Evanescence and tragic beauty: an existential reading of Yukio Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
Abstract: Yukio Mishima's novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is one of the most enigmatic texts in world literature. Narrated in the first-person and with a wealth of psychological details about the narrator's past, the novel has, understandably, attracted the attention of psychoanalysts. Psychoanalytic readings of the text, however, have worked to the principle that the protagonist's actions in the present can be explained by a reference to his past. The present paper reverses this hermeneutic strategy: it focuses on the protagonist's freedom-towards-the-future. What follows, then, is an existential reading of one man's obsessions, as he asserts his freedom and confronts the boundary situations of impermanence and human sexual desire.

Key Words

Freedom, boundary situation, impermanence, sexuality, world-design
Article Type: Critical essay
Subject: Existentialism (Analysis)
Liberty (Analysis)
Sex (Psychology) (Analysis)
Author: Berguno, George
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 22 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Novel)
Persons: Named Person: Hiraoka, Kimitake
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874221
Full Text: First Encounter with the Golden Temple

Yukio Mishima's novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion begins with an account of Mizoguchi's childhood. As a child, Mizoguchi hears about the Golden Temple from his father and it is the father's description of the eternal beauty of this legendary monument that becomes engraved on his heart. At times, he experiences the temple as existing everywhere and encompassing his life from all directions. But the beauty of the temple contrasts with another simple given of his existence: his stuttering. His inner self is denied access to the world of interpersonal living because he cannot speak as others do. Humiliated by other boys and defeated in competitive sports and exercises, he begins to withdraw from the world of communal living. In everyday life he is 'like a little bird that is trying to extricate itself from thick lime' (Mishima, 2001: 5), as he struggles to utter the first word of a sentence. But by the time he has succeeded in uttering the word that would liberate him from his isolation, the world has moved on and lost its freshness and appeal.

To make up f or his stuttering, Mizoguchi entertains fantasies of a grandiose and narcissistic nature; he imagines himself wreaking cruel revenge on all those who have mocked or tormented him. He believes that he will play a unique and important role in world events. As he is destined to become a priest, and will therefore not be participating in the Pacific War, he imagines the dead bodies of his classmates in military uniforms coming into his outstretched arms. Fully aware of the unrealistic nature of his fantasies, his pride takes root and is nourished by the fact that he is continually misunderstood by others. As his pride grows, so does his solitude; he appears destined to retire from the world and its endless dramas. Until one day, a tragic incident occurs in his village; an event that brings him face-to-face with the boundary situation of human sexual desire.

Not far from his uncle's house there lives Uiko, a pretty girl with large eyes and a proud manner. One evening, as Mizoguchi is fantasizing about Uiko's body and the texture of her flesh, he suddenly runs out onto the road where he knows Uiko will ride by in her bicycle. But no sooner has he seen her than an oppressive emptiness descends upon him and he is unable to express his desire in words. To begin with Uiko is frightened at the way he blocks her path, but after staring at his mouth and realising that no power will emanate from it, she scorns him and continues on her journey. Wanting to eradicate the shameful memory of this encounter, Mizoguchi responds to Uiko's rejection by cursing her and wishing for her death. When his curse is miraculously fulfilled a few months later, he comes to believe in his own capacity for destruction.

While working at a naval hospital, Uiko becomes intimate with a man who later deserts the navy. When the hospital discovers that she is pregnant, Uiko is dismissed. Before long it is also discovered that she has been aiding the deserter. Mizoguchi is present at the moment the police detain Uiko. And when Uiko agrees to lead police to the temple where the man is hiding, it appears to Mizoguchi that she is going to betray her lover. Fascinated by her act of treachery, Mizoguchi momentarily believes that Uiko will come to belong to him; but he is surprised to discover that she prefers to be with her lover, even in death, than to give up her passion. Uiko is shot by her lover, who immediately takes his own life. The sight of the two dead bodies and, more importantly, the vision of Uiko's face just before she betrays the world and surrenders to her passion become indelibly engraved in Mizoguchi's memory. From then on, he struggles to come to terms with human sexual desire; his own, and that of others.

