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].)
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 story of a sick young man's obsession with a beauty he cannot attain, and the way in which his private pathology leads him, slowly and fatefully, to self-destruction and a desperate deed of pyromania. (p. vii)
[The] author of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion does not give the impression that he is in any way concerned with voicing a philippic against Zen Buddhism. Yukio Mishima appears chiefly interested in the imaginative re-creation of a psychotic acolyte's obsession and a detailed portrayal of the steps that led to his last desperate, destructive act. The emphasis falls on the individual. Even the sociological factors are made subservient to young Mizoguchi's pathology. (p. viii)
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion has around it an aura of Dostoevskian violence and passion. I found many reminders of Dostoevsky's involved and tortuous struggles with the ageless questions of "forgiveness," "love," "mastery." Yet as the story of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion fatefully unwinds, one is strangely free of emotional identification with any character—and here, certainly, the Dostoevskian comparison sharply ends.
This freedom from emotional identification does not, however, lessen the book's power. It seems, in a singular way, to intensify it, almost as though the stuttering Mizoguchi's murky analyses of the nature and conduct of the people he encounters in his daily life become the reader's own astigmatism. The "moral" position from which we, as Westerners with a Puritan tradition, are accustomed to judge behavior both in life and literature is missing from these pages. The episodes are, for the most part, presented free of judgment. In fact there seems to be little, if any, stress of familiar "values." Those dualisms of black and white,...
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body and soul, good and evil that we take so for granted are not found inThe Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Evil is represented, to be sure, but never with comment direct enough to suggest a tangible attitude toward it. (p. xi)
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is rich in scenes, incidents, episodes which, though developed in great detail, often leave the reader uncertain as to their meaning and portent in relation to the story's main line. There is in this a similarity to life itself, where the threads of relationship are never neatly woven into a clear and fixed pattern. In reading Mishima's novel, one is not so much baffled as frequently suspended. (p. xii)
Through the pages of a novel like Yukio Mishima's, one is able to perceive some of the elements that have gone into the creation of this rare, paradoxical, and long-enduring civilization; elements which well may, in the modern world, face final dissolution. In The Temple of the Golden Pavilion a fragment of contemporary Japanese life, with its roots still deep in the culture of the past, is presented not for our judgment but for our observation. The opportunity offered here by Yukio Mishima's special insight and fictional talent is one for which to feel properly grateful. (pp. xviii-xix)
Nancy Wilson Ross, "Introduction" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima, translated by Ivan Morris, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1959, pp. v-xix.
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 generation had in herited from feudal Japan, while its resurrection, intact, perfect, and meaningless, from its own ashes provided a perfect allegorical representation of the sacrifice of the living present to the dead past. He accordingly wrote this novel, an extraordinarily convincing and extremely moving reconstruction of the life and the emotional development of the young man who came to loathe and love the original Kinkaku so passionately that he could escape from its domination only by destroying it…. The growth of his hero's obsession is described by Mishima with the economy and force of a writer of the first rank so that in the end the reader shares his agony and recognizes the absolute necessity of his bizarre crime. With its psychological penetrations and its vivid evocation of the life of Kyoto in Japan's cruelly testing years of defeat and occupation, "The Temple of the Golden Pavilion" has substantial claims to be considered one of the most interesting novels of the decade. This would not be the case if Mishima were writing about a wholly Japanese problem, but he has touched on one of the major discomforts of his generation in every country—the feeling that the modern world is so different from the old that the greater part of its cultural legacy has become merely an irrelevant burden, inhibiting and stifling the creativity of those who wish to deal with life as it is, and not as it was, or is supposed to have been. This forceful and exciting novel has the widest possible frame of reference and is in no sense either exotic or parochial. (pp. 113-14)
Anthony West, "An Arrival, a Departure," in The New Yorker (© 1959 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXV, No. 18, June 20, 1959, pp. 113-16.∗
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 sensibility (which, by the way, is not exclusively a 'Puritan,' or even Western, accessory). Consequently nothing really matters: the trampling of the prostitute is unpleasant, not powerful; the burning of the Temple is shocking and ridiculous (in the way that the price of tobacco is), not powerful; the hero could eat his mother raw and we should only feel a faint disgust with the author. We have established no moral connection with Mizoguchi; as a character he is rather less 'powerful' than Alice's Red Queen. The episodes are gratuitous, just as the recurring 'symbols' omit to symbolise.
