Mishima Yukio (Vol. 4)
Mishima Yukio 1925–1970
Mishima was a Japanese novelist, short story writer, playwright, and essayist. He was a youth cult figure in his own country and, internationally, the best-known Japanese literary figure. He took his own life by performing the ritual seppuku. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 33-36.)
Mishima is often compared to several Western writers—Gide, Proust, Balzac, Flaubert, and even Brecht, to make the comparisons seem almost fanciful—but it is impossible to find an equivalent that suggests his work. Like all good writers he takes much from other writers but is finally what he is. A sharp observer of a broad canvas of life, he portrays subtly and without sentimentality those often slight but all important moments in life when an event turns our life painfully and irrevocably. In [his] tales he says much about modern Japan, and he can be read for this insight, but he is greater than a country: he finely reveals many of the aspects of the human experience anywhere.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 1 (Winter, 1967), pp. xiv-xvi.
Mishima was a Japanese, and Mishima was Mishima. Admittedly, the sexual 'frankness' of his writing may have made us think how Western and how modern he was—in the line of Gide, Miller, even Mailer, even (in his occasional mixing of sex and violence) the Soho porn-shops—and the more so if all we knew of Japanese literature was the haiku, that species of verse which is all soul and no body, all refinement and no roughage. His Five Modern Nō Plays may have struck us, especially if we were unacquainted with Nō, as having something in common with the 'Absurd', though they must also have struck us as rather more interesting than most exercises in that modish mode. As for his concern with the Marquis de Sade—what could be more Western and up to date than that?
In fact, all the time Mishima was intensely Japanese. The determined perversity of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the fearful consciousness of it all and (to our eyes at least) the final ludicrousness….
Much of [Mishima's most Japanese work] could be thought of as 'Western' because of the 'extreme' nature of the situations and events, just as the mixture in Mishima's characters of obsessive introspection with gratuitous action could be considered distinctively modern. And yet—as I suggested recently in reviewing an obnoxious novel by a young Japanese whom his American publisher described as 'revolutionary' and 'the first truly modern Japanese writer'—Japanese writers of fiction have been modern in this sense for a long time, and 'extreme situations' are no import from the incontinent West!…
Possibly Mishima was one of those in whom an intimacy with the literature and the life of the West served to sharpen, intensify and exacerbate his awareness of being a Japanese….
Mishima was originally considered the spokesman for postwar youth, adrift in the Waste Land, and its spiritual problems. At that time the villain of the piece was Japanese Tradition, for traditions had brought the land to madness and then to waste. But 'après-guerre' is now long past, and if the spiritual problems still persist despite everything, isn't that because the only solution is Japanese Tradition? The brilliant young Japanese whom foreigners could really talk with, the darling of American publishers who visited the U.S. as guest of the State Department and Partisan Review, yet it seems Mishima knew which way his blood called him. At times the most aesthetic, the most 'decadent' of writers, yet he went in for weight-lifting and kendo, he kept fit. He must have known what a thoroughly Japanese end his thoroughly Japanese patriotism could bring him to.
D. J. Enright, "Mishima's Way" (1970), in his Man is an Onion: Reviews and Essays (© 1972 by D. J. Enright; reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Co. and Chatto & Windus), Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 195-203.
Mishima, although only forty-five when he died, probably achieved a reputation in the English-speaking world greater than that of any other Japanese writer this century. His novels, from the Sound of Waves, through The Golden Pavilion to, for instance, The Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea, have been more widely translated, read, and circulated even than those of novelists such as Kawabata, the Nobel Prize winner, or the late Tanizaki, who is considered by many Japanese as the outstanding novelist to span prewar and postwar years. Other figures on the modern Japanese literary scene, such as Serizawa …, have had just as high if not a higher reputation in Japanese eyes. To many in Japan, in fact, Mishima was in danger of becoming a bit of a bore. He seemed to write too much and to try to cover too many literary forms. Moreover his ventures into extremist right-wing politics of the lunatic fringe and his unconcealed sado-masochism alienated many Japanese in all age groups.
Even if he was not, however, typical of modern Japan or was not in Japanese eyes the outstanding genius of his generation, his vitality, his capacity to tell a story and to evoke atmosphere, his insight into the seamier or less rational sides of human character, and his architectonic style made him a writer of great importance not only in Japan but also in the literature of the modern world.
