Alan G. Chalk Guides to Japanese Films
Lesson 15: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion/Enjo
Reading: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1956 novel, Mishima
Supplemental Readings: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion has, over the years, set off a wide range of critical interpretations. A selection is:
Film: Enjo (Conflagration), 1958, Ishikawa, or excerpt from the film, Mishima , 1986, Schraeder
Suggested grades: for the entire novel and film(s), 12th grade advanced placement, and college
The temple, a national treasure and a symbol of the cultural heights of historical Japan, had survived the terrible destruction of Japanese cities during World War II only to be destroyed by a deranged youth. For Mishima, then, the task was not simply to retell the story but rather to interpret it, to present a view of the life, psychology, and motives of the young student leading to his destructive act, and further to explore the meaning of the act in the context of postwar Japanese society.
While Mishima's character is based on his careful study of the background of the arsonist and the circumstances of his crime, it is apparent that the author and his character frequently merge. In Mizoguchi, Mishima found a persona and a voice through which he could speak about his own personal, artistic, and philosophical concerns. Although the writer of the novel's introduction in the English translation refers several times to Mizoguchi as "a sick young man" and a "psychotic hero," Mishima's character and narrator is not easily categorized or judged. In fact, it is in the complexity and ambiguity of the author-character and his narrator that the novel achieves its powerful effect and meaning.
Mizoguchi's story is like a confession told after a crime. As the son of older parents (his sickly father was a Buddhist priest in charge of a poor, remote temple; and his mother was an adulterous, unhappy, shrewish woman) he was expected to follow his father, become a priest, and someday be appointed the head priest of the Golden Temple. But born with a stutter and what he describes as a weak constitution and an ugliness, he grew up alienated from the outer world, finding solace or escape only in the dream of the Golden Temple his father had described for him. From this inner world of beauty, he imagined himself as either a great tyrant or an artist ready to embark on some yet unknown mission. That desire would later lead him to the destruction of the Golden Temple.
In approaching the novel, in this case, the mentioned films are not helpful. They are useful only as film interpretations after the students are thoroughly familiar with the story. However, biographical material on the life, writings, and ritual suicide of the author can be used to create interest in the work. If it can be located, The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima, a 1987, one hour program in the Arts and Entertainment Cable Network Biography series, is quite good. Otherwise, excerpts (the black and white biographical segments) from Schrader's Mishima can be used.
Chapter One introduces the students to Mizoguchi, his family background, his stuttering handicap, and his first impressions of the Golden Temple. It is possible with close reading and discussion to speculate as to what psychological problems and behavioral patterns evident here would lead him later to destroy the temple he seems to love. Key questions to be answered through reading the entire novel are:
The suggested films are, in themselves, interpretations of this ambiguous novel, Ichikawa's 1958 film Enjo (or Conflagration) a New Yorker film-video, has recently become available through the Blockbuster Video chain. This early black and white version offers an oversimplified interpretation of Mizoguchi as a misunderstood, alienated young man who burns down his beloved temple to save it from the creeping commercialism and corruption of post-war Japan. The frame of the film is the police interrogation of the arsonist and in the end his suicide during his transport to prison. Missing is Mizoguchi's complex love-hate relationship with the temple and the metaphysical problem of beauty.
On the other hand, Paul Schrader's 1986 Mishima
offers in spectacular color a 20-minute excerpt from the
novel. The segment
with an almost surrealistic rendering of the Golden Temple as
of ideal beauty suggests that Mizoguchi must destroy it to free himself
from its possession of him. Only by setting fire to it can he live (the
novel's final words). Another fascinating film interpretation
1976 Kinkakuji which offers a deeper psychological
study of Mizoguchi's
erotic obsession with the temple. However, this film is not available
with subtitles and may be located only in Japanese video