D. J. Enright, "Graces and Disgraces," in The Spectator (© 1959 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 203, No. 6849, October 2, 1959, p. 450.∗
["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 drawings had decided to experiment in oils.
Takashi Oka, "Novels from India and Japan: 'After the Banquet'," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1963 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), February 14, 1963, p. 11.
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 pathos of the middle-aged woman fluttering in love with the impulsiveness and abandon of a young girl as we have not had it in fiction since the best of Colette. (p. 163)
William Barrett, "Autumn Love," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1963, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 211, No. 3, March, 1963, pp. 162-63.
[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 often the accompaniment of passion or the result of sterile abstraction.
The novel is profoundly, even beautifully macabre, especially in its reversal of the usual images of child and adult. In its portrayal of adult passion and its manipulation of narrative points of view, it recalls Henry James, while in its picture of childhood, and its almost allegorical approach, it reminds one of William Golding in Lord of the Flies…. If the sailor's stories of life at sea seem to the boys "too typical to be true," the novel itself is perhaps too disturbing to be false.
Earl Miner, "A Failure of Feeling," in Saturday Review (© 1965 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 38, September 18, 1965, p. 106.
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 sailor himself shares his assailants' sentiments. He too feels that his marriage entails a corruption, a descent into the sloth which his killers call "impermissible things," the ordinary traffic of life….
Dense in substance, far-reaching in allusion, this novel is brilliant in the conciseness of its narrative line. The imagery is marked by a short of impersonal sensuousness, a graphic and colorful precision. The verbal means employed are spare; one is aware of a dominant control….
Mishima's posture is one of apparently imperturbable contemplation, something between anguished awe and puzzled serenity. (p. 172)
Harold Clurman, "Mad Old Man and the Sea," in The Nation (copyright 1965 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 201, No. 9, September 27, 1965, pp. 171-72.∗
["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 of the two, "Confessions of a Mask," to make one more uncomfortable; but such is not the case. It is not easy to say why, unless perhaps the point is that the hero of "Confessions of a Mask" is in the hands of nature and is able to convey to us what it says and does to him, whereas the hero of "Forbidden Colors" is essentially passive in the hands of an abstraction, and is himself an abstraction, an assertion of beauty (with what frequency the author uses the word!) that goes unrealized.
The other abstraction comes nearer having life. Early in the book, in a somewhat improbable scene, the young hero is impelled to confess his proclivities to an aged, ugly and very famous novelist. Thereupon he becomes the device through which the older man has his revenge upon the female sex, and becomes at the same time a sounding board and proving ground for his theories of art….
At moments when there ought to be conflict and exchange between the two, the older man has a way of vanishing in a flood of words and the younger into a vortex of silence….
But one must go a little further in trying to define why this is, in the end, a cold, repellent book. At one point, perhaps a quarter of the way along, when revenge upon the female sex is proceeding nicely, the older man writes of the younger in his diary: "To have found such a perfect living doll as this! Yuichi is truly exquisite. Not only that, he is morally frigid." One wonders again: can a morally frigid novelist really be much of a novelist at all?
Edward Seidensticker, "Yuichi Was a Doll," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1968, p. 32.
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 herself represents marital devotion and, as such, cannot change her mind without doing violence to the play's structure. As the work of a Japanese author, Madame de Sade shows considerable skill in its handling of the surface manners…. But real feeling only breaks through in the gloatingly detailed accounts of Sade's pleasures.
"Pie-Eaters, Scroungers, Assassins & c.," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1968; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3473, September 19, 1968, p. 1052.∗
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)
Overall, the progress of the plot [in Confessions of a Mask] follows the protagonist's growing-up years with no temporal disruption. Structurally, however, there is no clear beginning, middle, and end, nor is the division into four [chapters] marked by any discernible stages. It is notable, too, that the narrative tempo slackens considerably as the work proceeds.
In the earliest part, the "I's" memory is spotty…. The references are all in quick succession in the first ten pages with little analysis from the narrator. As the "I's" self-awareness develops, there is an increase in frequency of more analytic comments which connect the episodes. Also, as he grows older and the distance between experiencing self and narrating self diminishes, the narrator begins to concentrate on his sexual impulses, which focus alternately on Sonoko and his own body. There is now a full analytic commentary on each episode, retarding the passage of time and intensifying self-consciousness. The change in narrative style of course underlines the changes that occur between childhood and youth, in the perception of time and the self, but more importantly it dictates a change in the modality of the work from that of a highly imagistic, "poetic" narration to a more novelistic one. The gain in psychological fullness appears to be at the expense of lyrical intensity. (pp. 146-47)
The narrator's story is often in the present tense, which essentially obscures the distinction between time past and time present. Where this happens, the narrative sequence following the "I's" chronology does not easily yield a thoroughgoing consequentiality which arranges events into a plot, nor does it suggest an overall connected meaning. The power of the work arises instead from intensity and concentration of feeling. In this sense, Confessions of a Mask takes rather the form of a lyric than of a novel. (pp. 148-49)
Throughout the book, there is only the "I" who feels and does not feel, thinking about himself, looking at himself. This "I" fills the whole story, leaving no room for anybody else. Where then does the intense lyricism, the almost moving sadness, come from?
There is nothing about narcissism which is essentially antithetical to lyricism…. With Mishima, however, the narrator seldom lets himself go with his powerful emotions. As soon as they are registered, loneliness and despair—or joy and pleasure on a few occasions—are intelligently outlined and effectively dealt with. (pp. 152-53)
In this book of confessions in which almost everything is taken note of and accounted for, there is one thing the narrator leaves largely unanalyzed, and this is the gradual change in the attitude of the "I" toward his self-understanding. In the first chapter the story is wholly episodic, and the "I" understands, in his own way, what he is doing. But he is never self-conscious about his mode of self-understanding. His reaction to the nightsoil man and other physical workers; his fascination with the picture of a knight on a white horse (ending abruptly when he is told the knight is a woman); his excitement at smelling soldiers' sweat; his early transvestitism …—these spots of time are arrested in cold clear pictures. And there is little intervention by the narrator as he records these scenes from his childhood, or what he calls his "preamble to [his] life."… (pp. 153-54)
It is absurd to see Confessions of a Mask as simply a record of a young homosexual, almost as absurd as calling Lolita a memoir of a child molester. There is a certain aspect of loneliness that only a sexual pathology can accurately shape. Thus homosexuality and autoeroticism in Mishima's work are not allowed to be the end-meaning of the story, but are made to serve as metaphors. What is more, the worry over one's perversion can serve as a fit metaphor for a knowledge, only gradually and painfully attained, of the transience of childhood and the passage of time. There is an intense sadness to this loss reverberating far beneath and beyond the author's personal life. (pp. 154-55)
[The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is also written] in the first person. Whereas Confessions of a Mask somehow maintains the form of a "confession," the narrator confiding his inner events as if in a diary, The Golden Temple is a much more indefinite soliloquy. Here the arsonist Mizoguchi is presumably telling his story after having committed the crime. But nothing is said about his present whereabouts (is he in prison?), his listener's identity, or about the circumstances giving rise to his soliloquy…. Such vagueness in Mishima's central conception of the narrative situation says a good deal about the work. (p. 159)
What was said as regards the Confessions must be repeated here, and even more emphatically: this work, too, evades consequentiality by the most subtle means. What happened earlier is connected with what comes later only thematically, not novelistically—that is, not historically, psychologically, or causally.
For evidence of this, it is notable that the narrator's sophisticated aesthetics has no endorsement in his experience. Nothing thus far in his background would have been likely to develop such a high degree of articulation on the meaning of beauty. (I am not insisting that Mizoguchi's aesthetics is "incredible," given his origins and education, but am arguing that The Golden Temple simply disregards the job of making it appear probable or even feasible in the light of his background.) The limits of his knowledge and consciousness are quite arbitrarily drawn according to the situation at hand. (pp. 159-60)
It is tempting to generalize here and talk about Mishima's overall failure in characterization. There is no question that he created very few memorable characters. Perhaps he is "too much himself" to feel with other people, to become them, as a character-novelist might do. But to point out what a writer cannot do very well is only a very small part of criticism. He is what he is because of other things which he does uniquely and other writers may not do nearly as well or at all. We must look elsewhere than in characterization for Mishima's accomplishment. (pp. 160-61)
For a true reading of The Golden Temple, one must resist the impulse to see it dramatically. Mizoguchi's tale is not a dramatic monologue; nor is it a clinical self-observation of a schizophrenic. But his view of beauty, which recurs in one form or another in all Mishima's works up to the very last, may safely be taken for Mishima's. (p. 162)
Whereas Confessions of a Mask mourned over the passage of time that erodes the experience of beauty, here it is the anticipation of the soon-to-come destruction that intensifies it. (p. 164)
Several nagging questions need to be heard. What happens to beauty by the burning of the Golden Temple? And how does it affect the future of the "I's" relationship with the outside world? Also important, in what way does the arsonist "symbolize the artist"?
That no beauty exists without constant threat of perishing is a given of this book. As long as the bombing continues, the "I" is at ease with the Golden Temple—in love with it, really—feeling no gap between the mind's image and the actual structure. The moment the danger disappears, beauty loses its evanescence, and it now belongs to a different order. The "I" must restore the danger so that equilibrium can be restored between external beauty and his inner world in all its vulnerability.
There is also the problem of beauty's destructive force over life. Because the Golden Temple is ordered into an exquisite form, it rejects the chaos that life is. And the perceiver, if unable at the same time to bear with the disorder and shapelessness of life, must either reject experience totally or shut his eyes to the form that exists only in lifeless art. To escape the paradox, the "I" finds another way: he will destroy the form in order to be released from its spell; in this way he feels he can at least live, even if his life is consequently disordered and unbeautiful. Action, whatever its particular nature, at least has this faculty of reclaiming life over sterile order. (pp. 167-68)
[Mizoguchi] imagines his act of destruction may do something to change other people's awareness of beauty. Since the order that makes beauty possible consists in the end of disordered matter, the reduction of the form to its chaotic components ought to make people realize beauty's ultimate nothingness. Indeed, it should make the artist himself realize that his efforts to prove that his vision is more than nothing are also futile. Meanwhile, the Golden Temple is something: an obese pig that grows and grows inside him, feeding on what remains of his isolated self.
Finally, the portrait of the artist emerging from The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is almost totally negative, with little in it to justify either the artist's craft or his vision. Only the near-mad act of total devastation generates any meaning for the artist. But then, Mishima's art is seldom a cheerful one. He raises questions, disturbing, destructive ones, for which he is uninterested in finding answers. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is a dangerous, disturbing, and beautiful book mostly because beauty really is dangerous, existing only where life itself is threatened with annihilation. (pp. 168-69)
Masao Miyoshi, "Mute's Rage," in his Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel (copyright © 1974 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), University of California Press, 1974, pp. 141-80.
[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 more complex than in his predecessors. The philosophy underlying his seppuku was definitely Japanese. The last phase of his vindication of Japanese cultural identity was fanatically nationalistic. The literary past and present, or Japanese tradition and Mishima's individual talent, were superbly synthesised in his Five Modern Noh Plays (Kindui Nōgaku Shū …). On the other hand Mishima was well versed in European literature. Raymond Radiguet and François Mauriac, for instance, are among those writers to whom the young Mishima looked for inspiration. Again, one of his plays was adapted from Racine's Phèdre. It is easy enough to detect in his work literary elements of European origin, such as the Greek idealisation of physical beauty, sadism, satanism of Baudelaire's type, and so on. Further, in its logical clarity and rhetorical richness his prose style is by far the most distinguished in modern Japanese literature; he is one of the few Japanese writers whose prose can equal the best of European prose in these qualities. In his achievement, after all, Mishima surpassed many of his Japanese predecessors.
Mishima's place in the history of modern Japanese literature may best be clarified if we compare him with the I-novelists [who wrote autobiography in the guise of fiction] and especially with a typical example of their kind, Dazai Osamu (1909–48). (pp. 138-39)
The almost deliberate morbidity in Dazai's real life was unforgivable to Mishima. And yet Mishima shared with Dazai certain characteristics such as physical frailty, in his youth at least, and a sense of enmity towards the world. Mishima, however, differed from Dazai in that he was a man of extraordinary stoicism who continually transformed his own self into its opposite. Furthermore, Dazai's confusion between life and art led to the failure of the latter. This had a curious result. First, a sensitive and frail young Mishima tried to disguise his real life under a mask of wholesomeness. Secondly, he allowed room in his work for the gloom of his mind's abyss, but made every effort to make the created world of his work independent of his life. It will be my purpose to trace in Mishima's work a hidden morbidity somewhat like Dazai's, and to see at the same time how he succeeded, unlike Dazai, in maintaining the autonomy of his work through his perfect artistic method.
Confessions of a Mask … is a short example of a Bildungsroman, in which the hero's personal history is traced from his childhood to his adolescence. One of its peculiar features is the author's uninhibited treatment of sexual perversion. What matters, however, is not sexual perversion as such, but its wider implications. (pp. 139-40)
It is worth noticing that the hero's sexual perversion is curiously connected with his attraction to death…. The references to death are legion…. One may find here the elements that recurrently constitute the trinity in Mishima's novels: death, love (either perverted or not) and eternity.
The hero's obsession with death, furthermore, is placed in a historical setting. He feels his future to be a burden. Accordingly the prospect of death on the battlefield and even in an air-raid is attractive to him. Ironically enough, however, he is dismissed from the army on the very first day of recruitment. This intensifies his desire for death: he looks forward to the time when the American troops will land and devastate his native soil. The defeat in the war therefore deprives him of his hope and brings him back to normal life. Thus for the hero of Confessions there are antithetical values: war against peace, abnormality against normality, and inability against necessity to love women. One constitutes reality and the other mere fiction. In other words the hero stands at odds with the society of postwar Japan, which is fictitious only; reality lies in the products of his own phantasy. (pp. 140-41)
In a word the hero is a nihilist who cannot find any meaning in life and in a sense inherits the characteristics of the I-novelists in general and Dazai in particular. What then is the relation between the hero and the author? Is the former a mere reflection of the latter and, if so, would it follow that there is little to choose between Dazai and Mishima and that Mishima's dislike of Dazai is that of one's own counterpart? The question leads us to consider the meaning of the title of the novel: Confessions of a Mask.
