Oh yes, you do so want to read this novel. I would mark the following synopsis as a “spoiler,” but all is revealed in the introduction, and the events that inspired the book are about as big a mystery for the Japanese as what happened to the Titanic is to Westerners anyway, so don’t go getting all sore with me like I’m maliciously ruining all your fun. We are being multicultural and pretending we already knew about this major historical event before hearing of and reading Mishima’s novel. Who’s
Mizoguchi, Zen acolyte and aspiring spiritual figurehead of the centuries-old Golden Temple in Kyoto, develops a pathological reverence for (and inevitable hatred of) his place of worship. Even well before Mizoguchi arrives in Kyoto, he positions the Golden Temple in his mind as his only gauge of beauty and divinity in the world. Not just aesthetic beauty, either; more importantly, the temple represents the potential for spiritual beauty and meaning, both his own and that of others…but mostly his own. Mizoguchi is spiritually void, arguably sociopathic, and has a major chip on his shoulder about women. He has seen some shit, man: his mother during his childhood, a neighborhood girl during his preteen years, and an elusive woman during his later teenage years all serve to twist and defile his sexual development, his views concerning the female species as a whole, and rewire his desires in such a way that they become insurmountable and hallucinatory. Added to his troubles, he has a painful speech impediment and a temperament generally divorced from the everyday social capabilities of your average red-blooded male. This paragraph could go on for days if I continued to attempt to fully explain his psychology, so I will just try and wrap things up and save the goods for your future reading experience. After many a twisted cavern is transpassed in his mind, after the Golden Temple’s glory has eclipsed that of all else in his life, Mizoguchi decides it’s time to get all Mark David Chapman on it. He must destroy it. He will be cleansed, he will be remembered, the world will be balanced again.
Never mind the other elements of Mizoguchi’s obsession, one of the most exquisitely designed aspects of the novel is his rationalization process. Mishima pits Zen Buddhism against itself, selectively interpreting the scripture in a way that presents Mizoguchi (at least to himself) as more enlightened than his fellow practitioners, and fully justified in his actions. It’s the sand mandala argument: beauty is temporary, as is everything but suffering. The temple is an object of great beauty which has stood in disharmony with this Buddhist doctrine for far too long, and Mizoguchi must make right with the world by ridding it of this almost 600 year old mockery.*
All this, and yet that isn’t even the best part. The prose, the prose, oh my! I will leave it for you to discover. Read some quotes and you will see what I mean. I knew from my previous experience with Mishima (The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea) that the man could deliver a mean inner dialogue, that his paragraphs were like finely-crafted traps/dark pits, and that he was clearly a genius of style. That book sort of fell apart for me at the end, but I still read the majority of it with a gasp trapped in my throat. What a gifted, fascinating man. A plea: please stop killing yourselves, gifted, fascinating men! Fortunately, his catalog is enormous and I will probably never read it in its entirety. If you decide to try though, I suggest you start here.
*The pavilion itself was in fact so treasured (among others, of course), that the Allied forces wouldn’t even touch Kyoto, which should say something; they obviously had very few qualms about large-scale, jaw-dropping destruction.