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When Beauty led to destruction (Yukio Mishima: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

You have very much figure out that I am a fan of Mishima by now. This is my third Mishima book and I have resolved to fork out money to buy the rest of his backlist because I badly want to read them all and because my local libraries don’t stock every Mishima’s title. I am afraid I wouldn’t be qualify to discuss the psychological and literature merit of this complex novel. It is surely one that requires re-reading to soak up everything that goes on within the inner world of Mizoguchi, the protagonist.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is loosely based on the burning of the Reliquary (or Golden Pavilion) of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto by a young Buddhist acolyte in 1950. The temple’s real name is the Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺), from the first two characters of the posthumous name of its builder, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. But the shariden or reliquary in its grounds, the Kinkaku, grew so famous that the temple became known as the Kinkaku-ji instead. The pavilion, dating from before 1400, was a national monument which had been spared destruction many times throughout history, and the arson shocked Japan.

A little history about the Golden Temple:

Kinkaku-ji (金閣寺, Temple of the Golden Pavilion), also known as Rokuon-ji (鹿苑寺, Deer Garden Temple), is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. The garden complex is an excellent example of Muromachi period garden design. It is designated as a National Special Historic Site and a National Special Landscape, and it is one of 17 World Cultural Heritage sites in Kyoto. It is also one of the most popular buildings in Japan, attracting a large number of visitors annually.
The site of Kinkaku-ji was originally a villa called Kitayama-dai, belonging to a powerful statesman, Saionji Kintsune. Kinkaku-ji’s history dates to 1397, when the villa was purchased from the Saionjis by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and transformed into the Kinkaku-ji complex. When Yoshimitsu died, the building was converted into a Zen temple by his son, according to his wishes.

During the Onin war, all of the buildings in the complex aside from the pavilion were burned down. On July 2, 1950, at 2:30 am, it was burned down by a monk named Hayashi Yoken, who then attempted suicide on the Daimon-ji hill behind the building. He survived, and was subsequently taken into custody. The monk was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released because of mental illness on September 29, 1955; he died of other illnesses shortly after in 1956. During the fire, the original statue of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was lost to the flames (now restored).

The present pavilion structure dates from 1955, when it was rebuilt. The reconstruction is said to be an exact copy of the original, although some doubt such an extensive gold-leaf coating was used on the original structure. In 1984, the coating of Japanese lacquer was found a little decayed, and a new coating as well as gilding with gold-leaf, much thicker than the original coatings (5/10,000mm instead of 1/10,000mm), was completed in 1987. Additionally, the interior of the building, including the paintings and Yoshimitsu’s statue, were also restored. Finally, the roof was restored in 2003.

Back to the novel, after his father’s death, Mizoguchi was sent to the Temple as an acolyte and it is his parents’ hope that he will one day rise to the rank of Superior. Mizoguchi sees himself as ugly and speak with a stutter. He sees his deformity as a contradiction with the great beauty of the temple.

My stuttering, I need hardly say, placed an obstacle between me and the outside world. It is the first sound that I have trouble uttering. This first sound is like a key to the door that separates my inner world from the world outside, and I have never known that key to turn smoothly in its lock.

It is no exaggeration to say that the first real problem I face in my life was that of beauty. At the thought that beauty should already have come into this world unknown to me, I could not help feeling a certain uneasiness and irritation. If beauty really did exist there, it meant that my own existence was a thing estranged from beauty. – page 20

I could not say wherein this beauty (of the temple) lay. It seemed that what had been nurtured in my dreams had become real and could now, in turn, serve as an impulse for further dreams. – page 27

In the temple Mizoguchi befriended a sweet nature boy called Tsurukawa, but felt that as they go off to the university they should spend less time together and get to know other people. This is the period when Mizoguchi fell into the bad influence of Kashiwagi’s company.

Kashiwagi is the son of a Zen priest who happens to be born clubfooted. So just like Mizoguchi and his stutter, Kashiwagi shares an imperfection that makes them both “tainted” in the eyes of beauty. At one point Kashiwagi discloses a sexual experience with an attractive girl, but how he then became repulsed by his own clubfeet touching her. Eventually, Mizoguchi learns that beauty can be attained through skill. He learns this after listening to Kashiwagi play the flute, and his ability to create something of beauty triumphs, despite the imperfection of his clubfeet. He actually notes: “Kashiwagi’s playing…sounded so beautiful not only because of the lovely moonlit background, but because of his hideous clubfeet.”

Kashiwagi then admits to disliking anything of lasting beauty, and how his likings “were limited to things such as music, which vanished instantly, or flower arrangements, which faded in a matter of days; he loathed architecture and literature.”

People with comic looks like me are extremely adept at avoiding the danger of appearing tragic by mistake. I knew every well that if I once began to appear tragic, people would no longer feel at ease when they came into contact with me. It was especially important for the souls of other people that I should never appear to be a wretched figure. – Kashiwagi, page 91

The novel thus evolves into a philosophical meditation on beauty, and Mishima’s well-crafted prose is beauty in itself. Mishima’s lead characters are all not particularly likable (except Ms Kazu Fukuzawa, the main charater in After the Banquet), Mishima crafts the narrative voice of a young delinquent very well, so that even if I don’t always agree with the character’s ill intent, Mishima always managed to present plausible arguments that made me understand why such an obsession or perverse idea exists in the first place.

