Any discussion of Yukio Mishima’s life and work has to deal, at some point, with his death. A right-wing nationalist appalled by the Western influence on Japanese society and culture, he tried to lead his own personal militia in a coup. It failed and Mishima immediately committed seppuku – ritual suicide – before (following the proper terms of the ritual) having one of his acolytes behead him.
It reads like something from a drama. The details are – to a Western mind – bizarre and almost absurd. But whatever the distance in cultural terms, this wasn’t in some far historical era: this happened on November 25th 1970.
It’s also inevitable that any analysis of his death will be done with reference to his fiction, and foreshadowings of the manner of his death are not hard to find. But there’s another side of Mishima.
The phrase “the other side of the coin” is such a cliche that we no longer think of the image it evokes. A coin necessarily has two sides, and is incomplete if missing either one. Thus it is with Mishima: alongside the obsession with death, glory, glorious death, and tradition (and the tradition of glorious death…) is a concern with the transience of beauty, of the merciless action of the passage of time, and of lives lived behind masks. The marriage of paradoxes is a constant motif in his writing.
The Western author Mishima is most often compared to is Dostoevsky. To my shame I’ve never read more than the opening chapters of Crime and Punishment, so I can’t comment on that. But in places Mishima’s work reminds me strongly of Marcel Proust.
On the surface, there could scarcely be two authors less alike: the hypersensitive bed-ridden Proust, struggling for years in his cork-lined room to finish a single masterwork; and the perma-tanned, body-building, samurai-devotee Mishima who churned out novels, short stories, plays and essays by the tonne. But it doesn’t take much digging to unearth similarities between their works.
In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mizoguchi is an acolyte at the eponymous temple. As a child – ostracised by his peers for his stutter, and living largely in his mind – he obsesses over the idea of the Golden Temple. It signifies a particular type of perfection and beauty – before he has ever seen it. Reality has no chance of living up to the imagination:
“the Golden Temple, about which I had dreamed so much, displayed its entire form to me most disappointingly…the temple aroused no emotion within me. It was merely a small, dark, old, three-storied building.”
I’m reminded of the narrator in À la recherche du temps perdu and his youthful idealising of the actor Berma.
“Alas! that matinée was to prove a bitter disappointment…at the same time all my pleasure had ceased; in vain did I strain towards Berma eyes, ears, mind, so as not to let one morsel escape me of the reasons which she would give me for admiring her, I did not succeed in gleaning a single one.”
Only once the experience is past, and it exists in the mind once more (as memory), does it regain it’s previous significance, but it’s a significance which has been intensified because of the experience:
“After…the Golden Temple, which had disappointed me so greatly at first sight, began to revivify its beauty within me day after day, until in the end it became a more beautiful Golden Temple than it had been before I saw it.”
This idea is repeated in Spring Snow, the first of Mishima’s Sea of Fertility series. The teenage Kiyoaki’s off/on obsession over Satoko is reminiscent of Proust:
“Once we are even marginally separated from what we can touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the unattainable, the quality of the miraculous.”
Things that we can attain lose all worth, and we pine for those things we do not – or cannot – have. In The Fugitive, Marcel finds himself unable to live either with or without Albertine: he only values her – loves her – when he considers breaking off their relationship. Kiyoaki’s obsession with Satoko eats away at him:
“So bitter a frustration, a sense of failure so gnawing in its intensity, can, over a period, be transmuted into a kind of religious fervour directed at its cause.”
Similarly, Confessions of a Mask is the story of how the teenage Kochan struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality, but only realises the depth of his feelings for Sonoko (a girl) after they have separated¹. Kochan’s
“ever-cautious parents had used the plea of my poor health to obtain for me an exception to the rule requiring every student to live in the dormitory”
Marcel, too, pleads poor health. He’s wrapped in cotton wool as a child (the trip to the theatre is seen as risky in case it over-excites him and causes his illness to flare up) and in Time Regained he spends time in a sanatorium².
Ordinarily though, Mishima’s focus on the body is dominated by images of vigorous [male] youth. Such an obsession is a familiar image in right-wing art and culture (think Riefenstahl). And there’s a fascistic death-drive at play in his work: “to live and to destroy were one and the same thing” believes Mizoguchi in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and a fascination with the glory of death gives the grim spiral of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea much of it’s tense power, as a gang of teenage boys round on the unsuspecting lover of one of the gang members’ mother. In Runaway Horses, the second part of Sea of Fertility:
“if it was in the nature of purity to fall victim to age, then purity was something destined to waste away before his eyes. No thought could make Isao more fearful”
It’s no surprise that Mishima loved Nietzsche and D’Annunzio. Mishima is on record as saying “If I go on wearing out my living carcass much longer, I’ll be denied a glorious death”: his suicide surely came as little surprise to those who knew him.
