Mishima Yukio Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yukio Mishima 1925–1970

(Pseudonym of Kimitake Hiraoka) Japanese novelist, short story writer, dramatist, film director, and essayist.

Mishima was one of the first Japanese writers to achieve international attention. He was obsessed, both in his life and his art, with what he called "my heart's leaning toward Death and Night and Blood." Mishima combined elements of both Eastern and Western literature, but his respect for Japan's imperialistic past is an essential hallmark of his work. He created a literature, often autobiographical and darkly sensual, in which he attempted to deal with the meaninglessness of life; he was especially distressed by the materialism of postwar Japan. As a dramatist, he is noted for the skillful way he wedded elements of the ancient Noh tradition to contemporary themes.

Since his ritual suicide, Mishima's critics have attempted to explain his action through his work. Mishima may have felt that committing seppuku would affirm his personal convictions and would remind the Japanese of their lost ideals. His last work, a tetralogy known as The Sea of Fertility, is based on reincarnation. It was completed on the day of his death and many consider it the author's masterpiece.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, 6, 9 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary].)

Nancy Wilson Ross

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion [Kinkakuji], based on an actual occurrence in recent Japanese history, deals with the complex pathology and final desperate crime of a young Zen Buddhist acolyte, in training for priesthood at a Kyoto temple.

In 1950, to the distress and horror of all art-loving and patriotic Japanese, the ancient Zen temple of Kinkakuii in Kyoto was deliberately burned to the ground. (p. vi)

But although Mishima has made use of the reported details of the real-life culprit's arrogant and desperate history, culminating in the final willful act of arson, he has employed the factual record merely as a scaffolding on which to erect a disturbing and powerful...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Anthony West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The subject of "Kinkakuji" is one that lies close to Mishima's heart, and the book is written with great intensity and passion, though without any trace of incoherence. It is the imaginary autobiography of an actual person who in 1950 committed a crime that shocked all conventional Japanese. This was the burning of the Kinkaku, the Golden Pavilion of the Rokuon Temple, the sole survivor of a group of palace buildings erected in Kyoto between 1395 and 1397. (p. 113)

For Mishima, the Kinkaku affair became symbolic of the situation of his generation as he saw it. The Kinkaku itself, the elegant folly that had by dint of survival become a holy object, stood for the irrelevant cultural legacy his...

(The entire section is 408 words.)

D. J. Enright

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unfortunately Mishima gives the impression [in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion] of striving to be simultaneously a very Western novelist (philosophical disquisitions and conscientious documentation) and a very Eastern novelist (symbols galore) … But this novel is a caricature of post-war Japanese fiction. Mizoguchi is the typical hero; unhealthy, nastily conscious about his perversities, alternately arrogant and self-abasing, an inveterate intellectualiser yet contemptuous of reason. The incidents are similarly typical….

Despite its nominally powerful incidents, I would say that the novel is conspicuously lacking in power—and precisely because it is devoid of moral...

(The entire section is 214 words.)

Takashi Oka

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["After the Banquet"] bears the unmistakable Mishima stamp in its flawless construction, its delicious evocation of atmosphere. Like so much of modern Japanese literature, however, it is essentially an indoor type of writing—fragile, sensitive, intelligent, but somehow lacking the full-blooded vigor, the loamy richness of the greatest western masters….

There is no question that as a novel "After the Banquet" is always fascinating and frequently brilliant. The author's intent is clear—to convey what the dust jacket calls his heroine's "blazing vitality." The celadon fineness of Mishima's writing, however, gets in the way of his intent, as if an artist who excelled in watercolors and line...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

William Barrett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At first glance there might seem to be a certain naïveté about After The Banquet …, as if the author, in writing a novel, were imitating an alien idiom. But this initial reaction … quickly vanishes; the apparent naïveté turns into a style all its own, direct yet allusive, poetic without being gushing, and we realize that the author has accomplished the amazing feat of making his novel entirely successful by Western standards and yet never losing contact with his own great tradition of Japanese poetry. (p. 162)

The plot is slight; the novel triumphs as a character study of a couple past their prime caught in the toils of a hopeless marriage. In Kazu, particularly, Mr. Mishima has caught...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Earl Miner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The theme of] The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea [Gogo no Eikō] is at once special in character and an outgrowth of motifs developed in earlier books….

Inherent in this story are two artistic difficulties which the author does not entirely overcome: the credibility of the love affair between two characters with such widely differing back-grounds, and the credibility of the boys' inhuman sophistication and actions. Mishima seeks to transcend these problems by his emphasis on the symbolic. While the adults represent irrational ardor succumbing to practical reality, the boys represent "absolute dispassion" grounded in naïveté. What relates the two is death: in literature death is...

(The entire section is 228 words.)