The idea of arson soon germinates into a resolution. A series of catalysts of events led Mizoguchi to the point of resolution. Hatred of beauty is one, Kashiwagi’s influence another, the Temple’s corrupted leadership and many other more subtle reasons culminates into the one disastrous action of arson.

Mizoguchi’s severance from the social space was further escalated by his lack of a father figure. He perceived his own father, a lowly Buddhist monk, as physically and morally weak. Not only was Mizoguchi’s father sickly, his father also tolerated his mother’s extramarital affairs with other men. Other speculation for the motive cited Mizoguchi’s final act of burning the temple can be interpreted as classic example of the oedipal imbroglio of killing the father, “the root of everyone else’s powerlessness.” He only wanted to get rid of the symbolic strictures (as crystallized in the figure of Temple of the Golden Pavilion) that blocked his access to his desires. Thus Mizoguchi goes out his way to challenge the Superior’s authority and when his misbehaviours went unpunished, he was affirmed of the Superior’s powerlessness.

The novel is not all about obsession with beauty and its destruction plan. There are tender moments of growing up pains and love for his first friend Tsurukawa:

I stuttered silently inside my mouth, like when one vainly searches for something in a bag and instead keeps on coming across some other object that one does not want. The heaviness and density of my inner world closely resembled those of the night and my words creaked to the surface like a heavy bucket being drawn out of the night’s deep well. – page 233

In the first place, doesn’t luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully? – page 94

And what I envied most about him was that he managed to reach the end of his life without the slightest conscience of being burdened with a special individuality or sense of individual mission like mine. This sense of individuality robbed my life of its symbolism, that is to say, or its power to serve, like Tsurukawa’s, as a metaphor for something outside itself; accordingly it deprived me of the feelings of life’s extensity and solidarity, and it became the source of that sense of solitude which pursued me indefinitely. It was strange. I did not even have any feeling of solidarity with nothingness. – page 122

This novel projects a philosophical depth in multifarious ways that in whatever perspective you look at it, you will most probably find your answer. Besides a lengthy meditation on beauty and ugliness, you will get a glimpse of life as a temple acolyte, read a coming of age novel about a rebellious young boy and his sexual awakening, about good and evil friendships, estranged relationship with parents etc. etc., that depending on which phase of your life and at what point you are reading this, you will see it in a new light at each read. I am sure of this.

The book ends with a different intention than the Hayashi, the arsonist in real life. I read somewhere that in an online documentary, Mishima comments that the act of seppuku has to be done on a body that is “beautiful”. Mishima himself spent years bodybuilding and crafting his physique into something of physical beauty, all with the intention of someday gutting his stomach. Many of these themes are present in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, albeit indirectly: the idea of destruction of beauty and death. Perhaps when I read more of his closely biographical work such as Confession of the Mask or Forbidden Colours I would clearly see the motivation for Mishima’s suicide; but for the time being I am happy not to read too deep into the creator’s mind or decipher which voices most resembles his.

Rating: 5/5

This is a highly philosophical and at times, complex novel. And although the character is self destructive, he is believable and well crafted. You get sucked into the world of the Golden temple that Mizoguchi is obsessed with. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, for all its destruction and angst, is without a doubt a work of beauty in itself. Reading it in the elegantly bind copy of the Everyman’s Library Classics edition, it is a rather surreal and beautiful experience for me.

I am reading this for Japanese Literature Challenge 4. The Everyman’s Library Classics edition comes with a ruminating introduction by Donald Keene (Sincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia Unviersity), which contains spoilers, for this reason I always read Introductions last; it also contains a chronology of Mishima’s fascinating life. Fascinating new facts of his life: real name: Hiraoka Kimitake, studied law in Tokyo University, took up physical examination for military service and passed, 1947 work for Ministry of Finance, took up body building in 1955, learnt English in 1957, took up boxing in 1958, had a daughter Noriko and son, Iichiro, 1968 established a small private army called ‘Shield Society’ with avowed purpose of defending the Emperor, 25 November 1970 commited seppuku.

Hardback. [Everyman’s Library Classics, 1994, originally published 1956],[247 pages],[Bracknell Library Loot], Finished reading at: 15th October 2010. Translated by Ivan Morris, Introduced by Donald Keene.

I am curious of Mizoguchi’s (or Hayashi Yoken, the name of the real arsonist) obsession. I googled up some pictures of the Rokuon-ji (Deer Garden Temple) in Kinkaku, Kyoto, and I was strucked by how beautiful the temple is, the gold reflect against the sun and reflection and the structure’s serene composure on the face of the pond. Have a look!…. (Click picture for larger size)


The Lower Pond

The Golden Temple in Summer

Kinkaku in Winter


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


30 thoughts on “When Beauty led to destruction (Yukio Mishima: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

  1. Kinkaku-ji is the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen. I’m lucky enough to have visited it twice and it is stunning even in the rain. I have heard of this book before and had it on the wishlist for a while, but for some stupid reason I never connected the book with this temple. Thanks for linking the two – I’m even more excited about reading this book now 🙂

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | October 17, 2010, 9:38 pm
  2. I love the pictures and the history you posted, but no, you will not make me read Mishima! :–)

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | October 18, 2010, 1:38 am
  3. Wonderful very useful and insightful review-great pics

    Posted by Mel u | October 18, 2010, 2:39 am
  4. I think you did a great job of discussing this novel! I actually read it last year, but I found it so complex that I wasn’t able to write about it on my blog. There was just too much there, and I felt I couldn’t do it justice with my own words. It was my first Mishima and I was SO impressed. I thought the writing was gorgeous and the characterization was so in depth. Just completely wonderful!

    Posted by Steph | October 18, 2010, 2:34 pm
  5. great review may try this ,as didn’t like the other book of his the sailor who…. ,love your photos wonderful Jov

    Posted by winstonsdad | October 18, 2010, 3:12 pm
  6. The Golden Temple is beautiful. I watched a documentary about it not so long ago on NHK, and would dearly love to visit it. This book is definitely going on my TBR list. Thanks for sharing, it was a great review.

    Posted by mywordlyobsessions | October 18, 2010, 7:07 pm
  7. Great review! I haven’t read any Mishima, but he sounds like a deep read…

    Posted by Birdy | October 21, 2010, 3:54 am
  8. Loved “The temple of Dawn” although it was a bit slow to start & I have The Sailor one in my TBR, so this sounds like it could join the pile, but like you my library only has a few Yukio books & they fly around the system at vast speeds.

    Posted by parrishlantern | October 30, 2010, 8:43 pm
  9. I just read, and reviewed this, and I didn’t like it at all! But, I did love the photos on your blog as well as reading your thoughts. To me, our ‘hero’ was just too debased for me to appreciate. Or, feel sympathy for.

    Posted by Bellezza | November 29, 2010, 3:34 pm
  10. Bellezza, sorry you didn’t like it. Mizoguchi is debased, I totally agree with this. Strongly advised you against reading The Sailor who fell from grace with the sea, the protagonist is just as bad if not worse than Hayashi. I tried to look beyond the characters and appreciate Mishima’s prose and arguments. I find Mishima inner life is rich, albeit perverse.

    Posted by JoV | November 29, 2010, 3:58 pm
  11. Great review! I have just finished the book myself, it was complex but interesting and very haunting. i love Mishima’s writing and I’ve also read Spring Snow, i plan to read the rest in the sea of fertility teratology 🙂

    Posted by ooemzoo | January 14, 2014, 5:08 pm
    • Ooemzoo (what an interesting nick!),

      I plan to read the whole sea of fertility teratology too! I got my Kindle copies last month, so will start with Spring Snow and then make my way through. Beware, readers who have read the tetralogy said it gets worse (harder to read) on the last two books in the series!

      At some point I think I’d like to re-read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion again!

      Glad to find another big fan of Mishima. 😉

      Posted by JoV | January 16, 2014, 9:35 am
      • Ahh yes I’ve heard this too 😦 I hope its not too bad or even true I wouldn’t want to not read the whole of the series.
        Yeah same I think its definitely a book you need to re read so much going on and its hard (for me anyway) to really link everything together, I really loved the ending though as i didn’t expect it (his last thoughts) have you by any chance seen the film Mishima: A life in four chapters?

        Posted by ooemzoo | January 16, 2014, 4:35 pm
      • Regarding the latter two books of The Sea of Fertility, (although I’ve read none of them) I read somewhere that the last two books are worse because he got more and more distracted by his looming death. He’d apparently set an absolute day for his suicide and wanted his final series to be finished by then, so it apparently gets a bit rushed. The guy who wrote that actually knew Mishima fairly well, so it’s anyone’s guess over how ‘on the ball’ he was about that.

        Still, it’s interesting. I’ve really enjoyed reading ‘The Temple…’ and wouldn’t mind reading The Sea of Fertility sometime in the future.

        Posted by lychalis | January 8, 2015, 10:13 pm
        • Lychalis,
          Yes it is true that they said the last two books are worse. Apart of me is still not sure if I’ll read the Tetralogy but I am a very big fan of Mishima, perhaps I will after all. Thanks for visiting my blog! 🙂

          Posted by JoV | January 16, 2015, 6:35 pm
        • On the day of his death Mishima left the final installment of the series, Decay of the Angerl, for the postman. I do not think the books are rushed at all, but that they show life as empty as the moon feature they are named for. Mishima was one of the very few authors in Japan whose work did not have to be laboriously transcribed, his copy was always readable and very neatly presented. Mishima’s spectacular suicide was more on the order of performance art, he had been obsessing about seppuku his entire life. The Paul Shrader movie uses Runaway Horses as one of the chapters in that outstanding biography.

          Posted by Bill D Bunny | May 20, 2020, 6:23 pm


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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