Yukio Mishima 1925-1970
(Pseudonym of Hiraoka Kimitake) Japanese novelist, playwright, essayist, and short story writer.
Mishima is commonly considered one of the most important modern Japanese writers. He is recognized as a master stylist and a powerfully imaginative author who wrote successfully in a number of genres, most notably novels and plays. A controversial figure both in Japan and abroad, Mishima's focus on themes such as homosexuality, death, and political change has garnered a great deal of both Japanese and Western study. However, Mishima is perhaps as well-known for his public death by ritual suicide (seppuku)—after a failed attempt to overthrow the Japanese government—as he is for his massive body of work.
Mishima was born Hiraoka Kimitake in Tokyo in 1925. His family was of samurai ancestry, and his father was a government minister. The dominant figure in Mishima's childhood was his paternal grandmother, Natsu, who forcibly separated Mishima from his mother when he was a baby, insisting that he live with her downstairs in the family home. Although a semi-invalid, Natsu encouraged the young Mishima's interest in Kabuki theater and in the notion of an elite past. Even after his parents and siblings moved to another house, Mishima stayed with Natsu, nursing her as her illness grew progressively worse. Finally, in 1937 he was allowed to rejoin his family. Mishima did well in school, immersing himself in Japanese and Western classical literature. He began writing stories in middle school and had his first work published while he was still a high school student. It was upon this occasion in 1941 that he first assumed his pen name. After high school he studied law at Tokyo University and subsequently accepted employment in the government's Finance Ministry. Within a year, however, he resigned in order to write full time. With the great success of his first novel, Kamen no kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask) in 1949, Mishima established himself as an important voice in Japanese literature.
Throughout his adult life Mishima was disturbed by what he felt was Japan's image as “a nation of flower arrangers.” He became increasingly consumed by a desire to revive bushidō (“the way of the warrior”), the traditional values of the samurai, and he vehemently opposed the Westernization of his country that was taking place after its defeat in World War II. A supporter of Bungei Bunka (Literary Culture), a small nationalist magazine that had printed Mishima's early fiction, introduced Mishima to the Nihon Romanha, a group of intellectuals who stressed the “value of destruction” and called for the preservation of Japanese cultural traditions. The group had a profound influence on Mishima, who found reinforcement of his personal ideals in its emphasis on death and self-sacrifice. In 1968 he formed the Tate No Kai, or Shield Society, a private army of university men who believed in the way of the samurai, including the practice of seppuku, a form of ritual suicide that involves self-disembowelment and beheading by an associate. On November 25, 1970, Mishima and four of his followers from the Shield Society entered the headquarters of the Jietai, or Self-Defense Forces, took its commander hostage, and demanded that Mishima be allowed to address an assembly of the soldiers. Speaking from a balcony, Mishima exhorted the men to overthrow the American-imposed Japanese constitution and restore the emperor to his former position of preeminence. When he was jeered by the crowd, Mishima shouted, “Long live the Emperor!” and returned to the commander's office, where he performed the seppuku ritual. Immediately after beheading Mishima, a devoted follower performed his own ritual suicide before the crowd.
Mishima's life-long fascination with suicide, death, sexuality, and sacrifice suffuses most of his writing. In his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Confessions of a Mask, the narrator gradually realizes that he must hide his supposedly deviant sexual urges behind a mask of normality. Based on an actual court trial, the novel Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) tells the story of a young Buddhist acolyte whose ugliness and stutter have made him grow to hate anything beautiful. He becomes obsessed with the idea that the golden temple where he studies is the ideal of beauty, and in envy he burns it to the ground. One of Mishima's best-known works translated into English and widely anthologized is the short story “Yukoku” (1960; translated as “Patriotism” in Death in Midsummer and Other Stories), an overtly political work that tells the story of a married couple who decide to commit seppuku together. With its elements of emperor worship and right-wing political theory, as well as its explicitly detailed accounts of sex and death, the story remains one of Mishima's most shocking works. Mishima's last work, considered by many to be his masterpiece, is the tetralogy Hōjō no umi (1969-71; The Sea of Fertility), the final portions of which he completed and submitted to his publishers on the day of his suicide. The first novel in the cycle, Haru no yuki (1969; Spring Snow), which Mishima considered to represent the “feminine,” aesthetic side of Japanese culture, is based on an ancient romance featuring star-crossed lovers. In contrast, Homba (1969; Runaway Horses), the second installment in the cycle, symbolizes the “masculine,” martial arts-oriented side of Japanese culture. The novel concerns a plot by a group of young men to perform a series of assassinations of corrupt business leaders. The third novel in the series, Akatsuki no tera (1970; The Temple of Dawn), tells of the character Honda's voyage of spiritual discovery to Thailand and India. Because the awakening involves much esoteric Buddhist teaching, the work is considered the most problematic of the four novels in the series. Finally, in the last volume, Tennin gosui (1971; Decay of the Angel), Honda returns to the corrupt world of 1970 Japan, where he encounters emptiness and hopelessness.
