Confessions of a Mask

by Yukio Mishima

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Confessions of a Mask has been compared to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-1915, serial; 1916, book) and D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913). Like those novels, Mishima’s work is a bildungsroman, the story of a young man’s growth to maturity. Yet while Joyce and Lawrence emphasize the struggle of a boy to achieve a conventional, heterosexual manhood, Mishima emphasizes the seemingly aberrant desires of his young protagonist, whose struggle is to face his feelings honestly and openly.

The confession begins with the narrator’s earliest memories, almost all of them connected with either sex or death. Almost dying at the age of four of autointoxication (Mishima himself suffered from this chronic illness), he remembers at the same time the image of a young man carrying buckets of excrement and becomes strangely aroused by his handsome face and close-fitting trousers. The image associates sex and filth, just as the boy’s later arousal by marching soldiers combines beauty and death. These dualities occur throughout the novel, as do masks and false appearances. Captivated by a picture-book illustration of a knight holding a sword aloft on a white horse, the boy is later shocked to find out that it is the picture of a woman, Joan of Arc, not of a man. Like the boy, the knight’s sex is masked and is not what it appears to be. A later book illustration, that of Saint Sebastian, whose body was pierced by arrows, arouses him even further. Finding exquisite beauty in the saint’s white flesh dripping blood, the boy finds sexual arousal in agonizing masculine death.

The narrator’s first strong sexual feelings are for a young tough named Omi, a fellow student at school. Omi is the opposite of the frail, thin, unhealthy narrator. Omi is physically strong, mentally weak, and, being older than the other boys, sexually mature. The narrator falls in love with him, desires him carnally, and longs to see his naked body, a desire that is fulfilled one day in gym class. Omi’s beautiful nakedness, however, fails to satisfy the boy’s longing. It merely makes him feel jealous, ashamed of his own comparative ugliness.

The boy soon learns to mask his true feelings, pretending to desire the opposite sex and to anticipate sexual fulfillment with women. Yet he has no adolescent fantasies about women (though he does for young sailors and soldiers on the streets) and only achieves sexual satisfaction through masturbation. At the age of twenty, he begins to see the sister of a schoolmate, a girl named Sonoko, and it is even expected that he will become engaged to her. He tries to convince himself that he is deeply in love with Sonoko: They exchange love letters and photographs, hold hands, and eventually kiss. Still, the young man has no sensation of pleasure, no sexual arousal. Finally, in order to discover if he is a “normal” male, he goes to a prostitute but is unable to have sexual intercourse with her.

By the end of the novel, he has ended his relationship with Sonoko, who then marries someone else. In the final scene, he meets Sonoko, now a married woman, in a chance encounter, and she hints that she still loves him, is even willing to have an extramarital affair with him. Yet as she tells him this in a tawdry Japanese dance hall, he glances at a nearby table at a young male, a gang tough who has removed his shirt and is flexing his muscles. Burning with sexual desire, the protagonist knows what his destiny will be. He can wear a mask no longer.

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