Acts of Worship

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1938

Twenty years after his death, Yukio Mishima is probably still best known to the American public as the ultranationalist writer who, with much publicity, committed ritual suicide with another member of his right-wing paramilitary group, the Shield Society, in 1970. Although he is the author of numerous novels, plays, and short stories, his most widely read work of fiction is the short story “Patriotism,” which describes in excruciatingly graphic detail the ritual disembowelment of a Japanese military officer and the suicide of his young wife. The story is even more famous for the fact that Mishima made a film of it in which he played the role of the suicidal lieutenant.

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In addition to being a filmmaker, a writer, and the organizer of a right-wing organization, Mishima was a student of the Japanese art of fencing known as kendo and a devotee of bodybuilding; in general, he fancied himself a living embodiment of the Japanese warrior code of the samurai. His fiction is often characterized by a mix of eroticism and violence and a male-dominated code of stoicism and pride for which the most obvious Western parallels are the masculine eroticism of D. H. Lawrence’s work and the tightlipped male bravery in that of Ernest Hemingway.

It is within this context of self-conscious posturing that the seven previously untranslated stories in Acts of Worship: Seven Stories can best be understood and justified, for the common denominator of most of the stories is the self-conscious adolescent search for a pose with which to confront experience. The first two stories in the collection, “Fountains in the Rain” and “Raisin Bread,” were published in the early 1960’s, but in their adolescent masculine swagger they read more like stories from Mishima’s twenties, when he was still a student at Tokyo University. These are minor stories in the Mishima canon, but the masculine obsessions that dominate his major work are obvious.

“Fountains in the Rain” is a simple story of a young man who tells his girlfriend that it is time to break off the relationship—so that he can relish the young girl’s crying and experience the sense of power that the act of rejection gives him. To be able to witness the tears of a woman forsaken by him is the reason that he made love to her in the first place, he believes; he is an embodiment of Mishima’s purposely isolated young male who is free from the dominance of desire. As the girl chases him, crying, the young man leads her to some fountains, because he wants to create a physical pun of her own tears: He chides her that they are no match for the water of the fountains. The story ends ironically, however, for the fountains fascinate him instead and come to represent to him the endless repetition of a stupid and pointless process. This existential realization is then climaxed by his discovery that the girl did not even hear him when he said that their affair was over; her tears came for no special reason. The sadism of the young man’s act is thus ultimately undercut by the absurdity of a gesture that is as meaningless as the repetitive rise and fall of the fountains.

Mishima’s existential sense of the absurdity of human action—a common theme of 1960’s youth the world over—is also reflected in “Raisin Bread.” The protagonist, who has the nickname Jack, wants to be free of all things, to become transparent. He associates with a group of disaffected young people, similar to the beatniks of the 1950’s and the hippies of the 1960’s in America and Europe, at a modern jazz café. The story centers on an end-of-summer party that the group throws on the beach to make fun of the stupidity of the bourgeoisie by aping what the middle class thinks is valuable. Nothing much happens at the party, however; rather, it is the next morning, back at Jack’s apartment, that the title metaphor of the story comes into play. Hungry, Jack rummages in his cupboards but can find only a stale piece of raisin bread infested with ants. As he munches on it, one of his friends comes by and has sex with a beautiful young girl whom he has brought with him. The central image of the story—the single image for which the rest of the story exists—is Jack munching on his sour raisin bread while holding one of the young girl’s legs to help his partially impotent friend achieve his sexual conquest. When the friend goes, leaving Jack to take care of the “after service” with the girl, the story ends as “meaninglessness [comes] welling up from all sides with tremendous force” as Jack seats himself crosslegged between the girl’s legs.

In these two stories, Mishima manages to have it both ways; that is, he seems to glorify the sophomoric existentialism of the young male protagonists even as he ultimately mocks it. In “The Sword,” one of the longest stories in the collection, also published in the early 1960’s (a few years after Mishima began to practice the art of dueling with bamboo staves, called kendo), the youthful search for meaning shifts from existential thoughts of meaninglessness to the discipline of male reserve and the warrior code. Once again, the protagonist is a young man who has stripped away all desire. This time, however, the central character, Jiro, has none of the sloppiness and self-indulgence of the young men in the first two stories in the collection. By means of the noble art of kendo, all life is reduced to a kind of pure and clean simplicity. For Jiro, if one can filter everything else away, what remains is pure life—the once-and-for-all confrontation of sword tip to sword tip.