Beauty is a term used so often in Mishima’s work – and Golden Pavilion in particular – that we are tempted to ask what exactly he means by it. But it proves difficult to define:
“the beauty was never completed in any single detail of the temple: for each detail adumbrated the beauty of the succeeding detail. The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness. It dreamed of perfection, but it knew no completion…so it was that the various adumbrations of a beauty which did not exist had become the underlying motif of the Golden Temple.”
Similarly, in Forbidden Colours:
“beauty…is in this world, in the present, firm; it can be touched with the hand…however, beauty can never be reached, because the susceptibilities of sense…block attainment of it”
It’s a particularly adolescent sensation, the belief that some truth or revelation hovers just outwith our perception. We see it again in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, where the adolescent protagonist (or antagonist, depending on the viewpoint – Mishima’s point of view swaps about frequently) looks to the sailor of the title as the embodiment of certain ideals that he (the sailor) can’t ever hope to live up to.
The boy himself is a complex character, misread by adults because he adopts a mask. He plays the role of an eager child while with his friends he plots murder and an assault on society intended to be redolent of the destructive cleansing of the Divine Wind (kamikaze).
Mishima himself wore masks. He compartmentalised his life: his body-building life was kept apart from his artistic life, his martial arts from his high-society contacts. Even the name ‘Yukio Mishima’ is a mask: he was born Kimitake Hiraoka. Confessions of a Mask contains much that is autobiographical:
“I was beginning to understand vaguely the mechanism of the fact that what people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my true nature, and that it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was a masquerade”
Life to Mishima was necessarily dual, so it should come as no surprise, given his interests, to find something like this (from Runaway Horses):
“purity, a concept that recalled flowers, the piquant mint taste of a mouthwash, a child clinging to its mothers gentle breast, was something that joined all these directly to the concept of blood, the concept of swords cutting down iniquitous men, the concept of blades slashing down through the shoulder to spray the air with blood. And to the concept of seppuku.”
or this, from the same book:
“blood and flowers were alike, Isao thought, in that both were quick to dry up, quick to change their substance”
The idea that everything is transient, and that every moment contains within it its own death, means that there’s an elegiac quality to much of his writing. Mishima himself lamented the loss of imperial Japan. The postwar American occupation was deeply wounding to a culture which had remained largely unchanged for generations. In 1946 the Emperor was forced to issue the Humanity Declaration to deny that he was a living deity. Christopher Ross argues in Mishima’s Sword that “nihilism was the inevitable result”. The loss of this focus, Mishima believed, was one reason behind what he saw as the failings of the young generation in the late 60s: A rise in Marxism, coupled with the pernicious influence of Western materialism.
The problem with Mishima’s narrow range of concerns is that after reading his works en bloc, they all tend to blur into each other in the memory. But I’m reminded of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s retort to a suggestion that his works were repetitive: “it’s not repetition, it’s insistence.”
That said, the most recent of Mishima’s works to appear in English translation – Life For Sale – is quite unlike the others. The most purely enjoyable and funny of his novels that I’ve read, Life For Sale was serialised in the Japanese version of Playboy in the late 60s and is therefore one of his final works.
It’s a knockabout piece of pulp. A young man – Hanio Yamada – becomes disillusioned with life, and after a failed suicide attempt decides to place his existence on the open market. But even this attempt to relinquish control of his life doesn’t mean that death is any easier to achieve. He becomes involved in espionage and organised crime, and subjected to vampirism, all of which he meets with a degree of equanimity that only comes from having nothing to live for. The nihilism at the heart of this book is no less overt than that in the Sea of Fertility novels he wrote alongside this, but the language used in Life For Sale – simple and direct and bearing no resemblance to Proust whatsoever³ – foregrounds it.
Christopher Ross’s Mishima’s Sword is the story of Ross’s search for the very sword that ended (on the fourth attempt) Mishima’s life. It’s a fascinating insight into the values that shaped Mishima’s thinking, and in more explicit detail than Schrader’s film it details the fateful November morning. Ross’s inability to locate the sword provides him with an epiphany worthy of his subject:
“Mishima’s sword was, I realised, more real to me as an idea, an archetype for some quixotic grasp at a fantasy past…it had, in my failure to find it, remained intangible, yet faintly still vital. Something that could never be completely lost of fully destroyed. Or ever, really, possessed.”
Inevitably, Mishima’s death holds as much fascination as his work. As far as I can tell only The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea has been adapted in the West, but I stumbled across a (BBC2 or Channel 4) screening of Paul Schrader’s extraordinary Mishima: A Life in 4 Chapters one night in the early 90s and found it utterly beguiling. Part biopic, part adaptation, I recently bought the superb Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. It alternates scenes from Mishima’s early life with moments of his final day, intercut with scenes (in hyperreal colour and shot as if in a theatre set) from his fiction. I highly recommend it.
