tokyo templeArt Reviews and Commentary

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion: Book Review

As it is the case with most of Mishima’s work, this book too contains a tale of freedom found in a journey of tragedy marked by destruction and, ultimately, by breaking one’s imprisonment from one’s own aesthetics: the main character, a young boy named Mizoguchi, is deeply, madly, profoundly in love with beauty – to the point that beauty becomes the prison of his soul.

However, this situation can only transpire when reality and a person’s inner realm are in disharmony: the disconnect between who we are and what the world offers in terms of who can we become is the mud from which the aesthetic prison arises. Mishima, a true master of words, depicts this tension so purely that the reader cannot help but weep as the pages of the book are turned.

The Vintage Classics paper cover edition spreads the ten chapters of the story across two hundred and forty-seven pages. The black ink is clear, and the pages are soft, giving off the intended vibe of an old-fashioned object. On the vermilion cover, white flowers are surrounded by a few grass ears. This is how the physical outer world of Mizoguchi’s universe looks like. At least that’s the version I bought. Undoubtedly, the cover and length of the book would be different in other countries and bookshops that sell The Temple of the Golden Pavilion edited and translated by other publishing houses.

Despite this diverse presentation, the book’s insides are the same: a cosmos linked to Japan’s most intimate social, cultural and economic dynamics that dominated the country throughout the later part of World War II and in its aftermath.

As a sign of how dense and wonderful the story of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is can be articulated by a simple statistic: in the first one hundred and twenty-three pages, less than half way through the book, the reader encounters four deaths, all told with such delicate attention to detail as the author wraps these events which ought to be sad and tragic in a beauty that seems out of this world. The presentation of the book does not prepare the reader for the type of journey he or she is about to embark on.

Kinkakuji seen in Falling Snow by Hasegawa Sadanobu

Mizoguchi, a teenage boy, develops a bad case of stuttering as a result of the shock of seeing his mother making love to another man next to him and his sick father who covers Mizoguchi’s eyes with his hands to prevent the damage. It is however too late.

“Fearfully I turned my eyes to its source. Then, as I gazed through the darkness with wide-open eyes, I felt as though a gimlet was drilling into the very center of my eyeballs.

I was lying next to Father […] there was a large white expanse of crumpled sheet separating me from the thing that I now saw; and Father, who lay curled up behind me, was breathing right down my neck.

What made me realize that Father was actually awake was the irregular, jumping rhythm of his breath against my back […]. Father had stretched his hands out from behind to cut off my vision.

This happened many years ago when I was only thirteen, but the memory of those hands is still alive within me.”

The event scares Mizoguchi. Stuttering develops alongside a sense of inferiority that actually makes the boy connected, in some strange but psychologically explicable manner, with his disability to such an extent that at times the reader gets the impression that the stuttering is Mizoguchi’s center of identity.

However, while that might have been suggested, in the very first chapter, the fact that the girl he liked – Uiko – humiliates him by staring at his mouth (the through which Mizoguchi’s inability to connect with the world around through logos manifested) which Mishima describes as “a little dark hole, that ill-formed little hole which soiled like the nest of a small animal of the fields”, and by walking around him, makes Mizoguchi hate her so much that he wishes her death. This scene suggests that the protagonist, while being fond of his speech impediment, he was also insecure in dealing with the misery that it caused him.

Uiko eventually perishes, as a result of an amorous relationship with a deserter that led her to be in the crossfire between the authorities and the traitor.

Between these dark elements of his inner being, Mizoguchi’s soul connects with the beauty of the Golden Temple – all too abstract, too perfect and out of this world. In fact, this connection is an intoxicating love, an obsession with beauty. He sees in beauty a prison and an escape, a way to perceive the world and a veil over the world; beauty is everything and must be protected and beauty is everything and therefore, it must be destroyed. This emotional and spiritual contradiction, with invisible but very potent tentacles, spreads in all aspects of the boy’s physical journey.

Following his father’s death, Mizoguchi trains and studies to become a Zen priest at the Golden Temple, under the tutelage of the Superior – the high-priest, so to speak, that looks after the temple and the young acolytes. 

However, despite the fact that he dreamed for so long to see the temple in all its glory, the first encounter between the boy and the place of worship is subpar.

“I changed my angle of vision a few times and bent my head in various directions. But the temple aroused no emotion within me. It was merely a small, dark, old, three-storied building. The phoenix at the top of the roof looked like a crow that had alighted there for a rest. Not only did the building fail to strike me as beautiful, but I even had a sense of disharmony and restlessness. Could beauty, I wondered, be as unbeautiful as this?”

The emotions quickly changed and inside Mizoguchi a deep bond established between himself, as a human being, and the Golden Temple, as an inanimate object that seemed to trap and at the same time emanate the essence of whatever beauty was.

“[…] the entire building echoed within me. ‘It was true when you told me that the Golden Temple was the most beautiful thing in this world.’”, confessed Mizoguchi to himself.

