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The Temple of Dawn by Yukio Mishima
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Mar 17, 10

bookshelves: to-buy, read-in-kazakhstan, the-list

The Sea of Fertility by Yukio Mishima

“The most complete vision we have of Japan in the twentieth century.”
-Paul Theroux

On the morning of November 25th 1970, the three-time Nobel nominee and 45 year old Yukio Mishima (the pen name of Hiraoka Kimitake) finished The Decay of the Angel, the final book in his seminal Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It was published into the world much akin to John Kennedy Tool's A Confederacy of Dunces: as renowned for its literary merit, as it was for the strange circumstances surrounding its publication.
After turning in the final draft to his editor for publication he gathered together the members of Tatenokai (the Shield Society), his private army. They stormed the Japanese Self Defense Force in Ichigaya, and after securing control of the complex Mishima delivered an impassioned speech to the troops, calling for them to throw off the shackles of Western influence and return Japan to its pure roots.
Rather than inspire a coup d’etat, the soldiers refused to listen to Mishima’s speech, jeering and mocking him instead.. After finishing, Mishima calmly retreated from the balcony. After writing 40 novels, 18 plays, 20 short story collections, over 20 collections of essays, a libretto and a film, the incredibly prolific Mishima committed ritual suicide by seppuku in the commandant's office.
Born into a samurai family in 1925, Mishima was raised to serve The Emperor in the wake of WWI while Japanese society was beginning what would become rapid Westernization. Widely considered one of the most important voices of Japanese post-war literature, the Sea of Fertility is his crowning masterpiece.
The title stems from the large, dark and basaltic plain on Earth’s Moon, called the Mare Fecunditatis (The Sea of Fecundity or Fertility). It is located at about the same place on the moon as Japan and the Sea of Japan are located on the Earth, and the lunar sea itself resembles an upside down sea of Japan. This obvious inverted allusion to dualism/pluralism is strongly resonant throughout the saga. Named maria (Latin for “seas”), they were originally mistaken by early astronomers. This obviously Western allusion further fuels the conflicted dualism of East/West that Mishima asserts as the downfall of classical Japanese culture and success.
The books are separated into time periods, covering about 60 years of Japanese 20th century history. Spring Snow looks at Japan wrestling with the integration of the Western world into Japanese culture in a post WWI climate. The story focuses on the ill-fated romance between 19 year old Kiyoaki Matsugae, his “star-crossed lover” Satoko Ayakura, and Kiyoaki’s best friend Shigekuni Honda who bears witness to the tragedy. Despite the book’s focus on Kiyoaki, Honda is the true protagonist of the tetralogy, and as begins to lose more and more of its national character, Honda follows Kiyoaki on an epic transmigration of the soul.
Runaway Horses picks up 19 years after the end of Spring Snow and Mishima at once dives into the rising political climate leading up to the second World War. Honda follows young Isao Iinuma and his rampant nationalistic spirit while slowly realizing Isao bears the soul of his long deceased friend Kiyoaki. Complete with a 100 page novel-within-a-novel, romanticized depictions of seppuku, assassination plots and the beginnings of a lengthy meditation on Buddhist transmigration of the soul, Honda narrates Japan through the increasingly polarized separation of the Japanese classes in the years before the outbreak of the war.
The most heavily outright philosophic of the four novels, The Temple of Dawn spends almost a full quarter of the book following Honda’s inquiries into Zen Buddhism, his various interpretations on transmigration vis-à-vis Theravada, and Mahayana Buddhist philosophy, Hinduism and a pilgrimage through the ancient Indian holy city of Benares.
Confusing the pattern of Kiyoaki/Isao’s rebirth, this time Honda is shocked to find the soul of his friend inhabiting the body of the beautiful Thai princess Ying-Chan (Princess Moonlight), who as a young girl, maintains the memories of her previous lives. As she matures, and eventually makes her way to Japan, however, Honda finds she demonstrates no recollection of her childhood or her previous incarnations. Mishima continues to use the backdrop of historical Japan as a dramatic set for his incredibly well crafted and complex characters. A prime example is the progression of Honda’s relationship with Ying-Chan, which begins at the onset of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and continues to its dramatic conclusion in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as the Americans occupy Japan, rapidly and forcefully Westernizing Japan overnight.
Mishima finished the tetralogy with an apocalyptic mirror exposing the modern Japanese soul with his The Decay of the Angel. Honda finally becomes a father, as he adopts the brilliant, heartless and malicious orphan Tōru Yasunaga. Tōru is the antithesis of Kiyoaki. In fact, Mishima concludes the migration of the dying angelic soul through a synthesis of his previous incarnations ending in nothingness.
The body of work, which amounts to almost 1,400 pages across the four texts, was translated by 3 different translation teams (Spring Snow and Runaway Horses were both done by the same translator) but the sheer strength and precision of Mishima’s prose transcends any variation in the mood throughout the series. His sentences are sharp, clear and bursting with life. He has a talent for creating incredibly detailed and visceral scenes to allow his characters to meander about within. Reading Mishima is an experience like no other, as his writing forces the reader to slow down and enjoy each unique sentence as a drop of poetry. From within his beautifully created universe his talent to penetrate the psyche of his characters and create such vivid and living people seems almost unparalleled in contemporary Japanese literature.
A truly momentous work of the 20th century, and one of the most intriguing depictions of Japan from one of her most passionate advocates; I can not strongly enough recommend it. As it is an investment in time, energy, constant thought and contemplation, The Sea of Fertility is a far cry from standard brain candy, but it is an investment with a high yield of return, and one that will remain with you long after the soul of Kiyoaki is put to rest.
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