雁の寺 「Gan no Tera」
Duration: 96 mins.
Release Date: December 26th, 1962
Director: Yuzo Kawashima
Writer: Kazuo Funabashi, Yuzo Kawashima (Screenplay), Tsutomu Minakami (Original Novel)
Starring: Ayako Wakao, Masao Mishima, Kuniichi Takami, Isao Kimura, Ganjiro Nakamura, Kunikazu Takami, Ryoko Kamo, Mineko Mandai, Kiwami Sazanka,
One of the chief ironies of life is that those who profess to be the most morally upstanding often end up being the most immoral. With this in mind, director Yuzo Kawashima, chief satirist of post-war Japan, finds great material to work with when it comes to those in the religious orders. However, instead of laughs it is all menace as dark passions surge out of control. His film’s dark material finds its match with its aesthetic, a charcoal-like texture and look and foreboding music which make this a chilling film as we venture into the moral hypocrisy of the inhabitants in a Buddhist temple, all of which affects one boy’s warped mentality.
Satoko Kirihara (Ayako Wakao) is the object of desire and catalyst for said hypocrisy in this drama set in 1920s Kyoto. She is a courtesan hired by Nangaku Kishimoto (Ganjiro Nakamura), the head priest of the Rakuhoku Temple on Mount Kinugasa. He is a renowned artist who is working on his latest commission, a scene of wild geese spread across screens which we see in the film’s opening credits but the next thing we know he is on his deathbed and making a request to the portly and jovial abbot of Koho Temple, Jikai Kitami (Masao Mishima), to take the young woman in. Despite professing to have discarded all worldly connections Kitami needs little prompting and jumps at the opportunity to hire Satoko and jump on the beauty.
So, from her apartment above a flower shop in western Damachi to the cloistered world of Koho Temple, Satoko moves to become Kitami’s play-thing. She finds herself in a more austere and down-at-heel location where there is a single novice monk, a teenager named Jinen (Kuniichi Takami), who is cruelly treated by Kitami. His life is tough as befits a Zen Buddhist monk with endless work and physical punishments but the moral hypocrisy and casual cruelty of his increasingly overbearing master makes it harder to bear.
The young disciple becomes unsettled by Satoko’s presence partly because the lusty old abbot seems to enjoy bullying him when Satoko is around but there are hints that the teen is attracted to her. It cannot be denied that Satoko is drawn to him out of a sort of maternal concern, often standing up for him in the face of cruelty. Soon, perhaps sensing that they are in the same position of both being at the mercy of the abbot, Satoko sees a kindred spirit in the brooding teen and lets slip her own sad past in a moment of empathy but this, along with her mere touch, further drives the novice monk into confusion and as her offers of motherly comfort turn sensual their relationship risks becoming something of a menage-a-trois.
She sparks a serious moral crisis that reveals something far darker is eating away at the poor novice’s sanity, something connected to his background that tortures him, and as Satoko digs deeper to understand him she inadvertently sets off a shocking and scandalous event…
Taking Tsutomu Minakami’s semi-autobiographical story as its basis we get a pretty bleak film where foreboding music, black-and-white cinematography, brooding lighting and tight framing in a cramped temple creates a menacing and flinty atmosphere that emphasises the darkness in the characters. The polished floors may shine and the light colours of the sliding doors offer some art for the eyes but they only serve as a contrast to the deep blacks from which Jinen emerges and disappears in the temple’s warren of corridors. While trips outside of the temple offer some respite the immorality continues and there’s a sense that Jinen is trapped wherever he goes. The ending is as pessimistic as it could be and the build-up is masterfully done through the acting as well as the brilliant world-building and acting of his co-stars.
The film takes place in 1920s Japan and militarism is rife and most ordinary folk live modest lives. Irony and moral weakness runs rife as people skimp on paying for loved one’s funerals, Buddhist initiates are being trained for war, and women have to use a man or their wits to survive and we discover Kitami is just one of a network lascivious head priests located around Kyoto, exploiting their positions as shown in amusing scenes of boring meetings where shop talk turns to the latest acquisitions in lust. Satoko and Kitami’s relationship is normal in this context.
Masao Mishima as Kitami acts the perfect hypocrite in this role, laughably lazy and lustful as he buys the latest furnishings for Satoko, including a western style bed so he can enjoy her, and condemnable as a cruel spendthrift in charity when it comes to his own work treating the community and his relationship with the novice who he abuses and misuses, something which he claims has a genuine purpose: to build up character.
Wakao, so much the arch-manipulator who is all insouciance and stoicism in films by the likes of Yasuzo Masamura is more innocent here but still capable of sending men round the twist with her mere physical presence. She is a natural beauty with an alluring sensuality but renders her character more complex by adding heartfelt delivery of a piercing earnestness, melancholy and cheerfulness which she shows when aiding the novice while not realising it is driving him into a corner.
Actor Kuniichi Takami does well to flip between sullen spells and manic behaviour that stems from a confusion over his desire to follow Buddhist precepts and reality where the lusts of life can alter a person. It is rooted in a disconnect in his background, a terrible existential quandary which makes his behaviour become alarming and consequently the temple and its immorality becomes claustrophobic as he struggles to make sense of things whilst battling his own human nature.
While the set-up and characters suggest a bawdy comedy the execution is a little more dour and definitely darker than Kawashima’s more famous works, comedies such as Bakumatsu Taiyoden and Room for Let. This is, when coupled with The Graceful Brute which was released the same year, a caustic look at Japanese society. It’s mostly in the execution, that mise-en-scene that hints at the murky nature of the characters and the idea that something terrible will occur at the end of the film and the story definitely delivers it.