‘Miss Doc’ shows the struggles of a lone female doctor in rural Japan


Special To The Japan Times

Change comes slowly to the Japanese film industry. The hagiographic biopic about a doctor, scientist or similarly distinguished personage — rarely seen in Hollywood since the days of Jack L. Warner and Louis B. Mayer — is still alive and well here.

The latest local example is “Miss Doc” (“Isha Sensei”), Jiro Nagase’s earnest and plodding, if instructive, biopic about Chikako Shida (1910-62), a pioneering doctor in rural Yamagata Prefecture. Though hardly as famous as the subjects of “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1935) or “Madame Curie” (1943), Shida was not only the first woman from her native village of Oisawa (today known as Nishikawa) to attend a jogakko (prewar girls high school) and graduate from medical school but, on her return from Tokyo in 1935, became the village’s only practicing physician.

Shida received local and national awards for her work and served in various capacities in the village government. Also, her tanka (short poems) were published in the famed prewar poetry journal “Araragi.” In short, she was a shining example of female talent and accomplishment for both her era and ours, but she had to battle hard against ignorance and prejudice: Both female doctors and Western medicine were regarded as suspect in rural communities such as Oisawa in the early years of her career.

So why does the young, attractive and educated title heroine of “Miss Doc” opt for Oisawa? Receiving a telegram from her father, Sojiro (Takaaki Enoki), to “come immediately,” Chikako (Aya Hirayama) rushes back home as a newly minted doctor, with a bright future ahead of her. And as she stands on a mountain ridge overlooking Oisawa, she feels nostalgia for her town and family, including her warm-hearted mom (Yukiko Ikeda) and cute younger brothers.

Miss Doc (Isha Sensei)
Run Time 105 mins
Language Japanese

But her father, the former Oisawa mayor, has a problem: He has already started building a village clinic, after promising the villagers that Chikako would run it. If he goes back on his word, he will lose face. “Give me just three years of your life,” he begs her.

This is hugely unfair and Chikako is rightly upset by her father’s selfishness. Three years is a long time, especially given that she has a guy in Tokyo eagerly awaiting her return.

However, being a good daughter, she reluctantly agrees.

The villagers, however, are anything but welcoming. They don’t believe a woman can be a real doctor and they still trust traditional remedies and rituals more than her Western-style pills and shots. One farmer bodily throws her out of his house rather than let her treat his sick wife. Given that she was raised among these people, I wondered, isn’t this a bit extreme?

A horror specialist who debuted with the 2011 shocker “2 Channel no Noroi Gekijoban” (Literally, “2-channelCurse: The Movie”), Nagase strains to dramatize the predicable script by Yamagata native Mika Abe — and it shows. He makes it so hard on poor Chikako that I began to root for her to leave the unfriendly locals to their own devices.

Of course, she doesn’t (at least not permanently) and, once the ice is broken, the villagers are revealed as the salt of the earth. Their sudden shift from suspicion and derision to adoration is designed to draw out the maximum viewer tears, as is Chikako’s ultimate decision to live her life singly and self-sacrificially in Oisawa. And when the film premiered at the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival last October, the mostly elderly audience responded with moist eyes and loud applause.

But how, I wondered, did the film’s producers expect to market their subtitled print abroad, where secular saints are a harder sell? Maybe I’ve missed the news about the upcoming Hollywood remake of “Madame Curie.”