Shiroi Kyotō, 1966
Warning: The Following review is filled with unintentional puns.
Novelist Yamazaki Toyoko’s 1966 Shiroi Kyotō is one of the most reworked stories in Japanese cinema and television history, having enjoyed no less than four subsequent productions in its home country, whilst more recently crossing over into Taiwanese and Korean territories. Yamamoto Satsuo’s The Great White Tower has the obvious distinction of being the first cinematic treatment of Toyoko’s work; released in the same year as the author’s publication, it went on to sweep up at various Japanese award ceremonies, its legacy a seemingly unstoppable one.
The story concerns a top surgeon named Goro Zaizen (Tamiya Jiro), who specialises in pancreatic cancer treatment at the Naniwa University, and who is currently an assistant professor under the wing of First Surgical Dept. Professor Azuma (Eijiro Tono). Azuma is due to retire in a month or so’s time and he needs to begin preparations for someone to succeed him. The most obvious choice is Zaizen, but he’s concerned about the surgeon’s wildly inflated ego and the need to further his own status at the expense of running high risk operations amongst his patients. Azuma decides that he’ll take the matter further. Meeting with First Internal Medicine Professor Ugai (Eitaro Ozawa) they discuss other options and decide that it might be best to involve other medical associations across Japan and thus stage a national election process that will involve sixteen specially selected candidates. When Zaizen gets wind of this he tries to usurp proceedings and gain the upper hand, resorting to any means necessary in order to secure his place as Professor. Meanwhile his former classmate Satomi (Takahiro Tamura) is concerned that Zaizen is neglecting his patients. When a patient of Zaizen’s become sick directly after surgery Satomi recommends that Zaizen re-diagnoses him as there could be an underlying problem he missed. Stubbornness gets the better of Zaizen, who considers his every decision to be 100% right, but when his patient dies he soon faces a law suit accusing him of malpractice.
The Great White Tower is a slow and stirring medical drama/satire about democracy, inflated egos and gunning for status in the competitive field of medicine. It’s an examination carried out with sharp precision as it explores the dark underside of human determination and the acts that a single man – or to a greater extent an established council – will go to in order to maintain a perfect reputation. A multi-faceted piece of work, director Yamamoto painstakingly sees to it that every ounce of his characters are bled dry in highlighting nefarious schemes, from eliciting acts of bribery to vote rigging and back-stabbing, without a single thought of integrity from anyone, save for the film’s main anchor Satomi – the only voice of concern and the only soul whom we have any reason to champion. Yamamoto aptly paints Japan as a society in need of change, where old school factions face imperative disbandment to make way for fresh young blood; those who will dictate future decades of research development and cutting edge techniques. With all of this the director makes his statements clear, undoubtedly touching nerves along the way. It’s ultimately a cynical portrayal of a government gone mad and it never ceases up for a single moment. It’s depressing, shrugging the cold shoulder and leaving nothing by the way of hope; a vicious attack on corporate greed and consumption, where scruples are thrown out the window and money does all the talking. Yamamoto’s film isn’t just a product of its time, then, forty years on there’s still a tremendous amount of relevance to be had – and that’s quite a scary thought. It’s No wonder that every so often it gets reinvented for a new generation.
And it’s all done with such grand conviction, featuring an ensemble who play no small part in realising the severity of the situation. While the cast is excellent across the board, core to the films’ success is Tamiya Jiro and Takahiro Tamura, who deliver two outstanding performances as practitioners who are complete polar opposites of one another. Goro Zaizen and Satomi Shuji are clear representations of the morals and corruption that make up the society in question: Zaizen is ruthless and egotistical, driven by blind ambition, which is enough to see him overlook the more important aspects of his job, while Satomi is simply integrity and honesty in its purest form. And indeed Yamamoto takes these characters and sets up a cruel game, whereby the antagonist Zaizen – who in fact leads throughout most of the picture – triumphs in the face danger, brought on by massive media exposure. It leaves a cold taste in the mouth, a frustrating denouement that only reinforces our worst fears.
All of this is fine to an extent. With no redeeming outcome other than having the ability to stick it to the man and tell us how politics is: that the justice system and certain medical ethics suck in equal measure, The Great White Tower has very little else to say. That in itself may seem adequate enough and indeed it makes its point loud and clear but it takes a laboured two and half hours to do so. It certainly demands viewer patience, particularly when Yamamoto spends copious amounts of time with no less than fifteen participants who debate the rights and wrongs of the entire selection process, not to mention the final thirty minutes which takes place entirely in a court room. He occasionally injects some more subtle commentaries into the fold, such as family status and marrying into specific classes, much to the angst of Azuma’s daughter Saeko (Shiho Fujimura) in this case; additionally showing the care free nature of Zaizen’s infidelity, while never focusing a great deal on his home life, which is most odd considering Zaizen’s mistress (Mayumi Ogawa) Keiko gets an awful lot of screen time. The direction, however, is confident, relying most of the time on steady master shots, which neatly capture the intimate conversations littered throughout, whilst also conveying the film’s ominous tone with Sei Ikeno’s occasionally over the top “dun dun dun” score. At other times there’s no holding back during the editing process: there are several instances in which real operations are shown to be taking place, alongside shots of the actors hard at work, proving to be a tad yucky in their detail but adding that much needed sense of authenticity. A dark sense of irony also underlines the picture; considering that the film deals primarily with cancer research it’s interesting to note that half the doctors in attendance smoke like chimneys! Oh, how times change.