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Superficially The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea … is a horror story of juvenile delinquency. (pp. 171-72)

We are reminded, to begin with, of the children in Dostoevsky and Gide whose crimes express the innate evil of mankind, gratuitous and mindless. But in Mishima's novel the children are nihilists because they are absolute idealists…. Sex itself for them is not only an unworthy but an insignificant activity. The sailor of the story—he is an officer on a merchant ship—is a hero to them so long as he remains one, free from the taint of mundane commerce. When he consents to join the commonplace citizenry, he must be done away with as a traitor.

Curiously, the...

(The entire section is 235 words.)

Edward Seidensticker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Forbidden Colors"] insists upon comparison with an even earlier Mishima novel, "Confessions of a Mask" ["Kamen no Kokuhaku"] …, and it is inferior to the earlier novel in most respects save price and bulk. Both works have as their heroes handsome young homosexuals. Both contain a strong element of narcissistic subjectivity, not to say self-gratification; in both there is a great deal of sadism and masochism, quite at home in a flamboyantly amoral world; and in both a denial of intellect and glorification of the senses, fundamental to all of Mishima's writing, is incongruously combined with rather a lot of quite strained intellectualizing.

One would expect the more subjective and autobiographical...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Yukio Mishima's Madame de Sade [is] a Japanese study of the enigmatic marquise who remained constant to her husband during his imprisonment and abandoned him when he was released during the Revolution. Mishima's explanation is that the lady could put up with Sade's actions, but not with his literary work which, in her view, forecast the emerging social order …

Apart from the historical snag that Sade himself proved a moderate when entrusted with revolutionary authority, this conclusion comes over as the mechanical dislocation of an exclusively schematic action. All the characters stand for some abstract quality: law and order, religion, carnal desire, female guile, &c. The Marquise...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Masao Miyoshi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mishima's first volume, The Forest in Full Bloom (Hanazakari no Mori …), is a collection of precociously decadent and detachedly romantic stories, many of which recollect a colorful but boring upper-class life long gone even then. Also they provide a heavy dose of nationalistic rhetoric glorifying the beauty and elegance of the Imperial past—a fact interesting in view of their author's later works. The elaborate and archaic vocabulary and general aloofness to the drab and wretched scenes of wartime Japan similarly foreshadow his mature works, whose motifs, images, and themes are already apparent. With Confessions of a Mask …, Mishima entered the forefront of the Tokyo literati. (pp. 145-46)


(The entire section is 1690 words.)

Hisaaki Yamanouchi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mishima's suicide] was rooted in what may be called his personal and aesthetic motives. No explanation, in either purely political or aesthetic terms, is adequate: the truth may be seen only from a due balance between the two. For Mishima's whole career was one of paradox built on an extraordinary tension between spirit and body, words and action and artistic creation and commitment to the world. (p. 138)

Mishima's contribution to modern Japanese literature was immense. In embracing both traditional Japanese literary sensibilities and knowledge obtained from European literature he was as masterly as Sōseki and Akutagawa. In Mishima's case, however, the mode of amalgamating the two elements was far...

(The entire section is 2409 words.)

Gwenn Boardman Petersen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Problems] of interpretation abound [in the four novels of The Sea of Fertility: Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn, and The Decay of the Angel]…. [The] prevalence of Mishima's hybrid personal symbolism leaves the reader uncertain of the correct context in interpreting Mishima's fictional—and philosophical—approach to Reincarnation. Like the characters in Mishima's play Dōjōji, we are faced with sounds simultaneously identified as Nō chant and "a noisy factory." We only know that we are participating in Mishima's "beautiful, sweaty, intricate choreography of death." (p. 289)

[In] view of the care with which Mishima completed his manuscript [for The Sea of...

(The entire section is 2475 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Damask Drum has maintained the formulae of Noh theatre in its spiritual outlook, its themes, characters, relationship to nature and use of symbol. Like Zen Buddhism and Taoism, The Damask Drum is meditative, introspective, slow-paced, subtle and suggestive. The depth and meaning of Iwakichi's love may be apprehended in sudden flashes of illumination; it is not brash or aggressive, but turned inward, felt, sensed. [Iwakichi is an old janitor who eventually commits suicide because of his unfulfilled love for a woman in a dressmaker's establishment.] Like conventional Noh drama, The Damask Drum has no real plot, and therefore it may take an infinite amount of patience for a Westerner to...

(The entire section is 1440 words.)

Noriko Mizuta Lippit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[When] Mishima stated that he had "somehow conquered his inner monster" by writing Confessions of a Mask, it did not mean merely that he had finally confronted his homosexual temperament, but also that he had found the way to deal with his desire to express his temperament in literature, the way to fictionalize his temperament.

Besides being a confessional novel, Confessions of a Mask is a novel about Mishima's method for the novel; indeed, it is as significant to Mishima's novel as The Counterfeiters is to Gide's. If the temperament and "sensuous perception" underlying his metaphysical and aesthetic world are poetry, this novel is the logical architecture of that world and the...

(The entire section is 1486 words.)