Akira Kurosawa: The Quiet Duel (1949) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: The Quiet Duel (1949)

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I need your help.  It may be the heat (my power went off for a few days), the tragedy (throwing out all that bacon will do things to a man), or just the outright exhaustion (I’m a claim rep in my off-time, and this has been a packed couple of weeks); but didn’t we watch this film a couple of weeks ago?

I’ve sat through the whole blessed thing now and I’m not sure anything beyond the beginning or the end will stick with me longer than my next sweat-fueled inspection.  It’s like this film looked at the rough template for Drunken Angel, decided that it could have used a bit less moral ambiguity, and threw in a different disease so that it would seem like an entirely new package.  Again, I don’t think this is what Akira Kurosawa intended in the slightest, but I can’t help but feel that it’s a recycled package from something that you and I agreed wasn’t the best of Kurosawa’s early films.

The Quiet Duel centers on another one of those master / pupil relationships that Kurosawa likes to truck out.  This time the narrative is less balanced between the two and weighs more heavily on the younger of the half.  This time around the duo is a pair of medical professionals, Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune), and his father Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Takashi Shimura).  The film opens on a prologue of sorts, showing what happens one fateful night in the Pacific during World War II when Kyoji operated on a patient infected with syphilis.

This sequence is, hands down, the best in the film.  There’s nothing subtle about it but when the atmosphere is layered on as richly as it is here no audience has cause to complain.  The darkness outside the surgery tent is barely being kept at bay by the struggling lights inside.  The humidity has caused a light grease to form over the doctor and his surgical assistant.  Then there’s the procedure itself, when the ceaseless rain forms a constant drip inside of the medical bubble, and the pressure mounts until, finally, the spot of blood we knew we were waiting for appears on Kyoji’s hand.He’s infected, and given that the overarching theme of the last few films has been the infection of the young from external or internal forces, that should come as no surprise.  The problem is that nothing else in the film comes as a surprise.  The doctor is of noble stock, as is his father, and the main problem of the film is how the younger deals with his syphilitic infection and does not want to pass it down through to his longing wife or to the next generation.

Again, thematically this makes sense.  The younger generation is finally shown to be taking steps to excise itself of the poison of the war and the influence of the west.  But in Drunken Angel this excision played out in a boiling swamp of waste and jazz bars, culminating in a broad but beautifully arranged fight between young and old.  The Quiet Duel took a 180 from this approach and sprinted headlong in the other direction to the worst kind of melodrama, the kind where the reality of the situation is spelled out so thoroughly in advance that every moment of silence is underlined with the doctor’s infection.

What this spells out to is far too many scenes of the younger doctor sitting in silence while his wife, father, or nurse looks on him in kind reverence of the struggle he is going through.  Once or twice is fine for establishing how each character relates to this moment, but by the tenth or so time Mifune is trying to do something new with his face to make the silence interesting it gets to be a bit grating.  Worse still is the sense that Kurosawa knows how to break these tedious moments and make them interesting.

One of the biggest surprises in the film comes during a moment of weakness when the doctor allows himself to kiss his wife.  The screen flashes white for a moment and the weeds that were covering the faces of the wife and the doctor form blinding wires onscreen, then he throws his wife away in disgust at what he might pass on if he allowed himself this one moment.  In the midst of all this redundant, if respectful, posturing it’s the one moment given air to breathe and a frightening result is produced.

I know that we disagreed over One Wonderful Sunday a few weeks back, and this is surely a film that will stick to me far longer than this will, but The Quiet Duel is a great reminder of how bad melodrama can be.  That speech, given by Mifune in the center of the film, epitomizes what is wrong with the form when it is done poorly.  He doesn’t express anything that hasn’t already been visualized or vocalized many times previously, all performed as well as can be expected from Mifune as he has to cram the word desire into as many sentences as time and grammar will allow.  The two purely melodramatic moments in One Wonderful Sunday worked the opposite way, in the center of the film vocalizing the real fears neither had accepted as future husband and wife, and the final a fantastic plea to a whole country to pull together.

There was one gender-based issue I also have with the presentation of The Quiet Duel, but let me hear what your thoughts on syphilis are Kyle.Perhaps Toshiro Mifune really caught syphilis because he was too good at being a drunken angel. In a way, that's a movie I'd rather have seen.

I was invested for a little bit longer than you were I think; the movie held my interest through some of the early scenes, where it seemed to be heading in a direction much more psychological, based on Mifune's character's desire to hide something he'd no reason to be ashamed over from his fiance all while slowly unraveling. The early scenes between Mifune and Shimura also work well, though that's more because they're good actors and the movie at least has some minor promise of suspense left at this point.

