Yukio Mishima Essay - Critical Essays

Yukio Mishima Drama Analysis

Yukio Mishima’s dramatic works share with his others a concern with action in the face of the void. His conviction that every act is necessarily a political act is a significant one, and it provides a unifying force in the plays, as does his conviction that, in things great or small, any action, ultimately, is better than no action. This constant often leads to tortured situations reminiscent of Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, it is easy to see why Mishima preferred Sartre to Albert Camus, philosophically, despite Mishima’s dislike of the political Left and his outright contempt for bureaucracy.

Mishima favored modern adaptation to extend great art through all time. Donald Keene, one of his foremost translators, has noted that Mishima believed that his modern N plays should be as effective in a performance in Central Park as on a traditional N stage. This belief reminds one of William Butler Yeats’s conviction that set properties and cast were too complex if all could not be fitted into a taxi, brought to a destination, and performed in a private home.

Mishima’s negative critics point to the stiff nature of characters, as well as the restricted action in his conventional plays, claiming that he was overly influenced by the French period drama of Jean Racine. These so-called drawbacks, however, served a larger purpose in Madame de Sade and My Friend Hitler, which may be compared to the dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles, in which unspeakable, bloody, or violent acts are described rather than acted onstage.

Flawlessly educated, Mishima had perfect command of the classical as well as the modern Japanese language. His grasp of Eastern and Western literature was equaled by few, if any, of his peers. The same was true of his understanding of history and politics, as well as philosophy. Jean Cocteau, whom he met in Paris, and Oscar Wilde were two writers who exercised great influence on him. Both, like Mishima, were flamboyant public figures. One is reminded that Mishima’s experiment with becoming a boxer parallels Cocteau’s becoming the manager of a professional prizefighter. Mishima also was interested in the multifaceted Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio, who not only wrote in a number of forms but also shared an interest in the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and who became a military activist and daring airplane pilot. Mishima himself was eventually to help train Japanese self-defense force troops in parachute jumping (a skill that he taught himself), in addition to forming and financing his own small, private army, dedicated to the protection of the emperor.

The plays published in Five Modern N Plays, written between 1950 and 1955, have been performed, in various groupings, by a number of small theater groups throughout the United States. Sotoba Komachi, The Lady Aoi, and Hanjo have probably been acted more frequently than The Damask Drum and Kantan. Similarities discovered in opposites and the dictatorship of desire—even beyond the grave—and the agonies attendant thereto are the motivating force behind them all.

Sotoba Komachi

In Sotoba Komachi, the primary characters are an arrogant Poet (who remains nameless) and an ugly Old Woman, who is soon to be discovered by the audience as Komachi, the formerly devastating beauty, reincarnated. Beauty and torment are welded in all the works of Mishima. Komachi historically tormented her suitor, refusing to give herself unless courted for one hundred nights. The suitor died on the ninety-ninth night.

Both of the primary characters are developed sympathetically. The Poet, who at first harshly tells the Old Woman, whom he stumbles on in the park late at night, that someone as old and vile as she should leave that spot for young lovers, is destined to change his insult that she is “a profanation.” When Komachi tells him that she is ninety-nine years old, he recoils yet again, though he is drawn to look at her more closely. During the course of their exchange, the park empties, and Komachi reminisces about her love for Captain Fukakusa eighty years previously. Here Mishima is freer still with his modernization of the classic Komachi and introduces an onstage flashback to a ball at which Fukakusa was courting Komachi—but Viennese waltzes, not Japanese music, provide background as various couples appear and discuss the romance of Komachi and her captain. The audience suddenly realizes that fate is destined to repeat itself as the Poet begins to see the Old Woman as absolutely beautiful and begins to pay court to her. Komachi’s hundredth night has again come around. To her credit, she tries to warn the young man, but he is totally enthralled by his new vision of her. The play, carried by Mishima’s powerful dialogue, at once masterful in its timing and economical but eloquent in its progress, concludes with his dying and Komachi’s acceptance of “a hundred more years to wait,” as she returns to counting cigarette butts garnered that day. She is seen at the final curtain as she was when the curtain rose. The play is classic Mishima—including his obsessive interest in cycles, despite his personal disclaimer of belief in reincarnation. His claimed belief in active nihilism is seldom more accurately manifested than in this koanlike play.

Bondage to an emotional state and/or obsession is a frequent theme for Mishima and probably goes back even to his preadolescent intoxication with Reni’s portrait of Saint Sebastian, ultimately leading to a commissioned series of portraits of himself in various dying situations—including one of himself as Saint Sebastian, arms bound above his head and arrows appearing to protrude from his torso. In The Damask Drum and Hanjo such pain and torture are enacted at an essentially intellectual-emotional level. The Lady Aoi also works at that level but features spirit possession, torture of a physical sort, and murder, too.

The Damask Drum

The Damask Drum centers on an old janitor, Iwakichi, who falls madly and impossibly in love with a woman whom he has never met but has observed across the alley from the office building where he cleans. He has spied her repeatedly in a fashionable dress shop just across the way. Iwakichi confesses to the clerk Kayoko that he must have sent the mystery lady thirty unanswered love letters, in addition to seventy more that he has burned after writing. (The mystery of the hundredth occasion reminds one of Sotoba Komachi.) After their exchange, Iwakichi and Kayoko continue to spy on the adjacent office and observe the activity there during their night shift. Eventually tiring, Kayoko takes her leave of the old man, carrying with her yet another love letter for the mystery lady from him. Across the way, three sophisticated male customers and the proprietress of the shop discuss the old man’s obsessive passion. The proprietress confesses that she has used the old man’s letters as wipers for her dog’s combs, never showing them to Mrs. Hanako Tsukioka, who is the object of the old man’s passion. The girl Kayoko arrives with the thirtieth letter, which they read aloud.

The discourse that follows concerns questions of romance, the erotic, and fashion—then returns to the old man, whom they decide to discipline for his cheeky courtship. They contrive to give Iwakichi a stage prop, a drum that is made of damask and therefore soundless. The...

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