Shortly after this film opens we join young medical student, Dr Soma, as he tries to navigate the narrow and unfamiliar country roads (in a flashy bright red convertible) to his new internship placement in a rural medical practice. However, a combination of unfamiliarity with country driving, a recalcitrant satnav and an ongoing telephone conversation results in a rather different first visit to the hospital than the young doctor had expected. Waking up among the elderly patients waiting to have their various injuries seen to, Dr Soma eventually finds his way into the examining room only to find his new mentor Dr Ino soothing a patient’s worries over the heath of a pet dog.
The very first events of the film, however, tell us that Dr Ino has gone missing, his white doctor’s coat the only clue to his disappearance. Through a series of flashbacks and forwards we see the two doctors interact with the elderly residents of the town, treating their ailments or just caring for and listening to them. It becomes clear than Dr Ino is something of a hero in these parts - the elderly residents treat him almost like a god to the extent that it approaches a cult of personality. Why then, has Dr Ino suddenly left them, and where has he gone? As the police investigate it becomes clear that Dr Ino wasn’t a doctor at all, in fact he had no formal medical training whatsoever. Although some had had their doubts about Dr Ino and some of his more unorthodox behaviours, they ignored them because they accepted Ino’s status as a doctor.
If you’re the sort of person that likes to read up about this sort of thing, as some of us are, you might recall a series of experiments in the 1960s (such as the Milgram experiment) which demonstrated our innate desire to accept and obey authority figures. Put on a white coat and you’re a doctor in our minds, no matter the reality of the situation. Ino said he was a doctor, so nobody questioned his judgement. Any small doubts anyone might have had were not enough to outweigh the belief in the image of the doctor that had been created. Yet, knowing the truth, if Ino returned would the people take him back, welcome him again as their doctor?
One of the questions the film tries to ask is what makes a doctor; is it the training and experience or is it a kind heart and the desire to truly care for your patients? Young Doctor Soma has come from the city precisely because he feels alienated by the statistics driven practices of the metropolitan hospitals - he truly wants to know and help his patients as people and not just numbers. Unfortunately this is where the argument of this film starts to fall down for me. If it were a teacher, or a scientist or another expert whose skills were self taught yet equal to or better than a qualified professional it might more easily be accepted, but nobody dies if a teacher or an ornithologist makes a slight factual error. As important as pastoral care is, a doctor who doesn’t know what to do about a punctured lung and has trouble with the difference between ‘dead’ and ‘airway obstructed by sushi’ is dangerous no matter how much he cares. That’s not to say Ino didn’t help anyone, or that the help he gave wasn’t valuable but it doesn’t seem to me that you can argue that this is the same or as good as the care of a properly trained medical professional.
After a less than altruistic initial motivation, it does seem that Ino did what he did out of kindness; he grew to love and respect the people under his care and indeed it seems that the inability to do so may have prompted his flight. However at other times he makes it sound worryingly like a game of wits, a series of problems to be solved for his own intellectual satisfaction rather a series of people in pain. Perhaps he also needed the love and acclaim the townspeople afforded him just as much as they needed someone to listen to them.
The film also raises other issues such as Japan’s rapidly ageing population, and the decline of these rural villages as the young leave for the excitement of big city life. Dr Soma’s desire to move to the country is an aberration; perhaps he has a rather romantic idea of ‘the country’ and of being ‘a country doctor’ but nevertheless his heart is in the right place.
What starts off as though it’s going to be a slightly quirky fish out of water comedy rapidly transforms into an examination of authority and identity told in a strangely humorous way. This change in tone is similar to director Nishikawa’s earlier film, Sway, which similarly starts off like a comedy until tragedy intervenes. However, the light hearted tone here occasionally works against the film and makes it seem more inconsequential than it might otherwise be. Tsurube Shoufukutei gives a very sympathetic portrayal of Ino as a troubled but basically good man and is well supported by Eita, as the eager younger doctor and Kimiko Yo as the over burdened nurse. Dear Doctor is a charming film full of country warmth and wisdom, but its message that a warm heart is as good as a degree is a difficult one to go along with. Still, it’s a very well made film which certainly raises some interesting points and is certainly a very enjoyable couple of hours.
Dear Doctor was screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, which takes place in London, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Bristol and Nottingham. You can find more details about these events on the official web site.