Yukio Mishima Essay - Mishima, Yukio (Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoko)

Mishima, Yukio (Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoko)

Mishima, Yukio (Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoko) 1925–1970

Mishima was a prolific Japanese novelist, essayist, and playwright who was obsessed, both in his life and his art, with what he called "my heart's leaning toward Death and Night and Blood." As a child he was fascinated by pictures of samaurai warriors committing ritual suicide. Mishima in his work combined elements of both Eastern and Western literature with a desire for a return to the perfection of the past; he created a literature, often autobiographical, which dealt with such contemporary questions as the human capacity for evil and the meaninglessness of life. After an unsuccessful attempt to incite the Japanese army to riot for a return to imperialistic tradition, Mishima committed seppuku, the ritual suicide; it was the only act, he felt, that could affirm his personal convictions and that could make him comprehend his own existence. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Despite its distinguished tradition in Japan as the shi-shosetsu, or "I-novel," raw autobiography in the guise of fiction was a genre Yukio Mishima dismissed with a contemptuous smirk. Like Kafka, who once noted that writing an autobiography would be as easy as recording one's dreams, Mishima was convinced that confessional writing exercised neither the imagination nor the craft to shape it into art, merely one's propensities for self-indulgence. Yet, he submitted to the considerable attraction it must have held for him on several occasions…. [His] early Confessions of a Mask (1949) can be cited, as can Sun and Steel, written some twenty years later. Neither conforms strictly to all shi-shosetsu conventions, however, the former because its material shows evidence of tight artistic control, the latter because its character as abstract discourse excludes much of the quotidian in which the shi-shosetsu usually revels. But both works lay bare the essential forces at play, or at war, in Mishima's puzzling psychology.

What emerges most clearly from this psychology is a conflict between two antithetical modes of being, both equally seductive for Mishima. To establish one's existence either within the confines of mentality or to do so within the confines of physicality—that was the dilemma at the center of his thinking about himself. And so consuming was his obsession with it that hardly one of his artistic productions escapes being invested with the problem, whether on the level of theme, characterization, or style.

Early in Confessions of a Mask, following an etiological foray into the background of the protagonist's psycho-sexual makeup, there occurs an incident immediately identifiable as one of those core events from which a lifetime's preoccupations can be seen to spring. The protagonist, a frail, introspective, and excessively sensitive young boy stands before the gate of his family's house, watching with transfixed fascination as a parade of young men carrying a festival shrine on their shoulders passes before him. Unexpectedly they turn in his direction, crash into the garden, and proceed to destroy it in an outburst of physical intoxication. Terrified, the boy rushes into the house, where from a second-floor balcony he observes with "unaccountable agony" the men's expression of "obscene and undisguised drunkenness."

Some twenty years later, after intermittent treatments of this pivotal episode of his childhood in his work, Mishima returned to it near the beginning of Sun and Steel (1968), a work entirely occupied with the mind-body conflict…. It is apparent … that the boy in the scene from Confessions of a Mask represents mind, observing with equal amounts of repulsion and attraction the physical activity of the body, represented by the young men carrying the shrine.

The scene is a figurative projection of the rift between body and mind, muscle and brain, passion and reason, romantic abandon and classical order, that for Mishima defined the two poles between whose claims he fashioned his life. It made it the intense affair it obviously was: at worst, the thrashings of a man hopelessly entangled in irreconcilable conflicts: at best, the admirable explorations of someone exhausting every means at his disposal to find some irreproachable basis for his existence, some foothold in a soil unsusceptible to the erosions of his own psychological vacillations or his culture's compromises with values not native to it. (pp. 41-2)

[One finds] Mishima's fictional worlds … replete with grating conflicts, ideologies hotly contested, emotions in clashing opposition, in short, the aura of battle. But whatever the set of characters or narrative manner, the various battles remain, at bottom curiously similar. The reason is that the deepest conflicts generated in his art are worked out with the mind-body duality as the point of contention.

