ENJO (Kon Ichikawa, 1958)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Based on Yukio Mishima’s 1956 novel Kinkakuji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion), Enjo (a.k.a. Conflagration and Flame of Torment) unfolds as the unimpeded flashback of a stuttering boy, Goichi Mizoguchi, who has been apprehended by police for burning down Kyoto’s 14th-century Soenji Temple, where he had apprenticed to the head priest, Tayama, after the death of his father, a provincial monk who revered the building. Tayama had seemed to the boy as pure as the temple itself; after a series of disillusionments regarding the temple either directly or symbolically (although the structure had eluded Allied bombing, U.S. occupiers defiled it by using it as an ad hoc brothel; the Japanese themselves commercialized it later on), Goichi learns that his mentor has a mistress and commits his irrevocable criminal act. If the temple proved too pure an ideal to exist in so tarnished a world, neither can the latter sustain his own youthful idealism. Goichi commits suicide.
     Something is rotten in the state of Japan; Goichi’s arson assaults the betrayal of Japanese fathers and traditions. The boy bears his father’s mark: the stutter, according to Goichi’s narration in the book, that “placed an obstacle between [him] and the outside world.” His father’s death, then, has strengthened, not diluted, the filial bond. But his feelings are even more complex than this suggests, for the beauty of the temple makes Goichi feel that his own existence “was a thing estranged from beauty” (Mishima). Japan’s betrayed past—its betrayed fathers—now taunts the youth, also contributing to his destruction of the Buddhist temple.
     In the film, the temple isn’t much to look at; this underscores its subjective beauty for Goichi. The whole drama is a thing of his mind. Ichikawa’s austere, precise, analytical images are among the most beautiful in cinema.

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