Beauty, Impermanence and the Mystery of Female Sexuality

The following year his father takes him to Kyoto, on a visit to the Golden Temple. In Mizoguchi's imagination, the temple is imbued with the strength to withstand the powers of darkness. No matter what others might say about the temple, it would forever stand aloof from human preoccupations, silent and immutable, like 'some beautiful ship crossing the sea of time.' (Mishima, 2001: 19) As a symbol of eternity that contrasts with the father's declining health, the temple stands as a human response to the boundary situation of impermanence. However, the most profound significance of the temple for Mizoguchi resides in its beauty. It would not be an exaggeration, he confesses, to see beauty as the first and therefore most profound dilemma of his existence.

Shortly after being introduced to Father Dosen, the Superior of the temple, Mizoguchi receives news of his father's death. Unable to feel any sorrow over the loss of his father, he reflects on the impermanence of all things and in this way he is granted a glimpse of the brute materiality of existence:

This was the first time that I had been confronted by a situation like this in which a spirit is transformed by death into mere physical substance; and now I felt that I was gradually beginning to understand why it was that spring flowers, the sun, my desk, the schoolhouse, pencils--all physical substance, indeed--had always seemed so cold to me, had almost seemed to exist so far away from myself. (Mishima, 2001: 30)

This is expressed even more poignantly during the funeral service, where Mizoguchi merely looks at his father's dead face:

The corpse was just being looked at. I was just looking. To know that looking ... was such a proof of the rights of those who are alive, and that this looking could also be an expression of cruelty--all this came to me now as a vivid experience. Thus did the young boy, who never sang loudly, who never ran about shouting at the top of his lungs, ascertain the facts of his own existence. (Mishima, 2001: 30)

Mizoguchi becomes an acolyte at the temple and builds new relationships with those who serve it. He makes friends with the gentle and easygoing Tsurukawa, although his feelings continue to be 'out of time' with everyone else (like his speech) and intimate communication with others remains beyond him. Most important of all, his relationship with the temple continues to develop, as he talks to it, asking it to reveal the secret of its beauty, all the while conscious of his need that the temple must remain beautiful. The more he reflects on the war, on the air raids on Kyoto, on the corpses that must be lying on the battlefields, the more he becomes immersed in the tragic beauty of the temple. He imagines that his own destiny and sense of identity are linked to the fate of the temple. In this sense, the temple represents a fascinating image of beauty and perfection that distracts him from the sense of inadequacy brought on by his stuttering and his ugliness.

One day, Mizoguchi reveals to Tsurukawa his strange connection with the temple, along with his fears that the temple might be burned down in an air raid. But his confession is made incoherent by his stuttering. Accustomed to being humiliated for the faltering manner of his speech, it comes as a g reat surprise to him that Tsurukawa listens patiently to his anxieties. As he reflects on Tsurukawa's gentleness, Mizoguchi is overcome by a feeling of happiness and harmony with the world. And his oppressive obsession with the Golden Temple, which up to now had been accompanied by all kinds of anxieties, blossoms into an intimate feeling of belonging to its beauty. But this is to be the only happy period in Mizoguchi's life. In time, his fantasy image of the Golden Temple becomes so inextricably entwined with the concrete details of the real temple that he is absorbed and consumed by its beauty, while simultaneously being plagued by dark thoughts about the world's evanescence. As he reflects on the war and the concrete meaning that it might hold for him, there is an incident that brings him once again in confrontation with the boundary situation of human sexual desire.

One afternoon, Mizoguchi and Tsurukawa visit the Nanzen Temple, admiring its statues and interior paintings. Walking along a stone-paved path they come to the Tenju Hermitage and are surprised to see a beautiful woman in an elegant dress, sitting in one of the large rooms. A moment later an army officer appears, and, after the woman has made tea, she loosens her kimono, revealing her bare white breasts. Rubbing one of her breasts with her hands, she adds some milk to the officer's teacup, which he then drinks to the last drop. As the two young men stare in wonderment at the couple's strange ritual, Mizoguchi is suddenly haunted by the memory of the girl from his village and comes to believe that the woman in the kimono is Uiko herself, returned from the dead.

