I would say that “Shizukanaru ketto: (The Quiet Duel, 1949) was made before Kurosawa Akira knew how to use the then young Mifune Toshiro, except that the year before Kurosawa (and Takashi Shimura, who played compassionate physicians in both films and who appeared in even more Kurosawa films than Mifune did) had used Mifune very well as a fatalistic young gangster in “Yoidore tenshi” (Drunken Angel) with Shiura Takashi who had costarred with Mifune in “Snow Trail,” written butnot directed by Kurosawa, and in 1949 used Mifune very well as the policeman who loses his gun in “Nora inu” (Stray Dog).
There is nothing wrong with Mifune’s performance as the physician who acquires the syphilis spirochete in a field operation in 1944, but Mifune was so much more fun to watch when he acted out (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro) than when he played self-suppressing nobility. (His later turn as a physician in “Red Beard” showed nobility but a gruffer personality.) Actually, the part was perfect for Nakadai Tatsuya, who would later take the sins of the world on his shoulder in such films as “Harikari,” the Human Condition trilogy, and Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha,” but in 1949 was not yet known to Kurosawa.
“The Quiet Duel” is notable for having female roles as important as the male ones (as also in “One Wonderful Sunday,” “No Regrets for Our Youth,” and “Scandal”), whereas the focus in most later Kurosawa films was on male-male conflict.
Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Mifune) eventually tells his father and partner in running a clinic, Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Shimura) how he became infected with syphilis while still being a virgin. He does not confide this to his devoted fiancée, Misao (Sanjo Miki) who waited for him to return from the war and is left confused by his refusal to marry her.
A knocked-up unmarried woman named Rui (Sengoku Noriko, who also appeared in “Drunken Angel” and would play a major role with Mifune in “Scandal” and, decades later (in 1992), would play Goh’s mother in “Okogé”) whom the Fujisakis have provided shelter and employment to after foiling a suicide attempt she made, overhears the father-son discussion and realizes that her judgment about Kyoji (as a hypocrite saint who is really a sinner) has been wrong.
And in a very melodramatic turn, Kyoji learns that Nakada (Kenjiro Uemura), the man whose blood infected him, has a pregnant wife Takiko (Chieko Nakakita) whom he almost certainly has infected with syphilis. Uemura does the drunken, swaggering, irresponsible acting out so often charcteristic of Mifune. Everyone else is long-suffering, self-sacrificing, and self-suppressing. Well, the major characters are. There is a slacker police corporal and a boy who has an emergency appendectomy providing some lightening of the palette.
I don’t think there were any Japanese films shot in color during the 1940s. Sôichi Aisaka’s black-and-white compositions in “The Quiet Duel” are generally beautiful, though the print transferred for Criterion Eclipse’s “Early Kurosawa” is not very good. I was looking for camera movement and did not notice any, though the frequent cuts avoided any visual staticness, even though most of the film takes place indoors in the clinic — the film was based on a one-set stage play.
Heavy rain is frequent. (I can’t recall light rain ever falling in a Japanese film!) It is not only pouring rain all around where the exhausted Kyogi is operating in the first scene, but water is dripping through the tarp overhead onto the patient — the patient whose blood-borne disease will ruin the surgeon’s life. (I realize antibiotics were not available in Japan in 1944, but, surely five years into US occupation of defeated Japan… and especially for a pregnant woman!)
Such action as there is in this film involves scenes of Mifune and Uemura, even though the first one has Uemura’s character anesthetized — or at least unconscious (several other operations are done with patients talking).
The story is too melodramatic for me, though I appreciate that Kurosawa used it to address shame and self-abnegation, two matters that are of particular importance for Japanese, and especially after losing the empire-building war.
“The Quiet Duel” is not a masterpiece, but has interest beyond that in seeing Kurosawa grappling with how to use the volcanic charisma of Mifune Toshiro. The path was clearer in “Drunken Angel,” and the string of masterpieces was just around the corner (beginning with “Rashomon” in many people’s view, with “Stray Dog” in mine).
Although the visual and audio of the DVD are inadequate, there is a 45-minute bonus feature with interviews of surviving participants in the filming, including actress Sanjo Miki, who comments on the verisimilitude of details of immediately postwar Japanese hospitals the film’s assistant director Kobayashi Setsuo, and its music’s composer, Ifukube Akira; all three portray Kurosawa as disciplined and demanding and knowing what he wanted. There’s also a trailer that includes shots not in the final film.
P.S. After writing the above, I read in Donald Richie’s Kurosawa book that the US censors blocked filming of the original screenplay in which the doctor goes insane at the end, so the original conception did provide acting out for Mifune, so it’s not that Kurosawa did not yet know how to use Mifune but that the occupation authorities would not let him. Kurosawa planned greater suffering, not the unvarying from start-to-finish stoic nobility of Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray