Enjo/Conflagration, 1958

A quiet, asocial young man named Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) arrives at the idyllic Soenji Temple that houses the renowned Shukaku Pavilion with a letter of introduction from his late father, a humble, provincial monk and trusted friend of the Chief Priest, Tayama (Ganjiro Nakamura). Unmarried and without an heir to the temple, Tayama quickly welcomes the young man into his tutelage. The impulsive decision to accept Mizoguchi as a novice draws immediate protest from Tayama’s business advisor who decries the priest’s favoritism, but also suggests his own son’s eligibility for entrance into the temple and potential for future succession to the position of Chief Priest. Nevertheless, despite the advisor’s dissension, Tayama assumes responsibility for Mizoguchi’s training and sends him to school in order to further his education. But soon, Mizoguchi’s suitability to succeed Tayama is brought into question when the residents realize that Mizoguchi’s silence is a tormented, self-conditioned response to conceal a severe stammering problem, and argue that he is not linguistically capable of reciting sutras or providing spiritual counseling without drawing ridicule from the parishioners. The introspective Mizoguchi escapes the criticism by retreating into the cherished memories of his terminally ill father and meticulously cleaning the floors of the pavilion, attempting to retain the ideal image of Shukaku instilled by his father. However, Mizoguchi’s devotion to maintaining the purity of the pavilion becomes increasingly monomaniacal, as he turns away his adulterous, interfering mother, Aki (Tanie Kitabayashi), during an air raid, and injures a prostitute seeking refuge in the pavilion from an abusive soldier. Alienated from the other students and plagued by poor scholastic performance, Mizoguchi befriends a callous and vitriolic scholar with a physical disability named Kashiwagi (Tatsuya Nakadai) in the misguided belief that their mutual impairment brings understanding. However, Mizoguchi’s reliance on Koshiwagi’s advice to test Tayama’s sincerity proves detrimental, and the novice falls further into disfavor. Bereft of hope to ascend into the priesthood and impotent to the gradual defilement of his beloved Shukaku, Mizoguchi resorts to a final, desperate act.

Adapted from the Yukio Mishima novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and loosely based on the real-life destruction of a sacred structure by a mentally disturbed young priest in 1950, Enjo is a bleak and disturbing examination of Japan’s postwar generation, the apure (from the French word après, or “after”). By juxtaposing Mizoguchi’s systematic disillusionment with the stark realism of his environment, Kon Ichikawa captures the pervasive nihilism and cynicism of the postwar generation, despite the country’s efforts to rebuild and preserve cultural heritage: the temple’s decision to open access to Shukaku in order to generate revenue; Kashiwagi’s exploitation of his disability to seduce women; Mizoguchi’s discovery of Tayama’s mistress. Furthermore, by structuring the narrative as a fragmented series of intercut flashbacks, Ichikawa reflects Mizoguchi’s underlying psychological fracture and increasing madness. In essence, Mizoguchi’s obsession with preserving purity leads to the irrational idea of destroying the offending reality. Tragically, Mizoguchi’s desperate ideal, like those of the postwar generation, prove to be transient, elusive, and irretrievable.

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