Mishima's Temple of the Golden Pavilion: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will summarize and analyze 'Temple of the Golden Pavilion' by Yukio Mishima. This Japanese novel is loosely based on an actual event in which the Golden Pavilion was destroyed by arson.

Kinkaku-ji History

Where were you during the 9/11 attacks? The United States has had many moments in the past several decades, from the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination to Hurricane Katrina, that have had such an impact on the nation that many people still remember exactly where they were when they heard the news. For Japan, one of those moments was when Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion), which was also known as Rokuon-ji, was burned down by an arsonist.

This Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan was a beautiful tourist attraction with a history dating back to 1397. Although it was the only structure to survive the Onin War, the pavilion was destroyed by a mentally ill monk, Hayashi Yoken. Luckily, it has since been restored. Yukio Mishima's novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a fictitious work written within a few years of this tragic event that describes a young boy's obsession with the pavilion.

Golden Pavilion
Golden Pavilion

Mizoguchi's Childhood

The novel begins when the protagonist and narrator, Mizoguchi, is still a child. The poor, socially awkward boy is raised by his uncle while his father, a Buddhist priest, works in another area. Mizoguchi narrates, ''I was born with gloomy nature. I do not think I have ever known what it is to be cheerful and at ease.'' According to his father, the temple of the Golden Pavilion is the most remarkable location in the world. At first Mizoguchi fantasizes about being there, but eventually his fantasies become dark. Mizoguchi first visits Kinkaku-ji with his father and imagines that the temple will be burned down during war time.

The following year, his father dies of tuberculosis and Mizoguchi becomes an acolyte at the temple. Mizoguchi remembers his mother having an affair when he was younger and he hates her for it. At the end of the war, Mizoguchi is disappointed that the temple still stands and curses it. He says, ''Let the darkness that is in my heart become equal to the darkness of the night that surrounds those innumerable lights!''

Mishima's descriptions of Mizoguchi's childhood experiences revolve around a theme of ugliness versus beauty that is continued throughout the novel. Mizoguchi's loneliness from feeling rejected by his parents and inability to make friends represents the ugliness in the world. In contrast, the pavilion is so beautiful that it becomes the object of his hatred.

The Descent into Mental Illness

As he grows older, Mizoguchi's fantasies continue. He intentionally tramples the stomach of a young woman to cause her to miscarry, and then finds himself unable to perform sexually because of his obsession with destruction of the temple. After catching Father Dosen with a geisha, Mizoguchi tries to terrorize him with the information and blackmails him into paying Mizoguchi's debts. Mizoguchi's mental illness even begins to affect his studies. He runs away, but is returned by police. The young man becomes preoccupied with arson and appears suicidal.

Mizoguchi's early experiences with sexuality are interspersed with his disappointment in the realities of life. First of all, Mizoguchi's mother had an affair while his father was living. Then he finds that Father Dosen, who is supposed to be a model of morality, is engaged in lewd behavior. Finally, his first act of physical violence against a human being is against a woman whose boyfriend pays him with cigarettes to destroy the life within her that he created. As a result, sex and romantic love seem like more examples of ugliness in a world that is misrepresented by the beauty of the temple and deserves destruction.

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