Saturday, July 12, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.5: Akira Kurosawa's The Quiet Duel/Scandal

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Though Akira Kurosawa didn’t get a breakthrough in the Western world until 1951, when Rashomon played at the Venice Film Festival, he’d been making strong films for nearly a decade. From the promising debut of Sanshiro Sugata to the early great films Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, Kurosawa was primed for legendary status. But most directors have a few films that fall through the cracks, and two of the films made right before Rashmon have been overshadowed by the classics around them.

The Quiet Duel: 48/C+

The first, 1949’s The Quiet Duel, might be the least-seen of Kurosawa’s films. The film was made between Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, but it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1979 (as opposed to the late 50s and early 60s for Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Scandal), and it’s one of the few of his films that isn’t part of the Criterion Collection (BCI Eclipse has a DVD). The medical melodrama has a few traces of what made Kurosawa one of the best up-and-coming filmmakers of his generation, but it’s also one of his least satisfying films.

Toshiro Mifune stars as Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a surgeon working at his father’s (Takashi Shimura) practice in a small, seedy district. Fujisaki cuts himself during an operation and contracts syphilis, virtually incurable in Japan at the time, from the patient. Wracked with fear and feeling too guilty to keep his fiancée (Miki Sanjō) waiting for him, he breaks off their engagement without explanation and suffers in silence.

The Quiet Duel’s first scene, the operation on the syphilitic patient, is its best. Kurosawa opens on a heavy rainstorm and the beat of the drum, the world bearing down on the clinic. His use of deep focus in the scene is brilliant, capturing the exhaustion of the doctors, the cramped conditions and hectic nature of the workplace. Mifune’s intense focus and the pinging of buckets catching rain from the leaks in the roof add to the tension. The scene grows more complicated as they start to lose the patient and Mifune can’t replace his glove or sanitize his wound. As Kurosawa cuts to a shot between the assistants’ bodies at the feet of the patient, it’s as if we’re witnessing an autopsy.

Kurosawa has a handful of other strong touches throughout the film, such as the sound a car races by with a blaring horn as Fujisaki realizes that he’s contracted the disease from his patient. He’s aided by a good performance from Shimura, whose shame when he first learns that his son has syphilis is so intense that he initially won’t listen to his explanation. He also gains an interesting contrast between the doctor and the patient (Kenjiro Uemura), a peasant who’s too proud and irresponsible to take Fujisaki advice and refrain from sleeping with his wife, leading to a son who dies in childbirth. The best performance in the film, though, comes from Noriko Sengoku, a character actress in a number of Kurosawa films who shines here as a suicide-patient turned nurse for Fujisaki, and whose accidental eavesdropping on him talking to his father about his disease complicates matters.

The trouble is that the subplots are far more dynamic than the central story, in which Fujisaki stews over his condition without much variation in mood. His performance isn’t really the problem – he’s not given too much to do other than act like a noble victim. The main conflict, that Dr. Fujisaki feels he can’t tell his fiancée of his infection because she’ll decide to spend years waiting for him, lacks any complication, as he has no complicity in his infection – this is disease borne of an accident, not by him cheating on her. Kurosawa’s playing somewhat with his themes of honor, sacrifice, and pride, but in a fairly superficial way, and after a certain point it’s hard to maintain sympathy for a character whose dilemma is one of being too noble to just stop being a dope and tell his fiancée what the deal is. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s rarely as immediate or as moving as it wants to be.

Scandal: 66/B

Kurosawa’s last pre-Rashomon film (released in April 1950, four months before his that masterwork) isn’t a major achievement either, but it’s far more successful than The Quiet Duel. Inspired by the infringement of the press on the privacy of others in postwar Japan, it begins as a fairly straightforward moral tale, but as it shifts focus from the plaintiffs to their lawyer, it gets a bit closer to the level of grace and beauty that Rashomon and Ikiru would achieve.

Mifune stars again as artist Ichiro Aoye, who meets young classical singer Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi) while working on his paintings and, upon learning that they’re staying at the same hotel, offers her a ride. A group of paparazzi for the tabloid Amour spot them and, when Aoye doesn’t grant them an interview, take their picture and make up a story about the two being lovers. Furious, the two meet and hire lawyer Hiruta (Shimura), who shares their anger over the libel. But Hiruta’s young daughter suffers from terminal tuberculosis, and when the editor of the magazine offers him a bribe to throw the trial, he obliges.

Kurosawa’s dealing with the invasion of privacy here, and the form of the film often feels voyeuristic: the editors of Amour are photographed through a chicken-wire window, and Hiruta is introduced spying on Aoye through a hole in his window. Later, as Hiruta is wracked with guilt over his betrayal of Aoye, we’re frequently made to feel like unwilling witnesses to his most embarrassing moments, following him in a tracking shot on Christmas Eve as he’s too filled with shame to join his friends for the celebration, “Silent Night” playing to heighten the emotion of the scene. Later that night, Hiruta gets drunk at a bar, and when another drunk yells loudly about getting a new chance in the upcoming new year, Hiruta joins him, crying that he’ll be a new man in the new year instead of a worm; he’s hunched, sloppy, and looks as if he’ll burst into tears. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness.

The film takes time to reveal Hiruta as its stealth protagonist, however, and seems a bit too polarized in absolute good vs. absolute evil before its morally grey hero enters. The reporters are all venal, while Mifune (perfectly solid) isn’t given much more to do than act noble. Kurosawa reacted to the rise of tabloids as if the libelous material was attacking him, so when he made the victim a painter (Kurosawa wanted to be a painter before he was a filmmaker), he made him a bit too much of a cardboard victim. Aoye hasn’t actually had an affair, so he’s not much more than an object of sympathy in the narrative. This might be the only Akira Kurosawa film that might have been better had it been directed by Billy Wilder, with a victim who’s guilty (even unlikable) but whose privacy nonetheless should be respected.

As soon as Shimura enters the film, however, the film grows far more interesting. Beginning as a cheerful eccentric who believes the press has gone too far all over the world (“HENRY FORD WAS CALLED RETARDED!”) and who has a very clear sense of right and wrong, his character deepens as he’s forced to do wrong in order to save his daughter. Immediately after he accept the bride, Kurosawa brings him to his daughter’s bedside, where he confesses to her that he’s not the good man she thinks he is.

Kurosawa uses a medium close-up as Hiruta looks down, hiding his eyes from us, too ashamed to look at either his daughter or the ever-watchful viewer. The use of his daughter as a device – she’s not much more than a generic suffering child, and her death spurs his confession – irks a bit, but Shimura’s performance saves it. Whether he’s in boozy self-pity on Christmas (bonus: hearing Shimura drunkenly yell “Merry Christmas” in English, as if it’ll get rid of his pain) or he’s unable to muster up any energy to convincingly fake failing as a lawyer, he’s relentlessly fascinating. Shimura would get another chance in an even greater moral tale later than year in Rashomon, but Scandal serves as a welcome appetizer to that grand feast.

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