The torching in 1950 of Kyoto’s majestic Temple of the Golden Pavilion remains one of the world’s most discussed cases of arson — not least because the act was perpetrated by an acolyte of the temple. Transcripts of his confession and subsequent trial contain a good deal of self-loathing, but a complete absence of contrition over the crime.
Yukio Mishima’s imaginative reconstruction of the case and the pathology of Mizoguchi, the main character in the account, raises disturbing questions about emotional dependency, alienation, the value of art and heritage, and the role childhood experiences and traumas play in warping adult behavior.
Was it the ostentatiousness of the building, envy of its adoration by the public or a destructive quirk within the mind of an acolyte soaked in doctrine but forced to live in the material present that brought out the pyromaniac in him? Mishima, who studied the reported details of the actual case, understood death better than most, orchestrating his own suicide in a thoroughly theatrical manner, electing a cold blade over the flames that were the preferred means of self-destruction chosen by the main protagonist in his story.
Mishima’s hungry ghost has never really been laid to rest, the sepulchral image of his death never quite brushed under the bloodstained carpet on which he kneeled to be decapitated. Nor have the reasons behind the Golden Temple conflagration ever been satisfactorily explained. Mishima, a man well qualified to judge such desperate acts, came as close as we will ever get.
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