Mishima Yukio

I say that the strongest literary influence on my whole life has been Shakespeare, of course, but in my early years in graduate school it was Nathaniel Hawthorne, and in the years between 1973 and 1983 it was definitely Yukio Mishima, for he captured my attention in a single evening (in the film version of one of his short stories, Rites of Love and Death), and then drew me into the study of Japanese literature, which was my primary activity for that ten years, and, during that period, more and more of his work came to be translated into English.  So I am offering as my item on Japanese Literature for April, 2000, the first thing I wrote in the field, The Availability of Yukio Mishima (published in Inscape in 1974), which I think has held up pretty well.  In my judgment Mishima will stand taller than any twentieth-century American novelist 200 years from now, and I was pleased to see that The East, a magazine I subscribe to, selected him as the most important figure in Japanese literature for the century.  I would still be pleased to teach a course in Mishima (as I used to tell my department chairman about the British Literature survey course, "free in the middle of the night")--though I would also be willing to teach a course on James Joyce, with whom I have worked much more in the last few years, whom Time Magazine chose as the most important novelist of the century, and who does have a chance of standing taller than Mishima 200 years from now. 
Published in Inscape, Spring 1974


Yukio Mishima is an established presence in contemporary world literature.  He is very definitely the Japanese author currently best known in the United States: more of his work has been translated, by a greater number of different translators; more of his novels are available at libraries and bookstores, at least eight in paperback, with more coming; and more has been written about him in American newspapers and magazines, particularly since his dramatic death late in 1970.  Fortunately, he probably is the best author through whom a Westerner may approach the East, for his life and work provide, in microcosmic fashion, the fascinating link between the Oriental Past and the Occidental Present provided by the whole modern experience of his country.  And, even more fortunately, he is a great writer. 

His availability is deceptive, however, for Mishima is by no means easy to comprehend.  Even a more subtly "Japanese" author like Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize in 1968, and whose haiku-like style and understated characterization pose obvious difficulties for a Western reader, is ultimately easier, I would say, for Mishima's elusiveness is more fundamental, stemming, it seems to me, from his amazing capacity to define, and then assume, an identity--like a great Noh actor, whose art and religion merge in the being he creates in that moment when he puts on the mask. 



My first direct exposure to Mishima's work was just a year ago, when I went over to the University of Kansas to hear a lecture on Mishima by Professor Paul McCarthy and to see a Mishima movie--with no very clear idea of what to expect.  It was as traumatic an introduction to an author as I have ever experienced.  The movie was an adaptation of one of his longer short stories, "Patriotism," and Mishima himself had done the adaptation, directed the film, and acted the leading role (there is only one other, the young wife).  It is an extremely simple story, the simplicity emphasized in this movie version by staging it on a traditional Noh stage, only the last scene shifting to show the two dead lovers as central object in an equally traditional Japanese rock garden.  The entire action consists of Lieutenant Takeyama, a young officer involved in the famous 1936 coup d'etat attempt, coming home, engaging in a poetically ritualized sexual experience with his young bride of a few months, then committing ceremonial seppuku (harakiri), which is followed, in accordance with their lover's agreement, by his wife's suicide. 

What made this a particularly intense experience was the absolute realism of the presentation, disciplined though it might be by the poetic devices drawn from Japanese literary and dramatic traditions.


The climax comes, of course, in the noble fulfillment of the warrior's code in seppuku, but it seems that it will take the young lieutenant (Mishima) forever to cut his way across his stomach with that samurai short sword, the blood flowing freely as he goes; then, to complete the act, he places the point of the sword under his chin and drives it out through the top of his head. The Godfather, with all its horses' heads, had nothing to equal this, and a good many in the audience, anticipating the wife's ordeal, were heading for the exits.  Her suicide is much simpler, however; after dragging her kimono through her husband's blood a number of times in her preparations, she stabs herself in the throat with a dagger, there is the closing rock-garden tableau, and the short film is over.  Mishima had made quite a first impression--my stomach hurt for a week. That film is highly sensational, certainly (as the short story is), and a popular cartoon at the time it was released in Japan showed Mishima cutting his stomach with one hand as he gathered in the yen with the other.  Much of Mishima might be read this way, as sensational self-dramatization aimed at wealth and notoriety, for he kept himself constantly in public view, writing, directing, and acting in plays and movies, posing for photographic essays on physical culture, or making news through the activities of his small private army. His features 


became as familiar to the Japanese as Hemingway's did to Americans, and some of his friendlier critics saw the same charisma, grounded in a "code" and affirming the mystique of the physical, in both.  But many others, remarking upon the variety of poses struck, often for such calculated effect, tended to dismiss him as a shallow exhibitionist--as all mask and no substance.  If you know anything at all about Yukio Mishima, however, it is likely to be that he did himself commit seppuku, in the office of the commander of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces garrisoned in Tokyo, on November 25, 1970, after the troops he had caused to be assembled had laughed at his appeal to them to save Japan by rejecting the US-imposed constitution and returning to traditional samurai values.