Although the works best known in the West are his novels, Mishima was as esteemed in his country for his plays as for his fiction, and he was the first contemporary Japanese author to work in the Nō theater genre. In his Nō pieces, including Kantan (1950), Aya no tsuzumi (1951; The Damask Drum), Sotoba Komachi (1952), Aoi no ue (1954; The Lady Aoi), and Hanjo (1955), he updates time-honored works by combining the linguistic grace and mood of classical Nō with modern situations and character complexity. Mishima also wrote many plays in the shingeki, or modern, style, featuring fully developed characterization and realistic settings. Notable plays of this type include Nettaiju (1959; Tropical Tree), Sado kōshaku fujin (1965; Madame de Sade), and Waga tomo Hittorā (1968; My Friend Hitler).
The circumstances surrounding Mishima's spectacular suicide continues to influence critical opinion of his work. Many critics have explored how his works reflect his preoccupation with aggression and eroticism as well as his dedication to the traditional values of imperial Japan. Scholars often interpret Mishima's writings from a biographical perspective and routinely detect apparent contradictions between the man and his works. An ardent supporter of distinctively Japanese values, he was also steeped in Western aesthetic traditions and lived in a Western-style house. A master of traditional dramatic forms, he yet created some of his country's most notable modern theatrical pieces. A tireless writer, bodybuilder, and swordsman who possessed a vibrant and charismatic personality, he nevertheless in his works displayed a markedly erotic fascination with death. Married and the father of two children, he created some of the most vivid and realistic depictions of homosexuality in literature. It is Mishima's encompassing of such apparent contradictions, critics note, his melding of Eastern and Western influences, and blending of modern and traditional aesthetics, that gave rise to enduring literary works that transcend cultural boundaries.
Hanazakari no mori [The Forest in Full Flower] (essay) 1941
Kamen no kokuhaku [Confessions of a Mask] (novel) 1949
Ai no kawaki [Thirst for Love] (novel) 1950
Kinjiki. 2 vols. [Forbidden Colors] (fiction) 1953
Yoru no himawari [Twilight Sunflower] (play) 1953
Shiosai [The Sound of Waves] (novel) 1955
Kindai nogaku shu [Five Modern No Plays] (plays) 1956
Kinkakuji [The Temple of the Golden Pavilion] (novel) 1956
Utage no ato [After the Banquet] (novel) 1960
Gogo no eikō [The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea] (novel) 1963
Sado kōshaku fujin [Madame de Sade] (play) 1965
*Death in Midsummer and Other Stories (short stories) 1966
Taiyō to tetsu [Sun and Steel] (autobiographical essay) 1968
Hōjō no umi [The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels; includes Haru no yuki, Homba, Akatsuko no tera and Tennin gosui] (novels) 1969-71
†Haru no yuki [Spring Snow] (novel) 1969
†Honba [Runaway Horses] (novel) 1969
†Akatsuki no tera [The Temple of Dawn] (novel) 1970
†Tennin gosui [The Decay of the Angel] (novel) 1971
*This collection includes the short story “Patriotism” (1960).
†These works comprise the tetralogy Hōjō no umi (The Sea of Fertility).
SOURCE: Yoshida, Sanroku. “Mishima's Modernist Treatment of Time and Space in The Sea of Fertility.” World Literature Today (summer 1983): 409-11.
[In the following essay, Yoshida explores Mishima's manipulation of space and time in The Sea of Fertility.]
At the age of forty-five, Yukio Mishima provided his own conclusion to the drama of his life by committing seppuku, ritual disembowelment. He died on 25 November 1970, the same day that he finished his last work, the tetralogy The Sea of Fertility, comprised of the novels Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel (all published in...
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SOURCE: Chan, Stephen. “Mishima—Against a Political Interpretation.” Contemporary Review (September 1985): 133-35.