What readership Mishima has acquired in the West by way of translation is partly due no doubt to this characteristic of his fiction. Despite a Japanese literary tradition that acknowledges duality, the aim of artistic production and enjoyment, no less than the aim of the Zen koan, was to shatter the earthly habit of thinking in opposites. (p. 43)

[It] must be remembered that in the artistry of the Japanese poet or in the ideal behavior proposed by the philosopher, the paramount concern was the resolution of the duality, not the substance of the conflict itself. It was the lyricism of an attained harmony that comprised the substance of the work, not the drama of unresolved conflict. What helps to explain his enthusiastic reception in the West is the drama in Mishima's literary manner, the drama intrinsic to a matter and mind, body and soul, flesh and spirit dualism—an idea the West has lived with since at least Plato. (p. 44)

Consider the scene again: the solitary observer on the balcony and the sweaty, ecstatic group of men down below; the dispassionate, rational mind spinning words, and down in the garden, the violent, rapturous body in action. The former is associated with weakness, timidity, fear, the latter with strength, ecstasy, sex. All of Mishima's work, and the life he so intimately bound up with it, can be seen as an attempt to relinquish as a predominant perspective the Apollonian heights of the balcony and thereby to disentangle himself from the web of words that he believed falsified a pure perception of the external world while it corroded the purity of physical action. He wanted to look at the world not solely from a position of rationality inspired by fear, but from a position of communal abandon inspired by an acceptance of destruction, chaos, and death. This perspective alone could provide, as he maintained in Sun and Steel, the tragic view of life, the only view he believed to confer dignity and nobility on man. Digging at the obscure roots of human motivation, he discovered, like Nietzsche, a failure of nerve at the origins of the urge toward rationality, a cowardly trembling before the wild, primitive, animalistic frenzy of man's deepest instincts. Dispassionate rationality he excoriated as a makeshift bulwark against man's fear of himself, granting a false comfort in the face of pain and suffering, turning at last into a denial of death itself, cheating it of meaning, glory, and beauty.

The fly in the ointment was that, of course, Mishima as a writer could not reject words. They were what he had started with, based a career on, found himself, voluntarily or not, deeply involved with. (pp. 44-5)

As a writer, commitment to words was the sine qua non of his being. But words, he complained, falsified a pure experience of physicality's ultimate reality…. [Mind] undoes action, while body strips words of their essential and legitimate function as tools in the ordering of reality. As the thematic strands of so much of his fiction demonstrate, Mishima, conferring equal value on mind and body, found life a slow corruption of each by the other.

His deepest need was an existence of unwavering intent, uncomplicated by contrary claims to his allegiance. But neither was it possible to choose the body and live like one of the beautiful, mindless, young men who swagger through his stories as regularly as Genet's hoodlums do his, nor was it possible to choose the mind and live like one of the intellectuals who talk of beauty but stalk his fiction like flabby, wrinkled ogres. (p. 45)

That such an obsessive quest for personal fulfillment should find expression in his artistic output seems only natural, especially since art itself constituted one of the terms of the conflict he tried so desperately to resolve. That it also proved a felicitous influence is more difficult to establish. In fact, though Mishima's art is inconceivable without the various imprints of his idée fixe, whatever faults mar his books can often be directly traced to his obsession with the mind-body duality.

Almost every one of his works contains some permutation of this dichotomy. Except in the pages of Sun and Steel, a bald statement of the theme is rare. But it emerges from every book whose set of characters Mishima divided between those he endowed with the qualities he associated with mind and those he endowed with the qualities he associated with the body. Set in opposition (as, in his own mind, were the philosophical principles they stood for), these are the people who engender the tension from which any particular story derives its impetus.

The unfortunate consequence is that often the merit of a work depends almost exclusively on how well the duality is integrated into and not simply imposed on the stuff of his fiction. This means that Mishima achieved his most consistently acclaimed work either by restraining his tendency to exaggerate, or, what may amount to the same thing, by immersing all theoretical considerations of the duality sufficiently within the human context so that his characters do not reduce to mere caricature whatever situational and human complexity he intends.

His The Sound of Waves (1954), for instance, limited in scope and ambition, shows none of that strenuously intellectual debate or wrenching emotional stress so prevalent in his other work…. Evil, in the form of two characters who represent the mind principle, remains on the periphery, failing to corrupt the pure love between its Daphnis and Chloë-modelled lovers. (p. 47)

After the Banquet (1960), places the mind-body conflict solidly within the framework of a socio-political situation…. Due in part to the politically-charged atmosphere surrounding his characters, providing a dimension through which the working out of the conflict could be refracted, Mishima managed here not to appear to slight the human complexity of his central characters. (pp. 47-8)

Despite a delectably nasty plot, [Forbidden Colors, (1951–53)] must be judged one of the most stilted and contrived he wrote. In it, the mind-body duality is so accentuated, so obviously pushed and dragged to the forefront by whatever devices of plot, scene, and character seem serviceable, that the entire enterprise creaks like some ancient and cumbrous machine. (p. 48)

Mishima seems to have envisioned human nature as ranging along a spectrum that at one extreme concluded in pure physicality, and at the other in pure mentality. Both of course are hypothetical modes of being, but figures such as Omi in Confessions of a Mask, Saburo in Thirst for Love (1950), and all those young toughs, farmhands, and soldiers who pass through his pages without a name, approach as nearly as possible what Mishima meant by living exclusively within a pure sense of their own physical presence. In his characteristic narrative manner as omniscient author (after the first-person account of Confessions of a Mask), Mishima never divulges their thinking; they exist within the silence of their muscles, often only as objects of erotic reverie, living in what in Sun and Steel he called "the world of those who are 'seen'" …, those who find proof of their existence in the gazes of others, or in their own gaze before a mirror. At the other extreme are those who approach a mode of being in which only a pure sense of their own consciousness is experienced. Such people derive their sense of existence from their own introspection, their thinking about themselves, and the proof of their existence lies in words. (pp. 48-9)

The archetypal situation in Mishima's fiction, the one for which the balcony scene in Confessions of a Mask served as prototype, involves the "solitary, humanistic man of letters" who, suspecting his dealings with words empty, false, or simply insufficient to give himself a firm sense of his own existence, turns his attention outward and finds himself enthralled by some arresting vision of physical perfection. And in his efforts to appropriate the experience of that mode of being, he corrupts it, kills it, or is destroyed himself…. [An explication of this idea is found in a passage from Sun and Steel:]

Admittedly, I could see my own muscles in the mirror. Yet seeing alone was not enough to bring me into contact with the basic roots of my sense of existence, and an immeasurable distance remained between me and the euphoric sense of pure being…. In other words, the self-awareness that I staked on muscles could not be satisfied with the darkness of the pallid flesh pressing about it as an endorsement of its existence, but … was driven to crave certain proof of its existence so fiercely that it was bound … to destroy that existence….

That is to say, once there is self-awareness of the muscles, once the "seen" and the "seeing" occur in the same person, the "euphoric sense of pure being" vanishes. To close the gap between "seeing" and the silent, impassive sense of existence granted by muscle, a blow must be dealt "to the realm of the senses fierce enough to silence the querulous complaints of self-awareness." (p. 49)

In Forbidden Colors, however, as in most of his books, this dialectic takes place between two figures, not within one. Mishima intentionally avoided the portrayal of just one hero…. [However,] both Shunsuke and Yuichi [the two characters of Kyoko's House (1959)] strike us as caricatures, mechanical, puppet-like creations, arbitrarily manipulated by the psychological needs and philosophical ideas of the author. (p. 50)

