#12 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
One of those lesser known films from a great director that gets largely ignored and dismissed, The Quiet Duel is the story of suppressed emotions in an extremely Japanese context that I found wonderfully affecting. I’ve seen the film dismissed as melodrama, a word I often feel gets thrown around too much. There are melodramatic elements for sure, but melodrama is about tone and delivery. Kurosawa doesn’t let things go out of control, keeping things tightly focused and relatively sedate, delivering his best film to date.
The film starts during World War II with Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) exhausted at the long hours in a military hospital removed from a battlefield. With rain beating down on the tent, he begins surgery on an injured soldier and accidentally cuts himself on a scalpel before continuing on with the surgery, exposing himself to the syphilis bacteria in the patient’s blood. When he gets confirmation through bloodwork, he accepts his fate quietly. Several years pass, the war ends, and Kyoji goes back to Japan to work in his father’s clinic. Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Takashi Shimura) and his son operate their clinic heartfully by taking in a troubled, pregnant, and out of wedlock woman, Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku), as a probationary nurse and allowing a young boy recovering from an appendectomy stay in a bed several days for free.
The drama comes from Kyoji’s efforts to hide his syphilis from everyone around him. First and foremost is his fiancée, Misao (Miki Sanjo) with whom he breaks off their engagement without an explanation. They obviously love each other, and she refuses to simply vanish from his life even after the break is made formal. She needs at least an answer to the question of the break after six years of an engagement that survived even through the war. The break raises only questions with the elder Dr. Fujisaki and the younger doctor has to come clean to him, a conversation eavesdropped on by Minegishi. The irony is that Kyoji has contracted a sexually transmitted disease without the sex. The first concern is one of shame, handled through the character of Minegishi who holds Kyoji’s opinions of her against him, calling him a hypocrite. When she discovers the truth of how he contracted the disease, she feels sympathy at how he is suffering alone, injecting a treatment into his veins at regular intervals.
All of this is good until Kyoji has a breakdown. Mifune had played the character as a consummate professional, always in control of his emotions and accepting his fate with an ideal Buddhist calm. However, after Misao announces her engagement to another man, Kyoji cannot deal with it anymore. After seeing Misao out, Kyoji breaks down, and we see the movie star in making. His emotional breakdown is so sadly compelling as he brings out the subtext of everything about sexual frustration and unearned punishment that may also extend to a potential reading of life in postwar Japan generally. Mifune was great, is what I’m saying.
Alongside all of this, Kyoji meets the soldier who had given him the disease, Private Nakada (Kenjiro Uemura). Nakada has done nothing to curtail his illness in the ensuing years, getting married and impregnating his wife in the process. Kyoji understands the dangers of carrying a child while having syphilis, so he encourages Nakada to bring his wife (Chieko Nakakita) to see the elder Fujisaki, a gynecologist. The prognosis is not good, and we get our main contrast between Kyoji, who did everything right at the expense of his own happiness, and Nakada, who wantonly spread his disease without concern for other people. Yeah, this contrast is a bit on the nose and the stuff of melodrama, but Kurosawa’s cool hand and Mifune’s strong performance keeps it from descending into that sort of purely melodramatic cliché. Essentially, I bought into it without feeling overly manipulated. The characters were well-drawn enough, the performances strong enough, and the filmmaking confident enough to carry it all.
I really did get into it all, and as the emotional arc came to its zenith, I was feeling the pain and frustration Kyoji felt. The lesson is kind of obvious and moralistic, but I felt like it all worked quite well. Well made, well acted, and affecting, The Quiet Duel is a wonderful early entry in Kurosawa’s career.