Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The main themes of Yukio Mishima's novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion revolve around the loss of beauty or the absence of beauty.
Mizoguchi is ugly. He grows up bullied at school and is self-conscious about his appearance and poverty. Feeling deceived by a reticent father into believing that beautiful things would come to him as a matter of course, he suffers emotional deprivation as he grows up increasingly bitter. At one point in the story, he declares that he hates beauty and dedicates his life to destroying it. The absence of beauty in Mizoguchi's internal life makes him violently jealous.
The temple Kinkakuji, with its golden pavilion, is supposed to be a place of great beauty and peace, but to Mizoguchi it's a reminder of what he doesn't have. He stays at the temple and participates in its life, but he never really possesses it. He never internalizes its main message, that beauty can't be owned or bought, only borrowed or taken for a ride, as one has friends. Although his only real friend comes to him through his time there, he grows increasingly resentful of the temple and, in the end, destroys it.
Japan itself is represented as a place of beauty and tranquility which is destroyed by the Second World War. Mizoguchi, watching the grinding down of the natural, architectural, and cultural beauty of his homeland, feels elated. This schadenfreude is the product of an adolescence spent afraid of himself and resentful of others. He takes pleasure in the suffering or destruction of people or things he considers beautiful. What he doesn't realize is that the act of witnessing the destruction of Japan is destroying him, too.
The burning of the temple could be read as symbolic. Japan, according to some interpretations of history, destroyed itself in war as Mizoguchi destroyed the temple, willfully and unrepentant. If you read the book in this way, another theme emerges, the tragedy of selfishness. Mizoguchi is, if nothing else, a selfish, petulant child. Angry because he is unable to get what he wants, love from his family, a girlfriend, the life he dreams of, he turns to self-loathing which he projects onto others as an impulse to destroy what he can't have. The parallels to Japanese imperial history are clear, whether or not you agree.