It is impossible to discern whether it’s for the art or the story which inspired it that Koji Yamamura’s animated adaptation of “A Country Doctor” (“Ein Landarzt”) by Franz Kafka outclasses ninety-five percent of the anime being produced today. That’s because those elements, combined, make the aforementioned ten-year old work a masterpiece that remains sadly under the radar of most anime fans despite being “winner of seven Grand Prizes at major animation festivals worldwide” (source).
If you’ve yet to read the original story, “A Country Doctor” tells the tale of a physician summoned one winter’s night to a patient’s bedside on the outskirts of town. The doctor’s troubles starts with trying to procure horses needed for the long journey. From there, he faces personal and professional distractions while suffering the scrutiny of the afflicted’s family and community.
Inverting the whole “one picture, one thousand words equation,” this anime turns ten pages into approximately nineteen minutes, and that stretch, reflected in the characters’ distorted, caricature-like movements as well as elaborative depictions of travel and environment, is incredible. The way characters move – from slithering horses birthed from a stable door to the over-exaggerated ways in which humans walk, bend, reach, etc. – quickly and wordlessly establishes traits and motive (a la The Triplets of Belleville) and is perpetually endearing. Bill Plympton’s influence is also obvious and well utilized for amplifying the sense of derangement during some of the more surreal character manipulations as well as in the execution of certain visual metaphors.
The animation in this piece is the result of a Yamamura Animation and Shochiku coproduction, which perfectly carries the effects of the pencil-on-paper, sketch-like art. Little details woven into the scenery, such as an eye in the snow during a quick pan, foster near subliminal foreshadowing, while animated film effects, like accumulating frost on the “camera” or celluloid bubbling during a shot when a character is in the background and a lit candle’s flame is in the foreground, provide an additional layer of atmosphere. All of these effects are complemented by haunting ambient musical arrangements by Hitomi Shimizu and the gruff grumble of Sensaku Shigeyama as the titular doctor.
Adapting a classic is tricky business, but there’s no love lost on this anime after its decade long existence. If anything, it still puts to shame, via its non-industry-standard aspects, the cookie-cutter art employed by most currently airing anime. This adaptation is one that deserves to be preserved and revisited (often) for its wonderfully rendered art and how that’s leveraged to faithfully and competently show the story.
Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor is included with several other Yamamura productions on the “Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor & Other Fantastic Films” DVD, which is available via RightStuf, Amazon, and other retail outlets.