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The Quiet Duel: Female Body and Birth as an Allegory of New Japan

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    Vili Maunula

    The Quiet Duel is usually brushed off as a lesser work in terms of both its cinematic technique and narrative complexity. While critics have identified the film as strongly allegorical, they have mostly concentrated on Kyoji’s (Toshiro Mifune; as there are characters that share family names, I shall be referring to everyone by their first name) struggle with syphilis as a metaphor for the topic of individual responsibility in a post-war Japan that is still carrying the baggage left by the war. By pairing Kyoji’s story with that of Susumu (the soldier who gives him the disease), we are presented with two markedly different case examples and outcomes of how to deal with that baggage. With this reading, the film is thematically very similar to Kurosawa’s previous film Drunken Angel, and even closer to his next work, Stray Dog.

    While the above approach to the film is perfectly valid, I would like to put forward the idea that the film simultaneously operates on another level; one which is less concerned about individual responsibility, more critical of the occupation, and more centrally features women at its core than is usually acknowledged.

    Dramatically, the film culminates with Kyoji’s long monologue at around 1h 16min, where the until-now-stoic doctor breaks down to question his fate and the sense in his efforts to succumb to it. Towards the end of that scene, Kurosawa has Mifune break the fourth wall, and address the audience directly, just as the director had done earlier in No Regrets for Our Youth and One Wonderful Sunday. In doing so, he emphasises not only the importance of the message, but also its direct relevance to the film’s contemporary audience.

    The Quiet Duel: Speech

    The Quiet Duel: Speech

    In this culmination of a culmination, Kyoji walks towards the camera and delivers the audience the following lines (translation from the region 1 Ronin Entertainment DVD): “Misao is a woman with a future. She has a body with a future. I’ve been longing to have that body for six years!” Turning to Rui (the dancer-turned-nurse), Kyoji adds “Why do I have to see quietly as she becomes someone else’s!”, and turns back to look at the audience, giving them a moment to think about the question, and then continues, again directly to the audience: “It’s not too late. I can still get Misao.” After demanding a confirmation to this from Rui (“Right, Miss Minegishi? I’m right, aren’t I, Miss Minegishi?”) but never getting one, Kyoji calms down and apologises (“I’m sorry I told you embarrassing things.”), even visually managing something of an apologetic bow, as he picks up his stethoscope, marking the end of his speech.

    The Quiet Duel: Bow

    It is quite easy to consider the character of Misao (Kyoji’s fiancée) somewhat peripheral to the actual story, but as the above scene indicates, she and her physical body are in fact very much at the centre of what is going on in the film. Throughout The Quiet Duel, Misao’s behaviour and actions are those of a model Japanese woman, and her traditional manners are in direct contrast with those of Rui, with whom she is thematically paired, and who dresses in western clothing and lacks in the kind of subtlety and patience that Misao exhibits. By comparing her to Rui, Misao’s “japaneseness” is emphasised to a point where it would not appear to be a major metaphoric leap to consider her, the tea-making and flower-arranging quiet beauty, as in fact standing for all of Japan. Seen in this light, Kyoji’s important message to the audience becomes fairly clear: what he is talking about is the question of self-determination.

    With this interpretation, Kyoji himself becomes to stand for the patient Japanese who, because of what happened in the war, is prevented from having Misao and with her giving birth to a new life (new Japan), a task of insemination now reserved for an outsider (occupation government). Kyoji can only watch from the sidelines as Misao, Japan, is almost literally traded to another man. Perhaps as a sign of this, the only scene where Misao does not wear a kimono but “western clothing” is when Kyoji’s father has just annulled the engagement, therefore formally ending Kyoji’s claims to Misao (around 42 min). To further emphasise Kyoji’s realisation that he will not be able to have a child with her, the scene ends with Kyoji digging up an old baseball glove that he must have been saving for his own son and which is now to be given away to a young patient.

    However, it is crucial to note that the film does not blindly condemn the occupation. Neither does it suggest that the foreign involvement has been unwarranted or unnecessary. By showing us the case of Susumu and his wife, we are given an example where the baggage of the war is not properly dealt with, and where as a result the child that is given birth to is not only dead on arrival but, judging from everyone’s reactions, also hideously deformed. The argument, however, is that there must be a point at which a nation has gone through enough repentance to be allowed to take back its sovereignty. Rui and her baby are an example that the past can be, if not forgotten, at least forgiven.