[In the following essay, Chan argues that Mishima concerned himself more with culture than with politics.]
Fifteen years ago the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, died after an abortive coup attempt. This year, Paul Schrader's film of his life has been released. Already the subject of controversy, the film depicts Mishima's death not as a political one but as an indigenous expression of values—a statement of authentic culture in which the right-wing political label was incidental.
At first glance there appears some truth in this...
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SOURCE: McAdams, Dan P. “Fantasy and Reality in the Death of Yukio Mishima.” Biography 8, no. 4 (fall 1985): 292-317.
[In the following essay, McAdams examines the ways in which Mishima's fantasies are played out in his fiction.]
By the time the lieutenant had at last drawn the sword across to the right side of his stomach, the blade was already cutting shallow and had revealed its naked tip, slippery with blood and grease. But, suddenly stricken by a fit of vomiting, the lieutenant cried out hoarsely. The vomiting made the fierce pain fiercer still, and the stomach, which had thus far remained firm and compact, now abruptly heaved, opening wide...
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SOURCE: Lingis, Alphonso. “Seppuku.” In Literature as Philosophy, Philosophy as Literature, edited by Donald G. Marshall, pp. 277-94. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1987.
[In the following essay, Lingis explores the significance of Mishima's ritual suicide in his writing and overall system of thought.]
Yukio Mishima found himself in words. Consumed by words.
“Any art that relies on words makes use of their ability to eat away—of their corrosive function—just as etching depends on the corrosive power of nitric acid. … It might be more appropriate, in fact, to liken their action to that of excess stomach fluids that digest and...
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SOURCE: Atkinson, David W. “Alienation in the Novels of Yukio Mishima.” The International Fiction Review 16, no. 1 (winter 1989): 56-64.
[In the following essay, Atkinson contends that the pursuit of freedom and beauty lead to alienation in Mishima's novels.]
Few novelists dominate twentieth-century Japanese fiction as does Yukio Mishima. Born on January 14, 1925 to an upper middle-class family in Tokyo, Yukio Mishima distinguished himself early as a brilliant student, graduating from Gakushuin or Peers' School in 1944. While still in school, Mishima published his first significant work Hanazakari no Mori (1941; The Forest in Full Flower), which...
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SOURCE: Smith, Andrew R. “Seeing through a Mask's Confession.” Text and Performance Quarterly 9, no. 2 (April 1989): 135-52.
[In the following essay, Smith examines Mishima's revelation and concealment in Confessions of a Mask.]
Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku) was written in Japan just after World War II and is ostensibly an autobiographical account of Yukio Mishima's youth. The title already suggests an opposition between what one authentically expresses and what one surreptitiously constructs for public perception, and in reading we are confronted with questions concerning our own habitual notions of truth and deception. How is a mask...
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SOURCE: Hirata, Hosea. “To Slit the Beautiful Body/Text: Mishima's Jouissance to Death.” Literature Interpretation Theory 2, no. 2 (1990): 85-94.
[In the following essay, Hirata explores the meaning of death in Mishima's texts and the meaning of Mishima's own textual death.]
“[I]t is always something like an opening which will frustrate the structuralist project. What I can never understand, in a structure, is that by means of which it is not closed” (160).
Mishima Yukio1: how could we seize this bloody origin—the origin of so many luxurious...
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SOURCE: Talmor, Sascha. “Mishima—A Passion for Life and Death.” Durham University Journal (July 1991): 269-76.
[In the following essay, Talmor discusses Mishima's view of mortality.]
Yukio Mishima (the pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka) was born in Tokyo in 1925. He belonged to an old Samurai family and was brought up on its traditional values. When he graduated from the exclusive Peers' School in 1944, he received a citation from the Emperor as the highest honour student. He graduated from the Tokyo Imperial School of Jurisprudence, making good use later in his fiction of his knowledge of the law, the ways of life and thought of lawyers, judges, of judicial...
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SOURCE: Nayman, Shira. “‘Sadly Wasted by Words’: Mishima's Search for the Proustian Self.” Boulevard 7, no. 1 (spring 1992): 73-92.
[In the following essay, Nayman compares the work of Mishima to Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust, focusing on the conflict between writing and action, and the search for self-realization.]
Two years before his suicide in 1970, the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, endured several months of daunting training in a fighter-jet simulator so that he might take to the skies and experience the speed of sound. He anticipated the day of his flight in the F104 military plane with heightened excitement; and when it finally...