Despite its failure to provide characters who go beyond the limits of their categorization, Forbidden Colors does foreshadow the terms and the movement of the dialectical pattern worked out more satisfactorily in later novels such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956). In this work, which succeeds where Forbidden Colors fails, the "world of those who are seen" is represented by a temple, an inanimate structure which partakes of that world by virtue of its extraordinary beauty…. The working out of the dialectic does not strike the reader as too ruthlessly excessive here, perhaps because from an inanimate object we expect none of the human complexity an "organic entity" implies…. (pp. 50-1)

[The] stark terms in which Mishima saw the world dictated that the love-hate relationship between "seen" object and "seeing" subject, carried to a point of ultimate confrontation, had to end in death. And when, within one person, consciousness elevates "seen" object and "seeing" subject to a level where they balance with equal weight and value, the ultimate gesture must be, as Mishima came to realize as he pursued his relentless logic, an act of both suicide and murder at once. (p. 51)

By the time he began the tetralogy [The Sea of Fertility (1969–71),] Mishima had either abandoned his program against creating characters as "organic entities," or had mastered the technique of doing so. In any case, there is no one in The Sea of Fertility as perfunctorily drawn as Shunsuke and Yuichi in Forbidden Colors. But while the dialectic at the heart of his themes may be sanctioned by tradition and the dialectic at the heart of his characters made credible by craft, the mind-body problem (or better in this context, the word-action problem) lying also at the heart of style led him to a kind of language which flaws his work as surely as did his earlier renunciation of what Forster called "round" characters.

Once more Mishima adheres to his formula of assigning his major characters to either side of the mind-body question. And reverting to the body principle as it applies to the human rather than to something inanimate like a temple, the emphasis falls on passionate action rather than on physical beauty alone. As the account of the balcony scene in Sun and Steel makes clear, those who belong to the world of the "seen" are also those who "do." (p. 52)

[The] nature of Mishima's language often subverts the credibility of the intense emotional ferment meant to be seen at the root of the events depicted…. In the give-and-take between form and formlessness, in whose process Mishima felt to reside the central impulse behind his aesthetics, one or the other may gain the upper hand, seriously compromising the finished work.

The one element of form conspicuously at odds with Mishima's favorite subject matter is his style. The rigid cast of his language—the stately rhythms, the solemn tones, its general grace and decorum—often works against the passionate nature of the people and circumstances his novels take for subject…. [He] postulated for his art a rupture between form and content that allied Apollonian concepts of lucidity, restraint, and calm with the former and Dionysian concepts of spontaneity and turbulence with the latter. And here, too, the gulf is unbridgeable. In at least the first two volumes of The Sea of Fertility he attempted to tell romantic stories with romantic characters through a framework of classically conceived rhetoric. The attempt is not wholly successful. Both Kiyoaki and Isao—characters through whom Mishima intended to celebrate the sense of ecstatic abandon stemming from a physical, as opposed to a mental, relationship to existence—remain somewhere behind his screen of words, too weak in novelistic presence to leap out at us from the confining texture of his language. And for that reason, despite the considerable effort Mishima expended to show how motive leads to act, they fail to infect the reader with a sense of their passion. This would not be the flaw it is, if he did not offer them as his ideal human type precisely on the strength of that passion.

Not due to a lack of skill, however, the problem is the result of a deliberate stylistic program. In the final pages of Sun and Steel Mishima spoke of driving language to emulate the body. And since, as he maintained there, the body's ideal destiny was to attain a tragic heroism through participation in group action, words should likewise aspire to that heroic, public quality. (pp. 55-6)

While his Western counterparts strove for an exact formulation of their discoveries on the frontiers of human consciousness, Mishima strove for the language of the public hero, not the language of the private explorer of a personal vision. And while the Western writer despaired over the resistance language mustered against precision, Mishima's distress sprang from his own inability to pull language back, to make it innocent again, to cleanse it until radiant with the poignant simplicity and universality of samurai or kamikaze pilot utterance.

