Saturday, June 20, 2009

Kurosawa's The Quiet Duel

The Quiet Duel, 1949. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Miki Sanjo, Kenjiro Uemura, Noriko Sengoko.

Synopsis: In the closing days of WW II, Doctor Koji Fujisaka contracts syphillis while operating on a wounded soldier. When he returns home, he finds that he must reject the woman he was planning to marry and treat his illness in secret while working in his father's charity clinic. His outward demeanor is of a paragon of virtue, but one of the nurses discovers his illness and shames him without knowing the details. When the man who infected him surfaces with a pregnant wife, Dr. Fujisaka's quiet duel with his own conscience comes to a head.

While The Quiet Duel isn't an apprentice work--Kurosawa had already made Drunken Angel by the time he tackled this story--it has never enjoyed the attention paid to the director's other works from the same period. Rarely screened, it appeared for the first time on home video at the end of 2006, a relatively late date for one of the world's greatest directors. And even this appearance was short lived--BCI, the label that put it out, has since folded up shop. This film can't buy a break.

Many filmmakers have skeletons in their closets, and many more have films in their portfolios that simply fall through the cracks. This film is certainly not a skeleton. It is, however, an awkward sell. Watching the film on DVD, I was continually struck by the reason it has remained unseen for so long. There was no way this film was going to be screened in America during the 1950s, Kurosawa's golden decade. The profession of Takashi Shimura's elder doctor alone would prevent that (he's a gynecologist), to say nothing of the frank depiction of syphillis, and the repeated use of the word "spirochete." That was never going to fly while the production code was in effect. By the time standards had loosened, the film had been forgotten.

It's not a great movie. One can occasionally see the constraints of the budget assert themselves in ways the director is unable to overcome. But it's pretty good, in spite of that. It's not a film that can be easily dismissed. Talent will out, and it certainly bears the stamp of its creator, however embryonic his cinematic anima may have been at the time. It's an easy film to place in the context of Kurosawa's career. With Drunken Angel and Red Beard, it forms a kind of "doctor's trilogy." The persistent use of rain, the way the camera moves to confront its characters (particularly when Dr. Fujisaka confronts a drunken Nakata when he demands to see his stillborn child), the presence of Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, everything about the film is pure Kurosawa. Like Stray Dog, made the same year, it's a fascinating portrait of post-war Japan. As in The Lower Depths, it's interesting to watch the director work out the conversion of a play to film. And yet, The Quiet Duel is an anomaly in Kurosawa's work, too. Rarely, if ever, interested in his female characters, this film is arguably told from the point of view of Nurse Minegishi, played by the superb Noriko Sengoko as a fallen woman trying to make good. More than that, the film hinges on as many of the problems faced by women as it does on the plight of men. That so much of the movie is centered around birth and diseases of the reproductive organs almost forces the director to examine both sides of the gender divide. Also unusual for Kurosawa, he lets Sengoko steal the movie from Mifune, though it's possible that he didn't have any choice in the matter. Her performance is a force of nature.

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