Sunday, 24 January 2010

Review Post 4 - Just Golden

Around a decade ago now, back when I was living in Japan, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I took the Shinkaisoku express train from Akashi to Kyoto to spend a few days in the ancient capital. It was our second visit, and one of our goals, in addition to visiting Kiyomizudera, was to see the world-famous Kinkakuji, or the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a Buddhist temple containing a gold-coloured three-storey structure in the middle of a pond. Which brings us to today's review...

As you may know, the building I saw towering above the pond was not the one originally constructed, for the very good reason that the original was burned down in 1950 by a mad monk. I kid you not. It was this very event which inspired Yukio Mishima to create a semi-fictional account of what happened, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

In Mishima's version, Mizoguchi, a stuttering youth who has trouble fitting in, is taken by his father (a Buddhist priest) to see the Superior of Kinkakuji in Kyoto. At the father's request, the Superior agrees to take on the young man as an acolyte at the famous temple, possibly with the intention of making him his successor. However, the unfortunate Mizoguchi, having long been dazzled by stories of the famous golden pavilion, gradually slips into an obsession with the building, a state of madness which prevents him from interacting with and succeeding in the real world. One day, standing on a beach on the Sea of Japan after fleeing the temple, he comes to a decision: the Golden Pavilion must burn...

I make no apologies for letting that much of the cat out of the bag. This is an historical event, and any Japanese reader would have the real events firmly in mind when reading Mishima's version. This is not a book about what happened but rather how and why. Over 250 pages, the writer slowly lays bare a character afflicted by the effects of his stutter and several traumatic incidences in his life. Rejection by a girl in his younger days, seeing his mother sleeping with another man in the presence of his father, the death of a close friend: all these things have the effect of turning him away from real life and into an internal fantasy world centred on the golden pavilion.

The famous building somehow becomes inextricably linked in Mizoguchi's mind with beauty, life, death and Mizoguchi himself. At times, he is content with his link to the pavilion, but at others he sees it as the barrier to connecting with the outside world. The young monk's first attempts at sexual encounters fail as he freezes in the presence of female nudity, seeing only the image of the Golden Pavilion; the eternity in an instant obliterates the moment of eternity (no, I don't understand it either).

Throughout the novel, Mishima juxtaposes images of great beauty and those of ugliness. Mizoguchi's friend, Kashiwagi (born with club-feet), pursues beautiful women, aiming to defile their beauty by making them fall in love with his deformity. The superior of Kinkakuji becomes a fat, amorphous representation of ugliness and sin in Mizoguchi's eyes, and his visits to Kyoto's red-light district represent the gulf between the professed Zen lifestyle and the sensuous reality. Decaying flowers, ugly old women and a mangy, battered dog in the street are described in great detail between descriptions of natural beauty. Of course, the biggest juxtaposition of all is that between the shining, ancient beauty of the Golden Pavilion and Mizoguchi's black, ugly soul.

And so it comes to pass that the crazed Mizoguchi does the only thing he can think of to find his way back into the world of the living; he destroys the Golden Pavilion. As he stands on a nearby mountain, watching the flames consume the temple (from the same standpoint where he once saw the city lights of Kyoto), Mizoguchi's decision is justified: he now wants to live again...


Before I go, I'd just like to say a big thanks to Belezza for hosting the challenge. It's been great fun, and it has motivated me to reread some favourites and branch out into a few new areas. Please click on the Japan link for all my posts over the past six months, and I hope to see you all again when the Japanese Literature Challenge 4 begins. Ja mata, ne!