Amid the labour strikes crippling Toho in the late ‘40s, Akira Kurosawa formed an association with other directors and film professionals and began working with different studios, the first being Daiei on a loose adaptation of a popular play in which an idealistic doctor struggles with his repressed desires while watching others wilfully embrace post-war selfishness and cynicism. Like many of Kurosawa’s films from this period, The Silent Duel (静かなる決闘, Shizukanaru Ketto) is essentially a meditation on post-war moral decline and what’s needed to correct it but also if somewhat accidentally the destructive effects of secret keeping and miscommunication.
Kurosawa opens the film in 1944 with exhausted field medic Kyoji (Toshiro Mifune) operating on a badly wounded solider, Nakata (Kenjiro Uemura). Distracted by the constant dripping of a leaky roof, the adverse weather conditions outside, and the general stressfulness of the situation, Kyoji makes the fateful decision to remove his gloves to better accomplish the fiddly operation he is performing only to drop a scalpel and cut himself. He continues with the surgery, but realises that Nakata is likely infected with syphilis which he may have contracted through the wound on his finger. Kyoji tells Nakata, otherwise recovering well, that he should make sure to seek treatment but overhears him boasting that his injuries may soon save him from the battlefield. Kyoji continues to serve but is unable to treat the infection effectively with the limited resources available to him as a frontline medic allowing the disease to continue its progression largely unmitigated.
Taking a job at his father’s obstetrics clinic on his return to Japan, Kyoji breaks off his longstanding engagement to pre-war girlfriend Misao (Miki Sanjo) who has been waiting for him the last six years but refuses to explain to her why he cannot go through with their marriage. She assumes it must in some way be related to his war trauma, and in a way it is. The syphilis is an obvious metaphor for the corruptions of militarism. He declines to explain, he claims, because he is certain that Misao would vow to go on waiting for him until the disease is cured which would take at least three to five years assuming it can be cured at all. As she is already 27, he would be taking away Misao’s opportunity to make a happy marriage and have children with another man. In any case, he makes her decision for her which ironically conflicts with his later statement that she should be free to seek happiness on her own, not least because it seems she has been pressured into an arranged marriage by her financially troubled father. The act of childbirth is symbolically relevant though he does not seem to consider the idea of a platonic marriage perhaps uncertain that he could go on repressing his desires as a married man. So morally upright is he, that he also refuses to lie, saying nothing rather than allowing Misao to believe that he has fallen out of love with her, met someone else, or has another war-related issue that prevents his marrying her. Nor does he seem to consider telling her that he has syphilis and allowing her to come to the same conclusion as everyone else, that he contracted it through sleeping with sex workers during his military service which is most likely how Nakata became infected.
The stigma associated with the disease adds a further dimension to Kyoji’s frustration given that he describes himself as having wilfully sublimated his physical desires in order to be able to return to a “peaceful marriage” with Misao whereas as Nakata who satisfied himself without a second thought returned home symptomless, married, and is soon to be a father. Re-encountering him by chance, Nakata who seems to have become wealthy doing something that is likely immoral if not illegal, tells Kyoji that his sickness is cured but does eventually bring his wife in for a free checkup to discover that he has passed the disease to her and to their unborn child. Yet even confronted with the truth, Nakata lies again and suggests that Kyoji has made all this up as revenge for something that happened in the war keeping the fact that he infected him from his wife. He blames Kyoji for destroying his family rather than accept his own responsibility and sees nothing wrong in his actions until directly confronted with the body of his stillborn child apparently so deformed and monstrous that they wouldn’t let the mother see it.
The two men have clearly taken different paths, Kyoji certain that he must put others before himself and suppressing his own desires to ensure he cannot pass the disease on while Nakata buries his head in the sand and ignores it. It is a kind of metaphor for the post-war future, those like Kyoji acknowledging that the legacy of wartime trauma is something that must be acknowledged and actively healed before happiness is possible while those like Nakata simply plow on like nothing ever happened with no thought or consideration for those around them. Yet it is also Kyoji who lies by omission even in his selflessness just Nakata lied to his wife while the truth is only discovered by accident, firstly by reluctant nurse Minegishi (Noriko Sengoku) who walks in on him injecting the remedy for syphilis, she in turn then overheard by Kyoji’s father (Takashi Shimura) while Minegishi then overhears the explanation Kyoji gives him. She in a sense completes the cycle when she asks Misao to apologise to Kyoji on her behalf as she is too embarrassed to do so herself after realising that she got him wrong having resolved to turn her life around after learning of the depths of his selflessness.
Minegishi had been a nightclub dancer who tried to take her own life after becoming pregnant by a man who abandoned her but was saved by Kyoji who gave her a job at the clinic and convinced her to raise the child. It’s this child, at first unwanted but later loved and embraced by all despite the stigma of his being born out of wedlock, that offers the clearest path towards a healthier future suggesting that the solution lies in accepting the past with a willingness to make something new out of it rather than in wilful denial and resentful self-interest. Yet Kyoji is also human and privately resentful. “If I’d known it would happen to me I would’ve done things differently” he sneers petulantly suggesting that his properness may be an affectation rather than deeply felt conviction but equally frustrated in feeling his fate is unjust and that he’s suffering for someone else’s sin.
“Because of the blood of a shameless guy, my body became dirty without knowing any pleasure” he complains, hinting at a metaphor for his wartime contamination dragged into a conflict by forces outside of his control. The roles he plays are ironic, firstly a healer in a place of death and destruction and then as a deliverer of life at his father’s obstetrics clinic though he fears he will never have children of his own. He is in a sense trapped by his past as shown in the repeated visual metaphor of the closed gates outside the clinic on which the flowers that represent his relationship with Misao and hope for the future gradually wither. Minegishi tells him she’s in love with him and is willing to accept the risk of his disease to alleviate his desire, but he once again chooses to say nothing, immediately returning to business. As his father points out, he has (for the most part) resolved to channel his resentment into helping those less happy than himself but if he had been happy he may have become a snob, indifferent to the suffering of others. In some ways his problem is the familiar giri/ninjo conflict as he fights a silent duel within himself between his natural desires and his better nature but it’s also a battle against the slow poison of the wartime legacy through compassion and selflessness that may, like his inescapable illness, eventually drive him into madness.
The Silent Duel screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 11th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.