The abbot of Koho Temple will not be attaining enlightenment anytime soon, because his recent interests are distinctly worldly in nature. Along with some remarkable silk screen paintings of geese in flight, he inherits the artist’s mistress, Satoko Kirihara. At least it will be a paid position. His dirt-poor disciple Jinen Horinouchi gets abused and humiliated for free. Kirhara empathizes with Horinouchi, but he has a hard time identifying with her. There is no way you could call it a love triangle, but there is definitely a weird three-way personality-dynamic going on in Yuzo Kawashima’s The Temple of Wild Geese, which screens as part of Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao, the Japan Society’s series of newly 4K-restored Kawashima films, starring the great Wakao.
Initially, Kirihara is apprehensive about moving into the temple after the death of her patron-protector Nangku Kishimoto, but it turns out the horny abbot is easy for her to up-manage, as far as her own situation is concerned. However, he refuses to ease up on poor Horinouchi, despite her pleas for leniency. Ironically, her attempts to intercede on his behalf just seems to make the young monk resent her (and the sexual indulgence she represents) even more.
Frankly, the abbot is so taken with Kirihara, he starts to neglect most of his duties, except beating on the downtrodden Horinouchi. Even a colleague with a similarly scandalous mistress starts warning him take more cold showers. However, things in Koho Temple really get ugly when the abbot tethers Horinouchi with a rope, like a dog on a leash.
No matter which religious tradition you identify with, it is hard to believe a Buddhist priest would act in such a reckless, abusive, and dissipated manner. Still, it definitely sets up a dramatic reversal of fortune. Of course, Wakao is terrific as Kirihara. It is a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of a conflicted woman caught up in a situation not of her own making. Indeed, we are keenly aware she is basically just another pretty thing passed along from the artist to the abbot, exactly like the silkscreen paintings.
Likewise, viewers have to be impressed by how unremittingly slimy Masao Mishima is as the abbot. It is definitely a go-or-broke performance. However, Kuniichi Takami is so petulant and standoffish as Horinouchi, it is hard to gage the emotional reaction he was going for.
Like the knockout Elegant Beast, Wild Geese is visually striking, but in this case, Hiroshi Murai crafts some powerful wide-screen black-and-white images, which contrast with the sparing but dramatic use of color. At times, Kawashima’s hothouse drama is so messily human, it clouds up various characters’ motivations, but Wakao’s arresting vulnerability always rings true. Recommended for admirers of mature literary dramas, The Temple of Wild Geese screens this Saturday (12/2) and Sunday (12/3) at the Japan Society, as part of the Yuzo Kawashima x Ayako Wakao mini-retrospective.