The Temple of Wild Geese (Yuzo Kawashima, 1962)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Temple of Wild Geese.

Ayako Wakao stars as Satoko, mistress to an accomplished artist who passes her along on his death to the lascivious head priest of a prominent Buddhist temple famous for its paintings of wild geese. She is drawn to a melancholy young disciple who also resides at the temple in similar dependence to the priest and who is treated cruelly for his efforts. Fascinated by the pitiable young man and aware of their similarly impoverished upbringings, Satoko seeks him out, slowly drawing him closer to her and unwittingly placing further strain on his tortured soul. Yuzo Kawashima’s film, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Hiroshi Murai, is a sharply observed exploration of moral weakness and a darkly ironic adaptation of Tsutomu Minakami’s 1961 semi-autobiographical novel.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with critic, filmmaker, and festival programmer Tony Rayns
  • New program with Eric Nyari on the film and its restoration
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by film scholar Irene González-López and Tsutomu Minakami’s original story

In Elegant Beast (1962), Yuzo Kawashima exposed the corrupt heart of Japan through the nexus of new and old social institutions (capitalism and globalism on the one hand; family and honor on the other). That same year, Yuzo Kawashima explored that same darkness in The Temple of Wild Geese, once again in collaboration with actress Ayako Wakao and this time in the context of religion. Set in the 1920s, the film attends to an uneasy tripartite relationship between an abbot, his mistress, and his disciple all living under the same temple’s roof. The result is a movie that feels inevitably tragic in its atmosphere and becomes trenchantly dreadful by its dénouement.

Satoko Kirihara (Ayako Wakao) is the mistress of a prolific artist, Nangaku Kishimoto (Ganjirô Nakamura), notable for his painting of flying geese at the Koho Temple. At the painter’s dying request, the temple’s lustful abbot, Jikai Kitami (Masao Mishima), happily takes in the attractive woman and makes her his own mistress, outfitting them with indulgent comforts like a Western-style double bed. Sharing the temple with them is Jinen Harinouchi (Kuniichi Takami), a young disciple who studies under Kitami in exchange for tuition money. Jinen is sullen but obedient, dutifully carrying out unpleasant tasks such as emptying the temple’s privy and bearing Kitami’s verbal and physical abuse. Satoko shows compassion for Jinen and frequently pleads for Kitami’s mercy, but Kitami rejects her appeals, citing the harsh treatment as being good for the young man’s character and seeming to enjoy his displays of power in front of Satoko. Jinen’s religious earnestness and his possible attraction to Satoko makes him uncomfortable with the woman’s attention and his withdrawal from her only causes her to seek him out even more, resulting in her maternal affections for the young man turning to something more sensual. The Temple of Wild Geese culminates with Kitami suddenly going missing and the perversely cloistered space of the Koho Temple being exposed to outside demands and the intervention of religious higher-ups, threatening the security of Satoko’s position and further straining Jinen’s struggling personality. Its ending is bleak and despairing, with the sounds of Kishimoto’s geese ringing in the ears of Jinen and Satoko.

The Temple of Wild Geese is based on Tsutomu Minakami’s semi-autobiographical story of the same title. Minakami studied in a Zen temple in Kyoto from the age of 9 to 12 and left in 1936 disillusioned by the similar conduct of its high priest. Minakami was a prolific and accomplished writer whose works included detective novels, biographies, plays, and the source novel to Tomu Uchida’s exceptional film, A Fugitive from the Past. The film is exquisitely shot by Hiroshi Murai, cinematographer to Kihachi Okamoto classics like The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963), Samurai Assassin (1965), The Sword of Doom (1966), and The Human Bullet (1968). His frames are frequently claustrophobic and often coldly symmetrical, and the film looks and feels remarkably dark, almost having the charcoal texture of Setsuo Kobayashi’s work on Fires on the Plain (1959), A Wife Confesses (1961), and The Whale God (1962). Kawashima felt particularly indebted to his cinematographer, remarking “I want to thank Hiroshi Murai behind the camera. That is because Murai made me sorry that I was not a director who saw films from a painterly perspective. He let me realize this.”

This moody, shadowy tale is naturally supported by great performances. Masao Mishima’s abbot is robust and earthly, a difficult role model for Kuniichi Takami’s sensitively dour and angst-ridden student. Wakao’s mistress is compassionate and well-intentioned, something of a break from her many other notable roles playing scheming or at least ambivalent figures. She is customarily gorgeous, assuming here the role of a beautiful item passed between masters, much like the paintings themselves. Despite Satoko’s empathetic and generous nature, her presence is typically Wakao-like in its effect, moving the tides by her mere presence and inspiring men to unreasonable, fateful actions. Good or bad, Wakao’s influence seems inevitable.

The Temple of Wild Geese is also memorable for two colour sequences inserted into its gorgeous black and white cinematography. The first is a title sequence showing the paintings that adorn the temple’s interior walls. The second is an epilogue that reveals the temple’s place as a contemporary tourist destination. From outside, we see the hustle and bustle of street life – pedestrians and tourists, taxi cabs, street signs, and active commerce. Inside, tour guides present the paintings to sightseers and discourage photography, referring them to the gift shop for reproductions. Kawashima launches his film into the present day here, noting that what was once art and a source of spiritual engagement is now a commodity to be ogled without thought and then acquired as a takeaway souvenir. The gravity of Murai’s black and white cinematography, embodying the film’s human drama, and spirituality found in the restrained artistry of the title sequence’s isolated paintings are eradicated by the cacophonous epilogue and its portrayal of modern, objectifying, and subsuming Japan.

With a new 4K transfer of The Temple of Wild Geese having recently been screened by the Japan Society, MMC! remains hopeful that a hard media release by the Criterion Collection is possible. The edition would require a cover treatment and this image from the film of an anguished Satoko looking through a hole torn through Kishimoto’s painting is just too graphic, too compelling to pass up.

Credits: Tony Rayns and Eric Nyari were chosen to provide special features for the same reasons discussed in our imagined edition of Elegant Beast. Irene González-López was selected to supply an essay given her knowledge of Japanese cinema and her specific attention to Ayako Wakao. This post owes thanks to Joe Bendel’s post at J.B. Spins and Jaime Girjalba’s article at The Brooklyn Rail.

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