You may have noticed that the month has changed once again, and as always this means that the focus of our Akira Kurosawa Film Club shifts onto a new film. While the film that we had for January, Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), was a three-and-a-half hour epic that is often considered “the greatest Japanese film ever made”, February’s movie is an almost directly opposite affair: The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto, 1949) is not only one of Kurosawa’s shorter and less well known works, but it is also one of his most static, providing a stark contrast to the powerful dynamism of Seven Samurai.
The relative stillness of The Quiet Duel is in fact understandable considering the source material used, the period of Kurosawa’s career in which it was made, and the production itself. Not only is the film based on a popular contemporary play (The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta), but Kurosawa himself had spent the time since his previous film Drunken Angel (1948) in theatre, directing Chekhov’s Proposal as well as a stage adaptation of Drunken Angel, with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune reprising their roles from the film.
Furthermore, The Quiet Duel was shot almost exclusively on a soundstage, which certainly added to its stillness, or what some have called its “artifice”. The film was also Kurosawa’s first picture outside of Toho, with Richie (p.54) pointing out that Kurosawa had therefore deliberately chosen a more straightforward project for his new film unit at the Daiei Motion Picture Co. Finally, to add to its stillness, The Quiet Duel was originally planned to end with the main character’s plunge into insanity, but due to objections from the American Occupation censors, this (together with other scenes) was changed to the more static and less radical conclusion.
Critically, The Quiet Duel tends to be seen as something of a misstep between the hugely promising Drunken Angel and the film that followed, Stray Dog, which was released only seven months after The Quiet Duel and is now considered by many as Kurosawa’s first true masterpiece. Consequently, comparably little ink has been spent on the movie, and most of the discussion is fairly negative.
The general critical consensus is in fact well expressed by remarks such as Richie’s, who considers the film “no more interesting than the synopsis would indicate” (p.55), Yoshimoto’s, who describes it as “often too sentimental and unrealistic” although with “some compelling images and significant thematic motifs” (p.142), or Galbraith’s, according to whom the film “though financially successful … is largely an artistic failure, albeit one with scenes and ideas that anticipate better films to follow” (p. 103).
In fact, even Kurosawa himself has been reported as noting that “only the early scenes in the field hospital have any validity. This is because I didn’t describe things too well in this picture. When the locale moved back to Japan, somehow the drama left the film.” (quoted in Galbraith, p.104)
Kurosawa’s suggestion that he “didn’t describe things too well” in Drunken Angel has led both Galbraith and Richie to suggest that Kurosawa himself was not very interested in directing the movie, and that this shows in the relative blandness of the final product, with Richie even going as far as to insist that the film has no higher meaning beyond its (in Richie’s words uninteresting) story. (p. 56)
I am, however, not one to fully subscribe to this notion.
In fact, in his autobiography Kurosawa gives a slightly different interpretation regarding the failure of the film, suggesting that “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.” p.172)
It is, indeed, not difficult to notice the thematic similarities between The Quiet Duel and Stray Dog. Metaphors may have changed, but both works can easily be seen as tackling the problem of personal responsibility in the light of immediate post-war Japan. In fact, I don’t think that I am the only one who thinks of the problems posed by Stray Dog when at the end of the film Konosuke (played by Takashi Shimura) suggests about his son (played by Mifune) that “if he had been happy, he might have become a snob”.
While The Quiet Duel may not be quite as complex as many of Kurosawa’s other works, I feel that there is much to be discussed in it that hasn’t really been properly addressed before by Kurosawa criticism. Similarly, despite its connection with its successor, The Quiet Duel is not “just a rehearsal for Stray Dog“, but should certainly be considered as a work of its own.
The floor, as always, is yours.