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teaser Conflagration (1958)

The destruction of Kyoto's Golden Pavilion by a mentally ill monk in 1950 was an event that shook postwar Japan. Novelist Yukio Mishima used it as the springboard for his 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which Kon Ichikawa adapted to the screen with his wife, Natto Wada, and Keiji Hasebe. Where Mishima had focused on the nature of Zen Buddhism and theories of aesthetics, however, Ichikawa dealt with psychology and social forces. The film opens with the monk's interrogation, becoming more whydunit than whodunit. Through a series of intricate flashbacks, the film captures the childhood trauma, the discovery of his mother's infidelity, that shaped the young man's deep spirituality, centered on the temple where he goes to study. He is then confronted with harsh realities, the disrespect of tourists, the greed and corruption of the other priests and the more cynical worldview of his closest friend, a lame musician. Through subtle realistic detail, Ichikawa turns the story into a dark satire of postwar Japan and, by extension, human nature. The director's subtlety may be the reason he is the least celebrated of the great Japanese directors, but it is also one of the film's greatest strengths.

By Frank Miller

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