This is actually the second time I read this novel. But since one cannot step into the same river twice, I suppose, this is also my “first” time reading “this” novel. Written by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970), it was published in Japan in 1956 and was translated into English in 1959. I read the Vintage International edition, translated by Ivan Morris. It is a literary fictional re-telling of the life of Hayashi Yōken, a Zen Buddhist Acolyte, the arsonist who burned down the original Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Hayashi Yōken committed this horrible act in 1950 and six years later, this novel was published.
The main overarching point that I want to assert regarding all of this is that no other author in the universe ought to have written this novel. Yukio Mishima is precisely the one that would, could, and did write this. Allegedly, Mishima met with the young monk once the monk was imprisoned. Somehow this is accepted as near-fact, though, I do wonder how Mishima was allowed this access? I do not doubt he was, though. Mishima was enigmatic, overwhelming, significant. He was also a member of the samurai class; even if this was already 1950.
Take note, I think if all the dates can be trusted, Mishima was nearly the same age as the young acolyte – allegedly, Hayashi Yōken was 22, Mishima was 25.
Mishima was not one who would stop a rumor, I suppose, were one to circulate. But he might be pleased to give contradictory reports, just to see what would happen. He seemed to enjoy the spotlight, but also knew to keep his cards close and covered. The alleged interview with the mad monk may have been worthless and useless. Or it may have be everything. Or, most likely, it was nothing to most people, but everything to Mishima’s insightful, perceptive, literary eye. All of this is to say, this could be one-hundred percent rubbish created by Mishima who enjoyed making idols and knocking them down and shocking his readership. It could also be totally peppered with truths and the reader is at a loss for any tools to distinguish what is true and what is not.
Hardly could there be another author who would dare and who would care in the same way as Mishima to write this notorious novel of this national tragedy. Not to mention, using some of the material of the story for esoteric considerations of beauty and nihilism. So, when it is all said and done, I am not entirely sure what Mishima actually thought of the event. It was horrible and shocking and he loved that it occurred because of its horror, is what I think.
Moving from Mishima to history and the temple itself, it should be noted that this event occurred not too distant from WWII. The Nanking Massacre started in 1937, the Pearl Harbor attack was in 1941, and, of course, the Hiroshima bomb in 1945. While the boy was likely isolated to an extent by his life at the temple, the war doubtlessly crept into every nook and cranny and had profound effects on everyone.
My concern, what confronted me with my real problem, was beauty alone. But I do not think that the war affected me by filling my mind with gloomy thoughts. When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world. – pg. 48
The temple known as Kinkakuji was originally built in 1400 or so. And after the young acolyte committed arson, it was painstakingly rebuilt and it is likely rebuilt to restore the original glory of the early temple, and not simply that of the 1950s. I think that even as recent as the early 2000s, highly detailed repairs were being completed. I would be interested to know if Mishima knew of these efforts, what he thought of them, etc.
Mishima changes the name of the acolyte to Mizoguchi, a boy afflicted with a serious stutter who is also the son of a Buddhist priest. Hayashi Yōken was allegedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died from tuberculosis. Mishima has Mizoguchi narrate this story. As a narrator, Mizoguchi is entirely self-centered and self-occupied. If this is something that Mishima intended, I do not know. However, it is difficult to truly sympathize or empathize with Mizoguchi, although he often seems simple and awkward enough to merit some mitigation for his thoughts/actions.
“For what purpose do I live? At such thoughts people feel uneasy and even kill themselves. . . Just to exist was more than enough to satisfy me. In the first place, doesn’t uneasiness about one’s existence spring precisely from a sort of luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully?” – pg. 100
Readers who may take an interest in this story because they want to watch the development of Mizoguchi; from a young boy with his ill father, to an acolyte obsessed with the Temple, to a madman with a nihilistic spark [sic!], will be disappointed. The slope that Mishima takes us on is not steep and daring and breakneck. If such development is present, it is very subtle. The story is indeed told in episodic fashion, mainly in a variety of relationships that Mizoguchi has with his Superior at the Temple, his fellow acolytes, and his fellow schoolmates.
Many of the episodes that Mizoguchi undergoes are, in a sense, difficult to read through. He is not a comfortable individual and it seems that he is unable to discern the normal from the abnormal. Bizarre situations fascinate him and affect him strongly. Mishima suggests that Mizoguchi is a fully-aware of the evilness or sin in his actions. Mizoguchi seems, at points, to revel in the sin, to perform the evil action just to bring evil into the world – as if it is a thing of beauty. The way Mishima presents all of this is weird, because Mizoguchi does not seem to want to commit any particular sin for the sake of that sin. Instead, he just wants to do anything evil, any sort of immoral act will suffice.
Was one obliged to pay back one’s debts in the face of a world catastrophe? I was tempted to give Kashiwagi the tiniest hint of what was in my mind, but I stopped myself – pg. 208
Kashiwagi is a character possessed of a big personality that strongly affects Mizoguchi. Its clear that Kashiwagi is a toxic relationship for the young acolyte, even if Mizoguchi is unable to discern this. If Mizoguchi had toyed with self-loathing feelings and dabbled in a variety of profanities, it is after Kashiwagi’s influence that Mizoguchi embraces the truly destructive. Mishima likes to juxtapose these two characters and both and neither are his some-time mouthpiece throughout the novel.
“Why does the Golden Temple try to protect me? Why does it try to separate me from life without asking it? Of course it may be that the temple is saving me from falling into hell. But by so doing, the Golden Temple is making me even more evil than those people who actually do fall into hell, it is making me into ‘the man who knows more about hell than anyone.’ ” – pg. 153
Unfortunately, Mizoguchi’s obsession with the Temple seems to cloud his judgment and he is unable to discern who or what is influencing him. To top it off, he has no close confidants or role models to look toward. There is no one to turn to in the hopes of pulling him back onto a better path. So the question is not always “what is the evil influence?” but sometimes: “why can’t Mizoguchi find, create, and maintain close relationships?” Of course Mizoguchi would tell us it is due to his stutter. Sometimes he believes the Temple – and all that it represents – forms a blockade between himself and others.
There are definite sordid and profane moments in this novel. Mishima likes to look at the concepts of evil, beauty, war, religion, relationships and show them both at their best and worst. Sometimes Mishima comes across as quite nasty. At other points, Mishima seems to crave purity and and beauty more than anyone. This book is not for gentle readers. It is not an easy read – even just textually, though there are only ten chapters in this novel, there are several whole chapters that really slog, especially when Mishima allows Mizoguchi’s mental meanderings to go wide-open. It can get boring and rambling. Nevertheless, though I have read this twice, I don’t like this book. But I know I will probably re-read it in the future. Its a good book that is really tough to enjoy.