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Quiet Duel, The

BCI Eclipse // Unrated // September 5, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 28, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Except for a very limited theatrical release 30 years after it was made, Akira Kurosawa's The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru ketto, 1949) has been almost impossible to see and BCI / Ronin Entertainment's DVD (part of its new "Directors Series") marks the film's American home video debut. Although a decidedly lesser work, it still has much to recommend it, for it exemplifies the artistic growing pains Kurosawa and other Japanese filmmakers were experiencing in the years following the end of World War II and their liberation from the wartime militarist censors. It offers a fascinating portrait of early postwar Japan and addresses a national medical crisis with surprising frankness. It's also an interesting film for its performances, especially co-star Noriko Sengoku. Top-billed Toshiro Mifune, then just 29 years old, is excellent in what was just his fourth film. Three years earlier he had been a dead-broke returning soldier with no acting experience and nothing but the clothes on his back.

The film opens during the war, deep in the jungle where army surgeon Kyoji Fujisaki (Mifune) is operating on a patient under dire wartime conditions. He cuts himself during the operation but keeps working, despite the risk of infection to himself and his patient. Soon thereafter, he discovers that disease was in fact passed along from patient to doctor: syphilis. Though curable, the social stigma is enormous, nearly insurmountable, and the threat of syphilis-induced madness hangs over its victims like the Sword of Damocles.

After the war, a devastated Kyoji returns to work at the small public hospital run by his obstetrician father, Konosuke (Takashi Shimura), but keeps his own condition a secret, privately injecting himself with salvarsan between caring for patients. Knowing that eradicating the syphilis may take many years, he abruptly breaks his pre-military service engagement with Masao (Miki Sanjo), who understandably isn't happy with his sudden and inexplicable rejection of her.

The film's great weakness is its artificial and dramatically forced inner tension burning within Kyoji: his desire to sleep with Masao despite the consequences (he's a virgin as well, having dutifully saved himself for marriage), his inability to frankly discuss his malady, the painful irony of being infected not because he was promiscuous but rather because he was saving a life, etc. Kyoji's saintliness becomes rather insufferable, though Mifune's intensity and emotionally truthful performance almost bring it off.

Fortunately, the film has other fish to fry. Though not up to the level of other Kurosawa postwar efforts - One Wonderful Sunday, Drunken Angel, and Stray Dog, all of which marvelously and authentically evoke the poverty and excitement of Japan recovering from the war - The Quiet Duel has many fine moments all its own, especially in the community feel of its downtrodden hospital. (In a recent interview with actress Miki Sanjo included on the DVD as an extra feature, she marvels at just how real little details about the hospital are.)

Scenes between Mifune and Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Ikiru) also have an authentic father-son air; there's a terrifically well-acted little moment where, exhausted after a hard day's work, Kyoji comes clean with his father. Off the set Takashi really was almost like a father or beloved uncle to Mifune during this time; they lived nearby and Mifune and wife even used to bathe at the Shimuras - Mifune's first home didn't have running water.

The film's outstanding performance, however, comes from Noriko Sengoku (Blind Beast, Out), a revered character actress in Japan but largely unknown in the west. As the unmarried, pregnant and suicidal dancer-turned-nurse's apprentice, Sengoku is so wonderfully naturalistic that she doesn't seem much like an actor playing a role at all, and her character predicts that played by Terumi Niki in Kurosawa's 1965 masterpiece, Red Beard. It's one of the very best performances by a female character in any Kurosawa movie, reason enough to watch the film.

Video & Audio

The Quiet Duel is presented in its original full frame format in an excellent black and white transfer. Most Japanese films from the 1940s tend to be on the ragged side, but this looks quite good for its age. The image is sharp and contrast is good. The Japanese audio is a little hissy, but above average for films from this period. Excellent optional English subtitles accompany the film and all the supplements.

Extra Features

Most of the supplements have been adapted from the Region 2 release by Geneon Entertainment in Japan in September 2002, and overall the DVD is about par with Criterion's Japanese movie releases. Included is a revealing trailer with shots and alternate takes not used in the film, which prominently mention Kurosawa (as well as co-screenwriter Senkichi Taniguchi) and confirms his status as a star director along the lines of Hitchcock or DeMille in America. Unfortunately, the trailer is missing all text superimpositions, which as this reviewer often states should be pointed out to viewers who otherwise might be bemused by the strange cutting and without it.

Also included is a fascinating newsreel excerpt, focusing in on the Daiei Stars, a professional baseball subsidiary of Daiei Co., Ltd. In the two-minute segment, ballplayers (an American or two are on the team) visit Daiei's Tamagawa Studio, including what's said to be the set of The Quiet Duel. Mifune is prominently featured, though there's no sign of Kurosawa.

Best of all are three interviews, a 46-minute featurette called Testimony from "The Quiet Duel". Acclaimed cinematographer Setsuo Kobayashi (Fires on the Plain, Hoodlum Soldier, Blind Beast), then an assistant DP, talks at length about the film's technical requirements, fascinating stuff relating to postwar problems such as the lack of reliable electricity, and the ingenuity of his department in solving Kurosawa's desire for great depth-of-field against inadequate lighting equipment available at the time. (They devised a special lens.)

Next is actress Miki Sanjo, an extraordinarily well-preserved woman, looking much younger than she was at the time the interview was conducted (74). Drafted into acting from Daiei's accounting department into a career that continues to this day (she's in 90-year-old Kon Ichikawa's latest film, a remake of his The Inugamis which also featured Sanjo), she mainly remembers Kurosawa as a strict disciplinarian who taught her valuable lessons about filmmaking that she was not able to appreciate at the time the film was made.

Finally, Akira Ifukube, the revered composer of nearly 300 film scores who died earlier this year (his credits include Inagaki's Chushingura and Kei Kumai's Sandakan No. 8 to numerous Zatoichis and much of the kaiju eiga genre, including the original Gojira) likewise discusses his own problems with Kurosawa. For Ifukube, Kurosawa went into the production with so many ideas of his own about what the score should be that he had little room to create on his own. About the only thing missing in these interviews is an appearance by Noriko Sengoku, still very active at the time the interviews were conducted.

Finally, your humble reviewer, who wrote a book about the films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, contributes a three-page essay about the film. As to whether it's any good or not, I'll leave that for others to decide.

Parting Thoughts

In the final analysis The Quiet Duel is an interesting failure, a mess of a movie, admirably offbeat, with many fine components, much like Sergeant Rutledge was to John Ford, or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia was to Sam Peckinpah. And BCI Eclipse/Ronin Entertainment's release does the film justice.

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.

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