Yukio Mishima based The Temple of the Golden Pavilion on an actual event, the destruction of the famous temple (completed in about 1398), a Japanese national treasure, by a disturbed monk in 1950. The temple was quickly rebuilt, and awareness of that fact, at least among Japanese readers, could have a significant impact on how one interprets the novel. That is, one could argue that Mizoguchi fails in the end to destroy beauty and that in fact the temple is simply transformed. In the first three years after the novel appeared, it sold some 300,000 copies in Japan and was adapted into a successful play as well.
If it were not for the fact that it is narrated in the first person by the main character, who revels in his psychopathology, the novel might qualify as symbolic allegory. The temple is apparently a symbol of eternal and changeless beauty in an unstable and ugly world. Mizoguchi himself is the embodiment of the ugliness of the world. The constant threat of death and destruction is pervasive in the novel, which begins in the middle of World War II and ends at the start of the Korean War.
Every beautiful person or thing in the novel appears vulnerable. Every beauty is on the verge of transformation into ugliness or death or annihilation. Mizoguchi’s mother seems an ugly peasant to him, and his father seems to be wasting away before he dies of a hemorrhage. The beautiful Uiko is killed by her desperate lover; the handsome and upbeat Tsurukawa, whom Mizoguchi believes to be a positive image of his own dark self, commits suicide; any beautiful act (flower arranging or playing the flute) associated with Kashiwagi is compromised by the character’s cruelty. Father Dosen’s involvement with geisha girls demonstrates, as Mizoguchi sees it, the failure of religion or philosophy to deal effectively with the devastating impact of change and obliteration. When he destroys the temple, Mizoguchi performs an act of destruction that has an element of evil as an alternative to the artistic or godlike act of creation. Ironically, then, his burning of the temple can be seen as a great act of personal, individual heroism and self-expression. Mizoguchi has rid himself of his obsession and regained the desire to live.
Those familiar with Mishima’s biography will detect parallels between him and his nihilistic protagonist. Although he was able to avoid military service during World War II, Mishima later created a paramilitary organization. A brilliant student, he was physically weak as a young man, but he later took up bodybuilding and became a successful actor. He was fascinated with swordplay (kendo) and the samurai code of Bushido, which emphasizes loyalty and acts of courage. Apparently gay, he nevertheless married and fathered two children. His ambivalent sexuality appears in many characters, but especially in Mizoguchi. Mishima ended his life dramatically when his paramilitary Tatenokai (shield society) occupied the offices of a general of the Japanese Defense Force. At the end of this demonstration he committed suicide and had himself beheaded by one of his comrades. Although suicide figures only tangentially in this novel, it could be argued that Mizoguchi’s final act is self-destructive, and it certainly reflects Mishima’s interest in acts of violence.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion may also be read as a philosophical novel concerned with the nature of art, and perhaps especially with its limitations. Drawn between the life of the artist and that of the soldier, to use the terms broadly, Mishima became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of the former and infatuated with the active life represented by...
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the latter. Mizoguchi also finds himself unable to yield to art, unable to accept the flaws in the work that every artist must endure, presumably because the evidence of experience is too much for him. This novel attains the stature of tragedy, then, because like many great tragic heroes, Mizoguchi can find no resolution to the dilemma of life except destruction. Arguably, Mishima’s death as a man of action, as a soldier who was also an artist haunted by beauty, was similarly tragic. Readers must decide for themselves whether Mizoguchi is worthy of their sympathies, whether he is comparable, for example, to such tragic heroes as Hamlet, Othello, and Faust, or whether his disillusioned nihilism makes him an unsympathetic antihero.