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.
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)