Film Review: Kon Ichikawa’s “Conflagration” / “Enjo” (炎上)

Ed. Note: This review is based on the pre-restored version of the film.

Kon Ichikawa’s long and varied career is a testament to his skill as an artist working in various genres, even tackling mediums as unique as drawn and stop-motion animation. Yet it is often too easy to dismiss or even forget him when listing the great Japanese directors of the first half of the 20th century. Although Ichikawa didn’t really have a signature style, it was clearly evident that an auteur was at work in each project he was a part of. The base ingredients of a typical Ichikawa picture – often adaptations of popular plays or novels – are bleakness, ironic moments and visually arresting scenes.

One of his earliest successes, “Enjo,” is an adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Loosely based on a real life event, Ichikawa frames Mishima’s novel within the structure of a mystery. Yet it’s evident from the opening moments of the film that the picture you will be seeing is not going to be a conventional whodunit or psychodrama.  In the film’s opening scene, our protagonist Goichi (Raizo Ichikawa, no relation to the director) sits, head down, in a cramped room with several investigators surrounding him. This expository scene reveals to the audience, by way of the investigators’ dialogue with one another, the young man’s history, state of mind, and also his crime: the fiery destruction of Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

By choosing to open the film this way, Ichikawa economically addresses the banal details of Goichi’s actions.  He quickly moves on to tell the far more interesting tale of a stubborn idealist’s eventual descent into madness. Goichi is a character obsessed with aesthetics, specifically the transcendent perfection of Kinkaku-ji, but when he realizes that the beauty he worships is impossible for any man to attain, he suffers a mental collapse.  The docile Goichi then transforms into a being of death and destruction. As a master of his craft, Mishima accomplished all this through literature, abstracting his thoughts as the character’s internal struggle, making for a lot of beautiful prose but practically impossible to dramatize cinematically.

To assist Ichikawa in the daunting task of adapting Mishima’s book, he had three major collaborators that helped realize his vision. The first, Raizo Ichikawa was cast as the lead due in no small part to the actor’s looks and popularity, but the director’s sardonic personality led to him using the actor’s baby-face good looks for another reason. Ichikawa’s handsome effete features was a brilliant counterpoint to the sick, often malicious, young man underneath, which in turn made you equally sympathize and pity the protagonist even as you watch him gradually break bad.

Aside from Raizo, it can’t be said enough how the editing of Shigeo Nishida was avant-garde and ahead of its time. Structurally non-linear in plot, the story shifts from the present day to flashbacks of Goichi’s childhood through the use of a variety of shot transitions, each one dramatizing not just the passage of time but also Goichi’s state of mind and foreshadowing key moments. Ichikawa doesn’t have Nishida chop up time so much as he has him mix and blend all the events together like in a blender. The cuts and transitions become more jarring and abrupt as Goichi’s mental state deteriorates, an ingenious way of illustrating the inner perversity lying underneath the character’s self-righteous exterior.

The final key collaborator, Kazuo Miyagawa, was one of Japan’s most acclaimed cinematographers.  Although famous for his use of fluid camera movements, in “Enjo” he utilizes a more traditional static style. Ichikawa has Miyagawa frame Goichi, when filmed indoors, being dominated by the architecture, the lines in the room constricting his movement and isolating him even when there are other people in the room. The rationale for this is to create a sense of claustrophobia in the story. When the camera moves outdoors, Miyagawa places the camera at a low angle resulting in Goichi being trapped and enclosed by the scenery itself, a visual signifier of how his looming neurotic obsession won’t loosen its grasp on him.

With “Enjo,” Ichikawa and his collaborators made a true masterpiece of world cinema. The picture utilized filmic techniques that were just starting to become part of the medium’s everyday vocabulary, and is rife with metaphors to unpack with every viewing. One must not forget though that the film originated first as a commercial adaptation of a popular novel. Ichikawa unlike many of his contemporaries was more conscious of the commercial interests inherent in filmmaking, something that often clashed with the director’s artistic sensibility. And sadly the film was a commercial flop, only to be rescued many years later by cinephiles that knew better than the audience that Ichikawa had to cater to.

The restored version of “Conflagration” / “Enjo” screens in 35mm at the Japan Society in New York on Fri., Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. as part of a three-film series on Kon Ichikawa.  For ticket information, go to