Sun and Steel, which was published in Japan some months before his death, clearly pointed the way in which Mishima's mind was moving, and shows that his final and macabre gesture was carefully planned as the histrionic culmination of his life. This slender book can indeed be regarded as his literary testament and is necessary reading for anyone who wants to try to understand the background to his suicide and his outlook in this last period of his life. But the work, which is little longer than an essay, makes no pretence to sum up his life's work or to make a coherent and rational presentation of his overall outlook or philosophy of life or, for that matter, of death. In style it is poetic and evocative and might be better regarded, in part at least, as poetry rather than as prose; Mishima indeed did not like to regard the two as separate forms, and it is perhaps appropriate that the book ends with a poem entitled "Icarus"….
While Mishima's attitudes to the sword, the warrior and honour are in the Japanese tradition, his concept of muscle and the physical beauty of the athletic male body seem to owe more to Greek and Teutonic traditions than to Japanese. His approach to death is, he admits, conditioned not merely by what he regards as the heroic attitudes of, for instance, Japanese wartime suicide pilots, but also by a Western-style romanticism and a pervasive feeling of boredom with life.
"The Warrior's Way Out," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), March 12, 1971, p. 297.
Mishima was the only writer of his generation who knew the classical literature thoroughly and turned to it again and again, not because of any failure of his imagination, and certainly not out of ignorance of European literature, but because he desired to associate his writings organically with the past. His vocabulary too, drawing on the full resources of the Japanese language, was extraordinarily rich and nuanced, as any translator soon learnt to his grief.
Mishima frequently expressed his contempt for authors ignorant of Japanese tradition. Among his predecessors he revered Ogai Mori (1862–1922) who, inspired by the ritual suicide of General Nogi, the hero of the Russo-Japanese War, abandoned a career as a writer in the German romantic tradition to devote himself exclusively to painstaking, historically accurate accounts of virtuous samurai, considering that they represented the essence of what it meant to be a Japanese.
Mishima was also a devoted admirer of Junichirō Tanizaki (1886–1965) who had turned from his youthful fascination with Poe and Baudelaire to create nostalgic evocations of the classical literature….
Finally, Mishima might be said to have been the protégé of Yasunari Kawabata (born 1899), whose devotion to traditional Japan lay in a somewhat different area from either Tanizaki's or Mishima's—the aesthetics of the old garden or the tea ceremony, the indirection of the utterances in the classical literature, and the childlike beauty of the women in the old paintings….
As a writer Mishima had achieved the highest distinction. Not only was he generally recognized as the best Japanese novelist and playwright actively engaged in writing, but translations had spread his fame to many countries. Among the younger writers his only rivals were Kobo Abé and Kenzaburo Oë, both totally opposed to him in literary manner as well as in politics. Among the older writers only Kawabata ranked higher, and he had not written a major work of fiction in ten years. No doubt it was a disappointment to Mishima when Kawabata won the Nobel Prize in 1968, thus precluding his own chances at the prize for years, until Japan's turn came round again. Kawabata, with characteristic modesty, stated at the time of the award that Mishima, a genius whose like was seen only once in 300 years, deserved the honour more than himself, and perhaps he was right. Mishima certainly wanted this international cachet of approval. The importance of foreign evaluation of his works is suggested by the prominence in his last letters of requests that the recipients assist in making sure that the English translation of his tetralogy would be published in full.
But Mishima must have felt utterly secure about his reputation in Japan. He told me in August, 1970, that he had written enough for one lifetime, and had put into The Sea of Fertility everything he had learned as a writer. "When I finish this book I'll have nothing left to do but to die", he said with a laugh, and I laughed too, unable to take him seriously. But Mishima meant it literally, and it must have seemed peculiarly appropriate to die on the day that he delivered to the publisher the concluding installment of his culminating work. It was not that Mishima feared a waning of his creative powers. He knew he could go on writing better than anyone else in Japan, almost without effort. But there was nothing more he wanted to say. He chose to end his career at his peak.
Donald Keene, "Mishima and the Modern Scene," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), August 20, 1971, pp. 989-90.
Mishima was probably Japan's first truly international novelist. He had a wide knowledge of Western literature, both classical and modern, and yet he knew his own classics better, and his feeling for the Japanese experience was more sensitive, than any writer of his generation. Where, for instance, Abé Kobo's style is marked by a desiccated brevity and a metallic ring, Mishima did more than any postwar Japanese writer to retain the "wetness", the "humidity" of the tradition….
