October 4, 2008

The Quiet Duel (1949 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Senkichi Taniguchi and Akira Kurosawa. Based on the play by Kazuo Kikuta.

In the days leading up to the war, Kiyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) was a successful surgeon with a promising future and a loving fiance. But after he spends several years in a combat medical tent, he returns to post-war Japan a different man. He takes up residence in a shabby ghetto clinic which caters to those who can rarely afford treatment. He builds around him a staff of volunteers or people who owe him favors. And he refuses to marry his dedicated fiance because of a devastating secret: while working on a patient wounded in combat, he caught his finger on a scalpel and became infected...

Syphilis was the prominent STD of the time. The AIDs before AIDs, if you will. A bacteria that slowly seeped into a person's system and ate away at their organs and brain or caused disfiguring deformities, its treatment and potential cure would take years of constant injections and tests.

This is the fate, the quiet duel, Kiyoji finds himself fighting. He internalizes the struggle, repressing his desire to be with the woman he loves for fear of what he could spread her way. And things get complicated when that old infected patient shows up in his life once again.

Kurosawa brings his talent to the table with his crisp photography and editing, and his great eye for little details in both design and performance. But, I'm sad to say, this film is a failure. No matter how strong his skills are, they just can't yank him free from the melodramatic mess of a script, its bloated emotions and cautionary preaching, and a lead character who lacks any form of arching development. I'm serious about that last bit - he starts as a dedicated, self-sacrificing surgeon, and ends the same way. All of the characters around him change, sure, but poor Kiyoji remains constant.

Not even Kurosawa's heavyweight actors, Mifune and Takashi Shimura - as Kiyoji's father and business partner - can make this material work. Sure, they each have moments where their unquestionable talent shines through, but the material is so sappy and over-the-top that it blows up their performances into something that, dare I say, is occasionally laughable.

The only member of the cast who nails it, in my opinion, is Noriko Sengoku as Rui Minegishi. A dancer in a nightclub, she tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills when she found herself pregnant and alone. Kiyoji not only saved her life, but gave her a home in the hospital and a job as an apprentice nurse. She hates him for this, first appearing as a loafing procrastinator with a sharp tongue, but her constant observations of the steadfast surgeon with a cross on his shoulder start in her a series of changes which help her grow into something proud, something beautiful, and I was so caught up in her journey that I almost started to tune out the mediocrity around her.

I'm sorry, but this is not a great film. Are there some absolutely fantastic moments in there? Hell yes! But there's also a lot of soapy dreck. Kurosawa completists are the only people I'd recommend it to because most others would probably walk out halfway through, feeling both bored and patronized to.

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