17 August 2008

Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (カフカ田舎医者, 2007)


Kōji Yamamura (山村浩二)'s most recent short animation, Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor (Kafuka Inaka Isha, , 2007) has been making a big splash at international festivals around the world this past year. It won the Grand Prize earlier this month at the Hiroshima International Animation Festival and has also scooped up the top prizes at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, Stuttgart's Internationales TrickFilm Festival, Monstora Lisbon Animated Film Festival, among many other honours. The sheer pleasure of watching the film was described at Anipages last month in another great review by Ben Ettinger. For lots of screencaps of the film, see iwanihana.

Along the way, many reviewers have been baffled as to the meaning of the film because it adapted from a surreal short story by Kafka that relies heavily upon symbolism rather than a linear narrative in order to tell its tale. Kafka is well known for his use of ambiguous language in his literary work, which always poses great difficulties for translators. The original short story translated into English can be found here and the original German is here.


Yamamura's film belongs to the tradition of using cinema to depict the subjective world on screen. Kafuka Inaka Isha remains true to much of the literal text of A Country Doctor, but it also provides an interpretation of the work. Through Yamamura's unique animation technique, he is able to express the internal, psychological state of the doctor, using many of the same techniques of distortion, symbolism, montage, and music as were used by the German Expressionists (esp. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), Jean Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet (1930), and Bunuel & Dali's Un chien andalou (1929), not to mention the long line of experimental filmmakers and animators who followed in these early poets of the cinema's footsteps [in honour of Franz Kafka, I am using unnecessarily long sentences today ;) ].


As I had read the original story with its European setting before screening the film, I was surprised by the incantation that opened the film which sounded like the opening to a Noh drama. I don't know anything about the history of the translation of A Country Doctor (I've just ordered the book tie-in to have a look at the Japanese text) but it was clear from the breathtakingly beautiful and haunting soundtrack that the translator has not only given a literal translation of the text but has also interpreted the poetic sound values of the original German text into a Japanese poetic form: the dramatic narration. The successful execution of this rests largely on the fact that Yamamura was able to acquire the services of the Shigeyama (茂山) family to do the voice acting. The Shigeyamas are masters of Kyōgen ( 狂言), a comical form of traditional Japanese theatre that originally developed as a kind of entertainment to lighten the mood between the acts of a Noh drama. The Shigeyama family has specialised in Kyōgen since around the turn of the 19th century, and the patriarch of the family, Shigeyama Shigeyama III (茂山千作) has been received the rare honour of being designated a Human National Treasure. He does the main voice for the doctor and four other members of the family do the other voices apart from the children's choir and the award-winning novelist Hitomi Kanehara (金原ひとみ) who does the voice of Rose.


On the surface, Kafka Inaka Isha tells the story of an aging country doctor whose horse has died and he and his maid, Rose are desperately seeking a replacement horse for the doctor to borrow so that he can get to the sick bed of a young boy. A strange man appears out of the doctor's pig stall and lends the doctor two ghostly steeds and tells the doctor of his intention of raping Rose while he is gone. The doctor is unable to control the horses who whisk him off and take him to his destination, through a winter landscape, at great speed. When he arrives at the house, the cause of the boy's illness is at first unclear and the doctor is plagued by guilt and worry about Rose. It is a fairly complex story to summarize, so I would advise you to read the original story.


Yamamura provides the audience with many clues that this tale is a psychological one. The most obvious is the distortion of the doctor's head from small to grotequely large throughout the film. At times it looks as if we are seeing his head through a fisheye lens. There are also the two small ghostly figures of boys who appear over the doctor's shoulder. Their doubling is accuntuated by the doubling of the narrator's voice – the story is told by the doctor in the first person with two voice-over narrators.


Other visual clues that this is the distortion of the foreground and borders of the film. In some scenes the foreground bubbles like a disintegrating silver nitrate film. In conjunction with this bubbling and blurring, some scenes feature a border of small lines that look almost scratched on. The animation style is similar to his film Atama Yama (Mt. Head, 2002): a layered style of cel animation. Interestingly, Atama Yama is also a film that uses a dramatic narration as a theme and employed the great rakugo (落語) voice actor Takeharu Kunimoto (国本武春).


My own interpretation of Kafuka Inaka Isha is that we are witnessing a psychological journey into the madness of the doctor. The old doctor is reaching the end of his life, and his conscience is haunted by children that he has been unable to save and are represented by the two little shadowy figures of boys. When the doctor is stripped naked and put into the bed with the boy, I had the impression that he is actually having a conversation with himself. I read the scene in this way because during the shot reverse shot we see the image of the person 'listening' instead of the person 'talking' – a stylistic choice that inverts our expectations as viewers. My suspicion that the action of the film is taking place entirely inside the head of the main protagonist was confirmed during his naked ride back home, when the doctor's head rolls back and is replaced by Rose and then by her attacker. At the end of the film, the house is filled with doppelgängers of the doctor: a sure sign of madness or perhaps the imminent death of the doctor.


Like a good poem, Kafuka Inaka Isha requires repeated viewing for the many nuances of the film to be explored. The DVD is only available in Japan currently and comes with 3 postcard-sized stills from the film, a short bio of Kafka, a review of the short story by German literature Osamu Ikeuchi (who also briefly interviews Yamamura among the extras), a profile of Yamamura, and short bios of the voice-actors. My favourite extra is a slow pan of the storyboards complete with some of the film's haunting sound effects.

Kafka Inaka Isha / Animation

This review is part of Nishikata Film's 2011 Noburo Ofuji Award Challenge.


© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2008

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