Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374
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?