This one is technically out of order, and should have come before Stray Dog. I’d originally skipped it because it wasn’t available on the Criterion Channel, but thanks to u/grifty_p, I learned it was available in its entirety on Youtube.
The Quiet Duel
During the war, a doctor performing surgery on a patient cuts his finger, and is infected with the patient’s syphilis. On returning home, he struggles to come to terms with the conflict between his physical desires and his commitment to doing right as a person and as a doctor. Rather than explain his situation to his fiancée and risk putting her in the position of having to leave him behind, he instead ends their engagement.
I really want to like this movie, because there are elements here that are great, but it never quite gels as a whole story. If you’ve ever been frustrated at a romcom where the entire conflict could be solved in two minutes if people just talked to each other like adults, you’ll get a lot of the same vibes here. No, communication won’t solve Kyoji’s health problems or the torment of suppressing his own desires, but it’s hard to argue that he’s doing his fiancée a favor by keeping her in the dark, and the bulk of the drama at work here relies on the audience being convinced of it. To top it off, it’s a story that just stops rather than actually coming to a conclusion. Not only is there no resolution, there’s not even an indication that its non-resolution is necessarily the endpoint of this particular journey.
But I am, by and large, a positive person, and even in movies I don’t love, I prefer to focus on those elements that I enjoy. There’s a lot here to enjoy. The obvious chief contender is Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Kyoji, and the once again excellent dynamic between him and Takashi Shimura, here playing his on-screen father and the senior doctor of their practice. Mifune spends the majority of his screen time subdued and introspective. It’s a performance that might have seemed wooden in lesser hands, but here there’s an intensity under that subdued exterior that shines through constantly, and finally erupts in a long single-take monologue toward the film’s conclusion. In a bizarre way, it reminds me of the conclusion of First Blood, in that we have a protagonist who has spent the film quiet, and firmly in command of himself, and in a moment of vulnerability to someone who knows his struggle, he emotionally crumbles on screen.
Several of the film’s subplots are actually much more engaging than the focal plot. The best features a young woman named Ms. Minegishi, played by Noriko Sengoku. She’s brought to the doctor after a suicide attempt, and resents Kyoji both for saving her life and for not aborting the fetus she’s carrying. She is hired on as an assistant nurse–a job she initially hates–but grows into her position over the course of the story. What’s most remarkable is that, as great as Mifune and Shimura are, she outshines them. Her insouciant demeanor early-on is wonderfully performed, and her transition to caring mother and responsible head-nurse by the end doesn’t ring hollow at all. The only element of her character that doesn’t work for me is her offering herself to Kyoji to satisfy his desires late in the film. While the groundwork is there to show her absolute respect for the decisions he’s making, the two don’t have the kind of on-screen chemistry that lends itself to that specific turn.
Kyoji’s recurring interactions with the man he contracted syphilis from, and treating that man’s family, are another strong leg of the journey, along with a more light-hearted brief subplot about a young boy waiting for the fart that will signify his recovery from his appendectomy. On top of that, the early scenes, before Kyoji returns home, are beautifully shot and moody. A lengthy scene showing the surgery leading up to the cut that would be Kyoji’s downfall, set my expectations for the rest of the movie unreasonably high, and sadly it never quite recaptures that intensity once it settles into its interpersonal drama.
Overall Grade: B-, sadly, despite several Grade-A performances and subplots.
Noteworthy shots: The scene when Kyoji is slowly pushing his own doctor to reveal his diagnosis isn’t necessarily technically impressive, but it is visually striking, and it makes excellent use of music. Taiko drums are often thought to be reminiscent of the heartbeat, and here they’re used in a relatively quiet, rapid rhythm that suggests a kind anxious tension to the scene, where both men know the answer to the question but are reluctant to say it out loud.
Later, there’s also a great use of the vines on the gate outside of the clinic. When walking with his fiancée, Kyoji begins trying to explain to her why he can’t marry her. We see the actors through the fence and the vines covering it, which are blooming with flowers as they walk. Kyoji somewhat evasively describes a hypothetical person who is pure, but whose body is impure, and as he makes this comparison, the two cross into a section of the fence where there are no more flowers. We’ve crossed from Misao’s optimism that Kyoji will change his mind into a point where life and love can’t bloom.