Judge Joel Pearce has turned whistle-blower. He can't keep this duel quiet any longer.
"Sometimes when you listen in secret, you hear the truth."—Rui Minegishi
It's often interesting to see a master's less recognized work. Akira Kurosawa directed numerous classics, many of which have earned (and received) first-rate treatment by Criterion. In North America, we hadn't had much opportunity to see The Quiet Duel until now. BCI Eclipse has added it to their new Directors Series line of releases, giving us our first chance to check it out on DVD. As it turns out, the movie is actually quite good.
Facts of the Case
Toshiro Mifune (Seven Samurai) stars as Kyoji, a young doctor whose engagement is complicated when he contracts syphilis while operating on a wounded soldier during World War II. Ashamed, he tells no-one, treats himself in private, and breaks off his engagement with Misao (Miki Sanjo, Ghost Man). Kyoji's turmoil becomes even more problem when he's forced to deal once again with the man who gave him syphilis, even as he struggles to gain the help and support of his father Konosuke (Takashi Shimura, Stray Dog) and bold assistant nurse Rui (Noriko Sengoku, Drunken Angel). Kyoji is a good man, but his personal pain may devour him.
The Quiet Duel hasn't had the same attention as most of Kurosawa's films. It's from early in his career—only his second collaboration with Toshiro Mifune. All I had really heard about it is warnings that it isn't up to par with his other films from this era, and that it's dwarfed by Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Ikiru. After seeing The Quiet Duel, it's hard to argue much with those assessments. The movie never rises to the brilliance and creativity of those other titles. Of course, that doesn't mean it's bad. It just isn't a masterpiece.
Kurosawa took on this project with several strikes already against him. It's adapted from a stage play, which means the whole tale is quite static. There are only a handful of locations, and scenes are quite long. There is almost no action or movement whatsoever. As well, Kyoji's struggle is fundamentally internal, and doesn't transfer well to the screen. As a result, I went into the film hopeful but apprehensive.
As expected, The Quiet Duel isn't very fast-paced. It begins with a brilliantly constructed sequence as rain and other difficult conditions lead to Kyoji's contracting syphilis. After that, the film slows down as we get to know the other characters and settle into the set of problems which need resolution. These scenes feature long discussions and agonizing character development, as Kyoji rejects Misao a number of times and she comes crawling back, sobbing softly as he silently tortures himself. It's hard to attach to them emotionally through the middle scenes of the movie, since we don't buy that the situation could really be that hard to solve. Even through these sequences, though, the actors manage to sell the melodramatic story, in a group of understated, sincere performances.
As the film progresses, though, the script gradually catches up with the characters. When Kyoji has to once again deal with the man who gave him syphilis, it echoes his own internal struggle. There are some other developments as well, each one complicating the initially straightforward themes. Yes, we suffer sometimes when we do the right thing, and secrets sometimes cover up surprising truths. These are familiar themes, but Kurosawa uses them to explore more challenging ideas. Kyoji is given a choice towards the end of the film, one that would be difficult for any man. There is also the matter of the shame that both Kyoji and Rui feel. Kyoji hides his disease, even though he contracted it in an honorable way. Syphilis has always been a disease with a stigma attached, so he steals the medicine to treat himself. Rui would surely love to hide her shame at being pregnant and unwed, too. She has no honorable excuse for the situation she's found herself in, and it's made her an o! utcast in post-war Japan. She can't hide the truth, though, as there is physical evidence of her own shame.
These more complex ideas push towards a brilliant climax, that is both exciting and satisfying. By this point, it's easy to look past the petty melodrama of Kyoji's own struggle, focusing instead on the implications of the actions and choices of each of the characters. As with most of his films, Kurosawa keenly turns a simple story into a poetic exploration of philosophy and politics. The Quiet Duel works as both an ensemble drama and an exploration of post-war Japan, exploring how those who return from war must always leave things behind on the battlefield, whether out of pride or shame.
There's some excellent cinematography slipped into the mix as well. Although The Quiet Duel doesn't show the same brilliant framing and composition that Kurosawa developed as his career continued, there are several breathtaking moments. The performances are also exceptional throughout, highlighting why Mifune would become such a key player in Kuroawa's work and Japanese cinema's biggest star. His stoic performance simmers until Kyoji eventually explodes with emotion, all the more effective because of the silence that has come before. Special mention must also be made of Noriko Sengoku, whose fiery apprentice nurse is richly developed and entertaining. She is a brilliant counterpoint to Mifune's silence, and reason enough to check out the film.
Unfortunately, BCI Eclipse hasn't been able to put the resources into properly restoring The Quiet Duel. The video transfer is soft and ugly, with little contrast and no black level to speak of. It's hard to appreciate even the most impressive moments of cinematography, but I realize that only so much can be done with a film print this old. The sound is also disappointing, presented in a mono track that contains loud hiss throughout. The dialogue is harsh and the music isn't mixed well, not to mention the oddly upbeat ditties that refuse to meld with the story itself.
More has been done with the special features, evidently pulled from a recent Japanese DVD edition. There are several interviews with some of the cast and crew still living, as well as some helpful but overly apologetic liner notes. There is also a news reel from the production of the film. This is a solid collection of extras for such a low profile release, and it's appreciated. We aren't likely to get a better edition of The Quiet Duel anytime soon.
All over the packaging, it's implied that The Quiet Duel isn't in the same league as some of Kurosawa's other work. While that is true, it's far more important to focus on what The Quiet Duel is: an exceptionally formed melodrama that works far better than it should. It is worth seeing, especially for fans of the director. It has been hiding in the shadows for far too long.
Neither Kyoji nor Kurosawa are guilty. Everyone is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
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