“Dear Doctor,” Miwa Nishikawa’s tale of a country doctor who is not all he appears to be, is invested with Nishikawa’s typical psychological acuity and emotional resonance. It opens with a clever fake-out; a man wears a doctor’s white coat while riding a bike, and we naturally assume that he is indeed a doctor. But when he pulls into town, we find out that he is not in fact a doctor at all, but just an ordinary person who found the coat and has put it on. The robe actually belongs to Osamu Ino (Tsurube Shofukutei), the village doctor who has suddenly vanished. This visual deception turns out to be a major hint toward a significant twist the story will take, one around which the film’s thorny moral issues revolve.
Ino was more than just a doctor to his patients; he was the glue that held the community together. Half of the 1,500 population town is elderly, and before Ino came, there was no doctor at all available to them. “That man is God!” the frantic village mayor tells the investigators after Ino’s disappearance. One of Ino’s assistants is Soma (Eita), a young doctor fresh out of medical school, sent to the village clinic as a summer intern. He is literally thrown into the clinic by an errant GPS system and a resulting minor car accident, in one of the film’s lightly comic episodes. Much closer to Ino is his nurse Otake (Kimiko Yo), whose assistance is more crucial than it would appear on the surface.
Nishikawa raises many uneasy ethical questions in “Dear Doctor”: what constitutes “qualification” for doctors, what makes us unquestioningly trust those who seem to have more knowledge and authority than we do, and whether health care systems have become too factory-like and impersonal. While the film in its breadth and characterizations has a novelistic feel, Nishikawa does not neglect cinematic values. Her depiction of the village is visually striking (with beautiful shots of grass blown by the wind, and vast fields), and she excels at subtly using composition and spatial arrangements to enhance the intimacy of many scenes in the film. Nishikawa is masterful at subtle gestures and mannerisms that reflect her characters’ shifting emotions. Nishikawa’s nuanced and complex examinations of moral issues are a hallmark of her films; her previous film “Sway”(2006), about a shared secret between two brothers involving a woman’s death, was equally perceptive in this regard. “Dear Doctor”resists easy answers and snap moral judgments; its success is a testament not only to the great skill of its writer/director, but also the brilliant cast she has assembled.
“Dear Doctor” screens at Japan Society on July 3 at 1 p.m. and July 4 at 4:15 p.m. as part of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema. For ticket information, check the Japan Society website.