Although Mishima’s attempt to strengthen his body provoked the writing of Sun and Steel, the book is not a description of a bodybuilder’s regimen. Rather, it consists of a series of philosophical speculations, many of which are farfetched and disturbing. Mishima’s wild assertions have provoked many critics to voice their dismay. Sun and Steel expresses the romantic ideal of death as both the ultimate experience of life and its tragic fulfillment, a motif found in the works of such Romantic artists and thinkers as John Keats, Richard Wagner, Walt Whitman, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, Mishima was familiar with the works of these writers; unlike many contemporary Japanese artists, he had read widely in Western literature.
Mishima had set himself the difficult task of explaining the discoveries of the body in words. He notes that words are like “white ants” which eat away at reality, hiding and destroying it rather than revealing it. (Elsewhere he compares words to corrosive acid that eats at a plate on which an etching is made.) Since he must use words to explain an experience that transcends words, the book is frequently mystifying. It is easier to grasp what Mishima is trying to convey by examining the implications of certain key images that offer a glimpse of Mishima’s transcendent experience.
The first of these is Mishima’s description of a group of young men carrying a heavy portable shrine through the streets of a city during a religious ceremony. Their bodies are strained, yet each young man, although exhausted, wears an expression of happiness. Mishima notes that as they carry the shrine, they are looking at the sky, which he sees as an emblem of tragedy available to be seen and comprehended by any ordinary person. (The assumption that a clear blue sky is emblematic of tragedy is only one of many questionable assertions that the reader must accept in order to follow the progress of Mishima’s emotions and spirit.) The person with an unfit body would not be able to perform the task of the shrine carriers and thereby would be denied access to the ultimate tragedy revealed by physical action. Mishima believed that his preoccupation with the written word had clouded that basic sense of tragedy. Thus, Mishima set about improving his body. Mishima would later carry such a shrine; photographs of him taken at the end of the run reveal the beatific face he had earlier described in the essay.
The next event to which Mishima refers is a striking awareness of the sun which he experienced in the summer of 1945 during the training he underwent in preparation for his induction into the army during what he calls “the summer of the defeat.” The sun gleamed on the wings of the airplanes, destined for destruction, as it had on the blood and bodies of those killed by the war. The sun, another feature of that searing, tragic sky, becomes for Mishima an emblem of death which leads all creation on to its ultimate destruction.
Mishima notes that he then took refuge in his books and studies, hiding from the sun and its message of death, but he does not tell the reader that when he reported for his draft physical, he had a slight cold which the army doctor diagnosed as the beginning of tuberculosis and because of which the doctor disqualified Mishima for duty. Mishima did...
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Mishima’s revolt and suicide mimicked one of the most famous events of Japanese history, the Ni Ni Roku incident of February 26, 1936, in which army officers tried to force the emperor into a militaristic position by occupying parts of Tokyo. Their revolt was crushed, but Mishima wrote a laudatory short story, “Yukoku” (“Patriotism”), about an officer who, although not actually part of the revolt, favored its objectives. He knows that he will be asked to lead an attack against his comrades and chooses seppuku as an honorable way out of his dilemma. His wife, a bride of only a few months, stabs herself. The couple make love before their suicides, so the story is an intense blend of eroticism and violence. Mishima also played the role of the officer in a film of the story that is so graphic that some members of the audience fainted.
The theme of tragic fulfillment through violent death which is the central idea of Sun and Steel appears frequently in Mishima’s fiction, often coupled with an act of revolt like the attempted coup which triggered his suicide. Another of Mishima’s works based, like “Patriotism,” on an actual incident is the novel Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959), in which a Zen Buddhist student burns down a sacred temple. In Homba (1969; Runaway Horses, 1973), the protagonist commits seppuku. Yukio Mishima wrote works which scintillate with many ideas and emotions leading to a multiplicity of interpretations. It is therefore too much to say that Sun and Steel provides the answers to the meaning of his life’s work, but it certainly does supply the key to the meaning of his death.