Such an extreme action provoked extreme interpretations, of course--from being seen as the act of an obvious madman by the Japanese officialdom most embarrassed by it to being seen (by a smaller group than Mishima might have hoped) as the noble gesture of "the last true samurai"--but it can certainly be interpreted as Mishima's final dramatic work, carefully planned and staged to provide this quintessential actor with a good curtain.  It was indeed sensational, but the motivation was hardly commercial.  Looking back, the evidence is everywhere in Mishima's writings and reported



conversations, in fact, that he had long had something like this in mind, that he had decided not to become an old man, to die in the physical prime that he had so carefully cultivated, that he had conditioned himself to feel that his literary career would be finished when he completed his masterwork, the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, the last pages of which were delivered to his publisher that very morning. 

And, being Japanese, he knew the power of this kind of witness to draw attention to, and get serious consideration for, both his work and his concept of Japanese destiny.  And, from his point of view, he was right.  To an American, suicide must naturally seem a weak and insane action, but to those schooled in bushido Mishima's seppuku might well seem to echo that of Lieutenant Takeyama, that of the great Saigo Takamori (Mishima's own "last true samurai"), the 19th-century exponent of "the code"  whose statue is a prominent landmark in Tokyo's Ueno Park (I had to wait in line to take pictures posing in front of it one day last summer), that of General Nogi, who refused to outlive the Meiji Emperor, and that of an absolute host of others notable in Japanese history, including those kamikazi pilots of the late Pacific War; it might be seen as the touchstone act of the samurai warrior Mishima had belatedly affirmed himself to be--as the act he probably knew to be necessary to convince himself of that



romantic identity, and shake the shadow of the accusation reflected in that cartoon from his own mind.  My as yet slenderly informed judgment is that Mishima had the rare courage to so manage his life--its plot, its central character, and its dominant themes-- that he did what many of us would like to do, made of it his greatest work of art--a very rare existentialist tour de force.  Since he knew the plot, he knew how it had to end long before he got there--and he really knew, having been there before in "Patriotism." 

Yukio Mishima was a very dedicated man, his final act just emphasizing that quality of character.  In the last twenty of his forty-five years, for example, he had turned himself from a physical weakling, rejected for military duty during that Pacific War, and haunted by the specter of becoming an effete intellectual, into a disciplined athlete--a weight lifter, a boxer, a practitioner of karate, and a master of the fifth rank of kendo, the samurai art of sword practice with bamboo staves.  He applied the same kind of discipline to his writing, working religiously from midnight to six in the morning, producing, his American publishers enticingly inform us, 257 titles published in Japan, including 20 novels, 33 plays, 80 short stories, and any number of essays and miscellaneous works.



And the range and variety are as remarkable as the quantity.  The first of his novels translated into English--so probably the best known to English readers--and the first that I read (purchased at the Washburn bookstore the day after I saw that movie at KU), was The Sound of Waves, which is as far from "Patriotism" in most respects as it is possible to get.  Its narrative line is almost as simple, but the simplicity is idyllic.  The plot was consciously adapted from the Greek pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe, by an author who had made himself almost as familiar with European literature, and classical European literature, as he was with the literature, and the classical literature, of his native Japan.  It is a story of young love in a Japanese fishing village on the island of Uta-Jima (Song Island)--a poor young fisherman, Shinji, meets a rich shipowner's daughter, Hatsue, and must win her father's favor to win her hand--which he does through a bravery and seamanship that save one of the father's ships in a storm.  Its use of the "boy-meets-girl" formula is obvious, complete with contrived ending, but it is still a surprisingly compelling book.  Its strength would seem to lie in its descriptive power to evoke something of the lyric simplicity of life tuned to, lived on, and sustained by the sea--something of the sound of waves--and in the character development in a few of the scenes--Terukichi, the girl's father, in reaction to an insult in the public bath, Hatsue defeating the veteran, Shinji's mother, in a competition in diving for abalone, then, in a


silent statement of their relationship, making her a present of the prize she knew she wanted.  The novel was no doubt an exercise in style for Mishima (a city boy if there ever was one), an extreme instance of his conscious attempt to adapt European form to Japanese matter, but it is a very readable story, the texture of descriptive detail comes through as completely Japanese, and the book's popularity in both Japan and the United States is very understandable. 

