The Silent Duel [The Quiet Duel/Shizukanaru kettô] (1949)

Anyway, How Is Your Sex Life?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

For unknown reasons, The Silent Duel (with other sources calling it The Quiet Duel) is the one Akira Kurosawa movie which has been neglected. This unsung medical melodrama has no high-quality re-master, no Criterion Collection release whilst my own hard-to-find UK DVD itself comes with some very unattractive packaging and although perfectly watchable, the frame rate is overly smooth in places (unless you’re reading this at a future date in which in a 4K release packed with bonus features exists).

The opening wartime sequence of The Silent Duel is a superb showcase of atmospheric filmmaking from a real master of cinema. Kurosawa employs his trademark use of the elements within a makeshift medical centre as the sight and sound of rain beats down alongside an irritating drip of water and the flickering of lights distracts a surgeon and his aides while their faces are dripping with sweat (not-to-mention doctors who are smoking on the job). Right off the bat, The Silent Duel is a film with many a shot of superb composition with the moment which impressed me the most in this opening prologue is the dramatic tension created by a truck driving past in the background just at the moment when Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) discovers he has contracted syphilis. Dr. Fujisaki’s transaction of syphilis is through no fault of his own, rather he received it through the blood of a patient he was operating on, although due to the stigma he chooses to tell no one he has sexually transmitted disease and secretly begins injecting himself with salvarsan as a treatment.

Following the opening wartime prologue, the majority of The Silent Duel takes place in a run-down hospital in an unnamed, bombed-out city circa 1946. Like Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel from the previous year, the story and the setting may be interpreted in a metaphoric sense that reflects the state of Japan following the war. The main driver of conflict in The Silent Duel is that of Dr. Fujisaki refusing to tell his fiancée Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjo) about his condition and calling of their marriage with his justification being that he knows she will spend the best years of her young life waiting for him to recover. However, is this act as noble as it first appears or is it one of pure selfishness to make him feel better about himself in this thought-provoking conundrum? His absence of trust in Misao causes her extraordinary pain and robs her of the ability to make her own decision about the matter. The scene in which Misao comes to visit Fujisaki one more time before going to marry another man is utterly heartbreaking. The two can barely look at each other in the face and it’s clearly evident she still so desperately loves him and wants to play the role of his housewife as they take one last cup of tea in the hospital kitchen in which she used to assist in. I feel like I want to shout at the screen, “just tell her the truth, you absolute cretin!”.

Notwithstanding, the big show-stealer of The Silent Duel is Noriko Sengoku as the probationary nurse Rui Minegishi. The downtrodden, scruffy, snarky, cynical character was rescued by Dr. Fujisaki and given a job after she tried to take her own life upon becoming pregnant. The character goes through a remarkable arc of maturity as she gives birth to her baby, studies to become a nurse, metamorphoses a more presentable appearance and acts as a wonderful counterpoint to the long-suffering doctor. There is even a hint at a relationship blossoming between the two after she outright tells him that she loves him although this is never drawn upon again. The Silent Duel is based on the play The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta. I’ve been informed an abortion does actually occur in the play whereas none takes place in the film. Dr. Fujisaki criticizes Miss Minegishi for wanting an abortion and even goes as far as calling her a monster. Whether or not The Silent Duel could be classified as a pro-life film, it does take a celebratory tone when it comes to childbirth.

If I were to complain about one aspect of The Silent Duel, it would be the film’s score. The majority of the film features no music and thus alongside its subject matter, it has that same feeling present in American pre-code films (which feature little-to-no music scores) of which I particularly enjoy. When music is used it is over-the-top and interferes with the drama rather than contributing to it. In one extremely odd use of music during the scene in which Fujisaki’s father (the only instance Takashi Shimura played Mifune’s father in their many film pairings) reacts to finding out his son has syphilis, I am not joking, I thought there was an ice cream van driving through my street. The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film scored by Akira Ifukube (who would go on to compose for the Godzilla franchise), and I can only speculate if Kurosawa wasn’t pleased with the music.

The Silent Duel could be viewed as a public information film on how syphilis ruins lives. Towards the film’s end, Dr. Fujisaki has a powerful, emotional breakdown in front of Miss Minegishi, as he lets it all bare regarding his restrained sexual desires brought about by his syphilis (“But one day because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure”). The Silent Duel is the only Kurosawa film to deal to really deals with themes of a sexual nature, from a filmography which is otherwise very much asexual. Man gets an STD without getting laid, perhaps that’s the greatest tragedy of all present in The Silent Duel.

Drunken Angel [Yoidore Tenshi] (1948)

Drain The Swamp

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Drunken Angel marks the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s golden age in the first of the 16 film collaboration with Toshiro Mifune (6th out of a whopping 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Drunken Angel is a movie thick with atmosphere, set in a slum with worn out buildings in which a lone guitar player comes out at night overlooking a toxic bog (possibly created from a bomb crater) laden with prostitutes next to a medical practice – a metaphor for all that was rotten about life in the wake of Japan’s catastrophic wartime defeat. You can almost feel the heat and humidity come off the screen while during the film’s daytime scenes the city comes alive with the diegetic music echoing in the background. No city is mentioned by name but a sign in the background of one scene reads in English “Social Center Of Tokyo”.

The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – The chemistry between Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura is electric – watching the two interact in the film’s opening scene they could easily carry the entire picture by themselves. A very youthful, handsome and suave Mifune is Matsunaga, a big shot member of the Yakuza (although the word is never mentioned in the film). With athletic agility, cat-like moves and his fashion choices of striped shirts and zoot suits, I do get some George Raft vibes from his performance. He shares a fascinating relationship with the brash, ill-tempered but dedicated Dr Sanada (Shimura) as he attempts to cure him of tuberculosis. The two hesitantly develop mutual respect for each other (Matsunaga reminds Sanada of himself during his youth as he states at one point) despite their highly tumultuous, sometimes violent interactions. In Drunken Angel Kurosawa doesn’t want to glamorize the Yakuza, but rather expose them as a blight on Japanese society. 

Drunken Angel is a classic story of addiction, in which “just one more drink” turns into a night of binging as Matsunaga drinks himself to death. The fantasy dream sequence involving Matsunaga opening a coffin on the beach only to find himself inside feels like something from a silent horror movie and is even quite Bergman-esque. It also feels reminiscent of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back in which Luke Skywalker finds his own face within Darth Vader’s helmet. The climax of Drunken Angel on the other hand features the type of cinematic images that you never forget as a weak and ill Matsunaga tries to fight his boss Okada as the two are covered in paint and scrambling on the ground before Mutsunga is stabbed and collapses by a balcony – it feels reminiscent of the iconic endings in various Warner Bros gangster films. Had this been a Hollywood production I can easily see it being a vehicle for James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, with perhaps Bogart as Okada?

It’s fascinating to see how much western trends are embraced in Japan, something which is often surprise to newcomers of Japanese film (I do love the interior of the dance hall with the giant playing cards on the walls as well as the Bolero Club with its Iberian ascetics and music). Yet at its heart Drunken Angel remains a story of post-war Japan with its characters and setting being an allegory using illness and contamination as a metaphor for the state of the nation. Matsunaga can be seen as a symbol of the Japan of yesteryear, struggling to find relevance in this new world while Sanada is a broken Japan trying to forge ahead. Sanda’s assistant Miyo (Chieko Nakakita) refuses to let go of her gangster, ex-boyfriend who ruined her life – a Japan which is pinning for what has been lost. However it is the young schoolgirl (Yoshiko Kuga) of whom Dr Sanda cures of tuberculosis provides the film with an optimistic, wholesome ending -a sign of Japan yet to come.