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The Quiet Duel: Was the theme lost in the shuffle?

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    NoelCT

    I’m new here and am not as well versed in Kurosawa to go into quite the same depth as others, but I felt this was worth sharing.

    In his Film Club intro to this particular piece, Vili features a Kurosawa quote:

    “most people did not grasp what I most fervently wished them to, but a small number did understand very well. In order to make my point more clearly, I decided to make Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949). I think the problem with The Quiet Duel was that I myself had not thoroughly digested my ideas, nor did I express them in the best possible way.”

    I’m guessing his reference is to the theme of the two men, the Doctor and the sleazy patient, who both fall victim to a shared cause of suffering and trauma, but the former stays strong and uses his burden to build the drive to help others, while the latter is reckless and selfish and ends up causing harm to others.

    Now why did this story not work as well in THE QUIET DUEL as it did in STRAY DOG? I think it’s because the plot thread of the patient was too small and came in far too late in the picture, after the theme of dedicated perseverance – an element very comparable to THE MOST BEAUTIFUL – had been established, and thus it mostly gets lost among the other various plots and episodes in the hospital. I also think that it doesn’t feature much of a lesson for the lead character. He’s already come to terms with who he is and how he wants to play his situation out, and it’s up to a supporting character, the Nurse, to learn these lessons, which further distances it from being the central theme.

    As I don’t have any access to the original play, I wonder if anyone out there can tell us how faithful of an adaptation it really was, because Kurosawa is known for playing around with source materials until the final products are almost entirely his own. I’m curious to learn just how much of this theme which Kurosawa claims to have missed on was a part of the original piece, and how much came from his own hand.

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    Vili Maunula

    I would pretty much fully agree with your observations here, Noel. Kyoji Fujisaki and Susumu Nakada are, in a sense, later more fully developed into the more powerful pair of Murakami and Yusa, and the theme is made much clearer through the better narrative balance between them.

    At the same time, I am wondering whether there might also be an underlying difference regarding the importance of the characterisation to begin with. Perhaps, The Quiet Duel doesn’t necessarily intend to communicate its ideas as much through the characters as Stray Dog does?

    One could actually make the observation that the main character in The Quiet Duel is in fact syphilis, which in turn seems like a fairly straight-forward metaphor for the impact that the war had on the society. Military activities may have ceased, but the wounds and trauma suffered are still healing.

    Both Kyoji and Susumu bring the disease home with them, but while Kyoji battles against it, Susumu chooses to ignore it. (For the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to them with their first names, since there are other characters in the film who share their family names.) I would suggest that it is possible to recognize here two ways in which one could approach the lost war — you could either not talk about it and proceed to move forward without learning anything from the mistakes that were committed, or you could accept that the war is still a part of you (and the society), and that it is something that you still need to resolve in order to properly move on. Although Kyoji doesn’t really talk about his condition, and this for a reason, he does tell the Nakadas that they should talk openly about the situation, and that if they did so they might come to a “good solution” (this is at about 1:02).

    I may be way off here, but it is also interesting that Kyoji’s name should use the kanji for ‘respect’ and ‘reverence’ (恭), while Susumu’s name is written with the kanji for ‘advance’ and ‘proceed’ (進; the verb susumu (進む) has the meaning ‘to make progress’, ‘to advance’, ‘to improve’). Following what I wrote above, I don’t think that I need to point out how these in my mind seem to describe the two characters. I am wondering though, whether Susumu’s name could be viewed as a reference to the sudden changes that the post-war society was undergoing under the Occupation. We have earlier discussed the view that many of Kurosawa’s post-war films have an underlying tone that is slightly critical of the changes and the lack of proper discussion or recognition of the war. Could we conclude, then, that this view is again embodied in Susumu, who chooses to press forward while ignoring his condition, which results in short-term gain (unlike Kyoji, he has got a wife and is clearly doing fairly well as what I suspect is a career as a gangster) but what also ultimately leads to the total destruction of his family unit as well as to personal insanity.

