred that Ino has accrued from being in his position and fears of relatives rumbling him.
Ino sort of enjoys his position and the reliance people have in him but the increasingly deadly medical situations weigh more and more on him while those around him need his performance to keep them going . The elderly love the attention he gives them which keeps loneliness at bay, the mayor can claim to be doing his job after getting a doctor for a town that went without one for years and Masayoshi (a nicely duplicitous performance from Teruyuki Kagawa), a pharmaceutical rep, can make a lot of money from constant orders he gets from Ino. No wonder they want to find the man. There is a delicious ambiguity to both the doctor and the community that comes from the constant stream of witness statements that the detectives gather and what emerges is a complex picture of dependency and disappearance.
There is definitely some social observation in the film as we follow Ino in his duties visiting people and see a village populated mostly by the elderly, the young having emigrated to Tokyo and beyond for work. Katsumi Yanagijima, the cinematographer, last mentioned here for the review of Dolls, does a good job illustrating the sense of abandonment of the town. The gorgeous countryside Ino travels is made up of grassy hills and well-maintained fields which are all underpopulated. When a person does appear they are usually old and usually asking for Ino’s help. The lack of resources and contact from relatives are then revealed through the people suffering from an acute case of loneliness while said relatives feel guilt.
Nishikawa’s film is profound but relaxed, a feeling brought through by her familiar carefully composed aesthetic. The understated acting prevents the film from becoming a comedy at the expense of the elderly, some of whom are suffering the ill-effects of old age such as senility. The treatment of the elderly is an aspect adding a dose of complexity and acidity to a film which feels almost light and easygoing. Ino’s actions may be illegal but there’s no self-interest. He genuinely cares about his patients as evidenced from the constant check-ups, studying, and friendliness. His technical skills are flawed but his bedside manner is impeccable and he is valuable for that when you see the wider situation of the community.
Apologies for the long review. The film is a lot better than it may sound and I highly recommend watching it. I didn’t reveal any major spoilers so there’s a lot to enjoy, the acting in particular.