The story of Japanese author Yukio Mishima is well-known. A phenomenally popular author at the start of the post-war period, Mishima was also a popular actor and model. Later in his life he developed a strong nationalistic philosophy and founded “Tatenokai.” Members of Tatenokai were trained by Mishima to protect the Japanese Emperor and traditional Japan. These activities culminated in an attempted coup. When the coup failed Mishima famously committed seppuku.
“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” is Mishima’s most famous work. Based on a true story, the book follows a young Buddhist acolyte studying at Japan’s famous Golden Pavilion temple. I first began interested in the book after seeing portions of it acted out in the film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. I will include a clip from the movie at the end of this post.
Aided by his strange club-footed friend, the sadistic Kashiwagi, the main character Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with the concept of beauty. As a child Mizoguchi fell in love with the Golden Pavilion. “The image of the Golden Temple as Father had described it to me that dominated my heart.” When he moves to the Golden Pavilion he becomes less impressed with it. Its permenance begins to bother him. After some time he becomes convinced that the safe shadow of the Pavilion is the reason for everyone’s “mediocrity.”
Kashiwagi convinces Mizoguchi that impermanent beauty is the only true beauty. “The uselessness of beauty, the fact that the beauty which had passed through his body left no mark there whatsoever…it was this that Kashiwagi loved.” It is this realization that causes Mizoguchi to burn the temple.
Although Mishima does give these teenagers a bit too much philosophical credit, this is a well-executed novel. It is a brief and compelling look into a fascinating, and sick, mind. Strange images and corrupt priests help the novel not feel like a graduate philosophy thesis while still being intellectually stimulating. I found I could hardly put this novel down.
One has to wonder how much of the philosophy discussed in this book was close to Mishima’s own heart. In some places you can almost hear the heartbeat of the violence that is to come growing stronger. This is definitely a must read for anyone with an interest in Japanese literature or anyone who enjoys a highly erudite novel.