Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

It would be easy to dismiss Mizoguchi and his actions by merely labeling him a madman; indeed, the protagonist justifiably realizes that only a madman would destroy the temple. Yet the conflicts that are experienced by Mizoguchi not only are conflicts of madmen but also point to themes that are the proper concern of sane, humane men. Mizoguchi’s feelings of alienation reveal more modernity than madness. His desire to discover the role imagination plays in determining reality links him intellectually with the artist. Further, his main concern—trying to reconcile beauty and reality—springs from his environment. The action of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is couched between the beginning of World War II and the beginning of the Korean conflict. Air raids, the black market, food shortages, death—all play a central role in the adolescent life of Mizoguchi. How beauty survives in the same world as his ugly life is the koan this Zen acolyte tries to master. This is not to say that Mizoguchi is a sane, stable character; quite the contrary. Reaching a stage of enlightenment through contemplation and intuition is the Zen Buddhist’s goal; solving paradoxes through violence is not. Yet eventually arson is the only means Mizoguchi finds for continuing his life. This failure of Mizoguchi to unravel his concerns logically, peacefully, and eternally is expected. Providing easy answers to his three conflicts would produce a fairy tale, not a modern novel.

The other characters appearing in the novel also mitigate the importance of Mizoguchi’s mental state. Except for Father Zenkai, who makes a brief appearance in the novel, no character is happy and stable. Mizoguchi’s parents, his Superior, and his peers all reflect problems in their personal or social worlds.

A technical aspect that could affect the meaning of the novel remains ambiguous. The narrator, who speaks after the burning of the temple, is more contented and more stable than the troubled protagonist before the arson. It would be interesting to know from what stance he speaks. Is he free physically as well as psychologically? Is his physical freedom unimportant once he has acted to liberate himself psychologically? Is his act of arson effective for him beyond the immediate moments of exhilaration?