The birth of an image is propelled in the story by language — by a statement once made by a Zen priest to his stuttering child: “there is nothing on this earth so beautiful, as the golden temple”. From then on, this declaration sprouts an imagination within the young protagonist who, in effect, nurtures the idea of an idealized beauty in the image of the golden temple. At first, his conception of the temple’s image is formless; the temple is initially invisible to him, yet apparent everywhere: like the sea, or the golden shadow cast by the sun. In his inner world, the temple lives and is nurtured real by his imagination; so much so that, even if the mountains block the temple from his view, he can still see it inside himself.
This capacity to imagine, in the most vivid manner, is an effect to the protagonist’s speech deficiency: he was born a stutterer, who masters his inner world but not his external reality, from which he is gravely alienated due to speech barriers. In accessing the outer world, language is needed to make our imaginative thoughts concrete; yet for the young Mizugochi, his stuttering condition divorces him from the external reality – the place where he must live and painfully exist. To compensate for his speech disability, he takes pride of not being understood, inwardly becoming the master of his inner self. He is preoccupied by the absolute beauty of the temple; and his knowledge of it – which lives inside himself – affirms his existence.
This is not, however, what the protagonist initially dreams for himself. In recalling his boyhood ambition, the young Mizugochi divulges how he wants to become both an artist and a stuttering tyrant. Revealed in this ambition, as such, is his aspiration to master both his inner and outer reality — an artist, on one hand, mastering knowledge and imagination; while, being a tyrant on the other, mastering action. In imagining the temple, the protagonist has already accomplished mastering knowledge through understanding beauty; however becoming a man of action remains a far-fetched dream, simply since carrying tyrannical commands necessitates clarity of language.
This struggle between mastering knowledge and action is, within the protagonist, constantly unveiled during his childhood. The visit of a naval officer, for instance, who made him admit his hope of becoming a priest someday, allows the young Mizoguchi to imagine the exercise of power through his knowledge of death, to officiate perhaps the demise of his foes or the naval student himself. However, at one point, Mizugochi expresses his disappointment on the invisibility of this knowledge, compared to the physical beauty of things separated from the body – such as the navy officer’s shirt and sword, which he later scratches, as a demonstration of the kind of power accomplished by one’s action.
Since action – initiated through uttering speech – hampers the protagonist’s access to the external world, he devotes his attention to imagine the golden temple, whose physical form and beauty lives within him — and at the same time, encompassing him inside its structure of absorbing darkness. This deep and living relationship with the temple intensifies during the war, as the structure is surrounded by destruction, looming around it. In his words, “it was quite natural that wars and unrest, piles of corpses and copious blood, should enrich the beauty of the Golden Temple”. Indeed, it is during the war that the Golden Temple, in its actual form, resembles closest to the temple of his inner imagination.
Similar to the protagonist’s existence however, the Golden Temple must remain vulnerable to destruction. And when the destruction of the temple did not materialize after the war, the protagonist’s relationship with it changes. It appears to Mizuguchi that the temple’s eternal qualities – its indestructibility and its defiance against time – do not correspond with the temporal nature and evanescent qualities of beauty and of life. In other words, for Mizoguchi, beauty adheres to the constant tension of creation and destruction, between knowledge and action, between the mind and the body. The imperishability of the Golden Temple, for the protaganist, should end through his own action, through his exploration of evil as a force of destruction.
As long as the beauty of the golden temple stands, Mizoguchi’s mastery over the external world is hampered by the temple’s existence. In creating absolute beauty within his imagination, for instance, the golden temple must be destroyed to fulfill his ultimate aspiration: to dominate both knowledge and action, in the respective spheres of his inner and outer existence. The burning of the temple, therefore, is the protagonist’s demonstration of mastering both the creation of beauty in the imagination and the destruction of it through action. Mizugochi has met beauty but must act by “killing” it for deliverance — and so, by reducing the golden temple into its basic substance, he reveals that indeed “nothingness is the very structure of (this) beauty” and this is what all of us must significantly understand.