The next novel I read, Confessions of a Mask, was the first one he wrote, the book that established his reputation in Japan in the late 40's (when he was in his early 20's).   It has been much less popular and is, as one reviewer put it, "for the few rather than the many."  It presents a candid autobiographical analysis of the artist as a young man, growing up in a Japan that goes first to war and then to defeat, and coming to terms with the fact that his own sensibilities do not seem to be tuned like those of most other young men--and that he has to assume a mask to protect them.  It is most interesting for the very unheroic character the young author defines himself as being, reading himself as having strong, if latent, homosexual and sadistic tendencies, and as ineffectual--the lost soul, the outsider, the underground man of so much modern Western fiction loosely associated with existentialism, and permeated with the genre's sentimentally bitter attitudes toward the mask, the need to wear it,



and the man inside.  It was a state of being which the later Mishima rejected in a way that is very appealing to me, by going back into his own tradition for a nobler identity--by deciding in his middle years to be the hero he knew he was not when he was twenty-three. 

From Confessions of a Mask I went to other short novels available in paperback, three of which--The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Thirst for Love, and After the Banquet--fall into the same class with The Sound of Waves, as very readable novellas which, taken as a set, demonstrate the range of Mishima's narrative sympathy.  The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea tells the story of Ryuji, second mate on the freighter Rakuyo, who has a Conradian conception of his heroic destiny, and ultimate death, at sea, but who falls in love with, and is domesticated by, Fusako, a young widow who is proprietress of a stylish Yokohama clothing store dealing largely in fashionable European goods, and is ritually sacrificed by Noboru, Fusako's 13-year-old son, and the juvenile gang he belongs to, for betraying the heroic ideal and becoming a mere father (or is about to be as the book ends--a cat has been cut up earlier, with all of the vivid details, to give the reader's imagination direction).  The three principal characters are nicely realized, the


psychology of their relationship (effectively symbolized by Noboru's use of a peephole he discovered between the two bedrooms to watch Fusako and Ryuji make love) is managed with some subtlety, and the portrait of the fallen sailor being led to his death in the last few pages is fascinating. 

Thirst for Love is a good book, too, but, in spite of the attempted rape and consummated murder in the last few pages, the least memorable of the four.  Etsuko, another young widow, is the central character, living with, and subject to the passion of, her retired father-in-law, Yakichi, while her own passion pursues the young servant, Saburo--unto the death.  It is an interesting study in frustration, and there are some fine descriptive passages--the city of Osaka in the rain that the book opens with for example--but, for some reason, the characters did not engage my imagination as much as their story did. 

Just the opposite is true for After the Banquet--the story is not particularly interesting in itself, but the development of the central character, Kazu, another widow, but older, is much praised by the critics, and she is certainly my favorite Mishima character to date.  A successful Tokyo businesswoman, she runs a fashionable restaurant where important politicians gather.  She meets and marries a pre-war 



vintage, conservative aristocrat, whom she loves in good part for his scorn of the pragmatic values of the world that has given her her success, and she commits her energies and resources to his political comeback.  There are rich ironies in the story, and one feels that he is being given a sharp realistic picture of values in tension in the life and politics of modern Japan.  It was based too closely upon real life, in fact, for the principles whose story he used were able to win a lawsuit against Mishima for invasion of privacy. 

The Mishima novel that I most admire at present, however, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, is a more substantial book, roughly twice as long as any of the novellas just considered.  It, too, is based on a real-life story--the burning of the famous old Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the Kinkakuji, in Kyoto, by one of her young priests, in 1950.  Yet, in spite of the fact that it is a novel of psychological analysis, neither the characters nor the action are as compelling as those in, say, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea.  In this book it is theme that dominates, a kind of turning of Zen Buddhism in on itself to explore the tensions between illusion and reality, love and hate, beauty and ugliness.  This kind of thematic quest is romantic



rather than realistic--and not to everyone's taste in our century.  In a very real sense, the temple itself is the central character in the book, like the whale in Moby-Dick, or, better, the scarlet letter in Hawthorne's novel.  What is explored is the hold that the Kinkakuji, in its various manifestations, and in the shifting facets of his idea of it, has over the mind of Mizoguchi, the young priest, affecting his friendships, his relationships with women, and his conceptions of himself, in bizarre, but entirely believable, ways.  I have, in fact, come to think of Mishima (and Japanese literature as a whole--of the Japanese spirit) as essentially Romantic, for the symbolism in this novel does indeed remind one of the greatest of American Romantics, of Hawthorne and Melville, and no doubt (as Nancy Wilson Ross's introduction to the Berkley paperback edition argues) it is even closer to Dostoevski.  The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is not as great as The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment--Mishima lets go before he gets that deep--but it is probably greater than any other novel by two of those other three authors, for he has hold of some of the profoundest themes of world literature, and gives them a thoroughly Japanese development--fascinating, if you have a taste for this kind of thing. 

