Mishima Yukio’s Kinkakuji

April 16, 2006

by Yuko Okada

Mishima Yukio’s Kinkakuji:
“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion”
~ a famous novel set in Kyoto ~

First, enjoy a passage from the book itself:

‘The rays of the sinking sun shine on the young leaves that covered the hillside and it looked as though a golden screen had been set up in the midst of the fields. When I saw this, the Golden Temple sprang into my mind.

‘Like a moon that hangs in the night sky, the Golden Temple had been built as a symbol of the dark ages. In this darkness, the beautiful, slender pillars of the building rested quietly and steadily, emitting a faint light from inside. Whatever words people might speak to the Golden Temple, it must continue to stand there silently, displaying its delicate structure to the eyes of the world and enduring the darkness that surrounded it.

‘When I saw the surface of the distant fields glittering in the sun, I felt sure that this was a golden shadow cast by the invisible temple.

‘This mysterious copper-gold phoenix never crowed at the break of dawn, never flapped its wings indeed, it had itself no doubt completely forgotten that it was a bird. Yet it would be untrue to say that this bird did not look as if it were flying. Other birds fly through the air, but this golden phoenix was flying eternally through time on its shining wings. Time struck those wings. Time struck those wings, and floated backwards. In order to fly, the phoenix remained motionless, with a look of anger in eyes, holding its wings aloft, fluttering the feathers of its tail, bravely stretching its majestic golden legs.

‘I used to see the Golden Temple soaring up into the morning sky amidst the rays of the sun as it rose from the folds of these eastern hills.

‘The temple, filled with its usual gloomy equilibrium, towered into the windy, moonlit sky. The slender pillars stood close together; as the moon shone down on them, they looked like harp strings and the temple itself looked like some huge, peculiar musical instrument.

‘The Golden Temple would seem to me like some beautiful ship crossing the sea of time. The art book spoke of ‘draughty buildings with insufficient walls’, and this too brought to my imagination the form of a ship.

‘When I saw small, dew-drenched summer flowers that seemed to emit a vague light, they seemed to me as beautiful as the Golden Temple. Again, when the gloomy, thunder-packed clouds stood boldly on the other side of the hills, with only the edges shining in gold, their magnificence reminded me of the Golden Temple. Finally, it came about that even when I saw a beautiful face, the smile would spring into my mind: ‘lovely as the Golden Temple’.

‘That summer the Golden Temple seemed to use the bad war news that reached us day after day as a sort of foil against which it shone more vividly than ever. It was quite natural that wars and unrest, piles of corpses and copious blood, should enrich the beauty of the Golden Temple. For this temple had been constructed by unrest, it had been built by numerous dark-hearted owners who had one general in their midst. If instead it had been built in one fixed style, the Golden Temple would have been unable to embrace the unrest and would certainly have collapsed long since.

‘It sat there in utter silence, like some elegant but useless piece of furniture.

‘A delicate structure, gloomy and full of dignity. A structure whose gold foil had peeled off in different places, and which looked like the carcass of its former luxury.

It was surrounded by the rustling of trees and stood there utterly motionless, yet wide awake, in the midst of the night. As though it were the guardian of the night itself.

‘Yet never did there come a time when the beauty of the Golden Temple ceased! Its beauty was always echoing somewhere. Like a person who suffers from ringing of the ears, I invariably heard the sound of the Golden Temple’s beauty wherever I might be and I had grown accustomed to it. If one compared this beauty to a sound, the building was like a little golden bell that has gone on ringing for five and a half centuries, or else like a small harp.’*

Mishima Yukio, one of Japan’s best-read authors, was born with the name Hiraoka Kimitake in 1925 to a rich samurai family in Tokyo. He was raised almost exclusively by his grandmother, who brought him up with such a great fondness that he was made to play like a girl and often used female language. Since Mishima had a weak body and looked pale, his friends nicknamed him ‘Aojiro’ (paleface). Perhaps owing to the resulting complexes, he developed a strong longing for masculinity.

Mishima showed an aptitude for literature while still in elementary school. It is said that his individual style and the beautifully expressed Japanese one reads in his works can be traced to the fact that he had read an entire dictionary while still very young. His first major book, “The Forest in Full Bloom”, was published in 1944, during the Pacific War.

Two years after the war, in 1947, Mishima graduated from prestigious Tokyo University with a law degree. He worked briefly at Japan’s Finance Ministry. Then he decided to dedicate himself completely to his writing. Although Japan had had lost the Pacific War, and also lost the competition over material culture to Europe, Mishima believed that Japan had won in the field of art. A deep respect for Japanese classical beauty had been instilled in him by his grandmother. Mishima, who longed for the past, would later say that the post-war era was an age of disgusting frustration. It was, however, during this same period that he rose to great fame as an author, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize.

Following a trip to Greece in 1952, Mishima started a very strict routine of body-building, partly to strengthen himself, but also because of an emotional complex stemming from his infancy, as well as a sympathy he felt for ancient Greek values which esteemed physical balance above inner stasis.

In 1956, Mishima published “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” his best-selling book of that period. Its setting is Kyoto, and its central character is based on the actual monk who burned down Kinkakuji (the Golden Temple) in 1950 because, he claimed, he had been jealous of its beauty. Mishima’s novel is an adaptation of this real incident. In the book, Mishima writes about the Golden Temple’s beauty in the glowing language that you have read in the above passage.

How about reading the whole story in translation before seeing the actual Golden Temple? Fortunately you can, as it was rebuilt soon after the fire. Read the novel and compare Mishima’s descriptions with real Golden Temple; see whether it is really as beautiful as he says:

‘There is nothing so beautiful as the Golden Temple.’

A postscript: You may already know that Mishima Yukio’s own life turned into something out of the pages of fiction. On November 25, 1970, at the age of 45, he presented his publisher with the final draft of his last novel. And later that day, he and his small private army took over a Japanese military base, holding as a hostage a high-ranking general. Mishima then a made a fiery speech in front of soldiers of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, urging them to rise up and overthrow the democratically-elected government of Japan. He appealed for the protection of the emperor and insisted that the Self-Defense Forces become a true national army. Finally, when the soldiers refused, he committed seppuku (ritual suicide).

* Reference “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” by Mishima Yukio. Translated by Ivan Morris. Vintage, 2001

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