Thanks to the joys of Criterion's Eclipse label, I've been able to experience more films from the Akira Kurosawa of post World War Two Japan. A Kurosawa while still at times cinematically bold and original, was still flawed, as he continued to find his way, discovering who he was as a director, and at the same time battling against an ever changing system as the country struggled to rebuild after the war. Somewhere in between and "Drunken Angel" and "Stray Dog", Kurosawa directed "The Quiet Duel", one of the few Kurosawa films Criterion doesn't seem to have its hands on.
Made after Kurosawa's departure from Toho, "The Quiet Duel" was his first film made with Daiei, whom he’d had a previous screenwriting relationship with. The film stars the often kinetic and always absorbing Toshiro Mifune, in only his second collaboration with Kurosawa. He plays Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a diligent and focused young doctor World War Two. While he attempts to save the lives of the wounded and the dying, his fiancé Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjo) waits at home, awaiting his return so that they may wed. During a routine operation on a dark and stormy night, Kyoji takes off his gloves as he struggles to save a man’s life. While successful in his surgical task, he cuts open his finger, contracting syphilis from the patient. The cure takes years, and isn't even guaranteed. He quickly informs the patient, Nakada (Chieko Nakakita) of his disease and advises him to seek treatment. Upon his return home, Kyoji is faced with a tough moral dilemma: what to do about his fiancé Misao? He tells her he can no longer see her, but refuses to tell her why. She visits him daily, bringing him lunch, but he swears he will never tell, for if he did, he knows she would wait until he gets’ cured, even if it takes his whole life. In the meantime, Kyoji also works at his father’s hospital. His father, played by the great Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, soon discovers his son’s ailment, along with a woman of the night turned apprentice nurse Rui Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku from "Blind Beast" and "Stray Dog"). And so Kyoji forges ahead, forced into celibacy by his disease, but temptation, anger and madness are just around the corner.
"The Quiet Duel" is not a perfect film, and it’s definitely not Kurosawa’s best film by any means. Part of it is due to the inexperienced crew Kurosawa received from Daiei, as the industry recovered from a recent strike, sapping it of energy and creativity. He was also forced to cut the film by the American Occupation Forces, including its bleak ending. And it was based on a contemporary play, making some of the action feels staged and boxed it. He can’t quite make it move like his other films. It borders on the melodramatic, dragging on just a little too long. But there are still moments of brilliance. The opening scene is pure Kurosawa brilliance, the incredibly rich and detailed noir lighting, the sound and imagery of the rain, as Kyoji performs his surgical deeds on Nakada. There’s an amazing 5 minute shot, in which Kyoji finally breaks down, pouring out his conflicted heart to Minegishi. Mifune’s presence is amazing. There’s a wonderful visual trope used to depict the passage of time, and their’s Kurosawa’s always invent use of staging and deep focus. The theme’s and visual metaphors that Kurosawa would grow to be know for are evident here. It also has the same thematic feel that "High and Low" has. Here, after Nakada returns and he discovers the life he saved, that irrevocably changed his forever, is that of a morally corrupt man, Kyoji must learn to find a moral peace that Kingo Gondo also seeks.
There’s enough greatness in this very small film to make repeated viewings worthwhile. Even a weak Kurosawa film is still a good film.