The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima (1956)

Yukio Mishima was a mystery not only to the West but to his native Japan as well.  The most famous Japanese writer of the second half of the twentieth century was a man of contradictions.  He was a cosmopolitan playboy who also believed in the bushido code of the samurai.  He presented himself as a devoted family man, but he engaged in homosexual affairs on the side.  He was recognized as a celebrity in both Japan and the West, but he grew disenchanted with many aspects of modern Japanese culture.  It was these dichotomies that led to his creation of his single-volume masterpiece, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Mishima’s final work, The Sea of Fertility, which he considered his magnum opus, is a tetralogy).
    The Temple of the Golden Pavilion focuses on the life of a young Zen Buddhist acolyte named Mizoguchi.  The climax is when the man sets fire to the temple although he has been entranced by the temple’s beauty since he was a boy.  Mizoguchi views himself as ugly, so the temple both attracts and repels him.  The notion of beauty affected Mishima throughout his life.  He modeled as a bodybuilder and believed that strengthening the body was as important as strengthening the mind, especially for an intellectual.  It’s no wonder that one of his strongest works of fiction has a principal theme of beauty and how beauty can be both a creative and a destructive force.
    The story is based the real-life event of the burning of the Golden Pavilion by Buddhist acolyte Hayashi Yoken.  Very little information exists about him outside of Japanese literature, and much of the literature written in Japanese about him at the time of the event is not very detailed, likely so that his actions wouldn’t become memorialized.  Mishima however researched the events very carefully; he even interviewed Hayashi in prison before Hayashi passed away.  Thus, the novel is closely based on the real-life events, although there are some changes for philosophical and dramatic effects.
    The novel was originally written in Japanese, so English readers are likely missing some subtleties in this translation.  However, the translator Ivan Morris was not only an expert in Japanese Studies, but he was also a friend of Yukio Mishima.  Thus, the poetry and the substance of the novel likely approximate that of the Japanese original.  At times, the Zen philosophical language of the text might overwhelm English readers, but this can be a good thing because the reader will likely pay close attention to the text and get more out of the novel than if they speed-read through it.  It’s a story that requires close attention, although it’s not a confusing novel.  This is the definitive work, if read, that will help the reader decide whether he wishes to take a look at his other works, especially his more philosophical novels.  There are other works, which I’ll review later, that are good novels, but this is one of the most satisfying and understandable works from a mystifying author.

-January 17, 2014

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