Mildly, Franz Kafka’s short story A Country Doctor is a nightmare put into words. It defies all but the most basic of descriptions: a night call in the middle of winter brings the titular protagonist to a distant household. The atmosphere and imagery conjured in the process must be experienced first-hand to be understood. Perhaps the clearest summary available is that Kafka rarely, if ever, wrote something else as horrifying. One could not be faulted for thinking it impossible to reproduce this story in a visual medium: its sheer off-ness would be undermined by direct representation.
But this conventional wisdom was thrown to the wind in 2007, when Koji Yamamura adapted A Country Doctor into an animated short film. Yamamura is an underground director with a reputation for bizarre, experimental work; but nothing in his past—not even his Oscar-nominated Mt. Head—could have prepared viewers for this grotesque, phantasmagoric recreation of Kafka’s story. Characters grow, stretch and shrink; perspectives are inscrutable; mise en scène is distorted to the breaking point. Yet, by leveraging these and other techniques, Yamamura perfectly captures the unnameable mystery and terror of Kafka’s original. The film is a masterpiece on par with its source material.
Yamamura’s A Country Doctor, though, is also a strikingly literal interpretation. Although it is avant-garde, it displays none of the subtle one-upmanship that characterizes so many adaptations of fiction. Yamamura is not interested in loosely “capturing the essence” of the story, nor in offering his “take” on the material. He wants nothing less than to bring Kafka’s A Country Doctor to the screen. So, while the short film does contain minor details absent from the short story, Yamamura uses all of them to convey in a visual medium what Kafka achieved with the written word. In short, this writer cannot imagine a better adaptation. The reader may find a subtitled version of the film—which comes with our highest recommendation—after the break.
Whether they be underground career-starters like Makoto Shinkai’s brilliant She and Her Cat (1999) or confident masterworks such as Koji Yamamura’s Oscar-nominated Mt. Head (2002), Japan’s experimental animated short films get little publicity in the US. Yet this “genre”—taken in the loosest possible sense—has produced some of the most interesting art house animation of the past decade and a half.
Kunio Kato is among its very best contributors. His work is painterly. He has an eye for detail and composition such that still frames from his films would not look out of place on gallery walls. Often, his output is painterly in a second sense: it quotes directly from surrealist works. Magritte’s influence, for example, permeates The Apple Incident (2001), which opens with a reproduction of The Listening Room.
This brings us to the work named in the header. Kato’s The Diary of Tortov Roddle (2003) is a surrealistic short film made up of brief vignettes, the contents of which are by turns sad, touching, disturbing and awe-inspiring. Visually, Kato takes clear inspiration from Dalí, whose The Temptation of St. Anthony is referenced via Tortov’s pig-like pet. This writer will leave the rest for the reader to discover in the embedded video below.