Originally published in 1956, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is based on a true event that occurred in Japan in 1950. During that year the entire country of Japan was shocked when the Zen temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto, regarded as a national treasure, was burned to the ground by a young acolyte who was studying to be a Zen Buddhist priest at the same temple. The acolyte, who was afflicted with a stammer, had become obsessed with the beauty of the temple. He had originally planned to burn the temple to the ground and die in the fire, but he lost his courage at the last moment and tried to commit suicide after torching the building. He ultimately failed in his suicide attempt and turned himself over to the police.
Before setting the temple ablaze, the acolyte had been exhibiting a pattern of self-destructive behavior. He had been drinking, gambling,stealing,going to geisha houses as well as not attending his school classes. At his trial he confessed that the reason that he burned the temple to the ground was that he couldn't stand himself or his stuttering any longer and that he felt compelled to destroy anything that was beautiful.
Mishima used this incident as the basis for his novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.The story is about a young man named Mizoguchi, who is studying to become a Zen Buddhist monk at the Kinkakuji temple in Kyoto Japan. As a small boy he sees his mother having sex with another man in the presence of his dying father after which he is afflicted with a terrible stammer. Mizoguchi is physically unattractive as well and so his stammer only compounds his alienation from other people.
Before dying, his father takes him to see the Golden Temple. It is while there that Mizoguchi first develops his obsession with it's beauty. Mizoguchi wants very badly to live at the temple as a monk so that he may never be seperated from its beauty. Mizoguchi's father is an old friend of the superior of the temple, so after his father's death, the superior agrees to take Mizoguchi on as an acolyte. Mizoguchi starts his training as a Zen Buddhist monk hoping one day to eventually become the temple's new superior. He spends every oppurtunity admiring the beauty of the temple, but he can't seem to live at peace with it. The temple's beauty taunts and frustrates him because it is a quality that he cannot attain.
The superior agrees to send Mizoguchi to school where Mizoguchi meets another student named Kashiwagi. Kashiwagi believes that only knowlege, not faith makes life bearable and he expresses this attitude to Mizoguchi by trying to undermine Mizoguchi's faith in the beauty and purity that he is trying hard to attain. Mizoguchi becomes fascinated with this nihilistic approach to life and the two become friends. They start missing classes and eventually Mizoguchi's poor academic record causes the school to contact the superior of the temple. Mizoguchi is warned by the superior that his performance must improve. Eventually Mizoguchi becomes more and more estranged from the life of the temple untill finally he decides to burn it to the ground. It is only after he he sets fire to the temple that he finally knows freedom and wants desperately to live.
Self-loathing is at the heart of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Mizoguchi desires a beauty and purity that he cannot attain and as a result he comes to resent what the temple symbolizes . Ultimately Mizoguchi despises his own identity and this is what compels him to act the way he does. At the trial, the monk who actually torched the famous temple confessed that the reason he set fire to the temple was that he could no longer tolerate himself or his stuttering and he felt compelled to destroy everything that was beautiful. Mizoguchi also comes to share these same feelings. At first the temple is a sanctuary for Mizoguchi, but the temple obsesses Mizoguchi to the point where it appears uncontrollably in his thoughts. One example of this is when he has gone on a double date with his classmate Kashiwagi. At one point, he is alone with his date. When he starts kissing and touching the young woman images of the Golden temple come into his mind and his sexual desire is crushed immediately.
Mizoguchi is like many other Mishima characters who long for a way of life rooted in the past. Some biographers have attributed this aesthetic preference of Mishima's to his grandmother Natsu's influence, who from the time Mishima was a small boy filled her grandson's head with images of a Japan long gone. Mishima would always long for the past and the precarious existence that people of that era seemed to live. The idea that someone's life could end abruptly at any time had a strange appeal for him. This is why he romanticized violent death especially when that death happened to someone young. Mishima would always feel that he had been cheated of something by not dying in the Second World War. He would confess this feeling to many who knew him.But the strange coincidence was that when he had been drafted into the military, he had managed to deceive a military doctor into thinking that he had tuberculosis and was unfit for military service. One of his biographers would describe a story that Mishima told him that when he learned of the doctor's decision not to admit him to military service that he (Mishima) was so happy that he started running down the hill of the barracks and went right home to his family.
Mishima had very contradictory feelings about dying in the service of the Emperor during the Second World War. On the one hand he would always say throughout the remainder of his life that he felt that he would never attain the glory in his life that he would have attained by dying on a battlefield in the service of his country. But when that possibility actually presented itself, he fled from the oppurtunity of dying in combat the first chance he got. For most Japanese men living in Japan at the end of the Second World War being drafted for military service was considered an imperial order to die. The draft notice was called "the red paper" because whenever someone's draft notice arrived in the mail the paper that the form was written on was a blood red color. Considering how Mishima wrote about life in the ranks of a military organization had he actually served in the Japanese armed forces during the Second World War and seen combat on some gruesome battlefield somewhere in the Pacific his attitudes about war would probably have been much less romantic.
But The Temple of the Golden Pavilion shares similarities with other Mishima novels. There is a feeling of sadness and despair that seems to envelop so many of Yukio Mishima's characters. They seem to be floating adrift, lost in the modern world, trying desperately to cling to something that anchors them to their past. Mizoguchi wants to be a Buddhist priest, but the motivation behind that choice is always unclear. Does he want to be a priest because he is devout? Or is it a way of escaping the modern world? Is Mizoguchi really in awe of the temple's beauty? Or does the temple act as a wall that hides a disturbed young man from the critical and unaccepting eyes of the outside world?
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is one of Yukio Mishima's most interesting books. It contains exceptionally vivid writing. The book's characters are strange and often unsettling.The book's point of view allows the reader to follow a disturbed individual as he reveals more and more of his unbalanced mind. By the time Mizoguch finally sets fire to the temple, it is hard to tell how much of what is going on in his life is factual and how much of it is happening in his imagination. An example of this is his growing hostility towards the superior of the temple. The superior of the temple was originally Mizoguchi's benefactor, taking him on at the temple because of his relationship with Mizoguchi's father. By the end of the story, Mizoguchi suspects the superior of all kinds of deceitful and malicious intrigues, even though the superior seems to be only remotely aware of Mizoguchi's existence.
Two months after its initial release The Temple of the Golden Pavilion had sold 155,000 copies making it Mishima's most commercially successful novel to date, outselling his most previously successful novel The Sound of the Waves. 1956 proved to be a busy year for Yukio Mishima. Shorthly after the release of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion he published another novel entitled Too Much of Spring which also went on to be successful. His play for that year The Hall of the Crying Dear opened in Tokyo and had a successful run all over Japan before returning to Tokyo once again at the end of the tour. In September the American book publisher Alfred A. Knopf released the English translation of his novel The Sound of the Waves. Two years later in 1958 The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was made into a feature length film entitled Enjo by the accomplished director Kon Ichikawa. The film has become one of the modern classics of Japanese cinema .
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