In Spring Snow, Mishima reverts regularly to the literary and stylistic techniques of an earlier Japan—the haiku poet's use of stereotyped images to set a seasonal background, for instance; the twang of a bowstring and the dull thud of an arrow as images for the cold bite of the winter wind, and "a huge flock of crows perched in the bare branches of the maple", which is lifted almost straight from a well-worn haiku poem.
Nowhere before in Mishima's writings is the style quite so dazzling, nowhere does it recall quite so forcefully the rich and resplendent culture of Japan's Momoyama period. Nowhere has Mishima's imagination reached such powerful and complex heights. Some of the passages describing the sea are, in Arthur Miller's phrase, "compressed visions, enormous myths".
"The Meiji Adventure," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), November 10, 1972, p. 1357.
The Buddhist doctrine of rebirth provides the underlying structure of the first half of Yukio Mishima's tetralogy, "The Sea of Fertility." In fact, the second volume, "Runaway Horses," is the reincarnation of the first, "Spring Snow." To the Buddhist, of course, reincarnation does not mean the continued existence of the same old soul in the new skin but rather the taking up of a previously unrelieved moral burden. And so the second book is the consequence, not the repetition, of the first.
Let me explain. Kiyoaki, the hero of "Spring Snow," is the essence of "elegance"—that is, melancholy ineffectual estheticism….
Isao, the hero of "Runaway Horses," is quite explicitly the reincarnation of Kiyoaki…. But whereas elegance, transcended through love, characterized Kiyoaki, there is nothing poetic, languorous or lovesick about Isao. He is the embodiment of "purity," though what Mishima means by that word will shock the Western reader.
Purity is single-minded and irrational…. Purity is the special property of youth. It is a form of emperor worship. It is preserved through constant contemplation of death. And purity hungers for bloodshed.
At the end of "Runaway Horses" Isao expresses his purity by murdering a big businessman and then by disemboweling himself—seppuku, the samurai's ritual suicide….
All the diverse, incompatible beliefs ever entertained in traditional Japan are treated in these books with respect. The aristocratic cult of poetic perception may have conflicted with the samurai code of military honor. The other-worldliness of Buddhism may have undermined the emperor worship of Shintoism. No matter. For Mishima such tensions are painful but creative; even one of his least attractive characters is capable of experiencing the productive contradictions….
Isao, however, does not feel the double lure of elegance and purity. His only concern is to protect his idealism and to fulfill it in seppuku….
Mishima failed to make Isao a character interesting enough to hold our attention. Could it be formulated as a general principle that the closer a character resembles an author's ideal, the less successfully that character is portrayed? George Eliot's Ladislaw pales beside her Casaubon, Jane Austen's Fanny is a cipher beside Emma, Tolstoy's Levin recedes behind Anna. Whether they are self-idealizations or longed-for versions of the opposite sex, these "perfect" characters do not develop; Isao, for instance, is tiresomely static. Nor are such characters motivated; the author's adoration is motive enough.
I suppose writers are no better at showing people they loathe. The most believable characters are generally those towards whom the writer feels a complex affection, who exhibit qualities the author can like but not respect, who do things that evoke not approval but compassion or amusement.
In Mishima's case, the indolent, effete Kiyoaki attracts this oblique admiration and is thereby a fully perceived character. Not so the ideal Isao….
My impulse to speculate about a novelist's intentions may be out of fashion. But I can't help recalling that in Mishima's very early book, "Confessions of a Mask," the erotic and the violent were intertwined into the (for him) sexually provocative figure of Saint Sebastian transfixed by arrows. In Mishima's last work, the tetralogy, the two temptations have been separated, the erotic energies going to Kiyoaki, the violent to Isao. Eros triumphs—and the "pure" Isao behaves like a lunatic when he's not being a bore.
Edmund White, "Runaway Horses," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 24, 1973, p. 3.
The demons which possessed Mishima were wild-eyed Japanese ones; so his life, his work and his death have a bizarre appropriateness that insists on standing. There is something rashly theatrical about him, a seemingly spurious exoticism his suicide makes genuine, for his death in that way looks like proof of his sincerity. And yet I am left with the feeling that it was the act of a disgusted fanatic, appalling because it was unnecessary, and throughout the first three novels of the tetralogy he knew was his last work, it is hard to avoid looking for clues to his suicide—insights of despair, hysteria, spite or strange joy.
