When Enjo opens, Shukoku temple has already been burned to the ground, and the strange, silent Mizoguchi has been found nearby in a coma-like trance with matches on him. There aren’t any questions about guilt here – It is taken for granted that Mizoguchi has started the fire, but the police run up against a brick wall in trying to get a motive from the mute boy. There are a couple of unusual things that we can take away from this, however: Mizoguchi has two knife wounds on his chest, and as one detective says to another, “He has a slight split personality.”
Enjo is told almost entirely in flashback, as we keep jumping back to fill in more info about Mizoguchi. We see him as he comes to the Sion temple to work, and we discover that he is the son of a prominent priest, now deceased. This little vignette also marks the first time Mizoguchi speaks, and when he does, it’s with a severe stutter. The first piece fits into place…
Enjo is based upon a novel called The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, written by the infamous Yukio Mishima. Mishima was notable for his belief that Japan should return to the Bushido code of the Samurai, and that life should be a quest for beauty and purity. This second point is especially salient as it applies to the film’s young protagonist.
It’s hard to wrap your head around Mizoguchi at first, because Ichikawa obscures him. Early on, a young naval officer leaves his uniform and sword with him, with orders to look after them. Mizoguchi promptly defaces the scabbard with a pocketknife. The easiest message to derive from this is that the young stutterer is repulsed by the air of assumed superiority that the officer carries. Upon hearing Mizoguchi speak, he remarked “In the navy we would cure him of stuttering in less than a week.”
There’s also the matter of Mizoguchi’s mother, who is portrayed as a braying irritant. When she comes to visit her son, he shuns her – She’s a source of embarrassment to him. There’s the strong suggestion that she has become a prostitute in the aftermath of her husband’s dying, and she also admits that she has sold his temple. For Mizoguchi, who worshipped his father, this is more than he can bear.
Enjo is an enigmatic film, one that isn’t easily interpreted. Since Mizoguchi says virtually nothing, we have to intuit what is going on in his head from his actions, and those close to him. There’s a scene where a girl comes to Shukoku with an American serviceman. When she tries to enter, he attacks her, exclaiming “Don’t you dare defile Shukoku!” That’s a good tip-off. He sees the temple as being beautiful and pure – Unlike himself.
Take the case of the head priest at the temple. He is a kindly and respected older man, and an old friend of Mizoguchi’s father. A paternal bond develops between them, and the priest sees Mizoguchi as a possible successor. The old man, however, has his own demons. He is entertaining a mistress on the side, who ends up pregnant. Mizoguchi’s discovery of this fact is yet another emotional domino falling over.
The most interesting character in the film doesn’t make his appearance until later. That’s Kashiwagi, a crippled and cynical student. Mizoguchi probably gravitated towards him due to his disability: He mistakenly thinks they are kindred spirits. In reality, Kasawagi is cold and mentally cruel. He uses his disability to seduce a girl, and then winks at Mizoguchi while doing it. He also helps push Mizoguchi towards his last mad act.
The fire itself is beautifully photographed, and the fact that is shot in a stark black night with the searing flames looking like a pure white gives the event a tragic finality. (The cinematography is by the legendary Kazuo Miyagawa, who shot, among other things, Rashomon and Yojimbo for Akira Kurosawa, Sansho the Bailiff for Kenji Mizoguchi, Floating Weeds for Yasujiro Ozu, and Fires on the Plain for Ichikawa)
By the time the fire occurs, we have gotten a pretty good handle on Mizoguchi. As a shy stutterer, he is only too aware of his own shortcomings. The temple was a central part of his father’s life, and the love that the father felt for it is transferred to the son. In his mind, Mizoguchi sees Shukoku as an emblem of the perfection that is missing from every other part of his life. Everything that happens in Enjo serves to illustrate to Mizoguchi that he is living in an imperfect world. His stuttering, the mother-turned-prostitute, the old priest with his clandestine affairs, the mean-spirited cripple are all factors which lead to the arson. The tipping point comes when he realizes that Shukoku’s purity is not necessarily eternal, either. The early scene with the young girl is recalled later in the film when he sees dozens of tourists streaming out of the temple. By this time, the die is cast for Shukoku. In order for it to be preserved, it must be destroyed.
So, is that all? Is Enjo simply a movie about a troubled youth who commits a needless act of arson? Yes and no. Ichikawa devotes a lot of time establishing Mizoguchi's neuroses, and illuminating how they lead to his breakdown, but at another level, the film is about the sickness of post-war Japanese society. Everyone we encounter in the film is corrupt on some level, whether it's the priest with his concubine, the cripple with his cynical methods of seducing women, or Mizoguchi's mother, who surrenders to prostitution. Seen in this light, the temple can be viewed as representing "old Japan", standing as a bulwark against polluting modern influences. When it is gone, something more than a mere structure is gone forever. Mizoguchi knows this, and Yukio Mishima knew it as well. The old priest figures it out, as well, and this fuels his telling remark as he watches Shukoku burn to the ground.