It won a ton of awards, mostly in Japan but also in international film festivals. Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor gongs were taken home by five of its actors (Tsurube Shofukutei, Eita, Kaoru Yachigusa, Kimiko Yo, Yutaka Matsushige). It's very good.
However it's not as stunning as you'd think from that build-up. Don't expect to be blown away. It's nice. You'll like it. That's about it, I think.
It's the story of an elderly doctor (Shofukutei) in a mountain village. It's quite big as these villages go, with 1,500 people and only half of them old age pensioners, but it's still out in the boondocks. Shofukutei potters around, helping coffin-dodgers do their coffin-dodging. He saves lives. He does free house calls on people who can't be dragged into his clinic for themselves. Everyone loves him, naturally, especially given how difficult it is for these small communities to get and keep their own doctor. Before Shofukutei came along, the village had been doctor-less for four years.
In Japan, doctors get rich by opening their own hospitals. Shofukutei's pretty much doing the opposite of that. His new intern, Eita, has just graduated from medical school and came here in the teeth of his father's opposition. (Eita's father has his own hospital and sounds like a businessman first and a doctor second, although we never meet him.)
This is gentle and likeable. You've got elderly actors pottering around in an understated fashion and not wanting to be a burden on their children. You've got understated comedy. It's touching. You like all these people, even if one comes to realise that everyone in this clinic has their own strengths and not everyone knows everything. In other words, they're human. However there's also another plot strand interwoven through all this, in which police detectives are investigating a doctor who's gone AWOL. Technically the main film is a flashback from the detectives' B-plot.
There's been no violence, though. No one was murdered. It's not that kind of film.
Did this film deserve its awards? Probably, on balance. I can believe that it's one of the best Japanese films of 2009, although it's also the kind of award-bait story that tends to attract gongs in the way that horror doesn't. The acting's good, don't get me wrong, but to be honest I'd say the only people who were particularly being stretched were Shofukutei, Kaoru Yachigusa and Haruka Igawa (in a late-arriving but important role as Yachigusa's daughter). That's not to diminish anyone's efforts, though. Kimiko Yo's character is one of those modest people who doesn't seek the limelight and knows more than anyone realises, while Eita is even more crucial as the audience's gateway character into this world. He's young, straightforward and the strongest moral voice in the film.
One thing though that's particularly recognition-worthy is the writer/director, who's adapting her own novel. Miwa Nishikawa is unusual in the Japanese film and TV world for being female and young, only 35 when this came out. She'd also won the Best New Director award five years earlier at the 2004 Yokohama Film Festival for Wild Berries.
Is this a brilliant film? No. It's a good one, wearing its running time lightly and keeping you engaged throughout. You could show it to pretty much anyone, I think. My mum would enjoy it, for instance. I suppose she might squirm a bit at one scene of "doctors do medical stuff to save a man's life", but even there you'd need a magnifying glass to spot any gore and you can see bloodier stuff on Children's BBC. Overall, the film doesn't feel melodramatic, but instead has charm and simple, quiet emotion. Recommended, so long as you haven't let yourself be misled by all those heavyweight awards.