Despair was inevitable because, notwithstanding his distaste for the modern, Mishima could not escape being a product of his age, sharing with his Western colleagues an overriding concern with self, world, and the consciousness that mediates between them. The psychological and philosophical complexities that such issues involve, however, do not lend themselves to expression in the simple utterance of Mishima's ideal, just as the "weighty solemnity," the "ceremonial, grave pace" … of it undermines an adequate expression of the youthful passion of his romantic characters. (pp. 56-7)

[There] was little that mattered more to Mishima than beauty. Hardly a major character in the entire oeuvre is not concerned with it. Mizoguchi of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion provides the best example—his very being revolves around the meaning of the temple's beauty. That meaning is elusive—at one time, beauty hints at the eternal, at another, the ephemeral. But Mizoguchi concludes that beauty synthesizes contradictions, and ultimately equals nothingness. (p. 57)

The beauty Mizoguchi pursued is at once a phenomenon that synthesizes opposites, hints at the unknown, and signals nothingness. Ultimately, it is connected with death. Have we not here a clue to solve that puzzling ending of The Sea of Fertility? With allowances made for their respective temperaments, is Honda not another Mizoguchi? Gazing at the temple, drawn by intimations of perfection toward the realm of the absolute, Mizoguchi finds nothingness at the heart of beauty. And does not Honda [the central character of the last three volumes of The Sea of Fertility] in the temple garden, recalling his past with its three-fold look into ideal human life, come to a recognition of the nothingness at the heart of human endeavor? If so, The Sea of Fertility does not end with the despairing negation some Western critics have found in the conclusion. Rather than pulling the rug out from under Honda's feet, Mishima plucks the wool from his eyes, removing the veil of ignorance and forcing him to experience the void underlying everything. (pp. 57-8)

"Nothingness was the very structure of this beauty," Mizoguchi says of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. With an ingenious stroke, Mishima succeeded in incorporating that nothingness into the very fabric and design of his last work. As paradoxical as it may sound, it may be said that he redeemed his life by suicide and his art by installing within it its own negation.

To divest mind of its self-reflective power and prevent the body from slipping into decay, and, furthermore, to reach thereby a point where some ultimate and pure experience of each coincided—what more impossible task could Mishima have set for himself? No wonder some have seen in the cultivation of his dualistic world view nothing more than a pretext to act out a diseased craving for self-destruction. Certainly someone less obstinately intense would have repudiated an idea that argued more and more persuasively for death. And certainly someone less serious about his art would not have dared end his magnum opus on a note so literally effacing. Let us match seriousness for seriousness and think of his mind-body fixation as a gigantically conceived spiritual exercise through which he hoped to encounter not simply oblivion but a condition receptive to the ecstatic embracing of nothingness. Perhaps in his self-inflicted death he found such a moment. And it is somewhat of an artistic triumph that, despite his inability to fuse theorizing and the requirements of fiction, those last pages of The Sea of Fertility manage to impart a masterly analogue of the nothingness he yearned for. (p. 60)

Dick Wagner and Yoshio Iwamoto, "Yukio Mishima: Dialectics of Mind and Body," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 41-60.

The Sea of Fertility spans the whole period of modern Japanese history, from 1873, in the early years of the Meiji Era, up to the 1970s. One of the book's two major themes is the dissolution during that period of the old aristocratic culture and the values which it supported…. (p. 61)

The other major theme of The Sea of Fertility is the dissolution of the individual, but this is not immediately apparent in the first volume except in an abstract discussion about history and the individual will between the hero, Kiyoaki, and his school-friend confidant, Honda. Spring Snow is the most appealing of the four volumes, on the face of it a straight-forward "old-fashioned" novel about the doomed, idyllic love-affair of Kiyoaki—a Byronic version of the young Mishima—with the beautiful and impeccably aristocratic heroine, Satoko. Mishima paints the period details, particularly the traditional ceremonies, costumes and scenery, with loving care; and he is masterly at setting them off against the Rolls-Royces, billiard-tables, trivial conversation and cheap values of a Japanese Edwardian society. The book ends in a blaze of romanticism with Satoko entering a Buddhist monastery and Kiyoaki dying of tuberculosis almost at its gates….