    The film is therefore pointing out that not everyone is like Susumu. In the culminating scene, a little before the lines that were quoted earlier, Kyoji discusses how he has come to this point, and what really happened with the war:

    “I don’t like losing…and I am a doctor. But doctors are human, too. Right? Today I found out she will be the wife of some other guy. I thought I could give up everything. I can’t! Now…I am fighting with my own desire. If I think back…my desire is such a poor thing. Before the war…I restrained the desire to pretend to be a decent man. During the war, I kept telling myself…that a peaceful marriage was waiting for me. Misao was waiting for me. So I controlled my desire. But one day…because of the blood of a shameless guy…my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure. I sometimes think…if I knew it would happen to me, I would’ve done things differently!” (from around 1h 14min to 1h 16min, ellipses original)

    For Kyoji, it is a touching personal tragedy, but on an allegorical level, it is the story of those individuals who, like Itokawa in No Regrets for Our Youth, were not strong enough to rise against the fascism (“Before the war…I restrained the desire to pretend to be a decent man.”), but who believed that despite everything, the war would ultimately make way for a new Japan (“During the war, I kept telling myself…that a peaceful marriage was waiting for me.”), but who now have to suffer because of the crimes committed by the fascist regime (“because of the blood of a shameless guy…my body became dirty”), who have lost the war (“I don’t like losing”) and lost their nation (“Today I found out she will be the wife of some other guy.”). The speech ends with a curious thought, which can be read as either regretful or menacing: “if I knew it would happen to me, I would’ve done things differently”.

    The Quiet Duel is a call for the occupation government to give back control to the Japanese themselves. After all, unlike with a physical ailment such as syphilis, the length and extent of a nation’s post-war healing process is something that can be decided. The film appears to think that this process has run its course, and asks how long the Japanese population will still have to bear the burden of a war that was, strictly speaking, not even their own fault, but rather the fault of some reckless individuals who in spirit and their actions resembled Susumu. Crucially, there appears to be no question about Kyoji’s purity. At the very end the film makes doubly sure to underline this point by first having the police officer talk about his saint-like nature, and then cutting to a close-up of a bowl of narcissus flowers (which, if you have followed the film closely, have been growing up in previous scenes), which to the best of my understanding symbolise purity in Japan. While the film has been criticised for the absurdity and artificiality of its story, i.e. Kyoji’s inability to actually tell Misao what is going on, it could well be that this absurdity is intentional, and meant as a comment about the absurdity of an occupied Japan. If people like Kyoji cannot be trusted with the birth of a new nation, what can be the outcome?

    At the time of its release in March 1949, The Quiet Duel, if read as we have here, must have been quite topical, and was perhaps intended to take part in a wider political discourse. Although the allied occupation would formally end only in 1952, first major changes towards self-determination began to appear in 1949.

    It is in fact tempting to think about the well-meaning but nevertheless somewhat incapable-looking police officer as standing for the occupation authorities. He has stopped Rui from killing herself (“Are you still mad I stopped you from killing yourself?”, c. 14min), appears to have a history of faking illnesses (“Are you playing sick again?”, ibid.), and is declared by Rui as incapable of giving birth (“You can’t give birth to a baby.”, ibid.). These could be possible references to the allied forces stopping Japan from completely self-destructing itself, the US-led government’s “faking” of Japan’s continuing illness and therefore needlessly prolonging its cure, and the said government’s inability to build a new nation, a task that should be entrusted to the Japanese themselves.

    And ultimately, The Quiet Duel really is a film about babies, about birth, about new life. It is about Rui’s baby, Susumu’s dead baby, Kyoji and Misao’s never-to-be-born baby, and the baby that will now be born from Misao’s marriage to the outsider. Women, as givers of birth, are at the centre of the film, albeit mostly only allegorically. In fact, it again seems that the alleged lack of important women in Kurosawa’s films may be nothing more than a critical construct borne from predominantly male-centred readings of his films, as well as from a perhaps somewhat lacking understanding of the contemporary issues that Kurosawa tackled in his works.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, I think your analysis is quite superb, and gets to the core of the film far better than anything else I’ve read on it.

    While the above approach to the film is perfectly valid, I would like to put forward the idea that the film simultaneously operates on another level; one which is less concerned about individual responsibility, more critical of the occupation, and more centrally features women at its core than is usually acknowledged.

    I would go further – I think that (possibly because of the dominant nature of Mifunes performance), most viewers, including myself on first viewing, have thought that the ‘disease’ of syphilis is the dominant metaphor of the film. I think that this is a mistake – I suspect that the disease is just a convenient plot device, a useful disease as it has an association with ‘impurity’, it is sexual contagious, it is treatable, and it conveniently makes its sufferers go mad before death. But I think the syphilis is a largely accidental MacGuffin. In fact, on second viewing, I think the whole film is suffused with the idea of fertility and birth – the setting in an obstetricians/gynecologists office, its central characters unable to have a normal sexual relationship, the unwanted (but later welcomed) baby, and finally of course, the hideously deformed baby.

    Perhaps its because we are so used to the idea of Kurosawa as a very ‘male’ director that this has been missed? In many ways, this film seems to be a metaphorical pairing with the phallic gun of Stray Dog. If Stray Dog can be seen as the search in post war Japan for its virility and maleness, then Quiet Duel can be seen as the search for the female (specifically, fertility, fecundity).

    Kyoji can only watch from the sidelines as Misao, Japan, is almost literally traded to another man. Perhaps as a sign of this, the only scene where Misao does not wear a kimono but “western clothing” is when Kyoji’s father has just annulled the engagement, therefore formally ending Kyoji’s claims to Misao (around 42 min).

