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Kurosawa's Trilogy of Duels

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    Vili Maunula

    I just realised something so obvious that I wonder if I am the only one not to have realised it before. I tend to consider Drunken Angel, The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog as three closely related works (and I am certainly not the only one — they were after all made one after another), but I don’t think that I ever consciously realised quite how similar they are. Basically, they are three variations on the same motif: they are all duels.

    In Drunken Angel, we have a duel between Sanada and Matsunaga, with one trying to cure the other’s disease. The Quiet Duel keeps the theme of disease, with the young doctor (Sanada’s earlier, more perfect version) engaged in a duel against himself in the form of the syphilis that he is carrying. In Stray Dog, there is a duel between Murakami and Yusa, with the latter now figuratively diseased.

    All of these duels are strong metaphors of post-war Japan, and attempt to say pretty much the same things. Interestingly, out of the three, it is the last duel which is narratively the most direct and least metaphorical of the three, with Kurosawa in his “trilogy” gradually moving away from the domain of metaphor and into a more direct expression of what he wanted to say. He actually notes in his autobiography that he made Stray Dog because people did not seem to get what he was trying to say in The Quiet Duel. (172-173)

    Although the duel motif can be identified in a number of other Kurosawa films, it seems to me that these three films are the purest examples of the duel theme in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. The other works that utilise a similar direct juxtapositioning of characters and themes either have other characters that in a sense weaken this link (as in Sanshiro Sugata where we have a hero and a villain, but the hero has to go through a number of antagonists before he gets to the villain), or we don’t have a similar one-to-one setting (for instance, we have many-to-many in Seven Samurai, one-to-no-one-in-particular in Ikiru, and one-to-many in The Bad Sleep Well). The two other films which have a fairly direct one-to-one setting seem to be High and Low (but there Gondo and the kidnapper are not actively fighting one another) and Kagemusha (where the battle is about identity, and fought both internally and externally).

    I don’t know if this realisation has any actual value, but I felt it interesting enough to spend half an hour to type this post. ­čÖé

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    Ugetsu

    Interesting idea, but I’m not altogether sure of the idea of a duel within The Quiet Duel, except, of course, in the title. Its a while since I’ve seen it, but i find it hard to see how it fits in with the other two (I’d forgotten about that comment by Kurosawa about it and Stray Dog, i’m struggling to see what it was that he was trying to say – of course he also said that he was disappointed with the final result of Stray Dog, so it seems that whatever he was trying to say, proved elusive.

    Still, if you are right, then there is a Kurosawa trilogy to go with all the others.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: i’m struggling to see what it was that he was trying to say

    I think that it could be said that both The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog are about the problem of reintegration. In the first film, the “disease of war” is literally a disease which the protagonist brings home from the front. This sets up the main problem (a duel, you could say) between what he would want to do (marry the woman that he loves) and what he must do as a responsible adult (restrain from sexual activity). Later he comes across the man that he got the disease from and we are shown that not all affected by the disease of war are as conscientious as the protagonist. Not everyone has made the morally right decision. Some have simply brought the disease back home, and continue to spread it.

    The setup is very similar in Stray Dog, only slightly more straightforward. Again, we have two characters who have brought home the “disease of war”, although this time not quite as literally. In Stray Dog, the “disease” is of a mental kind, the idea of the “mad dog” set loose by the war and unable to really find his place in the new society. Having both had to rebuild their lives after returning from the war, the protagonist has chosen to work for law and order, while the villain has done the opposite. The question is can the villain’s actions be justified or at least tolerated because of the “disease” that he is carrying.

    Ugetsu: of course he also said that he was disappointed with the final result of Stray Dog, so it seems that whatever he was trying to say, proved elusive.

    I’m working from memory here, but didn’t Kurosawa express disappointment over the presentation of the film, considering it too clinical and technical, and not so much over its content or how it came across?

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I think that it could be said that both The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog are about the problem of reintegration.

    This is a very good way to look at it. I hadn’t seen that connection between them.

    Thinking about it, I think there is an argument to be made that all the post-war films, with the exception of Scandal and the Idiot, and up to Seven Samurai, deal with this issue up to a point. If you see both militarism, violence, and the psychological weight of war as a ‘disease’ to be dealt with by society, then I think pretty much all his films can be seen in this context. Drunken Angel of course used TB and the cesspool as a metaphor for something rotten that needed to be expunged. With Rashomon, the disease is ‘guilt’ and ‘denial’ (if you take the argument of Martinez), while Seven Samurai dealt with the problem of the military itself (i.e. ronin) as I have argued previously.

    I’m working from memory here, but didn’t Kurosawa express disappointment over the presentation of the film, considering it too clinical and technical, and not so much over its content or how it came across?

    Going from memory myself, i think this is partly right, but I seem to remember he also felt that people didn’t ‘get’ the theme.

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    FrederickPoland

    I’m quite late to the party here, but I think you’re point is quite spot on, Vili. However, I would go beyond the notion of a “trilogy” here to include the two Sugata Sanshiro films, as well as Rashomon and Sanjuro. One of the most interesting things about Rashomon is how the three differing accounts of what happened in the “duel” are also performances of three different film and acting styles.

    We might even go so far to say that the “duel” is the most fundamental construct through which Kurosawa explores the self throughout his oeuvre. This makes it also a core structure through which he investigates experiences of masculinity, homosociality, and conflict, not to mention film language and aesthetics. I’d imagine the conversation is likely done on this thread, but I think this is a topic that is very worthy of greater exploration.

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    Vili Maunula

    You make an excellent point, Frederick. (Welcome to the website, by the way!) I think you could indeed argue that the notion of a duel is integral to much of Kurosawa’s filmmaking, both narratively and aesthetically, and beyond what has been discussed above.

    Kurosawa was famously known for his love of extremes, whether it was with the weather or his actors’ performances. Narratively, many of the films seem to have been similarly conceived by first identifying the opposing ends of an argument.

    And yet, Kurosawa’s extremes are quite different from how they are used in the prevailing Hollywood (and one could argue mass media) narratives which tend to juxtapose absolute good with absolute evil, promoting a simplistic world view which is easy to understand but ultimately has fairly little to communicate. Although Kurosawa often starts with the same or a similar set up, his explorations lead not to black and white, but to various shades of grey. His films tend to end with question marks, rather than full stops or exclamation marks. The lines between a villain and a hero are not just blurred, but these opposing ends are at least momentarily made one (think of, for instance, the endings of Stray Dog and High and Low).

    It would be interesting to compare the mechanics of dualism in Kurosawa with how it is used in other film traditions.

    Your post also got me thinking about whether there is a difference between Kurosawa’s early works and his late ones in this sense, and if a clear difference exists, where the cut-off point is located. Can we, for instance, say that the late works from Kagemusha on no longer feature this type of dualism, or if it exists, it is more internal to the characters? I’m not sure as I haven’t really thought this through, and obviously any categorisation of Kurosawa’s works into “dualistic” and “post-dualistic” would be superficial at best, but at least it is an interesting thought experiment.

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