Upon joining the Golden Temple, the protagonist meets Tsurukawa, another student who was originally from Tokyo, coming from a wealthier family. A friendship develops between the two young men.

One of the most memorable moments of the story is when Mizoguchi and Tsurukawa, one splendid morning day, witness something that appears like a strange ritual. The whole event is painted with the outmost care by Mishima, paying attention to the colours and shapes that construct the scene.

“A bright-scarlet carpet was spread out on the floor: evidently the room was frequently used for tea-dedications and rented for tea ceremonies. A young woman was sitting there. It was she that had been reflected in my eyes. During the war one never saw a woman dressed in such a brilliant, long-sleeved kimono as she was wearing. Anyone who went out dressed as she was would almost certainly be rebuked for lack of patriotic sobriety and would have to return home and change. So gorgeous was her form of dress, I could not see the details of the pattern, but I noticed that flowers were painted and embroidered on a pale blue background, and that her vermilion sash was glittering with gold thread […]. The beautiful young woman was sitting on the floor in a position of perfect elegance; her pale profile stood out in relief as if it were carved, and at first I could not help wondering whether she was really a living person.”

An army officer, dressed in uniform, soon joined her in the tea room. Mizoguchi and Tsurukawa then witness how the beautiful woman takes out her white breasts and squeezes warm milk in the “deep-green tea which foamed inside that cup […]. The man held the cup to his mouth and drank every drop of that mysterious tea.” Later in the novel, we learn that the ritual was in the honour of her failed pregnancy. Such scenes of intense intimacy are drizzled throughout the story.

Mizoguchi then goes to university where he meets Kashiwagi, a boy with deformed feet. They become friends and this Kashiwagi teaches the protagonist how to face his stuttering: in fact, his advice is to use the disability to his advantage. Kashiwagi was skilled at doing so with his deformity in manipulating women to like him.

The two boys hold multiple philosophical conversations, often about beauty as this remains the central notion of the story. The years at the university represent Mizoguchi’s final development stage as a person: he tries to be with a girl, seeking to know life, but fails as the Golden Temple beams stronger inside him and distracts the young man from the pleasures of the flesh.

Soon, Mizoguchi is shattered by the death of his friend, Tsurukawa who, as it is only implied by Mishima, harboured a secret and immature love for Kashiwagi – something which his wealthy Tokyo family could have never approved of. At least, this is my interpretation of the event which, unlike other such moments of profound sensibility described in the book, remains drenched in ambiguity.

Following these events, Mizoguchi runs away, arriving on the shore of the sea – a symbol that appears throughout Mishima’s work and which symbolises the Japanese society’s feeling of captivity on the island: the open water is the way out, the escape from whatever trap the world places around the Japanese.  

Here, at the edge of the Earth, the protagonist realises what must be done in order to be free from all that bothered him: beauty has to be destroyed; only then he can be free of it and, paradoxically, only then the boy can experience beauty in its totality. The young man confesses to Kashiwagi: “‘Beauty, beautiful things,’ I continued, ‘those are now my most deadly enemies.’”

The final chapter, in which the temple is set ablaze, peaks in brilliance: philosophy, theology, psychology and history, all collide in magnificent prose. Mishima walks us through parts of the temple, explaining their function and detailing the statues and items inside. Then, the fire begins to eat them all.

In these moments of panic and ecstasy, among the red flames and the blackened fumes, Mizoguchi is bestowed by a revelation that demasks the essence of beauty and, coincidentally, the soul of the Golden Temple: “Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty.”

As I wrote in “The Function of Beauty”: “Beauty enables us to fulfil the function of human life, which is to experience eternity.” However, beauty can also overwhelm – such seems to have been the case with the protagonist in Mishima’s story.

What makes the narrative in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion even more visceral is that something similar happened in reality. In Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers, Keene detailed how in July of 1950 “art lovers were shocked to hear that the Kinkakuji–the Temple of the Golden Pavilion–in Kyoto had been deliberately burned by a crazed young monk. At his trial, this ugly, stammering priest said that his hatred of all beauty had driven him to destroy the six-century-old building. He expressed no regrets.”

The real Zen temple in Japan is called Kinkakuji (金閣寺, Golden Pavilion) and is located in northern Kyoto. From the website Japan Guide:

“Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and according to his will it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sect after his death in 1408. Kinkakuji was the inspiration for the similarly named Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), built by Yoshimitsu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, on the other side of the city a few decades later.

Kinkakuji is an impressive structure built overlooking a large pond, and is the only building left of Yoshimitsu’s former retirement complex. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history including twice during the Onin War, a civil war that destroyed much of Kyoto; and once again more recently in 1950 when it was set on fire by a fanatic monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955.”

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was published in 1956, a year after the building was reconstructed.

Every time one finishes a book by Yukio Mishima, a strange longing grasps their inner being. It is a dull and soft grasp, but present nonetheless. But what is this longing for? It is not for fiction, nor for perfection. It is a yearning for a world of pleasing aesthetics that has dissolved away, leaving one behind to face once more the ugly reality of a boring, meaningless, postmodern life.

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