The Silent Duel (Shizukanaru kettô)

Japan (1949) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

Although many might not like to think it, we do tend to take our doctors and nurses for granted, entrusting our health, wellbeing, and lives to them and expect them to drop everything for us. But who looks after them when they are ill? And how much do we consider the ramifications of this?

Japan, 1944 and idealistic doctor Koji Fujisaki (Toshiro Mifune) performs surgery on a patient, Nakada (Kenjiro Uemura), during which Fujisaki cuts his finger but finishes the urgent procedure. Afterwards, Fujisaki learns that Nakada had syphilis, at that time an incurable disease, which has now infected Fujisaki. Following the war, Fujisaki works for the small clinic alongside his gynaecologist father Konosuke (Takashi Shimura), quietly treating himself for his infection.

Fujisaki frets about ruining the life of his fiancé of six years Misao Matsumoto (Miki Sanjô) and breaks off the engagement but won’t explain why. Refusing to accept this, Misao vows to wait until Fujisaki is ready. Later, Fujisaki is called to treat a patient who turns out to be Nakada, discovering he has a pregnant wife Akiko (Chieko Nakakita), and claims his syphilis has been cured, which Fujisaki knows is untrue.

If we have learned anything from the current pandemic, it is that frontline medical staff need to be taken care of just as much as the patients do. Any death from COVID-19 is tragic but there is a horrible irony to the deaths from it of nurses and doctors battling to save our lives. Whilst the plot of The Silent Duel isn’t quite so gravid, this sentiment can be applied to Fujisaki’s plight.

The second collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune might fit within the director’s early works before he found his niche with the Samurai epic, but for Mifune, there is a shock in store for viewers. The film, also known as The Quiet Duel, is based on the play The Abortion Doctor by Kazuo Kikuta, which carries subtle commentary on the American occupation of Japan, the syphilis being a metaphor for the toxic effect of the US military intervention.

Viewed through modern eyes, the plot might read as risible since syphilis is no longer a life threatening condition, so for an updated reference, audiences would have to supplant syphilis with AIDS in their minds to appreciate the drama. There is also the small matter of Fujisaki not wearing gloves while operating, since the practice began in the 1880’s, unless we are to assume it didn’t hit Japan until much later. Then again, Nakada wasn’t anesthetised either so maybe supplies were low during the war.

But again, these are things we are asked to overlook in order to concentrate on the central plot of Fujisaki making a noble sacrifice to spare Misao the indignity of being the wife of a syphilitic doctor. Frustration abounds for the audience as Fujisaki can’t be honest with Misao, lowering his head and unable to look her in the eye as he feebly tries to analogise his reason for ending their relationship.

Unable to read between the lines, Misao remains loyal long after they separate, hoping Fujisaki will change his mind, but being the good doctor he is, putting others first is his priority and if that means his own happiness is the pay off, then so be it. Eventually, Fujisaki has to come clean to his father when news of the break up becomes public, not to mention the increasing drop in the supply of their syphilis drug.

Junior nurse Rui Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku) is the first to notice the vanishing drugs and overhears the confession out of nosiness, though she has an ulterior motive having fallen in love with Fujisaki. Minegishi is an interesting character – rough around the edges and without any real ambition, she is currently pregnant, abandoned by the baby’s father and refused an abortion without the money for it.

She also tried suicide but was stopped by Fujisaki, but Minegishi is determined to get rid of the baby so she can get on with her life. Crushed by the pressures of his sacrifices, Fujisaki eventually snaps, lambasting Minegishi for her selfish attitude, pointing out how much she has going for her and the life she could have if she applied herself. It works, and her turnaround is one of the high points of the film going forward.

Yet, Minegishi is not the most selfish person by far in this tale – Nakada has her beaten hands down, and the film’s second half revolves around the trail of destruction his denial of his condition has not just on his own family but others too. If you are thinking, it’s okay cos Mifune is a tough dude who will sort him out then here is the shock I alluded to earlier – this isn’t the Mifune you are used to seeing.

Fujisaki is a thoughtful, caring, earnest man, driven by his softer emotions like empathy, responsibility, and duty than rage and masculinity. He doesn’t use his fists, rarely raises his voice and more often than not, breaks down to cry than breaks bones. In his second leading role, we see a more sensitive and gentle Mifune, offering a greater insight into his range than his samurai legacy barely touches.

In the scene where he confesses to Minegishi the real reason his condition hurts him, it is almost tragic and engenders sympathy and not mockery. Mifune may dominate the screen time, but even in a reduced role, Takashi Shimura plays off Mifune well as his father, as does Noriko Sengoku, who takes Minegishi from a pantomime villain to a well-rounded and adjusted female sidekick.

Kurosawa follows the long take, two people per scene set-up of the stage play but doesn’t allow himself to be limited by this, using the camera and robust performances to create the cinematic drama. The Silent Duel might be a “lesser” entry in his oeuvre but has more to say that it lets on, whilst sensitive Mifune needs to be seen.