With this third novel, "The Temple of Dawn," a theme is apparent. It is that of reincarnation, the transmigration of souls, a Nipponese rehearsal of Joyce's "met-him-pike-hoses." If one reads "The Sea of Fertility" as an elaborate suicide note, clearly Mishima expects to be back with us in one form or another. I had no idea of this when I read the first volume, "Spring Snow." It struck me as being a great love story … decorous and simple.
But "Runaway Horses" introduced the theme of reincarnation … and "The Temple of Dawn" continues the cycle….
Hindu and Buddhist texts … provide the mystical underpinning for the whole cycle of novels….
To see this, as the publisher does, as a novel showing "Mishima's ultimate understanding of Buddhist philosophy and esthetics" is to misrepresent somewhat "The Temple of Dawn." That whole side of it is disappointing compared with the much subtler portrait of Japan, richly textured situations of undeniable power that will eventually make up four panels of a Japanese screen in the tetralogy. Fortunately, the cycle does not depend on one's acceptance of reincarnation; that breathless relay race with the baton of the psyche being passed from hero to hero seems—at least in translation, and for this foreigner—nothing more than a kind of hopeful gimmickry.
The characters are important enough individually for one to believe in them without feeling obliged to prove or dispute their Buddhist bond … [and] seem to me of greater significance than the ponderous itinerary of their souls…. The next and last novel in the cycle, "Five Signs of God's Decay,"… is bound to contain more intense fascinations than this and if it is anything like its predecessors it will make up the most complete vision we have of Japan in the 20th century.
Paul Theroux, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 14, 1973, pp. 6-7.
The serial publication of Yukio Mishima's last works, a tetralogy called The Sea of Fertility, has the eerie effect of making him seem the fastest and most prolific dead writer in history….
Mishima sealed this literary package with his ritual suicide in 1970, when he was only 45. Unlike, say, Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself at 61 in apparent despair over a deteriorating mind, Mishima killed himself in what seemed a gesture of robust if wasteful heroism, the ultimate act of self-control. Since his death was so theatrically deliberate, the temptation is strong to judge the tetralogy as an artistic and philosophical suicide note to the world…. It is fascinating and ambitious, but the final message (and literary value) is still difficult to decipher.
The first three interconnected books are extraordinarily good. Mishima uses the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation to link various characters throughout the 20th century with changing manners, politics and national psychology in Japan. In The Temple of Dawn, he also discourses widely and sometimes pedantically about Buddhist theory; that is unfamiliar country for most Western readers. But Mishima's intensely poetic moral sense communicates his own fascination with such subjects.
In Spring Snow, the dreamy and aristocratic hero Kiyoaki Matsugae died a vaporously youthful death. He becomes Isao, the fanatic young political conspirator of Runaway Horses. In The Temple of Dawn, Kiyoaki/Isao is again transformed, this time into Ying Chan, a lovely Thai princess. The witness to all three incarnations is a wonderfully subtle spiritual voyeur named Honda, a rationalist Japanese judge and lawyer. Honda, like a principle of embattled moral intelligence, acts as Mishima's civilized guide through the mysteries of love, death, political tragedy and reincarnation.
If Mishima had written nothing else, his account of Honda's excursion to Benares, the holy Indian crematory site on the Ganges, would be considered a small masterpiece, on the order of E. M. Forster's visit to the Malabar caves in A Passage to India….
The combination of filigreed Oriental pornography and slightly cheap Götterdämmerung has sometimes been a contaminating tendency in Mishima's work. But the rest of the book plausibly suggests a writer whose gifts amount at least to minor genius.
Lance Morrow, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 15, 1973, pp. 122, 125.
Since the revelations generally refer back to events in Spring Snow, Runaway Horses suffers if read in isolation from the earlier novel. Mishima's method has something in common with the ancient Nō drama he so admired, with its even, ritualised progress broken by heartrending flashes of insight. Indeed in one key passage it's the mystical effects of the performance of two Nō actors which confirm Honda in his belief that Isao is Kiyoaki reincarnated, the active balancing the passive, 'two superb lotuses, red and white'.
Adulation of the young male is not the only element to recall Oscar Wilde and European fin-de-siècle writers. Mishima's style is lyrical, full-blown, almost over-ripe, yet apt for all these perfect blossoms about to fall. One Shinto ritual, in which girls dance carrying lilies, provokes a cluster of images—lilies, swords, cruelty, beauty—which would have delighted Wilde or Dowson. But Mishima's imagery, almost always drawn from closely-observed nature, has a simplicity, strength and mystical significance generally more reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence. There is also a certain coldness and inhumanity, with human beings themselves seen as part of an austere natural order.
