The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels is a tetralogy whose title is taken from a name on the surface of the moon. It suggests both the fertile sea of earthly life and the arid sea of the cosmic moon—being and nothingness. Mishima said that he put everything he knew about life into these four novels; the very last words of the final book were written and submitted to his publisher on the day that he died.
Spring Snow is Mishima’s version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). A story of star-crossed lovers, Kiyo Matsugae and Satoko Ayakura, the novel is romantic, poignant, and tragic. As the title suggests, spring is the season of love, while snow is the cold, life-covering element of death, and this novel combines the two. Satoko, the daughter of a nobleman, is engaged by imperial decree to a prince of the court, while Kiyo, also from a noble family, is a student at Peers’ School who falls in love with her. By doing so, however, he challenges the emperor himself. The lovers meet secretly, love passionately, and take terrible risks. Emotionally weak and immature, Kiyo tries to distance himself from Satoko, who becomes pregnant, gets an abortion, and, in disgrace, isolates herself in a nunnery. Kiyo, guilty and desperately ill, comes daily to see the cloistered Satoko and eventually dies for love.
Two minor characters in Spring Snow figure prominently in the second novel of the cycle, Runaway Horses. Before Kiyo dies, he tells his school friend, Shigekuni Honda, of a dream in which he sees his friend Honda again, beneath a waterfall. Another minor character, Kiyo’s tutor, Shikeyuki Iinuma, also reappears in the second novel, which takes place some eighteen years after Kiyo’s death. Honda, now an associate judge in the saka Court of Appeals, meets Isao Iinuma, son of Kiyo’s tutor, who is now headmaster of his own academy. When Honda sees the boy bathing beneath a waterfall near the shrine, he notices three small moles on the left side of the boy’s breast—the same three moles that Kiyo had. He concludes that the boy is Kiyo reincarnated, the incarnation of Kiyo’s earlier dream.
The first volume of The Sea of Fertility, Spring Snow, introduces two schoolmates, Kiyoaki and Honda, at the Peers School, an exclusive academy. The exposition reveals Kiyoaki’s background. His father, Marquis Matsugae, a wealthy man from an old samurai family, sends his only son to be reared in the aristocratic household of Count Ayakura. Kiyoaki thus grows up with Ayakura Satoko, a beautiful girl two years his senior. The main plot of the first volume is the love story of these childhood friends, which ends tragically with Satoko’s retirement to a nunnery and the death of Kiyoaki at the age of twenty.
Though attracted to each other, Kiyoaki and Satoko reach their desperate ends through a series of willful misunderstandings. Kiyoaki’s diary entries are important in forwarding the plot in two ways. First, they reveal his overly subtle and resentful attraction for Satoko. Second, the dreams that he re-cords faithfully foreshadow events in the later novels and also serve as a unifying motif throughout the tetralogy. Letters play an important role in precipitating the romantic tragedy. Kiyoaki cannot help being attracted to Satoko, who seems to him the most beautiful of the girls of her class; still, he is infuriated by his sense that she is arrogant and condescending toward him. As a means of revenge, he writes her a cruel letter describing his unfulfilled sexuality and his consequent disillusionment with women. He later calls her, making her promise not to read the letter. He subsequently learns from her maid, Tadeshina, that she has already read his indiscreet letter, and he is piqued by her deception. When his parents tell him that a match with an Imperial prince might be arranged for Satoko and ask him if he wishes to claim her first, he proudly maintains that he has no interest in her. He burns the letters that Satoko sends him and refuses to speak to her.
The plans for the Imperial marriage continue; Satoko is so depressed by Kiyoaki’s coldness that she loses all interest in her life. When the plans for the marriage have advanced so far that it would be embarrassing and even dangerous for Satoko to change her mind, Kiyoaki realizes that he does indeed love her. He forces Tadeshina to arrange a meeting with Satoko at an inn where the two finally consummate their passion. Their assignations continue, spiced by danger.
Satoko becomes pregnant, much to the consternation of both families. They arrange an elaborate scheme for her to have an abortion in Osaka and then to visit a convent in Nara so that no one will be suspicious. At the convent, however, Satoko seeks asylum, pleading her desire to renounce the world. Kiyoaki, distraught with love, borrows money from Honda and leaves school to join Satoko. She refuses to see him, though he travels repeatedly through the snow to the abbey until he becomes desperately ill. Honda comes to take him home to die. On the train ride home, Kiyoaki exclaims in a delirious dream that he will meet Honda under the waterfalls.
In the second volume, Runaway Horses, the focus shifts to Honda, now thirty-eight years old and a respected judge. He is asked to take the place of another judge at a kendo match, where he is attracted to an accomplished eighteen-year-old, Isao. When he later sees Isao playing under the waterfalls, he is intrigued at the sight of three moles under Isao’s left arm—one of Kiyoaki’s physical traits. Upset by this threat to his rational approach to life, Honda discovers that Isao is the son of Iinuma, once Kiyoaki’s tutor.
Iinuma makes his living running a school for the fanatical right wing. Isao is a political purist, dedicated to sacrificing himself for the cause of restoring Japan to its glorious heritage and returning power to the Emperor. He and his group of young rightists target their hatred at the wealthy entrepreneurs who are perceived to have caused the corruption and misery in Japan. Isao is devoted to the ideals set forth in “The League of the Divine Wind,” the story of the revolt of a band of samurai in 1876. A long excerpt from this story constitutes about fifty pages of the novel, inserting a tale of rebellion against modernization in the past into the story of Isao’s attempted revolt against the governmental policies of the 1930’s.