Mishima’s politics (worldview would perhaps be a better word) are not inseparable from his art: they’re intertwined. This raises a familiar problem for those whose politics are firmly on the left. To what extent can we look past unsavoury aspects of an artist when appraising their art? There are numerous authors whose work is superb but whose politics (Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound) or sexual politics (Alain Robbe-Grillet) I abhor.
It is possible to enjoy – or appreciate – a work of art without endorsing the views espoused by its creator, even when those values are evident in the work. A key example of this within Mishima is the short story “Patriotism” (collected in Death at Midsummer) which Mishima himself filmed in 1966. One of the most extraordinary, intense pieces of fiction I’ve ever read it concerns army officer Shinji and his wife Reiko in the aftermath of a coup attempt. Knowing that in the morning he would have to turn his weapons on former comrades he realises that he cannot do it, and that the only route for him to take, therefore, is to commit seppuku, and for his wife to witness the act and then take her own life.
“‘Tomorrow morning, without question, I must leave to join the attack. I can’t do it, Reiko.’
Reiko sat erect with lowered eyes. She understood clearly that her husband had spoken of his death. The lieutenant was resolved. Each word, being rooted in death, emerged sharply and with powerful significance against this dark, unmovable background.”
Throughout the story, Mishima shows us the soldier’s reasoning without question: there’s no ironic distancing; on the contrary, the act is held up as the ultimate expression of honour. That it foreshadows Mishima’s own end is surely no coincidence. It’s also telling that only in the story’s opening sentence is Shinji named: thereafter he is always a function of his role, referred to as “the lieutenant”, even when the narrative point of view is his wife’s.
Once more, Mishima conflates beauty with death; this time, though, he adds the extra dimension of duty to one’s nation:
“on looking into each other’s eyes, and discovering there an honourable death, they had felt themselves safe once more behind steel walls which none could destroy, encased in impenetrable armour of Beauty and Truth. Thus, so far from seeing any inconsistency or conflict between the surges of his flesh and the sincerity of his patriotism, the lieutenant was even able to regard the two as parts of the same thing.”
There is, as ever, a beautiful clarity of expression in Mishima’s prose, even as he frames ideas which are deeply unpalatable.
Their final moments together are described with tenderness, but a veil is drawn over their lovemaking. The lieutenant’s final act, however, plays out over several pages in excruciating detail. Mishima also seems to be pondering the value, or resonance, of such an act:
“would that great country, with which he was prepared to remonstrate to the extent of destroying himself, take the slightest heed of his death? He did not know; and it did not matter.”
Ian Buruma has written of Mishima’s death that:
“its oddity robs it of any broad significance…it stands for nothing at all, or at any rate only for Mishima himself and his own (possibly pathological) personal obsessions”
I’m not trying to reclaim Mishima for the left – that’s futile – though he’s not as cut and dried as the caricature of him would suggest, according to this review in the London Review of Books. What I would argue is that engaging with artworks which embody values contrary to our own can be an enlightening experience. It’s easy to read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and see resonances with our own time: socially outcast young man becomes radicalized and commits an act of destruction. Condemnation alone is not enough; seeing the radicalization at work, and the internal justifications of every step along the road to the ultimate act of violence, can give us insights and – perhaps – understanding. In this regard, Yukio Mishima is our dark reflection.
¹ Proust is actually mentioned in this book when the narrator’s friend (unaware of the narrator’s suppressed sexuality) outs the French writer as “a sodomite”.
² There are other more fleeting similarities: “Habit is a horrible thing” says one of Mishima’s narrators, and one of Marcel’s main bugbears is the role that habit plays in inuring us to reality. It lulls and comforts us, but prevents us ever glimpsing the life outwith the narrow track which habit has beaten for us.
³ It does, however, remind me a little of Robbe-Grillet’s La Maison de Rendezvous, which is a delirious pulp pastiche.
Mishima, Yukio: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Vintage, 2001)
Mishima, Yukio: Confessions of a Mask (Panther, 1972)
Mishima, Yukio: Death at Midsummer & other stories (Penguin, 1971)
Mishima, Yukio: Spring Snow (Vintage, 2000)
Mishima, Yukio: Runaway Horses (Vintage, 2000)
Mishima, Yukio: Thirst for Love (Vintage, 2009)
Mishima, Yukio: The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (Vintage, 1999)
Mishima, Yukio: Star (Penguin, 2019)
Mishima, Yukio: Forbidden Colours (Penguin, 1991)
Mishima, Yukio: Life For Sale (Penguin, 2019)
Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time – Within a Budding Grove (Vintage, 1996)
Ross, Christopher: Mishima’s Sword – Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend (Fourth Estate, 2006)