In Mifune’s second role for Kurosawa he plays a young doctor by the name of Kyoji Fujisaki who contracts syphilis by operating on a patient in the South Pacific during the war. This part of the film works. Unfortunately it is the introduction and lasts a mere 10 minutes. The operation takes place in a small shack, and the intensity of it is palpable. The storm without, the leaking roof within, the pestering flies and the unbearable humidity add up to an uncomfortable situation. These irritants break the doctor’s focus leading him to cut himself and contract the disease. We have a brilliant interplay of light and shadow cutting across the lily white uniforms of the nurses along with the various aforementioned aural stimuli. This scene is pure Kurosawa, practically a telescoping of his methods.
The director himself has said that the drama quickly departs the film once the doctor moves from his wartime work to his father’s (Takashi Shimura) medical practice in Tokyo. Why this is so can partially be explained by production conditions. The infamous Toho labor strikes, which led to a confrontation with American military tanks at its gates, occurred shortly before and Kurosawa ended up producing this film for Daiei with an inexperienced team. Additionally, he chose as the basis of the film a contemporary stage play which he apparently had little invested in. Again and again, though far less frequently in later years, we see artistic compromises and downright bad films result from Kurosawa’s disinterest in a project. The Quiet Duel is a case in point; after its stellar introduction it is plagued principally by a lack of focus. It was not initially conceived of as the tragic love story that it became, so it’s no surprise that the result is a hamfisted attempt at such. Kurosawa couldn’t make the film he wished to make, so perhaps it would have been best not to make it at all.
The doctor’s struggle, ostensibly the reason for the film, is never fully realized. He must decide how best to protect his fiancee—whom he has kept waiting for several years during the war—from the disease he has contracted while remaining honest with himself and his physical desires. This is an interesting dilemma and portraying it convincingly is a delicate operation. The film staggers time and again to do so, as the tragic love story of a sexually unfulfilled man suffering in silence reaches the heights of melodrama. More interesting perhaps in The Quiet Duel is its subplots. The doctor’s saintly veneer inspires a now single mother (Noriko Sengoku) to become a nurse. The prior carrier of the doctor’s disease, now a low-life gangster after the war, has since been parading around irresponsibly in denial of his affliction. He ends up spreading the disease to his pregnant wife and his son dies in child birth as a result. These are perhaps the darkest circumstances Kurosawa ever attempted to portray.
In most other films Kurosawa would attempt to encircle his subject, to create identification through mis-en-scene, montage, nonverbal cues and more. There is an attempt with this film, but for multiple reasons it fails. Firstly, far removed from this time and place, a world in which syphillis is incurable, we have at least one barrier between the doctor and our sympathies on the face of it. Most of Kurosawa’s work has aged well, but The Quiet Duel is an exception for this reason alone. Secondly, in only his second major role, Toshirô Mifune lacks the emotional depth that so colors his later work, and it’s fair to say the entire film hinges upon his capacity to plumb the emotional/psychological depths of this character. His eruption of suppressed inner turmoil in one scene is more pathetic than pathos. Of course this is not entirely Mifune’s fault because the scene itself is ill-conceived. If we presume the political context of the film to be an illustration of postwar Japan—the thug who gave Fujisaki the disease representing the self-denying majority of Japanese society oblivious to the reasons that led to war and the doctor representing the honest way out (Kurosawa’s proscription)—then Kurosawa undoes himself with this explosion of anger. His disease is symbolically social, but there is no collective determinant. He is paradoxically alone to suffer in silence.