Postwar Kurosawa: The Quiet Duel

The Quiet Duel (静かなる決闘)

1949, Daiei
Prod. Soujiro Motoki, Hisao Ichikawa
Dir. Akira Kurosawa 
Writer Senkichi Taniguchi, Akira Kurosawa, Cinematography  Souichi Aizaka, Music Akira Ifukube
Toshiro Mifune,
Takashi Shimura, Kenjiro Uemura, Miki Sanjo, Noriko Sengoku

In March 1948, Kurosawa, Soujiro Motoki, Kajiro Yamamoto and Senkichi Taniguchi formed “Eiga Geijutu Kyoukai (Cinema Art Society)”. Toho was at the last stage of Labor Union Conflict at the time and not a good place to direct a film. Kurosawa was deeply disappointed with the Union movement and left Toho for Daiei to direct his next film. “The Quiet Duel” is based on popular stage play, “Abortion Doctor”, by Kazuo Kikuta. The stage production (Minoru Chiaki as a lead) was a success, partly due to its provocative title. Kurosawa saw this production and was excited about its potential as a film material. Working title for the film was “Punishment without Crime”.

According to Hisao Ichikawa, the producer of this film, “The Quiet Duel” was a box-office hit, making more money than “Rashomon”. It may have to do with its controversial subjects, such as STD, single mothers and abortion. The film is quite frank with the basic issues of sex and life, some of which are still relevant today. 
In Japanese history, 1948 was the year of “Maternal Body Protection Act”, which allowed abortion in case of rape, danger to mother’s life or serious hereditary disease (in 1949, the Act allowed abortion on economical grounds). The population increase and accelerated food shortage were imminent problem and the law was enacted to combat this. So it says in many history books. In reality, the percentage of single mothers increased up to 4% (all-time record high) during the years of 1945 to 1950. Most of them were desperately in need of economical help. In order to prevent further increase in this figure, some critical measure was necessary. In addition, the increase in rape cases was serious issue.
The same year saw the enactment of “Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention Act”. STD had become a serious headache especially in Occupation Forces (number of carriers among American soldiers doubled in first six months of occupation). Number of STD carriers among Japanese population was staggering as well. In one statistics, 20,000 prostitutes and 400,000 citizens were affected by STD during the postwar years. Japanese government and GHQ/SCAP needed public health policy in place as quickly as possible.
Against this social background, this film was released. As you can see, some plot elements of the film were designed for educational purposes, to warn people of danger of STD and to state case on abortion.

Many critics find this film a lesser entry to Kurosawa’s canon, some calling it a flat-out failure. “Girly naivete”, “improbable plot”, “powerful first ten minutes and the rest is bore” and so on. Some point out questionable plot devices, such as contraction of syphilis through operation, or use of Salvarsan in late 1940s instead of penicillin. The fact that this film is sandwiched between “Drunken Angel” and “Stray Dog”, two of the most popular young Mifune-Kurosawa is not helping, either.
But in many ways, I believe this film provided an important playground for Kurosawa’s examination into drama. Many of his works are variation on contrast, dichotomies of personalities with the same root. In “Drunken Angel”, Matsunaga has a girl played by Yoshiko Kuga as his counterpart, another TB patient. They share the same disease, but take totally different paths, one to total destruction and the other to hope. In “Stray Dog”, two war veterans are again at the opposite ends of the spectrum. One, a detective and the other, a criminal. But they also share the same experience, being robbed on the way home from war. This theme of two totally different paths from the same point in life is central to Kurosawa’s works. And in “Quiet Duel”, Fujizaki (Toshiro Mifune), the doctor, shares deadly syphilis with Nakada (Kenjiro Uemura), his patient in battlefront hospital during the war. One, tormented with the disease, abandons marriage with his longtime fiancee (Miki Sanjo). The other, totally irresponsible for his actions, endangers his wife and unborn baby. Their lives cross each other again after the war.
Rui Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku), ex-dancer, is a critical character in this drama. What is a “dancer”? During years of 1946 to early 50’s, shady theaters and shows sprung up like mushrooms in many key metropolitan areas, providing risque (mostly striptease) programs. Compared to today’s standard, they were quite tame, of course (1). But they were incredibly popular among under-nourished, entertainment-hungry male audience at the time. Minegishi must have been one of those dancers, probably lured by fairly good pay. She was a object of desire, a target of male libido released in the darkest nights of urban life. Pregnancy terminated her career and made her bitter. She despises superficial credo of humanity, especially those expressed by men, smelling rotten core under the fake skin.
She works as an intern nurse in Fujizaki’s hospital. In the beginning, she considers Fujizaki’s sincerity as fake. Learning of his disease further reinforced her belief. Then, upon eavesdropping his confession about how he contracted the syphilis and his giving up marriage, she realizes how wrong she was.
The long monologue by Fujizaki is such a moving revelation to us and Minegishi. His anguish, sorrow and desperation pierce through the already softening skin of her heart.
In his book “Nobody remembers ‘postwar’”, Shinichi Kamoshita defines the postwar Japan as a society of unfairness. “One came home from war, the other didn’t. One was accused of war crimes, the other was not. One has enough food, the other starves…..”(2) Fujizaki’s monologue is filled with that sentiment. Cursing on unfairness, randomness. Regret that cannot be regretted. There must be someone to blame, but there is no use in blaming. Punishment without Crime.
That is why Minegishi’s resurrection is the final note of this film. To overcome the sense of unfairness, you have to realize you are not the only one. We are all created equal for being unequal. Nothing is fair, we all feel miserable. Minegishi’s this realization, turned into deep-felt love, and reflected back on herself and on us. This film is trying to offer the beginning of the end for postwar trauma.

(1)The earliest show in record was performed in Shijuku Teito-za in 1947. It was called “frame show”. It was an enactment of the famous paintings, such as “Birth of Venus” by Rafael. A half-naked female model stood still in a large empty frame. For 30 seconds or so. Then, the curtain. This was a sensation at the time, attracting huge crowd for every showing. It may sound surreal, but during that 30 seconds, the audience leaked a deep sigh in unison. But soon, fierce competition among theaters kicked in, forcing girls “dancing” out of the frame. The principal figure of this entertainment was Toyokichi Tai, who would later become a Toho’s executive to produce many musicals.
(2) “Nobody Remembers ‘Postwar'”, Shinichi Kamoshita, Bungei Shunjuu Shinsho, 2005

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