January in Japan: Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, transl. Ivan Morris, Vintage Classics, 2001.

In 1950 a young Buddhist monk-in-training set fire to the temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto. The young man was diagnosed as schizophrenic and died a few years later, but his apparently inexplicable act of destruction has captured the imagination of creators ever since, most notably in Mishima’s best-known novel, but also in numerous film, stage and even opera and dance adaptations.

Mishima was not content to just label the young man as ‘mad’; instead he tried to delve deeper into the psychology of such an individual, even visiting the arsonist in prison. Of course, this is a fictional, speculative account, but such is the beauty of Mishima’s writing and his understanding of twisted minds and feelings, that it feels truer and more interesting than perhaps the real story could have been.

This was one of those novels that changed my understanding of life when I was a 19 year old student of Japanese language and literature, but I had not reread it since. I was almost afraid to, in case it failed to live up to my memory of it. For the first half or so of the book, I struggled. I was nearly convinced that it was a mistake not to consign it to the attic of my memories: the self-absorbed, sulky teenager is not the kind of character for whom I have any patience left. Yes, he stutters and has problems communicating with others, yes, his mother has cheated on his dying father, and yes, he has no place really to call home other than this almost far too beautiful temple where he has been sent to train to become a priest… but is that really sufficient reason to be such a bastard? There is a crescendo of unpleasant scenes that the narrator Mizoguchi observes and takes part in, so the final act should really not come as a surprise, but the journey there can be quite distasteful.

However, despite the occasional pretentious philosophising (typical teenager, I suppose), there are passages of great beauty throughout. The final chapter or two, in particular, reminded me why I loved this novel so much. The part of the story which has always fascinated me was still there and still intact. It’s the eternal artist’s dilemma, which reminds me of Andrei Rublev, except that Mishima tries to answer the questions that Tarkovsky only asks (and Mizoguchi is no artist). How can actual, real-life beauty ever live up to the beauty in our imaginations? Are the creation and destruction of beauty our only possible responses to an indifferent, cruel world? Does the artist have to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty – is that the only thing that gives art authenticity? Can we ever really understand and fully appreciate beauty until we feel its loss? And doesn’t darkness or ugliness make the beauty stand out all the more?

Like a moon that hangs in the night sky, the Golden Temple had been built as a symbol of the dark ages. Therefore it was necessary for the Golden Temple of my dreams to have darkness bearing down on it from all sides. In this darkness, the beautiful, slender pillars of the building rested quietly and steadily, emitting a faint light from inside.

Mizoguchi has two friends who almost act as the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders: Tsurukawa, the naive, idealistic friend who believes the best of everyone, and Kashiwagi, whose birth defect has turned him cynical and cruel. [There might be a lot to say here about Mishima’s aversion towards bodily defects, he who indulged in bodybuilding and modelling, but we’ll leave that aside for now.] Mizoguchi wants Tsurukawa to be his conscience but is fascinated and swayed by Kashiwagi. Tsurukawa is weak in his moral rectitude, while Kashiwagi is strong in his corruption. The narrator also feels let down by his mother and by the Superior of the temple – for they are nothing but ordinary human beings, with all sorts of flaws. Meanwhile, he wallows in his self-hatred and grows to resent anything that reminds him that he too is imperfect and weak. Does beauty not become tarnished by familiarity? So why does this temple he knows so well still exert so much fascination upon him? Why does it render him impotent (both literally and metaphorically) and how can he rid himself of the hold it has over him?

A less common picture of the Golden Temple in the snow.

Perhaps beauty was both these things. It was both the individual parts and the whole structure… the mystery of the beauty of the Golden Temple, which had tormented me so much in the past, was halfway towards being solved. If one examined the beauty of each individual detail… the beauty was never complete in any single detail… The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness. It dreamed of perfection, but it knew no completion and was invariably lured on to the next beauty, the unknown beauty…. Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty.

Many have taken issue with Mishima because of his problematic life, opinions and death, and it’s true that in this particular book (and a few of his other ones) the main character is a complete knob. But the author shows his character in all his ‘knob-ness’: it’s this self-awareness of his own personal flaws, this distancing from the sentiments described, this ability to make us pity and understand even the strangest of compulsions, the worst of human nature, that make me still appreciate Mishima. This is a man who was afraid of unpredictability, of too much freedom, of lack of structure, a repressed homosexual… and this tension is clearly visible and unresolved in his books. Alas, in his real life, it manifested itself in a reverence for military discipline and authority, a tendency to see things in binary terms which is more Western than Japanese. Am I reading too much in this book in saying that Mizoguchi is incapable of seeing any other solution than either destroying the temple or allowing himself to be destroyed by it (and that this is presented as a major error of judgement)?

The book was published in 1956 and the event it depicts was still fresh in people’s memories at the time, but it can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the emptiness and self-hatred that many in Japan felt after the end of the war. This translation came out in 1959 in the US, although it wasn’t published in the UK until 1994. Ivan Morris belongs to that first generation of translators and scholars, who did so much to familiarise the Western world with Japan after the Second World War, and humanise the people we had previously demonised. I group him loosely together with Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker (Jay Rubin, John Nathan and Michael Gallagher came a little later, thereby representing the second wave). We owe them so many of the translations of the classics: Genji, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, but also the modern storytellers that really aroused our interest in Japanese literature: Kawabata, Tanizaki Junichiro, Oe Kenzaburo, Mishima, Dazai Osamu and Kobo Abe.

