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[Short Reviews]


The MFA’s festival of films by the great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa kicks off with this startling and mysterious 1958 adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The story is set in Kyoto in the ’40s, in the shadow of the war. A young novice named Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa), whose social growth has been marred by his stutter, is apprenticed to the priest of a temple that the boy has always looked on as the fragile embodiment of untainted beauty. Mizoguchi is both fascinated by and deeply intolerant of the corruption in the world around him, and in his own soul; he looks to the temple as the figure of his salvation. The movie is a series of episodes that illustrate that corruption. Several — perhaps the most memorable ones — feature the marvelous Tatsuya Nakadai in an audacious performance as another novice, one who uses his club foot as a sympathy lure for the young women he wants to bed.

Ichikawa sticks closely to the novel — so closely, in fact, that on one level the movie is a kind of shorthand for the book. One or two scenes are a little puzzling; you may feel the need to consult the original to understand the full emotional context. And one sequence, involving an American GI and the woman he’s impregnated, is staged clumsily. Otherwise the movie, a rarity that is being screened in a brand-new print, is remarkable. Ichikawa’s main alteration in the source material is structural: he adds a frame, so that the movie begins with the aftermath of a fire in the temple (the climax of the novel) for which the police hold Mizoguchi responsible. Most of the film is a flashback, but not because the novice breaks down and tells the cops what happened; he remains silent during the interrogation, so as the story unfolds, what we see is what’s locked up in his head.

That’s a brilliant device for a movie with a repressed protagonist. Mishima is the master of repression, and Ichikawa treads exquisitely on his territory, where chastity and perversity are opposite sides of the same coin, and where conflagration can connote, simultaneously, the white flames of purification and the red flames of unanswered erotic desire. The movie is about the quest for and the impossibility of purity.

By Steve Vineberg

Issue Date: July 26- August 2, 2001