Acts of Worship
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1938 words.)