    Well spotted – It seems very deliberate that she is in western clothing in only one scene. I think that Kyoji and Misao are intended very much to be the core of the film, both representing the better Japan, although I’m not sure that the question of marriage is intended to symbolise giving Japan away to the Occupation Authorities, as this is exactly what happens in the film – I think if this was the intention, her final choice of husband would have been left ambiguous.

    I think, however, the core metaphor of the film are the two unseen babies. Three, if you count the child Kyoji and Misao desperately want, but will never have. One child is unwanted, nearly aborted, but in the end, loved and accepted. The second child, the one that resulted from a refusal to face up to the toxins of Japans militarism and war, is hideously deformed, literally a child even a mother could not love. The third, unrealised child, is perhaps the necessary sacrifice Japan must make in order to renew itself.

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    Vili Maunula

    I think that you hit the nail on the head, Ugetsu. It really seems to be a film about babies and fertility. Your explanation of the three babies sounds very reasonable as well. By the way, did you know that the story originally had an additional baby? According to Yoshimoto (p. 142):

    A major change was made with regard to [Kyoji] Fujisaki’s past, too. In the original play, before he goes to the war, Fujisaki performs an abortion to save a pregnant woman’s life. He has a clear conscience, yet his reputation as a doctor is tainted (thus, the title of the original play, The Abortion Doctor). In the finished film, this episode is completely dropped.

    Unfortunately, Yoshimoto doesn’t tell us whether that episode ever was part of Kurosawa’s plans. Yoshimoto writes about this as part of his discussion of the changes through which the script went due to occupation censors, but it doesn’t seem like it was a censorship issue that removed the episode.

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    Ugetsu

    The abortion subtext is interesting, its something I was thinking of while watching the film. The later Naruse film Sound of the Mountain has an incident where the Setsuko Hara character (a married woman) has an abortion – it is treated very matter-of-factly, with none of the moralising or agonising you would expect from a western film. I was wondering if this reflected a general view in Japan at the time that it was not a particularly big deal. There are hints in other films of the period that it was an expensive option, only available to better off women. This is hinted at in Quiet Duel, where Nurse Rui Minegishi says she hasn’t the money for one, but then Kyoji’s reaction indicates a more moralistic objection. But perhaps his objection was more based on the need for hope for a new generation than any revulsion about the operation itself?

    I hadn’t realised that The Abortion Doctor was the original title of the play – it really does cast a different light on the whole story I think.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Nurse Rui Minegishi says she hasn’t the money for one, but then Kyoji’s reaction indicates a more moralistic objection. But perhaps his objection was more based on the need for hope for a new generation than any revulsion about the operation itself?

    I think so. Or at least it seemed to be part of Kyoji’s apparent wish to save and help this one woman.

    It is actually interesting how there is a very clear romantic sub plot in there wanting to take over at a couple of points, featuring a love triangle a little like that in No Regrets for Our Youth, but just like in that film, the love triangle aspect is never really developed or used. I’m not sure if this was a discarded idea, the left-overs of which still remain, or whether the lack of interest that the film expresses towards the romantic plot is in fact meaningful.

    One of the stranger lines in the film is the one where Rui, in my opinion very matter-of-factly, pronounces that she may be in love with Kyoji, and then continues by wondering why she “can’t say anything in a businesslike manner” which, to my ears and eyes, she just very much did!

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    Ugetsu

    One of the stranger lines in the film is the one where Rui, in my opinion very matter-of-factly, pronounces that she may be in love with Kyoji, and then continues by wondering why she “can’t say anything in a businesslike manner” which, to my ears and eyes, she just very much did!

    I love that scene. I know some writers find Rui difficult to accept as a character, but I think she is great and very believable. I love the way the main character is making his big speech, while Rui drops this bombshell, but Kyoji is so intent on his own problems he completely ignores it. And I think its entirely in character for Rui to accept it – she knows well that the best she can be is Kyoji’s devoted nurse, nothing else (after all, Rui can’t marry or even kiss her, for the same reasons he can’t with Misao). But maybe we can imagine than in five years time, with his syphilis cured, they might get together.

    In a different context, Mellen has written (I think in her book on Seven Samurai) that one of the most underrated aspects of Kurosawa’s films is their psychological realism. Characters behave as people do in real life, not as ciphers of the Director, or according to our preconceptions about how certain types of film archetypes behave. I think this is very much an example of where Kurosawa allows the characters to follow a quite realistic story arc, rather than following the conventions of melodrama or romance. Rui loves Kyoji, she accepts that it is an impossible love, but is quite incoherent in her own expression of her feelings. In the meanwhile, the humanitarian Kyoji is oblivious, completely (and understandably) wrapped up in his own problems. I think its a nice touch in the film, a bit of uncontrived realism that gives humanity to the film without necessarily ‘meaning’ anything. I think Mellen is right to see this as an untouched upon characteristic of Kurosawas films, and this is an example of it.

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