Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor
The movie follows an elderly, paranoid, and impoverished doctor as he receives a request to attend a moribund young man in a distant village and subsequently experiences an existential nightmare as he struggles with the implications of relying on the transportation provided by a sinister stranger, the act of leaving his maid behind to likely be raped, and the nothingness that would be left should he fail as a doctor and suddenly exist in a state other than the instrumental role provided by his occupation.
Koji Yamamura's animated adaptation of Kafka's short story A Country Doctor takes an astounding degree of care with preserving the intention of the original story, and while his decision to leave the plot unsimplified may cost him some casual viewers, the vivid and horrifying detail of its surreal animation and the preservation of Kafka's terse narration makes for a harrowing and engrossing experience. In the space of twenty-one minutes, the viewer is treated to the perspective of a distinctly unheroic lead, an elderly doctor whose lifework involves endless obstacles and yet whose one moment of freedom from these obstacles at the hands of a mysterious stranger provides only terror and a loss of control. The film is filled with his narration of the stranger's unwanted help and subsequent claiming of the doctor's maid as "debt", his nightmarish journey on the back of a horse whose speed seems unearthly, and his attempts to understand the illness of a patient who alternately seems truly terminally ill and simply devoid of the will to live amidst the confused ramblings of his peevish family; it's a fascinating case in which the viewer is jarringly given a redefinition of context often as the doctor's narration changes, and in which the film's initial attempt at an objective state of reality falls apart even to the doctor's eyes, leaving the audience as helpless as he is once some of the film's most bizarre events unfold. Though largely psychological, A Country Doctor is dynamic in pace and harsh and unrelenting in subject matter: once the doctor fails at something, say, at protecting his maid from the hands of the stranger, the event colors all of the rest of his behavior in the film, with each event being irremovable from his mind even as the surroundings change. Hardly a bit of warmth is to be seen, making the film a daunting piece to confront, but all the same, one's mind has been turned at story's end, with the stark grimness bringing power to points such as that where he says "I'll never come home at this rate. My flourishing practice is lost" in the face of being shamed for his failure as a doctor.
What makes this film special, however, is the careful marriage of Kafka's writing to Yamamura's art, which, appropriately for the story, paints a palette of wormy greys and browns while distorting proportions according to the degree of surrealism present at the particular line being spoken. The artwork and character design is interesting rather than pretty: the disc-like, listless, and unblinking eyes of the patient, the doctor's endlessly-wrinkled and over-enlarged head and sparse facial hair, and the skeletal features of any character seen shirtless bring to mind a world perpetually cold, starved, and ridden with anxiety. The animation warps the characters and their perspective in amazing flourishes, transitions being conducted in grainy surrealism in which the fabric of the universe almost seems to break under the sudden strain. The sound effects highlight the tension masterfully, while the musical score is gorgeous; meanwhile, the voice acting, courtesy of a group of kyogen actors, superbly carries Kafka's prose, translated into Japanese but possessed of the right lilt and diction to deliver the same impact. It's an exceptionally made film, on the whole, and the visuals and sound bring an extra layer of desolation to an already bleak story, amplifying rather than simply retelling the original story as the best adaptations do.
Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor may be prickly, hard to follow at moments, and disturbing. Save for the Japanese narration, it could easily be used in an English literature course to show an example of literary interpretation and then discussed alongside its parent novel, but I doubt it's the sort of thing that will ever find a popular audience. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating and engrossing movie: one that left me shaken afterwards and one I'd highly recommend for those up to the challenge.
In spite of being relentlessly grim, it's one of the most fascinating short films I've watched. I'm a huge fan of experimental works, and those of you who aren't can probably remove a star; if you happen to dislike Kafka's works, you probably shouldn't bother with this. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Probably best for teenagers and above. There's some non-sexual nudity, and a rape is implied at one point and becomes essential to the plot; while this is the most "objectionable" the work gets, the grotesque character design, gloomy tone, and dementia of main characters will also make this unappealing to most children.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor © 2007 Koji Yamamura
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