Clive Jordan, "Last Rite," in New Statesman, November 30, 1973, pp. 828-29.
At a personal level, it is probably impossible for a Westerner to identify with Mishima, whether in life or death, despite the abundant evidence [in Runaway Horses] that in him a formidable, self-aware artist was to be found at work until the very end, and despite our folk-memory of the long period in Western Christendom when the chief end of life was thought to be the making of a 'good death'. But the … comparison [of Mishima] with [the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusako] Endo shows that divergent missions, tempers and prescriptions may arise from fundamentally similar perceptions. Mishima's and Endo's imaginative responses to the sorry, soggy mudswamp-aspect of contemporary Japan both have the kind of authenticity that the world recognises in Solzhenitsyn on a larger stage. The Japanese writers, like the Russian one, say what their own countrymen do not particularly want to hear, and what the people of other countries can with the best will in the world only overhear. It is a battle honour not to be despised: the inkbrush, after all, is mightier than the kendo stave or the samurai sword.
Christopher Driver, "The Inkbrush is Mightier," in The Listener, February 14, 1974, pp. 215-16.
The question naturally arises: Is Mishima's tetralogy really of such magnitude as to make this tremendous job of translation worthwhile? Even without seeing the final portion, the answer would appear to be "Yes!" It is regrettable that the English of E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Seigle tends at times to lumber along; even so, the power of Mishima's portrayal and the richness of his metaphors give this work a stature seldom matched in modern literature.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Spring, 1974), p. lvi.
Runaway Horses is one of the few books in which the weltanschauung of nearly all its characters so repelled me that I found myself resenting the author's skill and the power of his story-telling technique. Nevertheless, they were formidable talents and must be acknowledged. Mishima, as you might expect from one who tried his hand at directing films, had a strong visual sense. His descriptions of landscapes, plants, weather and the effects of light are masterly. Even at the book's climax when Isao kills the hated capitalist (although, typically, Isao claims to be killing him not for his politics but because he has defiled a shrine) and runs towards the edge of the cliff to commit seppuku, there is a vivid description of the terraced tangerine fields through which he goes, and far from holding up the action it seems to increase the tension. Runaway Horses is an impressive novel, scenes in which still haunt me, but I hated reading it.
John Mellors, in London Magazine, April/May, 1974, p. 137.
As in the case of other prophetic novelists, Mishima's best work is not always his neatest and most controlled. His universally admired "After the Banquet," for all its perfect literary manners, is not ultimately so generous as the tiny, diseased "The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea," nor as provocative as the overwritten and analytic "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion." Like these, his final novel, "The Decay of the Angel," has its pitfalls and its faults. They will be felt, most immediately perhaps in the style—sharp, almost clawing….
The ["Sea of Fertility"] cycle is completed and we can see now what Mishima did with his supernatural notion. Taken together, these four novels constitute an epic, the dynamism of whose characters and action is the classical, if perverse, amor fati. No foreknowledge "would keep them from flinging themselves after their destinies." Mishima's epic, however, is not simply a chronicle of failed lives, historical decay and social disaster, nor is it merely a suicide note about spiritual rot. His theme—let us say it aloud—is not reincarnation. His subject is incarnation—in the Western sense, too. His theme (if anything so large as an epic must be said to have one) is the assumption by spirit of fleshy being, hence our engagement in human suffering and our final disengagement from it.
Yes, no doubt those annoying Buddhist and Hindu concepts catalogued for the reader, both in the earlier volumes and in "The Decay of the Angel," might have been better integrated into the moment-by-moment evolution of the drama. But the annoyance they caused there was fruitful. Honda's rational confidence in their significance, and the Western reader's esthetic annoyance at their insignificance, were both ultimately misplaced. When in the last chapter, Honda staggers to confront the last living representative of the lost age of romance, Satoko—once beloved of his friend Kiyoaki, but now the holy Abbess of the Gesshuji—he is overwhelmed. There the author burns holes in even his own assumptions, to say nothing of ours. In the very last pages the entire cycle destroys itself and then turns right around and regenerates itself by contemplating, with a tranquility that is nothing short of ferocious, the questionable reality of its own long, long fiction.
Yukio Mishima's work and his way of death consciously enforced that antinomy: action in the service of an illusion.
Alan Friedman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1974, pp. 1-2.
[The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Novels] resembles Galsworthy's Forsyte cycle (novels Mishima did not know) and shares with it an artless structure and a nostalgia for the past, an interest in action which verges occasionally into melodrama and a pathos which is sometimes near sentimentality.