Where it turns for me is after Kyoji tells his father about his condition and the nurse in their hospital also discovers the truth, and then none of this is put to any use at all. The situation created here could have lead to some legitimately interesting scenes, putting to question what benefit Kyoji's adamant secrecy actually provides and to whom. This would also have forced a question of whether his actions in pushing his fiance away for what he deems her own benefit are actually noble—as he fervently believes—or simply an act of false martyrdom. This is where I thought and hoped The Quiet Duel was heading with an uncomfortable scene between Kyoji, his fiance, and the nurse.Unfortunately the story throws all this out in order to give us a boring, black and white comparison between Kyoji and the soldier who he caught his disease from, who encountered years later is now hiding it from his own pregnant wife despite the advice of the two doctors. You see, Kyoji is the noble one, suffering for the good of others, and the soldier is a selfish jerk. That's what's going on here. Movie over. You can go now.

But the movie isn't over, because we have yet to witness the nurse serve as the full spectrum of Necessary Archetypal Characters, going from the angry and ungrateful Fallen Woman to the fully transformed, caring, responsible mother who even cares for Kyoji so much that she'd be willing to risk infection with his condition and they're totally going to make out.

Add to this that the movie doesn't have an ending—or it does, if you consider as an adequate ending a scene that echoes the first while pointing to the fact that Kyoji is still suffering for the benefit of others as was established 15 minutes into the movie—and what we're left with is essentially a capably made 1 hour TV episode stretched out for no one's benefit. It wasn't the worst one we've watched, but I won't be sad a year from now that it isn't included in the Kurosawa Criterion set.
It was a bit intimidating writing with you initially because you were able to say a lot more in one sitting than I’m used to responding to.  The volume of this text you presented speaks a lot to how involved you were in the movie, and you’re the one who likes it more than me.  Granted, we’re talking on a really small scale here, but as far as disappointments go this is the first full-on boring one in the bunch.

Even The Most Beautiful has an image that will stay with me, notwithstanding my annoyance with all the forced laughter.  The Quiet Duel just sat there onscreen with an energy more stoic and reserved than Mifune’s doctor.  There were no surprises, just some of those quaint moments between Mifune and Shimura that you mentioned.  I was genuinely moved once when they were sitting on a couch together, trying to laugh off Kyoji’s sickness with cigarettes, and they’re both silenced by the music playing.

Which brings me to my gender concern, and it may be a bit unfair to level against Kurosawa in a film packed with underwritten characters, but it was reinforced by the visuals.  Misao is a complete blank whose sole function is to be tender to Kyoji, much like nurse Rui is there just to be respectful.  This is to say nothing about the cypher that is Susumu’s wife, who is basically a background decoration during her own baby’s death.  Kurosawa has almost nothing to say about these women and no means of really connecting them with the audience.

Each one enters a scene in the same unobtrusive, tiny way.  They start as small figures in a doorway, approaching the man who envelops the foreground.  They remain smaller than the men the whole time, even when the woman is supposed to be occupying the ground closer to the camera.  This is why the treatment of Susumu’s wife is troubling to me.  When Susumu finally lashes out against Kyoji at the end and collapses, she is just a tiny figure in the background.  Her white robe makes her distinctive, but not really of any real importance, because all eyes are on Susumu as he trembles between the two mighty doctors and before a pitying crowd.  Kurosawa has shown he can write for women somewhat well, especially in One Wonderful Sunday and No Regrets For Our Youth, but the way they are presented here bothered me.

Parting thoughts before this film vanishes to the second layer of my subconscious, or am I swinging at ghosts here?
The moment you mention between the two doctors was the last moment the movie really had me before it fell apart. In terms of how women are presented, the female characters here don't even really work to support or reflect concerns for the male characters—as it seems they were intended with such little else to do—because the male characters are such hollow stand-ins themselves. Kyoji's fiance managed to be adequately pitiful and sad, but that just made me hate Mifune's character, which I don't think was the goal.

And let's consider his climactic explosion over how he's sacrificed in the name of his “desire.” The entire quietly building fury throughout the movie, augmented by his witnessing of how the soldier has carried on with his wife without telling her of his condition, builds to Mifune finally losing it over the fact that he waited for his own fiance throughout the entire war—a fiance who loves him deeply and devotedly—remaining faithful the whole time, only to have to turn her away upon his return, and the key problem here is not that he has crushed her with his sudden coldness and lack of explanation, or that she, given a chance, would feel shame to be with him knowing the truth, or even that the disease itself is causing substantial hardship in his life—the issue is that he's all bottled up with “desire.”

So if nothing else Andrew, you can remember The Quiet Duel as the movie where Kurosawa goes full-on bro and creates a character whose central tragedy is, “but if I know I was gonna get syphilis anyway I would have been doing it with all the girls during the war, dammit.”

A tragic missed opportunity sir, I agree.

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Posted by Andrew

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