On the anniversary of his father's death, Mizoguchi suddenly remembers an incident that occurred when he was thirteen; it is an incident that explains why he has never got along with his mother. A male relative of his mother's had come to stay with them for an indefinite period of time, and because space was severely limited, the relative was forced to sleep in the same bed as Mizoguchi and his parents. During the night Mizoguchi is awakened by strange noises; he realizes that his mother is making love to the visitor. But the terrifying vision of his mother's passion is cut off by the father's intervention. The father covers his son's eyes with his hands. Realizing that he is being asked to keep his eyes closed, Mizoguchi nods acceptance of the situation. One of the consequences of his acquiescence to this painful state of affairs is that he is cut off from the world of human passions (even as his stuttering cuts him off from the realm of language). From then on, Mizoguchi secretly nurses a desire for revenge on his father' hands and grows to feel that his hate is more real than his capacity for love.

When Mizoguchi's mother visits him at the monastery on t he anniversary of his father's death, he is startled to hear her say that it is unlikely that the air raids will destroy the Golden Temple, a prediction that is confirmed later by the ending of the war. The effect that this news has on Mizoguchi is profound, for whereas he had cherished the idea that he and the temple were part of the same reality, he begins to realise that the absolute otherness of the temple's beauty transcends his own world and all forms of evanescence. Feeling himself abandoned to the world of impermanence, he feels cut off from the temple and experiences its beauty as a curse. It is at this point that he takes an existential decision to plunge as deep as he can 'into an inner world of evil.' (Mishima, 2001: 65)

One Sunday morning, Mizoguchi is asked to act as a gui de to an American soldier who is taking a local prostitute out for a drive. Mizoguchi is stunned by the prostitute's defiant beauty, a beauty so very different to Uiko's. However, both the soldier and the prostitute are drunk, and, as Mizoguchi is showing the couple around the Temple grounds, a quarrel erupts between the soldier and the prostitute. With the girl lying semi-naked on the snow, the soldier commands Mizoguchi to step on the helpless girl. Mizoguchi obeys. As his booted foot descends on the girl's exposed breast and stomach, his original sense of inner conflict gives way to a delicious feeling of joy and physical excitement. Later the same day, after reflecting on his brutal act, he becomes conscious of his desire for revenge against women in general, and against men in authority in particular.

To demonstrate his newly-discovered contempt for the Father Superior, Mizoguchi makes a present to the Superior of the two cartons of cigarettes that the American soldier had given him. Mizoguchi takes great joy in thinking that the Superior is completely ignorant of his evil deed. But events conspire against Mizoguchi. The prostitute complains to the Superior that, because of Mizoguchi's cruel act, she has miscarried. Upon hearing rumours of this shameful act, Tsurukawa repeatedly questions Mizoguchi. But Mizoguchi denies the accusations. The important point here, from an existential perspective, is not so much the pleasure that Mizoguchi derives from his complex web of lies and deceit, as the way by which he comes to gain consciousness of his freedom. He revels in the sweet memories of the pain he has inflicted on the girl and realises that the joy he has experienced in his act of cruelty has not been dictated by compulsion, but by a sudden realisation of his freedom of choice. Upon this realisation, he is overcome by the impulse to be free of all forces that are constraining him: the Father Superior, his friendship with Tsurukawa and his mother's wish that he should become the next Deacon of the Temple.

The Meeting with Kashiwagi

Some time later Mizoguchi begins his studies at Otani University where he meets the enigmatic Kashiwagi, a fellow student who suffers from clubfeet. The first conversation between Mizoguchi and Kashiwagi takes an unexpected turn when the latter asks Mizoguchi whether he is still a virgin. Kashiwagi goes on to give an extraordinary existential analysis of his unique way of being-in-the-world (Heidegger, 1962), upon which Mizoguchi learns of the many parallels between them. Both men are preoccupied with the question of beauty and the boundary situation of impermanence; both men search for a way to give expression to their sexual longings; both are set apart from the main current of society by their physical weaknesses and both want to be affirmed in their existence. However, while Mizoguchi longs to overcome his stuttering, Kashiwagi accepts his condition and even takes joy in his uniqueness. Kashiwagi confides in Mizoguchi that he has met a proud girl who claims to love him. If she really does love him, then that could only mean that he has a characteristic that sets him apart from others. That characteristic, concludes Kashiwagi, can only be his clubfeet. Thus, his individuality lies in his deformity. It is, he tells Mizoguchi, his 'original way of living' (Mishima, 2001: 93) and he advises Mizoguchi to affirm his existence by stuttering!