The book is held together by its theme, for each of the characters has an inner connection with the others. This connection (avidly observed by Honda who, typically, becomes a voyeur in later life) is simple transmigration. Each is believed to be the incarnation of the other.
This is believed not only by Honda but (as the book makes clear) by Mishima himself. One's surprise at an intelligent author's acceptance of the literal truth of such tenets is lessened as his necessity for doing so becomes apparent.
Mishima was excessively concerned with immortality. He found the outward signs of decay—ordinary aging—disgusting … and he kills off his heroes, as he killed off himself, before decay can occur. Reincarnation offers a promise of eternal youth. At the same time it is more than a way of being endlessly alive. It is a way of being always known. As Mishima writes in the third volume: "There are only two roles for humans in this world: those who remember and those who are remembered."…
His concerns … are not those of an artist but a moralist. In these pages Mishima shows us little; he tells us everything. This is not a book such as his own favorite among his works, After the Banquet, one marked with expert observation and ironic understanding. It is moving but it is moving as a cry of pain is moving.
Like all moralists Mishima was a romantic in that he perceived something more pure, more innocent, something higher and better to which he might unfavorably compare himself as he was and the world as it is.
This attitude is as attractive as it is gallantly quixotic. It makes the world seem a simpler place, and a more urgent one. For that reason this long testament will always have its admirers. In it Mishima rushes to establish himself. But Mishima the artist was already established—by the novels which came before this one.
Donald Richie, "Mishima and the Savage God," in Book World/The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 19, 1974, p. 1.
Mishima, the literary genius of Japan's postwar generation, often mentioned for the Nobel Prize, delighted in shock and contradiction. He possessed luminous and fertile abilities: his complete works in Japanese are now being collected in 36 volumes. He was also a master of what Russians call poshlust, a vulgarity so elevated—or debased—that it amounts to a form of art….
Mishima's last work, The Sea of Fertility, is a four-volume cycle of which The Decay of the Angel is the final part, finished on the morning of the author's suicide. Encompassing four Japanese generations and more than 70 years of the country's most complex history, the tetralogy is a daring, not always successful enterprise. At its best it has a brilliant, erratic, lunar clarity. Mishima did not believe in reincarnation, yet the premise of all four novels—Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of the Dawn and The Decay of the Angel—is reincarnation. The unifying figure throughout is a lawyer-voyeur named Honda, who has devoted his life to tending the various incarnations of his boyhood friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae.
Symbolically, Matsugae's last incarnation—as a preternaturally evil young orphan—turns out to be a fraud, just as modern Japan has turned into a polluted and plastic travesty of its disciplined traditions. The Decay of the Angel is nonetheless a wonderfully frigid dance of death in which Mishima, like a Japanese Prospero, gathers all this artistic belongings together. In its austerity it is among the best of Mishima's novels. Perhaps there was something solipsistic in Mishima's terminating both his work and his life simultaneously, making his entire world self-destruct at the same instant. What remain, of course, are his queer, lovely works, like dividends from an insane dictator's Swiss bank account.
Lance Morrow, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 10, 1974, pp. 92-4.
Mishima indulged no worries about form: for him fiction was simply a useful means of protesting at the post-war dulling of those traditional Japanese virtues: monarchy, ritual self-slaughter, and the cult of fitness and brute force. In The Temple of Dawn, third novel in his final tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, Mishima's narrator Honda—whose very name declares the commercialised, yankeefied modernity his author deplores—is a mouthpiece for the nastiest sort of reaction. He's spiritually emasculated, a voyeur rather than an actor wielding 'the Japanese sword with its glistening blade so pure and sharp'. But foreign travel and the best kind of reading soon set him to rights. Watching the (attentively detailed) ritual slaughter of goats in Kali worship helps rinse his spirit of modern impurities, and Vico and Nietzsche cheer him up with their praise of 'natural savagery' and their hopes for its renewal. The novel glooms over Japan….
Ironically, Mishima's novels are, of all modern Japanese fiction, most recognisably westernised in tone: the princess, innocent and virginal, is even—shades of Milton—bitten to death by a snake in a garden. With any luck, Mishima's crusade will prove a dud: it'll be terrible indeed for Japan if future events fail to guarantee his relegation to the curio corner of literature.
Valentine Cunningham, "Bags of Tricks," in New Statesman, July 19, 1974, p. 90.