As the figures offered earlier indicate, Mishima was also a prolific writer of short stories and plays.  One collection of his stories, Death in Midsummer (containing nine stories and one play), is available



in English.  These are good stories (I understand many Japanese critics consider Mishima greater as a short-story writer than as a novelist), and, again, reflect the variety of his imaginative interest.  After "Patriotism"--which he too considered his best--I particularly like "Onnagata," a psychological analysis of a kabuki actor of female roles and those in his orbit, for its handling of the problem of identity and the mask--the onnagata projected as "the child born of the illicit union between dream and reality." 

In drama, evidently most of Mishima's work was in the Western shingeki modes that dominate the modern Tokyo theatre, but I know him as a dramatist (outside of the screenplay for "Patriotism," which, as I remarked, makes interesting use of Noh staging) only through the paperback collection Five Modern No Plays, the plays in which Mishima wrote in the early 50's.  These plays are modernizations of famous medieval Noh plays (four of the originals are available in Arthur Waley's The No Plays of Japan).  It is much more true for Noh than for most Western drama, even the classical Greek drama with which it is often compared, that the script is just the beginning--the effects depend upon the ritual, the disciplined artistry of the performance, the chanting of the chorus, the stylized dancing of the principal actor--so the originals are very difficult to visualize in



reading.   But Mishima's scripts are not.  He takes the traditional stories, usually affirming Buddhist themes, reads them in terms of modern psychological analysis, and presents them through modern theatrical conventions, influenced most strongly, it would seem, by contemporary French drama.  I have been involved in group readings of two sets of these plays--the original and Mishima's versions of "Sotoba Komachi," the story of a 9th-century poetess and beauty who laid impossible demands upon her lovers, then ended her life old, ugly, and forgotten, and "The Lady Aoi," a story adapted from the great 11th-century classic novel, The Tale of Genji, by a 14th-century Noh dramatist, dealing with the jealous possession of Genji's wife, Aoi, by the spirit of the Lady Rokujo, an older woman who feels rejected by him.  Those involved in the readings have been much caught up in what Mishima is doing, both technically and thematically.  What he is doing is what he does everywhere--synthesizing elements from both Western and Eastern literature, both classical and modern, in provocative ways.  I look forward to dealing with the rest of those thirty-three plays.



One of Mishima's book-length prose essays, Sun and Steel, has also been very popular in this country, for the author is speaking autobiographically and offering a rationale for his commitment to, first, physical culture and, finally, seppuku.  Mrs. Lorraine Heath, who has been doing directed reading with me in Mishima's work, sees this essay as a companion piece to Confessions of a Mask--as early and late autobiography providing a frame for Mishima's career--a perceptive observation.  The essay denies the young author of the novel and affirms the samurai that Mishima has been laboring, both physically and psychologically, to become.  Through a lot of rather nebulous philosophy (and through the symbolic use of a fighter airplane in the last section), it projects a theory of beauty and death grounded in the transcendence of the physical.  It is no more overtly homosexual than Confessions of a Mask, but its author's conception of himself has changed from passive to active, from essentially female to essentially male, and given him a mask he is more comfortable and confident to wear.  On the basis of this single exposure, however, I do not have the compulsive appetite for the rest of Mishima as essayist that I have for the rest of Mishima as dramatist, short story writer, and novelist.



I am at present about halfway through Spring Snow, the first novel of Mishima's tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, the composition of which took the bulk of his literary energies the last several years of his life, and which he considered his epic masterpiece.  The reviews have been less than enthusiastic, but Mishima's most perceptive American critic, Donald Keene, agrees with Mishima, and, from past experience, I expect to agree with Keene, to find the tetralogy, in fact, the greatest novel in modern Japanese literature, perhaps in modern world literature.  It traces the Japanese experience from 1912, the end of the Meiji era, up to the time of composition, and Mishima had remarked to Keene that he had "put into it everything he had felt and thought about life in this world."  It is modeled in many respects upon The Tale of Genji, the greatest of Japanese classics and certainly one of the world's ten greatest novels.  The young hero of Spring Snow, for example, has obvious affinities with both Genji and the young Mishima of Confessions of a Mask, the one rejected in Sun and Steel, a sensitive young man, frustrated in love.  In Runaway Horses his spirit is evidently reincarnated as the Mishima of Sun and Steel, the samurai of the middle ages . . . but I am already getting a book and a half ahead of my own reading. 


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