If it were so easy to “sever the bondage of earthly desires,” than everyone would be doing it, right? Thanks to the Buddha’s teachings, a high priest from Kyoto managed to do exactly that—at least for a while. However, a disgraced noble turned outlaw was easy pickings for a demonic temptress. If she can also corrupt the priest, it would represent the metaphysical victory of evil over good. Although essentially a four-character chamber play, the stakes are unusually high throughout Kenji Misumi’s The Devil’s Temple, which screens during the Japan Society’s retrospective, Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.
After the loss of his fortune and the dissolution of his clan, Mumyo no Taro became rather wayward. His long-suffering wife Kaede has tracked him down to the ruined temple, where he has been living in sin with his shameless mistress, Aizen. Kaede expected he would obediently return to her out of shame, but instead, the illicit lovers brazenly carry on in the main chamber, while she camps out in an anteroom.
Kaede hopes salvation arrives when a traveling high priest stops to rest at the temple. He hopes to talk Mumyo back onto the straight and narrow. However, he also gently calls out Kaede for the perverse pride she takes in her martyrdom. Unfortunately, Aizen is more dangerous than he initially assumes, but he will start to get the picture when he realizes she is his destructive former lover. Of course, she is determined to drag him back down into the carnal depths, whereas he hopes to lead Kaede and Mumyo toward righteousness through his example of resistance.
Even though there are no genre elements per se in Temple, the suggestively demonic nature of Aizen is profoundly unsettling. Frankly, Hawthorne could have easily related to both its vibe and marquee conflict, yet the character and flavor of the film are distinctly Buddhist. It is also a dramatic example of how evocative sets and general mise-en-scene can help foster a mood of foreboding. Plus, Miyagawa’s lensing is surprisingly dynamic for a more-or-less one-set four-hander. When the action strays the temple, he gives it a disorienting, nightmarish look.
Showing tremendous range, Michiyo Aratama is scorchingly seductive and flamboyantly evil as Aizen, the femme fatale to beat all femme fatales. This is light years away from her heart-rending performances in The Human Condition and Kwaidan, but it might leave an even deeper impression. The legendary Hideko Takamine (looking rather ghostly herself here) is also extraordinarily nuanced and rather ambiguous as the wronged Kaede. Shintaro Katsu (Ichi-san) is a bit of a blowhard stock character as Mumyo, but Kei Sato makes the humble priest quite a distinctively cerebral hero.
This is a terrific work of Buddhist cinema that treats big-picture spiritual concepts with scrupulous seriousness. There are not a lot of films structured around temptations of the flesh, so that makes Temple quite memorable, especially since it is Aratama providing the temptation. Very highly recommended, The Devil’s Temple screens this Saturday (4/21) at Japan Society, as part of Kazuo Miyagawa: Japan’s Greatest Cinematographer.