Reparations of Conscience – The Quiet Duel, by Akira Kurosawa (1949)

It is a curiously uninteresting film, despite fine acting by Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Noriko Sengoku, because the cause of the action is accidental but without ethical attribute.

Still from the opening scene of The Quiet Duel.

Still from the opening scene of The Quiet Duel.

This was Mifune’s second collaboration with Kurosawa. Mifune’s acting skill is essentially wasted in this film. The great actor Takashi Shimura, who appeared in more films (this the 6th) of Kurosawa than any other actor, has a part that is small, and, as usual, it is acted impeccably. The most interesting character part is given to Noriko Sengoku, and it is the only other character who is convincing. Sengoku had acted in the earlier The Drunken Angel, which was Mifune’s debut with Kurosawa, and appeared in several of his later films, and well as in films by Kenji Mizoguchi (Life of Oharu), Masaki Kobayashi (Kwaidan), and others.

The intended contrast is between an individual who seems to be debased morally, and seems to have chosen to be debased physically, and who detrimentally affects others and an individual who is debased physically through accident and who seems to retain his ethical balance, but in doing so both affects others both to their benefit and to their distress.

The narrative does not sustain this contrast, nor does it resolve the one against the other. It is, therefore, unconsummated, the one who is morally debased, by death, the other who is morally upright, by life. Moreover, the part of the man who is morally debased and the part of the woman who is momentarily sent into despair are not especially well scripted and do not make convincing characters within the overall narrative, which, itself, loses any sense of impetus once the contrast has been established, and so sinks largely into the inertia of scenes that do not contribute to an evolution of the drama that the opening of the film partially established and, in effect, promised; partially, because the man morally debased, although in the scene as a patient on an operating table in a Pacific jungle, is not in the scene as a protagonist or antagonist.

Noriko Sengoku and Toshiro Mifune, in a still from The Quiet Duel.

Noriko Sengoku and Toshiro Mifune, in a still from The Quiet Duel.

In fairness to Kurosawa, changes to the script were insisted upon by the American Occupation censors. The climactic scene was excised, and the harshness of several other scenes eliminated or made calm. If one accepts the observation, which is not implausible, that the film was also intended as a commentary on the depredations of war—for the opening scene is an operating theatre in 1944 in an unidentified locale—and the continuation of such depredations as moral ambiguities during the Occupation, where the film resumes, in 1946, in Tokyo; then it is possible to evince in one’s mind that the film contained an opportunity that was lost through the imposition of external compromise and perspective; and may explain why Kurosawa himself stated that, after the opening scene, he lost interest in the project. In the original treatment the ethics of the physically debased man, a doctor, are resolved by his descent into insanity.

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