Some time later, Kashiwagi introduces Mizoguchi to an unattractive plump girl. Kashiwagi encourages Mizoguchi to make love to the girl, adding that he should make a point of stuttering, as the girl may well fall in love with his deformity. Mizoguchi's initial hatred for the girl turns into sexual desire, and he realises that Kashiwagi has brought the girl along to initiate him into life. Mizoguchi concludes that, instead of seeing the girl as the object of his lust, he should see her as an invitation to life. But when he acts on his desire and slips his hand under the girl's skirt, the Golden Temple appears in all its dignity, engulfing him in its splendour and preventing him from grasping a new form of existence. The girl ceases to represent life for Mizoguchi. She becomes a mere girl who sprawls 'lasciviously amid the grass and the flowers and the dull fluttering of the insects' wings.' (Mishima, 2001: 119)

Soon after, Mizoguchi hears of Tsurukawa's death. He grieves deeply for the loss of his friend, who represented for him his last connection to 'the bright world of daylight.' (Mishima, 2001: 120) Although Kashiwagi's way of life and bizarre ideas still entrance him, Mizoguchi decides, out of respect for the memory of his dead friend, that he will avoid Kashiwagi. Thus begins a period of great solitude, as Mizoguchi takes refuge in books for an entire year.

When Mizoguchi and Kashiwagi meet again a year later, the latter gives Mizoguchi a flute and their friendship is re-established. Mizoguchi reflects on their meetings and concludes that Kashiwagi has gone a long way towards freeing him of his obsessive thoughts, both by his honest confessions, as well as by his wounding words. And unlike his friendship with Tsurukawa, Mizoguchi's relationship with Kashiwagi is one of equals. To begin with, Mizoguchi is unable to extract any sound from the flute. Kashiwagi, in contrast, proves to be a competent player. It amazes Mizoguchi that, despite Kashiwagi's deformity, he is still able to conjure up the most beautiful sounds on the flute. Mizoguchi thereupon reaches a new conclusion: that beauty is skill. If Kashiwagi can attain beauty despite his club feet, then he (Mizoguchi) should be able to create beauty despite his stuttering.

The beauty that Mizoguchi aspires to achieve, however, is very different from Kashiwagi's conception of the same. Mizoguchi soon learns that Kashiwagi disdains lasting beauty of any kind, whether it is architecture or literature; and hence his interest in music and Zen flower arrangement. Mizoguchi goes on to reflect that 'Nothing is so similar to life as music' (Mishima, 2001: 131). But the beauty that music achieves bears no resemblance to the beauty of the Golden Temple. Moreover, Mizoguchi notices that Kashiwagi is not trying to compensate for his clubfeet by creating beauty. On the contrary, what Kashiwagi enjoys most is the thought that once beauty has passed away his deformity remains. This uselessness of beauty and its evanescent quality is what Kashiwagi loves most:

How shall I put it? Beauty--yes, beauty is like a decayed tooth. It rubs against one's tongue, it hangs there, hurting one, insisting on its own existence. Finally, it gets so that one cannot stand the pain and one goes to the dentist to have the tooth extracted. (Mishima, 2001: 136)

Soon after, Kashiwagi introduces Mizoguchi to a woman who gives lessons in flower arrangement. To Mizoguchi's surprise and confusion, the woman turns out to be the very same woman he had seen at the Nanzen Temple; it is the woman who has continued to haunt his imagination as the possible reincarnation of Uiko. The Nanzen woman is clearly attached to Kashiwagi but the latter rejects her, going so far as to cruelly maltreat her, slapping her across the cheek. The Nanzen woman runs away in shame and Mizoguchi runs after her, but he is unable to determine whether he is doing so out of sympathy for her pain or because Kashiwagi has commanded him to do so. Mizoguchi and the woman walk around aimlessly until at length she decides to invite him to her home. Mizoguchi realizes that the woman has changed both physically and emotionally since that episode at the Nanzen temple. Believing that he can restore her to the person she used to be, he confesses that he had seen her years before as she gave milk from her breast to the soldier on the eve of war. Believing that he has loved her ever since, the woman now offers him her breast; but he is not tempted. Indeed, the woman's breast appears to him as a meaningless fragment of material existence:

... the breast which I now saw seemed to be nothing but flesh, nothing but a material object. This flesh did not in itself have the power to appeal or to tempt. Exposed there in front of me, and completely cut off from life, it merely served as a proof of the dreariness of existence. (Mishima, 2001: 143)

Suddenly, the woman's breast strikes Mizoguchi as beautiful and sensual; he feels himself at the gateway to life. But at the very moment of his desire and the stirrings of his freedom, the Golden Temple appears and comes between him and the woman. Once again he feels cut off from life by the protective action of the temple. Overcome by feelings of impotence and hatred, he leaves the Nanzen woman and rushes back in a defiant mood to the Golden Temple. As though bringing down a curse on the temple, he says, 'One day I shall surely rule you. Yes, one day I shall bring you under my sway, so that never again will you be able to get in my way.' (Mishima, 2001: 145)

Mizoguchi learns to play the flute to a level where he gets great enjoyment. He finds in music a new form of consciousness, a temporal experience which in many respects resembles life but never captures the essence of life itself. For this very reason, he thinks, the temple does not intrude on his musical activities. But he knows that between him and the Nanzen woman, as between him and the rest of life, the temple stands as an obstacle to his freedom. Haunted by the delicious memory of having trampled on the prostitute in the temple gardens, Mizoguchi ponders on his capacity for decisive acts.

The Destruction of a World-Design

One day, as Mizoguchi is at the cinema, he accidentally spies Father Dosen going about with a geisha. The Superior, in turn, sees him, so that when Mizoguchi returns to the temple he expects to be scolded; but the priest passes over the incident in silence. Finding the absence of communication unbearable, Mizoguchi initiates a confrontation with the Superior that has the potential to open out into existential communication (Jaspers, 1970). He buys a photograph of the geisha, and, one morning, as he is on his way to deliver the morning paper to the Superior, he slips the picture of the girl in between the pages of the newspaper. He then rushes back to his room, where he gives himself up to exciting and contradictory fantasies about Father Dosen: that the Superior would forgive him; that he would be in a rage; that he would publicly censure Mizoguchi for his secretive act. But as the days go by it becomes clear that the Superior treats the incident with complete indifference and the photograph of the geisha reappears in Mizoguchi's room without an accompanying message. Only when the Superior scolds him for his poor grades at university does Mizoguchi openly raise the issue of their encounter at the cinema. But the Superior says to him, 'And what if you do know? It amounts to nothing. It's all quite useless.' (Mishima, 2001: 165)

Mizoguchi's failure to obtain some form of recognition from Father Dosen precipitates the final stages of his existential crisis. Suddenly, he is overcome by a violent desire to get away from everything and everyone he knows. Borrowing a large sum of money from Kashiwagi, he takes a train early one morning from Kyoto and travels in a northerly direction. As the train speeds along, he feels a strange power surging within him, an intimation of his freedom. He alights from the train at Maizuru Bay, but, finding that the place has changed into an English-speaking harbour filled with American troops, he decides to continue further north to the islands at the end of the Yura River. There, in the midst of desolate landscapes, he sees in nature the symbolic expression of his freedom. As he stands confronting wild nature, in the midst of a profound solitude, a decision comes to light within his being. It is a decision that he thinks will liberate him once and forever from the obstacles that stand between him and life: he decides to set fire to the Golden Temple.