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SOURCE: Schwab, Gabriele. “A Gaze into the Temple of Dawn: Yukio Mishima's ‘Absence in Presence’.” Discourse 14, no. 3 (summer 1992): 131-51.
[In the following essay, Schwab examines the dualities of Eastern/Western and masculine/feminine in The Temple of Dawn.]
“[A]s long as self-consciousness (the self) existed and perceived, the world was nothing more than a phenomenal shadow, a reflection of the ego's perceptions; the world was nothing and therefore nonexistent” (125). These reflections in Yukio Mishima's The Temple of Dawn pertain to its main character, Honda, the “Western Japanese” lawyer who, looking back at his life, comes to “realize...
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SOURCE: Nemoto, Reiko Tachibana. “The Obsession to Destroy Monuments: Mishima and Böll.” Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 2 (summer 1993): 230-49.
[In the following essay, Nemoto analyzes parallels in the post-World War II novels of Mishima and Heinrich Böll, focusing on attitudes toward destruction.]
In Japan and in Germany the aftermath of World War II brought a preoccupation with the destruction of monuments (both real and fictional) by fire. In 1950, in the city of Kyoto in Japan, a famous Zen temple that was more than five hundred years old was burned down in an act of arson by a Zen acolyte named Hayashi Yoken, who said that his motive was “antipathy...
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SOURCE: Carroll, Michael Thomas. “The Bloody Spectacle: Mishima, The Sacred Heart, Hogarth, Cronenberg, and the Entrails of Culture.” Studies in Popular Culture 15, no. 2 (1993): 43-56.
[In the following essay, Carroll explores commonalities in imagery of sacrificial violations of the human torso, including in Mishima's writing and ritual suicide.]
Of the many acts of violence in literature, few compare with that which forms the central scene of Yukio Mishima's “Patriotism,” in which a young lieutenant performs seppuku—the military form of ritual suicide—when he finds that his fellow officers have not included him in a coup attempt. David Lodge,...
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SOURCE: Hutton, Alice H. “Decay of Mishima's Japan: His Final Word.” International Fiction Review 20, no. 2 (1993): 99-102.
[In the following essay, Hutton discusses Mishima's antipathy toward Western influence in Japan.]
Japan's Yukio Mishima gave a clue as to his reasons for his seppuku (samurai ritual suicide) five years before his death, when in 1965 he announced his plan for a tetralogy of novels tracing Japan's history in the twentieth century, after which he would have nothing left to say. That series of novels, The Sea of Fertility, indicts the West with its democratizing, commercializing influence for the erosion of traditional Japanese...
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SOURCE: Mengay, Donald H. “Body/Talk: Mishima, Masturbation, and Self-Performativity.” In Genealogy and Literature, edited by Lee Quinby, pp. 193-210. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Mengay examines Mishima's portrayal of the Japanese identity in a Westernized society.]
The social upheavals caused around the world by western imperialism were also felt in Japan, despite the fact that the west never established a formal colonial bureaucracy there. One of the early outcomes of the western “influence,” which began with an act of aggression, the American insistence in the 1860s that Japan open its borders, was the...
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SOURCE: Washburn, Dennis. “Structures of Emptiness: Kitsch, Nihilism, and the Inauthentic in Mishima's Aesthetics.” In Studies in Modern Japanese Literature: Essays and Translations in Honor of Edwin McClellan, edited by Dennis Washburn and Alan Tansman, pp. 283-306. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Japanese Studies, The University of Michigan, 1997.
[In the following essay, Washburn discusses the paradoxes of modernism evident in Mishima's works and life.]
Charles Jencks, in a famously acerbic account of recent developments in architectural style, has asserted that “Happily, we can date the death of modern architecture to a precise moment in time,” which he claims...
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SOURCE: Rhine, Marjorie. “Glossing Scripts and Scripting Pleasure in Mishima's Confessions of a Mask.” Studies in the Novel 31, no. 2 (summer 1999): 222-33.
[In the following essay, Rhine argues that Mishima's novel Confessions of a Mask can best be understood through the later chapters of the novel, in which the work becomes “theatrical” in its portrayal of homosexuality.]
Yukio Mishima's first novel Kamen no Kokuhaku (Confessions of a Mask) not only catapulted him into prominence as one of the top writers of postwar Japan when it was published in 1949, but also remains one of the most popular and most often taught and discussed of...
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