Among the plays slated for later this year at the Lincoln Center Festival will be the American premiere of "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" by Japan's Kanagawa Arts Theatre, a dramatization of Yukio Mishima's most well-known novel. Anyone who saw Paul Schrader's "Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters" will remember that one of those chapters was taken up with this spell-binding story, replete with Mishima's customary violence and obsession with obsessions.
“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” tells the story of the stuttering, antisocial Buddhist acolyte Mizoguchi, who will eventually set the fire that destroys Kinkaku-ji, the 550-year-old temple in Kyoto. Based on an event that occurred in 1950, Mishima supposedly went so far as to interview the real arsonist, a schizophrenic, in prison in preparation. Inside this novel is a carefully drawn portrait of a mind’s slow descent into madness, but also the struggle of an individual frustrated by his surroundings, searching for freedom.
“He who chases fantasies lacks judgment,” or such is the judgment of Proverbs 12:11. Mizoguchi, from an early age and inspired by his father, sees the Golden Temple as the very essence of beauty. Not the Temple itself, which initially disappoints him, but the image he has created in his mind. Because of this, he easily contrasts it against himself, the personification of ugliness. Interestingly, Mishima - or his translator, Ivan Morris - decides not to let us hear Mizoguchi’s stutter for ourselves. His thoughts, of course, which tell the story, flow freely. But they are a contradictory lot, with conflicting observations about the nature of beauty, ugliness, being and nothingness, good and evil. From an early age, Mizoguchi is alone and proud of being misunderstood, which is the beginning of his fall. It gives him a sense of mission, which is key to his development as the story unfolds.
Halfway through the book, Mizoguchi reminds himself that “the essence of Zen is the absence of all particularities, and that the real power to see consists in the knowledge that one’s own heart possesses neither form nor feature.” In a way, he longs for the nothingness, the lack of attachment, of his calling, but his pride in his otherness keeps drawing him out of this. “It is impossible to touch eternity with one hand and life with the other,” he says. But he stands in opposition to the beauty of the Temple, the ever-present, suffocating, undeniability of the Temple. Mizoguchi does not “have any feeling of solidarity with nothingness.” Indeed, he cannot, not because of his defect, not because of the Temple. It is little wonder that his encounters with women repeatedly find him impotent.
One can spot several different messages arising within the story. Beauty acts as an ideal, but also as a curse. It reminds Mizoguchi - and us - that the trials of the world are not so easily escaped even by the devoted and devout. The obsessions we wrap ourselves in can dominate us, and easily turn what is just a historical building of great beauty into a reminder of the unworthiness we perceive in ourselves. One is left to wonder if the individual within Mizoguchi might have been encouraged, in a different setting, or if the process of encouragement itself would have any effect. After all, what would he be encouraged to do? But we also have an all-too familiar picture of the angry loner, a figure who comes to believe that only through destruction does he define himself, that destiny has fingered him for an awful end, but it is his own end, and he will embrace it willingly because it is his. The Christian idea of sin, of malignant desire for that which is beyond redemption or even beyond understanding, is recognizable. But there is something else - a rebellion against the eastern concept of the ideal, which is an existence beyond attachment, identity and struggle.
With the death of Mizoguchi’s father, he begins his career at the Temple, and he befriends Tsurukawa, an upright man. But Mizoguchi’s malevolence is growing, “a wordless force” that seeks to possess him. He nurtures it as he recognizes it, and it blooms when he makes a new friend, Kashiwagi. An arrogant, malicious, self-absorbed man with a club foot, he projects all of these twisted qualities onto Mizoguchi and shows him how to use his disability to his disadvantages.
The appearance of Kashiwagi midway through the novel is Mizoguchi’s catalyst, and the beginning of his emotional apprenticeship. Mizoguchi also learns about the nature of hypocrisy from the Superior, Father Dosen, who has both frustrated and advanced Mizoguchi’s career. At its beginning, Mizoguchi held the ambition to one day succeed him, but only later does this contort itself into the desire to destroy the Temple. After all, the Temple is more alive than Mizoguchi.
Near the end, before Mizoguchi carries out his plot, he begs a visiting father to see past his face and look into his heart. We realize that he too recognizes what is going on inside him, that he does care, that he perceives the outer “ugliness” has taken root inside him, but the father cannot see inside him, and instead unknowingly inspires him to go ahead. Given the author, one might expect Mizoguchi to kill himself in sight of the flames of the Temple. But instead, he smokes a cigarette and embraces the freedom he has found for himself, the individuality, the singularity of his existence. It is not our thoughts which define us to others - but our actions. But our thoughts define us to ourselves, and make the action inevitable.
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