[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
It would be reductive to describe Dogra Magra as a film about insanity.
I mean, that’s exactly what it is in the most basic of terms: the setting is an asylum, the protagonist an amnesiac patient with a possible criminal history. The movie’s exaggerated depiction of mental illness is, of course, somewhat problematic by modern standards—though on the other hand, it is also explicitly critical of the cruel, inhumane “treatments” practiced by many psychiatric institutions in the early twentieth century. But that’s all rather superficial—merely a narrative framework for a rich, compelling exploration of significantly more existential themes. Can science, for example, quantify—define, measure, and weigh—the “self?” And where, medically speaking, does it reside? In the mind? Is that separate from the brain? Can consciousness be attributed to purely physical phenomena—organic matter, chemical processes, and electrical impulses? And what of memory? Is it woven into the very fabric of our DNA, passed down through the generations like an ethereal heirloom? Do the ghosts of our ancestors inhabit in our flesh, our blood, our genes?
What are “you?” A crude amalgam of body parts—tissue, muscle, bone? Or does "identity" transcend biology and anatomy?
The hallucinatory style perfectly complements the surreal material. Indeed, the nonlinear editing arguably anticipates the works of animator Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Paprika); every cut warps, distorts, and condenses space and time. Conversations occur in multiple locations simultaneously; characters literally walk into flashbacks, seamlessly transitioning between present and past. Dreams intrude upon reality; truth and fantasy blend and blur, gradually becoming indistinguishable. This isn’t spectacle for its own sake, however; the fragmented structure mirrors our hero's fractured psyche, thus immersing the audience in his inherently subjective point-of-view.
Despite writing a bunch of words about Dogra Magra, I feel like I haven’t actually said anything substantial about it. Words simply cannot adequately describe the experience of watching it; director Toshio Matsumoto’s vision is too singularly unique and unconventional, lacking any proper frame of reference. Is it an ambitious avant-garde experiment or a pulpy detective story with a pseudo-philosophical twist? Insightful or exploitative? Profound or pretentious? (These options, by the way, are not mutually exclusive.) Ultimately, it just is—and isn’t that enough?
“Cogito, ergo sum.”