The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

by Yukio Mishima
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 370

In essence, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima is a novel about existentialism and nihilism. One can also argue that the main character Mizoguchi is a portrait of a sociopath. When his father dies, Mizoguchi does not feel any emotions, or at the very least, he does not show them during the cremation ceremony. He also has a tumultuous relationship with his mother, which stems from witnessing her have sex with another man.

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So from an early age, Mizoguchi was already conditioned to distrust and avert relationships with people. This is evident when he feels pleasure lying to one of the closest friends he's ever had. This sociopathic behavior can also be seen with how he reacts to the miscarriage of a prostitute.

In fact, the closest thing Mizoguchi has to a relationship with a woman is through emotionally-detached sex. He is merely fulfilling primal desires of the flesh, but he can never fill the void that has kept him unhappy and lonely. The novel explores the alienation that many young Japanese men felt during the war and after Japan's defeat.

However, in Mizoguchi's case, the political environment is secondary. Mizoguchi was born with what might possibly considered manic depression. He had always felt alienated and isolated; not just geographically in his hometown, but socially and psychologically as well.

The novel also explores the concept of beauty and aesthetics. However, beauty in the novel is, in a sense, a code word for enlightenment. Mizoguchi's obsession with the beauty of the Golden Pavilion is not superficial beauty—since he himself opined that he was disappointed upon seeing it for the first time—but symbolizes higher ideals such as happiness and spiritual freedom.

By the end of the novel, however, Mizoguchi realizes that the ideals he projects on to the Golden Pavilion is a sort of Shangri-La: a mythical place and an illusion. He believes that breaking free from this illusion will take him back to reality, where he will finally find happiness and a will to live.

This is, of course, contradictory, because in the beginning, it was the ugliness of reality that made him feel trapped and alienated, and which made him idealize the Golden Pavilion's beauty.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615


Kinkakuji (kin-ka-kew-jee). Temple, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, in Kyto that is a rare masterpiece of Buddhist garden architecture, the central metaphor of the novel. The temple dates back over five centuries to the days of the great Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, a powerful military leader, appreciator of fine art, and devoted follower of Zen Buddhism. The temple served as a spiritual retreat for this hard-driven military leader because he enjoyed evenings of music and poetry, which took him away from the constant warfare of his dynasty.

The temple dominates the thoughts of the novel’s main character, the acolyte priest, Mizoguchi, who reads about it in books for years before he sees it in person. It is a three-storied tower structure overlooking a pond in a garden. The first two stories are built in traditional style of domestic architecture with folding shutters, but the third story consists of a square room built in pure Zen style. The roof is covered with cypress bark and capped with a copper and gold phoenix.

To Mizoguchi, the temple constantly changes its meaning throughout his life. The temple sometimes represents enduring beauty, envy, and eternal moral authority in contrast to the failings of human beings. Sometimes the temple is comforting, and sometimes it is forbidding and deadly. When Mizoguchi thinks of the temple, he recalls his own personal failings and the immorality of his mother. The memory of the temple makes it impossible for him to make love to a girl when he visits the geisha district of Kyto. Mizoguchi comes to the conclusion that only by destroying the Temple of the Golden Pavilion can he free himself from his own obsessions.


*Maizuru (mi-zew-rew). Town west of Kyto, in which Mizoguchi grows up, knowing the Golden Pavilion only through photographs. Mizoguchi recalls East Maizuru Middle School of his early school years, remembering its spacious grounds, pleasant surrounding hills, and the bright, modern buildings of the school. As a boy, Mizoguchi had a weak constitution, he stuttered frequently, and other children teased him because of his physical differences. He dreamed of seeing the Golden Pavilion in Kyto for years before his father actually took him there. Though his father was only a simple country priest ignorant of the terminology of architecture, he taught Mizoguchi that the Temple of the Golden Pavilion was the most beautiful thing on earth. After his father’s death, Mizoguchi left his village to become an acolyte in Kyto.


*Kyto (kyoh-toh). Japanese city and cultural center, which along with Tokyo, defines Japanese values. Kyto is a city of great beauty with raked pebble gardens, exotic contours of beautiful temples, and traditional costumes of geishas. The city is filled with more than two thousand shrines and temples, in addition to palaces, gardens, and an abundance of Buddhist artwork.

When Mizoguchi first goes to Kyto and sees the Golden Pavilion in person, the experience contrasts with the grim news of World War II and the imminent American bombardment of Japan. Speculation abounds about whether the Golden Pavilion will survive Allied bombing. Mizoguchi sees airplanes from the Maizuru squadron flying over the Golden Pavilion, but the eternal beauty of the place is untouched by bombing.

Even when Mizoguchi accepts cigarettes from an American soldier who tries to terminate the pregnancy of a Japanese prostitute in the garden, the Golden Pavilion seems unaffected. Mizoguchi becomes convinced that the temple will be burned down by the American incendiary bombs, and he is “released” by the idea that absolute beauty will not survive. When the Temple is not bombed, he takes matters into his own hands after the war and sets fire to it himself.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 182

Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974. This biography provides ample material for those who seek parallels between Mishima and Mizoguchi.

Starrs, Roy. Deadly Dialectics: Sex, Violence and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishima. Folkestone, England: Japan Library, 1994. Sees Mizoguchi as “rising heroically from passive to active nihilism.” Sees “relief and catharsis” in the ending.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Focuses on The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as a philosoph-ical novel and on the role of novelist as psychiatrist. Makes ample use of details from Mishima’s life.

Wolfe, Peter. Yukio Mishima. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1989. The most useful commentary in English on the novel. Considers Mizoguchi’s act to be one of self-betrayal and sees The Temple of the Golden Pavilion as “a downbeat, negative book.”

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Argues for separation of Mishima from his protagonist, even though Mishima himself was nihilistic and often felt estranged from life.

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