Tanabata of In Spring it is the Dawn is organising a Japanese Literature Book Group discussion of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima. Since I read the book, I’ll join in with the discussion and answer some of these questions.
What did you think of the novel? Did you enjoy it? Why, or why not?
I think it’s a absolute classic. 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., depending on which phase of your life you are at, you will see it in a new light at each read.
What did you think of the translation? Of the author’s writing style?
The translation of Donald Keene is superb. It is a surprising discovery to read classic Japanese Literature for the first time this year and discover how equally lyrical the translation is and wonder how much better it would be in the Japanese language.
I have read a good many contemporary Japanese writers now and while the contemporary writes cleaner and simple prose, I thought Mishima’s writing is one of the most sensitive and display a writing style of classic Japanese that is hard to beat.
Have you read other books by Yukio Mishima? If so, how does this one compare?
I have read two other books: After the Banquet and The Sailor who fell from grace from the sea. While After the Banquet is an entertaining read, I think The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is much more accomplished than the other two I have mentioned. The Sailor also featured a delinquent, Noboru, but in a more blatant and malicious way and I totally couldn’t empathise with him. In Mizoguchi I could catch a glimmer of love and longing, and understand the angst and could empathise with what he feels, this leads to my the next question…..
How did you feel about the narrator, Mizoguchi? Could you empathize with him? Did your feelings toward him change during the course of the novel?
It is hard to empathise wholeheartedly with Mizoguchi. I could empathise with Mizoguichi’s hard upbringing and life as an acolyte in the temple, but I can’t empathise with the crime that he had committed and the feelings did not change during the course of the novel. I find that’s the way with me, I try to be objective about it. Not unless it’s a horrific crime such as murder or rape, I try to separate the person from the act and examine how I think about a person or an incident. I like Mizoguchi as a character, and can see the forces and motivations that led him to the final act. If the suspicions of the corruption and the embezzlement of temple money were confirmed to be true, perhaps Mizoguchi’s act is justified!
Was the setting important? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?
The setting is important because the temple is a national prize heritage, it was golden and beautiful, prized and revered. Other setting that might work would be the Himeji Castle (a World Heritage Site built from the 14th to 17th centuries), perhaps Mishima could feature a palace official or a samurai who fell in love with the princess (oh, this is the main theme covered in the first instalment of the Sea of Fertility Tetralogy, Spring Snow, I think), he can’t have his girl and then decided to burn down the palace for revenge…. While our protagonist runs for his life and an army of bounty hunters or imperial soldiers pursued….. Nah! It’s too Hollywoody.
Do you have any favourite scenes or quotes to share?
Ironically I remember best some of the shocking scenes (like the woman who offers her breast milk), but I wouldn’t call it my favourite. My favourite is the scene where Mizoguchi and Tsurukawa went for a walk and confide in each other, also the surprise when Mizoguchi found out all along that Tsurukawa was corresponding and confiding to Kashiwagi (the evil friend) too without Mizoguchi’s knowledge.
My favourite quotes are:
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
Were you satisfied with how the book ended?
I am much more satisfied with the book’s ending than the ending of Hayashi, the Kinkaku-ji arsonist in real life. The ending was a surprise for me, because I expect Mishima to give the same treatment to Mizoguchi as what happened to Hayashi, an expectation built up from the melancholic tone of the story.
The novel ending seems to convey a message of hope and Mizoguchi’s courage (or coolness, as indicated in the act of a smoke after the arson) to face up to what he had done.
Would you recommend this book to other readers? Are you likely to read other books by Mishima?
I aim to read most if not all of Mishima’s books!! If I could get on with The Sea of Fertility that will be great, unfortunately I kept getting sidetracked from starting the first book. I also have The Sound of Waves with me, which looks like a short and easy read and different from all his other novels. Confession of the Mask and Forbidden Colours are all on my Amazon wish list. Every time I look at the word Forbidden Colours the theme song of the movie with the same title comes back and haunt me in my head.
Would I recommend this book? Well, Yes and No. Yes, if I think one could read this with an open mind, because this is truly one of Mishima’s greatest novels. No, if I feel this is not the usual stuff that someone would normally read. If I’m not careful, people may think I condone perversity and criminality.
One book that I think would challenge my own acceptance for debased characters is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. The premise of Lolita repulsed me, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of reading it. If readers could read books like Lolita (or Battle Royale, Lord of the Flies or Out by Natsuo Kirino) and look beyond ‘that element of repulsiveness’ in it, I think one could do the same with The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
To read my full review of the book, click here.