From a psychoanalytic perspective (Piven, 2004), Mizoguchi's burning of the Golden Temple is an act of revenge against those who have humiliated him: his mother, his father and the beautiful Uiko. But from an existential point of view, the destruction of the temple represents a war against Beauty. 'Beauty, beautiful things,' Mizoguchi tells Kashiwagi, 'those are now my most deadly enemies.' (Mishima, 2001: 204) However, the Beauty that Mizoguchi seeks to destroy is not a transcendent reality beyond the reach of mortals, but a world-design (Binswanger, 1963) that he has constructed in response to the boundary situation of impermanence. No wonder, then, that Mizoguchi compares his plan to destroy the temple with the annihilation of his own self. Indeed, scarcely has Mizoguchi made his mind up to destroy the Golden Temple than he feels a sense of freedom such as he has never felt before. He forgets his hatred for Father Dosen, and discards his resentment towards his father and mother. He resolves his differences with Kashiwagi, and, perhaps more significantly, he casts off his sexual inhibitions and pays a visit to a brothel. Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, and using money that has been set aside to pay for his university tuition, Mizoguchi buys the sexual favours of a young prostitute. That night, he attains sexual satisfaction. More importantly, as he takes off his clothes, he sheds his stuttering, and, for the first time in his life, he feels the existence of another human being melting into his own.

The destruction of the Golden Temple is carried out late one dark summer's night. As he prepares for his 'final deed', Mizoguchi senses that he may die in the conflagration. And so, he buys a pocket-knife and bottle of arsenic. He packs his clothes, his robes, his books--all of his worldly possessions--and piles them on the ground. Afterwards, he enters the Golden Temple by the back gate and is instantly 'soaked' by the darkness of the inner chambers. Lighting a match, he is startled when he sees his face reflected on a glass cage containing a miniature model of the temple. Then, as he wanders from hall to hall, he is overcome one last time by the magnificence of the ancient place. Suddenly, the mystery of the beauty of the Golden Temple is revealed to him. He realises that beauty resides neither in a particular detail nor in its structure. The beauty of the temple lies in the dream of perfection; in a beauty which does not exist and therefore is nothingness.

Before he has time to change his mind, Mizoguchi sets fire to bundles of straw and searches for a place to die. But the straw burns quickly and the temple catches fire. The smoke swirls all around him, as if pursuing him from room to room. Realising that chance has deprived him of a quiet place to die, he runs through the blinding smoke and the crackling fire and exits onto open ground. He takes the mountain path until he reaches the top of Mount Hidari Daimonji, and lays himself down in the bamboo field at the edge of the red pines. Then he sits up a nd stares down the ravine towards the Golden Temple. Suddenly he realises that his body is covered in blisters and scars. He is bleeding. And, like an animal that flees from extinction, he hurls the pocket-knife and arsenic down the ravine. Thus, having discarded his existential world-design, Mizoguchi's will to live asserts itself anew. He takes out a cigarette, and, like a man who is satisfied with his work, he settles down to a good smoke.

If Mizoguchi strikes us as a pathetic figure, it is not because he appears the victim of his psychological scars. According to psychoanalysis, the protagonist's obsessions stem from past traumatic experiences (Piven, 2004). But we may doubt this interpretation. What strikes the reader who reaches the end of the novel is that Mizoguchi overcomes his stuttering. Moreover, he discovers his capacity for sexual contact and vindictive action. But if he still appears to us as a pitiable figure it is because, from an existential perspective, he has not yet found his capacity to care for the freedom of others (de Beauvoir, 1970). Mizoguchi neither understands his responsibility-towards-others, nor does he show a sense of historicity in relation to the war. What we learn, then, from Mishima's heart-rending story is the existential meaning of trauma: although our freedom of choice may continue, there remains an injury to one's capacity for ethical freedom.


Binswanger, L. (1963). Being-in-the-World: Selected Papers. Basic Books.

De Beauvoir, S. (1976). The Ethics of Ambiguity. New York: Citadel Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. Trans. Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jaspers, K. (1970). Philosophy (Volume 2). Trans. Ashton, E.B. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mishima, Y. (2001). The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. London: Vintage.

Piven, J.S. (2004). The Madness and Perversion of Yukio Mishima. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Dr George Berguno is an existential therapist in private practice and Associate Professor of Psychology at Richmond American International University in London.

Contact Information: Dr George Berguno, Associate Professor of Psychology, Richmond American International University in London, Queens Road, Richmond-Upon-Thames, Surrey TW10 6JP. Email: george.berguno@googlemail.com
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