For the remaining three volumes the main viewpoint shifts to Honda. He becomes, as it were, Kiyoaki's ghost, a walking memory of the handsome selfish youth who died at the age of twenty, surrounded by the dispiriting signs of a new age but himself enclosed as in a mediaeval garden by his deliberately impossible, deliberately high-flown and archaic romance. In order to convey Honda's ghostliness, Mishima uses the idea of reincarnation. Thus through each of the three volumes there is a fresh body on to which Honda's consciousness can fasten. In the story Honda becomes convinced that Kiyoaki has been reborn when he sees the familiar pattern of three moles on each of the three bodies in succession. This is the "fairy-tale" element of the book … which was no doubt partly responsible for its cold reception. But the importance of the idea structurally is that it separates a rational, sleepless consciousness, upon which the compromising reality of modern life constantly impinges, from a series of nonrational physical ideals which die almost at the moment they flower and whose perfection is impervious to everyday reality.

Here then is that absolute division between the classical awareness and the romantic being, or to put it another way between the writer's mind and his psychological need, which seems to be basic to an understanding of Mishima's nature. (p. 62)

John Spurling, "Death in Hero's Costume: The Meaning of Mishima," in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), May, 1975, pp. 56, 58-64.

There is always something curiously cerebral about the erotic obsessions and fantasies which Mishima depicts…. Mishima is at his best in coolly showing people so driven by fantasies that their violent acts are accompanied by disturbing sexual excitement. He becomes unconvincing and artificial when he attempts to link these fantasies with political ideologies or philosophical doctrines. Even the Buddhism and Shintoism which appear in Mishima's last work …, The Sea of Fertility, are like doctrines carefully studied and put to use by a foreign writer; rather than anything lived from within.

How are we to account for the banality of some of his novels such as The Sound of Waves, or the unbelievably shoddy quality of the arguments in his right-wing political tracts? Perhaps these are better understood in the light of his cult of the deliberate. He felt that the intentionally preposterous was better than the accidentally mediocre…. To be able to publish such a simple tale, written in a popular style, was itself, for Mishima, a superior act. Indeed, he described the book, according to [John] Nathan, as a "joke on the public." And one suspects that some of Mishima's crude political writing was also something of a joke on the public, an exercise in creating for himself a public image and in manipulating popular reactions to it. But of course the simplistic effects he achieved in such novels as The Sound of Waves and in his tracts are no less a failure for having been deliberate. Nor was his work helped by his longings for what he misleadingly called "purity"—which for him is nothing more than a single-minded and total absorption in an emotion or belief; the more implausible the belief and more destructive the emotion, the "purer" Mishima considered such absorption to be.

Two autobiographical novels, Confessions of a Mask and Kyoko's House, reveal his fascination with the workings of self-deception. He tried to show how those who play-act can remain aware that they are embracing illusions, and by that very awareness keep a precarious contact with reality….

[In] his best works Mishima was a great craftsman of Japanese prose, and deep down he seemed to be a sensitive and vulnerable man. (p. 49)

Hidé Ishiguro, "Writer, Rightist or Freak?" in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), December 11, 1975, pp. 48-9.

Three years before his suicide, Mishima wrote at length on his interpretation of Hagakure, a seventeenth-century treatise on the ethics of the samurai trade, and the influence the book had had on his career. Readers seriously interested in Mishima's work will certainly find this an important statement. It will interest, if not altogether enlighten, even readers merely curious about what Kathryn Sparling, the translator, sums up as "Mishima's death for the sake of an emperor who had no interest in him, for a cause to which he knew he would contribute nothing—and by his own hand." (pp. 96-7)

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1977 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1977.