If you look at these two lists, what do you notice? That it was largely male translators translating male writers (with the exception of the Heian classics). Of course, that is not to say that these writers were not brilliant and did not deserve to be translated, but it’s worth bearing in mind that there was a certain element of pre-selection going on there, so our image of Japanese literature was slightly skewed until at least the 1990s, when other (ahem – female) authors and translators began to appear, and when it became possible to admit that maybe the Japanese economic miracle was not all light and beauty.

Two writers in particular stood head and shoulders above the others in the early 1990s, when I was studying Japanese – and they remain among the most translated Japanese writers, at least until Murakami Haruki came along. I am referring, of course, to Kawabata and Mishima, Kawabata because of his Nobel (this was before Oe won his), and Mishima because of his highly-publicised, dramatic death. Their literary styles were very different: Kawabata’s prose is bare, restrained, detached, full of ellipses and hidden meanings, while Mishima is ornate, intense, visceral and dramatic. The battle between the fans of the two writers was as acute as the one between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky fans. If you like Dostoevsky at all, I would encourage you to give Mishima a try, and forget about the unsavoury aspects of the man, simply succumb to the magic that is his writing style.

25 thoughts on “January in Japan: Yukio Mishima”

  1. Those haunting questions about beauty, truth, and the nature of our lives are enough in themselves, at least to me, to make the book appealing, Marina Sofia. And I do like it that there are no pat answers here, because I don’t think they exist. It sounds like a fascinating case, too, if unsettling.

  2. I’m still very much a learner when it comes to Japanese literature so your insight about the major figures is helpful. I’ve read After The Banquet by Mishima and enjoyed it but have not tried Kawabata – anything you would recommend?

    1. Well, I’m not as much of a Kawabata fan as my classmates were, but I do like The Izu Dancer and The Master of Go. His best-known work is perhaps Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain (I think the latter is better, a meditation on aging and family values).

  3. Wonderful post, Marina – thank you! Characters can be knobs but we can still love the books they’re in, and I suspect if I revisited more Mishima I would find many of his characters to fit that description. And having just finished a short Mishima and scheduled my review, I’m just as taken with his writing. Totally agree about ignoring those suspect aspects of his life and loving his prose – I first read him back in the 1990s and his books had such an effect.

    1. I do wonder if he is more instantly and obviously attractive to younger readers – even though he doesn’t necessarily always write about young people. But those questions about identity and frustrated identity in particular resonate with younger people, I suppose.

  4. I’m SO pleased by the final sentence of this post because I was JUST thinking “I bet my clients who love Crime and Punishment would really like this”! Vindication!!!

  5. So many interesting points you bring up here, this isn’t a book I’ve read, but like Margot would be drawn to it by questions on beauty and art and the thorny questions surrounding them. Your love of Japanese literature is infectious and it’s a pleasure to read your thoughts it.

    And I had to laugh at your Tolstoy/Dostoevsky battle comparison!

  6. I’m not as trusting of myself – or of Mishima? – as you are and I’ve kept him locked up as belonging to my young reading past. Having read, as did my partner, Kawabata’s Master of Go as a high level games player, I suspect that it’s best read with that background, which elevates it to something special. I was so disappointed with Snow Country that I have taken Kawabata off my to read list. Or it’s at the bottom of it, which is much the same thing!

  7. I think it would be a mistake for anyone to read Mishima expecting to empathise with the protagonists, but he still managed to write some wonderful books (alas, the subject of my next review is *not* one of those!).

  8. That was a brilliant post, Marina! I haven’t read as much Mishima as I would’ve liked, but you just made me unbury all my Mishima books in search of my next J-lit read (some of which are horrendous Greek translations from French, the only ones within my reach then, so I should probably look for some proper translations now).

      1. So much is lost in translation from translations, especially when the translator knows nothing about the original language and culture… Even today, when there are a couple of Greek translators who can work with Japanese, most publishing houses still opt for translations from English or French, to reduce cost I presume, but the result is so disappointing..

    1. Well, it’s not as classic as all that: ‘classic’ tends to mean the literature of medieval times for the Japanese… I think he’s definitely worth a try. After the Banquet is quite a good one to start with, and the perspective is not that of a self-absorbed teenager.

  9. Beautiful review, Marina! I read a part of this book a few years back and got distracted after that. Need to get back to it. I have read two Mishimas since. Loved your comparison of Mishima and Kawabata. I have enjoyed reading both their works, but I think I prefer Mishima more – his prose is beautiful, though his stories seem to be typically dark. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 😊

    1. Yes, my professor used to say that Mishima’s prose sparkles like gems, while Kawabata is plain like water. Of course, some of that gets lost in translation. And sometimes I like water, but sometimes I want the gems!

      1. Loved what your professor said, Marina! Beautiful comparison between the two! I prefer Mishima’s prose, but Kawabata has some beautiful passages too. I remember one on time, which was very beautiful.

  10. A wonderful post, Marina – so inspiring! I’ve yet to try Mishima but you’ve convinced that I must remedy that at some point in the future. Interesting perspectives too on the contrast with Kawabata. I loved The Sound of the Mountain when I read it a coupled of years ago, so it’ll be interesting to try some Mishima, not least for the comparison…

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