The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. The original structure was built in the 1300’s, and later acquired by a Shogun named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. In his old age, the shogun was ordained as a zen priest, and after his death, the Kinkaku-ji complex was transformed into a Zen Buddhist temple.
Unfortunately, the Kinkaku-ji which now stands in Kyoto is not the original structure built in the 14th century. In 1950, the original structure was razed to the ground by an acolyte who was obsessed with the temple’s beauty. The young acolyte responsible for the destruction of the temple planned to die in the fire he started but lost his nerves at the last minute and fled the scene of the crime. The acolyte, later apprehended by the police, admitted to the crime, but was in no way filled with regret for his act of arson. He was later diagnosed by psychiatrists as a schizoid psychopath. The Kinkaku-ji was rebuilt in 1955, and is now one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Kyoto.
Yukio Mishima, the author of the The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, based his novel on that unfortunate incident in 1950, with the young Buddhist acolyte as his main character. Though the name and life he created for the acolyte is purely fiction, Yukio Mishima’s character does share some characteristics with the real arsonist – both are ugly young men who stutter uncontrollably, and are obsessed with the Golden Temple.
Yuko Mishima creates a fictional life for the young acolyte in the form of his novel’s main character, Mizoguchi. His father being a Buddhist monk, Mizoguchi was told at an early age of the Golden Temple’s incomparable beauty. Having grown up with his uncle, away from his parents, Mizoguchi was teased as a young boy for his stuttering and peculiar nature. Because of this, Mizoguchi retreated into himself, seeking comfort in thoughts of beauty and of the Golden Temple, convinced, and proud, that no one understood him as a person, and likewise, not wanting to be understood.
Through the efforts of his father, who was good friends with the Superior of the Golden Temple, Mizoguchi was able to enter Kinkaku-ji as an acolyte. Having dreamed of the Golden Temple and its beauty all his life, he was sorely disappointed the first time he actually saw the temple, and how it paled in comparison to the Golden Temple of his imagination. However, living in such close proximity to the temple and serving as an acolyte, the Golden Temple only grew more beautiful in his eyes, and thus his obsession with it grew stronger.
His days were bleak at the Golden Temple, performing duties of an acolyte, going to school, but making few friends, and working in a factory during the war, which also caused a shortage of food. Mizoguchi’s mind becomes increasingly troubled by conflicting thoughts and internal struggles, and he becomes obsessed not only with the Golden Temple, and the concept of beauty, but also with the concepts of evil and darkness, not just their presence in the world, but their presence within himself. His obsession becomes stronger until there is nothing left in his life but the Golden Temple, and he is convinced that as long as the Golden Temple exists, he will not be able to live his life.
By creating a fictional life for the real arsonist, perhaps Yukio Mishima wishes to discover what kind of life an arsonist may have had as a boy, what events made him what he was, and what were the circumstances that lead him to commit such a heinous act. Mishima’s character, Mizoguchi, despite his physical appearance and speech impediment, was intelligent, yet narcissistic, convinced his inabilities were what made him different, and thus special. He was contemptuous towards everyone around him and prided himself in not being understood by anyone.
Though the plot of the novel is generally interesting, I found it quite difficult to understand at times. The parts which tells of Mizoguchi’s life, the people he meets along the way, and the events leading up to his crime are interesting and compelling, but much of his internal monologues on philosophical concepts and Buddhist teachings were lost on me.
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956) – Yoshio Mishima
Vintage; 262 pages (trade paperback)
Personal rating: 2/5