    In Stray Dog, you don’t really have the effect of the war itself present in quite the same way as you do in The Quiet Duel, at least if you consider syphilis to stand for it. And although both films look at questions of individual responsibility, I feel that Stray Dog does so on a more personal level, while The Quiet Duel tries to address the issue on a wider societal stage. Because of this, Stray Dog perhaps more urgently needs that direct confrontation between the two main characters, whereas the idea with The Quiet Duel is that the audience itself should carry out the comparison and draw its conclusions.

    Because of this, Kyoji is not quite the equivalent of Murakami in terms of his place in the story. Kyoji, although the main character, is far more “just another character” whose actions we observe and compare to others (primarily Susumu), whereas Murakami rises in a sense slightly above the story, being both a part of it as well as a commentator of it. Murakami problematises his and Yusa’s situation, which is something that Kyoji never really does.

    Does this make any sense, or did I get lost somewhere?

    As for the original play, I don’t personally have any idea what it was like. It would be great to have it, though!

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    Ugetsu

    I don’t know about the play, but Richie says that the original screenplay (which I assume was closer to the play) focused more on the relationship between the two men. But apparently the censors didn’t like the ending, in which the doctor goes mad in a most spectacular way in the final scene. So AK rewrote the script as more of a tragic love story (its interesting that if you see the original screen trailer it was marketed as a romantic weepie).

    So I think its probably true to say that the theme was severely compromised. I would imagine that if it had been made as originally envisaged, it would have been a bit more like Stray Dog, a moral tussle between two individuals who chose different paths.

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    Vili Maunula

    I’ve been thinking about this, and I’m actually not sure if we can straightforwardly assume that the original screenplay was closer to the source. For one, Kurosawa took a lot of liberties with his material, whether or not he needed to rewrite things. Secondly, I assume that theatre at the time was not entirely free from censorship either, and it would seem strange to me if something that was allowed on stage could then not be filmed.

    Anyway, even then the gist of Ugetsu’s post remains true. Probably quite a bit was lost and changed with the rewrite, and it is most probably there that things got compromised to the point where the theme/message got lost to a certain extent.

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    Ugetsu

    Me:

    So I think its probably true to say that the theme was severely compromised. I would imagine that if it had been made as originally envisaged, it would have been a bit more like Stray Dog, a moral tussle between two individuals who chose different paths.

    Two and a half year later, coming back to this, I wonder if everyone is completely on the wrong track about what went ‘wrong’ with the film in Kurosawas eyes? Given what we’ve discussed about the film being an allegory of the female body and birth, perhaps we should see this as another example of where the scene sucking charisma of Mifune, along with Kurosawa’s tendency to focus more on his male characters, is where he felt he went wrong. In other words, I’m suggesting that the theme was lost because the conflict between the two syphilis sufferers overshadowed the real core of the film, which is the female characters, with the real core theme of the film being about fertility and birth, not disease and rot.

    In seeking to remedy the error in Stray Dog, perhaps he wasn’t thinking of the tussle between two male characters, so much as losing the focus on the need for moral clarity and rebirth in the new Japan. I think this interpretation would make Quiet Duel more consistent with Kurosawa’s other post war films, with their generally cautiously optimistic emphasis on facing forward into a difficult future, while warning about all the potential pitfalls (i.e. pre-war fascism, corruption, excess westernization).

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    Vili Maunula

    That’s a good point, Ugetsu. If we think about the original plan for the film, where Mifune’s character goes mad, I suppose that ending would have made it somewhat less straightforward to interpret the film as a conflict between the two men, and more about Mifune’s character’s struggle, and its effect on the women around him.

    I also wonder how much of what went “wrong” was actually caused by the need to write around censorship requirements. If Kurosawa conceived The Quiet Duel as a “(re)birth of a nation” type of a film, as we have come to interpret it as, one of the potential challenges must have been to get it through occupation censors without raising too many flags.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    If we think about the original plan for the film, where Mifune’s character goes mad, I suppose that ending would have made it somewhat less straightforward to interpret the film as a conflict between the two men, and more about Mifune’s character’s struggle, and its effect on the women around him.

    That’s a good point. My first reaction when I read that Kyoji went mad is that it would have made for a terrible ending – far too melodramatic. But thinking about it, you are right that it might have allowed the female characters more scope to develop. It all depends on how it was handled I suppose, but it would unavoidably resulted in a lot of Mifune scene-stealing.

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