Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor: a bleak and surreal observation of one man’s existence in an uncaring universe

Koji Yamamura, “Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor / Franz Kafka: Ein Landartz / Kafuka: Inaka Isha” (2007)

Excellent if rather visually grotesque animated short film based on Franz Kafka’s short story of an unhappy and unfortunate country doctor forced to attend to a sick boy on a remote farm during the evening in the darkling depths of snowy winter, “Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor” is a meditation on existence in a meaningless and uncaring universe. The titular doctor (Sensaku Shigeyama: voice), who describes the events of the night through two spirit voices that always accompany, is dragged out of his house and taken by two unearthly black horses to the farm while their groom rapes the doctor’s maid Rosa at home. Beset by thoughts of his ill luck and grievances against his patients who apparently expect him to wait on them hand and foot, the doctor initially fails to diagnose the boy’s illness; the boy’s family then strip the medic of his clothes and shove him into the boy’s bed where he finds the weeping, worm-infested wound that has ailed the youngster (Ippei Shigeyama) since his birth. Returning home with what remains of his clothes, the doctor finds the horses are travelling slowly and his journey back to Rosa seems to take forever in a frozen landscape of giant snow eyes, noses and ears.

The narrative is closely based on the Kafka original and the sense of alienation, the lack of insight into human nature, and absence of compassion and empathy for others, on the doctor’s part which doom him to a hopeless servitude at the mercy of parasitical, exploitative villagers are obvious throughout. The plot lends itself readily to a surreal style of animation, at once two-dimensional and three-dimensional in look thanks to clever replication of shading and light falling on objects; the drawing might look crude in the cartoony style of Priit Pärn but as with that Estonian artist, the simplicity gives the film a raw, often dark and creepy energy. The backgrounds sometimes look painted onto a board; figures flit across them like smooth stop-motion pieces pasted over; lines are feathery and fragile, giving objects a frail, insubstantial look; at times the foreground and the edges of the film blur and bleed, and objects closest to the viewer even bubble and shudder as if fragmenting and disintegrating. Colouring is restricted to black, white and grey shades in-between and red appears only in a couple of scenes where the doctor sees his patient’s deep wound.

Characters may be deranged and twisted psychologically as well as physically and the doctor’s paranoia about the people and animals he meets (and how it distorts his view of himself, literally, as his head balloons and deflates and his legs grow long or short) seems well-founded. It’s hard not to think that ” … A Country Doctor” is actually a psychological film about a doctor who has wasted his life doing as little as possible for a life of ease and comfort, and now that he is coming towards the end of his life, he is haunted by all the young patients whose lives he failed to save (because he did not strive enough on their behalf) and their presence is driving him towards mental breakdown

The actors who give voice to the doctor and the boy are trained in a type of traditional Japanese comedy drama called kyogen which is related to noh play. The actor playing the doctor and the people giving voice to the boy patient and the doctor’s spirit consciences (also boy-like) are members of a famous kyogen acting family.

It’s a bleak and despairing view of the human condition, especially of one individual who does not know himself and who allows himself to be used by others similarly uncomprehending of their own selves. The film suggests that people are always using one another for short-term gain while the universe observes them all indifferently.

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