The Quiet Duel (Japan, 1949):
(Shizukanaru Ketto)

Jumbled and jagged, Akira Kurosawa's adolescent efforts grapple obsessively with regeneration in a society struggling to piece itself back together, and it's no accident the idea of healing pops up regularly -- razed-out postwar Japan is the perfect playground for the director's grudging humanism, though the same medical interest also makes a mid-career appearance later in the 19th-century scroll of Red Beard. Here, however, Toshiro Mifune is the idealist half of the duo, a callow doctor first seen at the operation table in 1944, a surgery all but thwarted by exhaustion, leaky roofs, power shortages and assorted rudimentary resources. Flash forward two years, and Mifune, now settled in a modestly stagy clinic, gives longtime fiancée Miki Sanjo the cold shoulder. The duel is a moral one, and the film abounds in images of isolation, characters' backs helplessly turned, people sitting side by side on a sofa with an abyss seemingly separating them. "Does war change people so much," Sanjo wonders plaintively to Takashi Shimura, surgeon-father and Kurosawa's go-to guy for mentor figures, but even he is unaware of his son's wartime secret. Accidentally dabbing into a patient's DV-infested blood, Mifune comes home syphilic but innocent, his purity intact despite the sullying grounds he was forced to tread -- a parable for Japan's collective conscience, coming off a lost, dirty war? In any case, the doc's haloed diligence soothes the misery of those around him, particularly dancer-turned-nurse Noriko Sengoku, who swings from nihilist almost-hooker to loving young mother upon getting wind of his sacrifice; such saintliness can be a pain, though, and Kurosawa stages a suffocatingly clumsy 5-minute take around the hero's tear-lubricated meltdown that locates the contemporary anxiety scarcely spotted behind Mifune's copyrighted badass grunting. With Kenjiro Uemura, and Chieko Nakakita. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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