Blind Spot 2017: The Quiet Duel

 

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The most unkindest cut of all Doc Mifune’s life.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film, The Quiet Duel, is one of his least seen works, partly due to some obscure rights issues that has kept it from being released by Criterion or any other major home video label. The lack of visibility can’t really be blamed for the lack of acclaim the film has generated: it is a relatively minor achievement for Kurosawa. But is still worth seeking out for any fans of the Japanese master filmmaker.

 

One might assume that the “duel” referred to in the title was between the two major stars of the film, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, who had squared off the previous year in Drunken Angel, and would later famously be paired in such films as Seven Samurai. However, the title actually refers to an internal moral battle and struggle against a disease contracted by Mifune’s character in the course of his work as a doctor.

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Blind Spot 2016: The Bad Sleep Well

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The Groom’s cake has an unusual theme.

I have been gradually making my way through the filmography of the great Akira Kurosawa. Thanks to some bargain eBay purchases, the public library, and a three month subscription to Hulu, I should be able to access just about every one of his films except, I think, Dersu Uzala. I recently watched his adaptation of Gorky’s play The Lower Depths. That was the first time seeing a Kurosawa film that I didn’t take much away from it. It contains a lot of scenes of miserable folks wallowing in a squalid tenement, with the only real plot elements coming from a love triangle (or maybe a love rectangle) between a thief, the landlord, the landlord’s wife, and her sister. To me, it was a great example of the difficulty even a master filmmaker like Kurosawa can have in translating a stage work into a successful film. Dramatic forms that seem so similar (plays and narrative films) are really far apart it seems in their means of artistic expression.

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Kurosawa and Nakadai: Creator and Chameleon

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In Akira Kurosawa’s memoir, Something Like an Autobiography, he does not mention the actor Tatsuya Nakadai. This is not a slight, however, when you consider that the narrative of the memoir concludes around the time of Rashōmon (released in 1950). In the epilogue to the book, Kurosawa explains:

I am a maker of films; films are my true medium. I think to learn what became of me after Rashōmon the most reasonable procedure would be to look for me in the characters in the films I made after Rashōmon. Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid the truth while pretending to be other people. They often reveal much about themselves in a very straightforward way. I am certain that I did. There is nothing that says more about a creator than the work itself.

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Der ursprüngliche Titel ist in Französisch.

I am not pleased with the translation of the title.

Why is it that some foreign films become known in the English world with their original language titles intact, and others are known by translations? This is a rhetorical question, mind you. I’m sure there are particular reasons in each specific case, which may just boil down to what distributors thought would sell more tickets.

Some movies, like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, aren’t even translations, but re-titling. If there were a reason for this, such as that a foreign idiom would be lost in the translation, then it would be understandable. But in this case, the original title, Kumonosu-jō seems far more evocative when you use the literal translation, “Spider’s Web Castle.” Someone in charge of marketing this film for the English speaking world clearly disagreed. Maybe they thought it sounded too much like a Hollywood monster film with that title.

There isn’t even a consistency among the works of a particular director. To stay with Kurosawa, many of his films, like Seven Samurai are known by the English title, but others such as Ikiru or Kagemusha are exclusively known with the Japanese title.

My friend put to me the case of the French film Murmur of the Heart (which I have not seen). In English, the title has a non-standard syntax for the adjectival noun, which mirrors the French syntax closely. The resulting poetical lilt to the title may or may not have been intended in the original French,  Le souffle au cœur. The film’s protagonist suffers from the medical debility of a literal heart murmur. Does the title, Le souffle au cœur, have the same clinical sound to the ears of a native French speaker that the English Heart Murmur would have?

Are there any other examples of oddities in the translation of Film titles? Feel free to share in comments below.