Moreover, a new element is introduced in “The Sword”: the theme of hero worship, or the bonding of two young males, which is dominant in other stories in the collection. Mibu, a young first-year student, idolizes Jiro and strives to imitate his aloof and pure manliness. The plot of the story is minimal, with most of its length devoted to descriptions of the activities of the fencing club. The climactic event occurs when, at fencing camp, the other students, for whom Jiro is responsible, go swimming against his orders. Although Mibu alone refused to join the others, when Jiro asks him if he went swimming, he lies and says that he did. Mishima makes this moment one in which Mibu feels that he has made chest-to-chest contact with Jiro and that his own stature measures up to his. Soon afterward, however, Jiro commits suicide. Because the reader is not given Mibu’s reaction to the suicide, it is not clear whether Jiro has exceeded Mibu by committing a final heroic act or has been defeated and kills himself in shame for his failure to maintain authority. The story is easily the most self-indulgent one in the collection, existing solely to celebrate the masculine physicality and code of behavior that dominated Mishima’s own life.

“Cigarette” and “Martyrdom,” two stories that were published early in Mishima’s career in the mid-l940’s, also focus on the problem of the adolescent trying to find his male identity in relationship to other males. In “Cigarette,” which is told in the first person, the narrator recalls his adolescence as one in which he came to terms with proving himself to others and accepting “comradeship.” The major metaphor is the somewhat trivial one of learning to smoke a cigarette—an act that Mishima magnifies into a symbol of proving oneself as a man.

“Martyrdom” is a somewhat more mysterious work, which lays bare the secret of homoeroticism that underlies many of these stories. In this account of life at a male school, the ritual taboo and consequent mark of passage into manhood is not smoking but the reading of a secret pornographic book. The primary relationship is between one powerful and respected boy, nicknamed the Demon King, and one soft and feminine boy whom all the boys bully. After the Demon King has beaten Watari (the feminine boy), he awakes one night to find Watari at the foot of his bed with a face full of hostility— “or was it longing?” The homosexual relationship that follows is inevitable, given the sadomasochistic conventions of this kind of story. The Demon King’s need to reassert his power by destroying Watari is also inevitable. The story ends with the Demon King and two of his friends hanging Watari in the woods and running away, their boyish hearts filled with pride at having killed someone. When they return later, however, the rope hangs free and the corpse is nowhere to be seen. The suggestion of mystic transcendence conveyed by the ending is part of Mishima’s emphasis on the relationship between suffering and eroticism, which is most radically embodied in the famous photograph of him posing as Saint Sebastian with an arrow in his breast.

The best story in the collection—the longest one and the only one that does not deal with adolescent self-indulgence—is the title story. It focuses on a middle-aged Japanese literature professor and the forty-five-year-old woman who has cared for him for the past ten years, and it describes a mysterious pilgrimage that the professor makes to the three shrines of Kumano, where he buries three combs. Mishima emphasizes the fact that neither the professor nor his female companion Is attractive; the professor has a walleye, and his companion, Tsuneko, has a face completely devoid of sexual appeal. Yet it is clear that there is a hidden love story here, for Tsuneko, who has desired to be a poet, worships the professor and yearns for an idealized relationship with him.

The story ends with the professor telling her the story of the three combs—that when he was young a girl loved him, but when he went away to school she died. To show respect for her memory, he never married; he has buried the combs because he once promised the girl that he would take her to the three shrines. The real emphasis of the story, however, is on Tsuneko’s realization that the professor has invented the story to create a legend about himself and that he has taken her with him to be a witness. Thus, in a more profound way than an ordinary relationship would have made possible, the professor and Tsuneko become bound together, for she never acts other than to pretend that she believes his story. At the end, the professor tells her that she should make a poem out of the story, and she responds, “Yes, I certainly will.” Indeed, the visionary and idealized relationship made possible by the professor’s making Tsuneko a witness to the fiction he creates is itself a poem. In spite of the fact that this work seems quite different from the other stories in the collection, the basic theme is the same, for in all of them the central concern is not to make art out of life but rather to make life an art form.

Although Acts of Worship will do little to advance the literary reputation of Yukio Mishima—for there are already English translations of much better works of his fiction, such as Shiosai (1954; The Sound of Waves, 1956), Kinkakuji (1956; The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, 1959), and Gogo no eiko (1963; The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, 1965)—the book makes more emphatic the kinds of obsessions that dominated his fiction and his life.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 20

Library Journal. CXIV, November 15, 1989, p.106.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. December 17, 1989, p.2.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, December 17, 1989, p.7.

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