Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 659

Since childhood, Mishima was drawn to the history and cultural traditions of Japan. As a young writer, he became acquainted with the Japanese romantics, a group of writers and intellectuals who rejected literary modernism—including the genres of naturalism and realism—and advocated the reading of Japanese classics. Mishima supported their literary...

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Since childhood, Mishima was drawn to the history and cultural traditions of Japan. As a young writer, he became acquainted with the Japanese romantics, a group of writers and intellectuals who rejected literary modernism—including the genres of naturalism and realism—and advocated the reading of Japanese classics. Mishima supported their literary theories, for example, expressing a decided disinterest in realistic, banal dialogue. Mishima’s early stories and his first novel demonstrate elements typical of this school of literature, such as beautiful young lovers who die a romantic death, and the sea. Such elements would be seen again in Mishima’s later works but more often as ironic symbols. Mishima’s early work also lacked his later renowned contemporary social vision, drawing more deeply on Japan’s past.

With his second novel, Confessions of a Mask (1949), Mishima first raised some of the themes that he would continue to explore over the next few decades, such as homosexuality, explicit sexuality, and societal hypocrisy. Short stories, such as those included in Death in Midsummer, also explore Mishima’s preoccupation with death as well as the traditional character of Japan and the loss of Japanese tradition. Critics have characterized Mishima’s work from the 1950s as nihilistic, a school of writing that was popular in post-War Japan.

In the 1960s, however, Mishima turned to the exploration of political and philosophical themes. The story ‘‘Patriotism,’’ perhaps Mishima’s most well-known work, is based on a 1936 rebellion in which a group of young officers attempt to restore the emperor. Culminating in the ritual suicide of a married couple, the story alludes to Mishima’s belief in the interconnectedness of love and death. Mishima’s glorification of the emperor is also first noted in this work, as is his personal obsession with violent and beautiful death.

Throughout the decade, Mishima was growing increasingly unhappy with contemporary Japan. He saw the country becoming more and more corrupt as a result of Westernization and wanted a return to more traditional values. In the last four years of his life, Mishima focused all of his creative efforts on his tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, in which he attempted to sum up his philosophy of life and his view of the history of modern Japan. The day its final installment appeared, Mishima committed suicide.

The story ‘‘Fountains in the Rain’’ was not available to English-speaking audiences until almost two decades after Mishima’s death and close to thirty years after the story was first published in Japan. Acts of Worship included seven stories that spanned Mishima’s career. There has been very little criticism in English on the story; the variety of opinion on it demonstrates the fact that no main consensus exists. John Bester, Mishima’s translator who introduced Acts of Worship, referred to it as a ‘‘slight, humorous account of a tiff between a very ordinary young man and his girl.’’ Roy Starrs, who reviewed the collection for The Journal of Asian Studies, called it a ‘‘cynical study’’ about a ‘‘heartless but stupid young man’s attempts to ditch his girlfriend.’’ Paul Anderer, a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that Akio ‘‘whips himself into a romantic frenzy, not his girlfriend—which would be a banal and predictable romance—but for the chance to walk out on her.’’

In their discussion of the collection as a whole, however, many critics touched upon certain themes common to much of Mishima’s work, such as male dominance. J. M. Ditsky pointed out in Choice, ‘‘If there is a striking common theme running through all seven stories, it is the attempt of the male ego to control its environment—including, of course, other persons.’’

Today, Mishima still enjoys a secure reputation, and many critics believe him to be the finest writer of modern Japan. Due to the spectacular nature of his death, however, many people tend to focus on that instead of his body of work. They are intertwined.

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