[Our thanks go out to Chris MaGee and Marc Saint-Cyr at the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow for sharing their coverage of the 2010 Nippon Connection Film Festival.]
Osamu Ino (Tsurube Shôfukutei), a small town doctor in rural Japan, has gone missing. Except for a white lab coat found in a nearby field there is no sign of the much loved physician. Police begin to investigate his disappearance, but very quickly they discover that the details of Dr. Ino's life just doesn't add up. First off the locals, mostly senior citizens, people who normally know everyone's business in town, can't agree on what exactly Dr. Ino's background is. Some are certain that his father was a factory owner from Osaka, others say Ino comes from a family of woodworkers in Kyoto. There's also the sense that his colleagues at the local medical clinic, nurse Akemi Otake (Kimiko Yo), young medical intern Keiskue Soma (Eita), as well as phramaceutical rep Saimon (Teruyuki Kagawa), weren't entirely convinced of Dr Ino's skills despite their deep admiration of him. They aren't the only ones who admire the missing doctor. The seniors who were his patients can say nothing but good things about him as well, and the mayor of the town just wants to get him back to practicing medicine. "That man is god," he tells the police detectives. As Miwa Nishikawa's "Dear Doctor", the film that many critics were calling 2009's "Departures", plays out we soon find that Dr. Ino is far from being god, and that Nishikawa's critically-lauded film in no way measures up to Yojiro Takita's Oscar-winner.
Nishikawa, the 35-year-old protégé of Hirokazu Kore-eda, based "Dear Doctor" on her own novel, "Kino no kamisama", a work which questioned whether what someone claims to be is actually the truth. She tells her story on film by taking us back before Dr. Ino disappeared, before the police were investigating just who this man really was, a time when he was the center of these villagers lives. When recent medical school grad Soma rolls into town (actually crashes into town) in his convertible cherry red BMW and first encounters Dr. Ino he finds a jovial, caring man, someone who is just as likely to examine his elderly patient's dog if it will give them peace of mind. Soon Soma is accompanying Dr. Ino and Akemi on their rounds. Ino is a master at bedside manner, gently ministering to his elderly patients, doling out advice on a balanced diet and writing presciptions for vitamin supplements. When one of the most senior of the town's senior citizens seems to go into heart failure and dies after a lunch with his family Dr. Ino is there to miraculously bring him back from the dead... after the old man coughs up a piece of sushi. Wherever he goes Dr. Ino is greeted by old people tottering into the street, wide smiles, and the occasional celebratory "Banzai!" It's this mood of good old Japanese nostalgia straight out of a "Tora-san" film that Nishikawa lays on thick for over half of "Dear Doctor's" running time, even when it is obvious to us that Dr. Ino chokes when he's confronted with anything more serious than a stomach ache. In fact it's one of his patients, the elderly widow Torikai-san (Kaoru Yachigusa), and her stomach that proves to be Dr. Ino's downfall when it becomes obvious even to him that she is suffering from something more serious than a peptic ulcer.
From early on it's obvious what Nishikawa, the woman behind the psychologically complex 2006 drama "Sway", is driving at with "Dear Doctor" - if someone looks like a doctor, wears a white coat and has a stethascope around their neck, and calls themself a doctor, then they're a doctor. It's a compelling concept to build a film around. I mean, how many of us ask to check credentials when we are dragged into the emergency room with a concussion or a heart attack. In a country like Japan where deference to authority is even more powerful the argument becomes that much more compelling. In the end though people are people regardless of nationality and the characters' willful ingnorance, and the placid behaviour that they exhibit when they begin to supect that Dr. Ino... or just plain Ino... is jeopardizing the health of the townsfolk just didn't add up. Akemi, Soma, and Saimon all deliver the usual platitudes one would expect from an overblown, homey drama of this sort - Ino's love and heart is more important than a medical certificate, if you see someone in trouble you help regardless of medical knowledge. It's these rote justifications and the fact that, despite some charming low-key moments delivered by Tsurube Shôfukutei as Dr. Ino, we never really know who these characters are, what their motivation to look the other way may be. If Nishikawa means for us to leave the armchair psychology at the theatre door and simply judge the characters on their actions then Ino is a sociopath and the townsfolk are either suffering from severe dementia or severe delusion.
To compare "Dear Doctor" to a film like "Departures", one that may not have the same thought-provoking conundrum at its core, but appeals to the universality of death, grief, and moving on with life, is kind of like comparing a soap opera to "Citizen Kane". Of course "Departures" isn't anywhere in the same league as Welles' classic, but Takita's film at least takes the trouble of developing its characters, characters that can transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries to make it an international hit. The kindest compliment that I can give to "Dear Doctor" and to Nishikawa is that she has pulled off a perfect life-imitates-art scenario. In the same way that his patients and colleagues overlook Ino's obvious ineptitude because he calls himself a doctor, I believe that critics and audiences have embraced "Dear Doctor" simply because its mix of homespun nostalgia, often gorgeous cinematography, the casting of popular screen stars including celebrity rakugo storyteller Shôfukutei, and the impeccable artistic pedigree (at least up until now) of Nishikawa has dazzled people into unquestioningly accepting it as a great film. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but "Dear Doctor" is as good a film as Ino is a country physician.Review by Chris MaGee