At first sight the title appears self-contradictory. A confession must be the true voice of feeling, which indeed was the case with the I-novelists, but in Mishima's case it is spoken by a mask. What then is the meaning of the mask? Is it merely a device for the author to disguise himself? If so, the confession would be made by the disguised self of the author. But this author-hero identification does not explain the self-contradiction of the title. There must be something more in the implication of the mask. First, in the context of the novel, the mask could mean the hero who is unable to, and yet pretends to, love a woman…. It seems irrelevant to identify the hero with the author and to consider whether or not Mishima himself was homosexual. Certainly homosexuality in itself is an important theme, but it is also the means of presenting a larger theme. The stoicism of the hero who tries unsuccessfully to love a woman becomes a stoicism in putting up with the existing order of the world which he actually does not accept. The second meaning of the mask therefore, is the disguised self of the hero who is at odds and yet must somehow come to terms with the world. It is not the first but the second meaning of the mask that makes possible identification of the hero with the author and hence the third meaning of the mask. So long as Mishima shares with the hero nihilism and stoicism, the hero is the mask of Mishima himself. But the author is so well disguised under the mask of the hero that the confession is not as straightforward as that of the I-novelist. Viewed in this way, the title is not self-contradictory at all, but is a superb artistic device which made it possible for the author of this novel to detach his work from life as the I-novelists had never done before. And yet the fact remains that the nihilism of the hero inevitably reveals the abyss in the mind of the author himself, which made the artistic device all the more necessary. The author's own nihilism and his urgent need to disguise it under the highly artistic device were to become Mishima's major preoccupations.
Mishima's aim in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion … was to show the logical consistency of the protagonist's act of setting fire to the Golden Pavilion by enriching his character. On the surface the protagonist looks so defective that one might well call him an anti-hero. Nevertheless he is equipped with some important qualities. The theme of alienation from society is as dominant as in Confessions. (pp. 141-42)
From [an] analysis of Golden Pavilion there emerge such important features as the protagonist's estrangement from life, his nihilism or inability to find any positive meaning in life, and his obsession with beauty as an absolute value. In fact, these are all relevant to Mishima himself. And yet Mishima's art is so perfect that the created world of Golden Pavilion is completely autonomous. The work certainly reveals Mishima's own preoccupations, but there is no confusing the world of art with Mishima's own life. The world of his work in itself is a reality, perhaps even more real than life, and by attaining such a reality Mishima is able to survive his own enmity towards life. In simplified terms phantasy dominates over reality.
Nihilism or the concept of life as fiction still continues in Mishima's work in the 1960s. The precocious boy of thirteen and his companions in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea … despise life as boring, hypocritical, sentimental, fictitious and ultimately meaningless…. [The] nihilism of the boys is the obverse of their cult of physical strength. The novel is an autonomous work of art detached from Mishima's own life even more perfectly than Confessions and Golden Pavilion and yet the curious fact is that worship of physical power is exactly what Mishima had been practising since the mid-1950s in order to transcend his fundamental nihilism.
What is particularly interesting about Mishima is the extraordinary tension between his life and works. In some of his works, such as Confessions and Golden Pavilion, the major characters, handicapped in various ways, cannot accept the external world except as mere fiction, and their hunger for eternity, coupled with their death-wish, makes them desire the end of the existing order of the world. In others, for example, The Sound of Waves, the major characters embody the fullness of life through their ideal physical strength. Here we have in fact the two sides of one coin: the former represents Mishima's own nihilism disguised under the highly artistic device of fiction and the latter Mishima's wish-fulfillment or search for his anti-self. In both cases it is characteristic of Mishima that in contrast to the I-novelists there is no simple confusion between his own life and the artistically created world of his work. Mishima was successful in creating a world of fiction not only as real as life, but even more real. To create such an autonomous world of fiction was the means of compensating for his sense of enmity towards the external world and hence of mastering life. In a word, writing novels as a kind of phantasy-making was for Mishima a means of survival and salvation. There is no doubt that Mishima conceived of The Sea of Fertility (Hōjō no Umi …) as the culmination of his creative work. (pp. 143-45)
The Sea of Fertility is much wider in scope, both thematically and structurally, than Confessions and Golden Pavilion. But it readily links up with the earlier works. The theme of alienation from life is represented even more dramatically by being reduced to the antithesis between life and death. Such characters as Kiyoaki and Isao, although one is socially immoral and the other a criminal, seem to demonstrate that death is absolute, eternal and pure, whereas life involves absurdity, banality and impurity. Honda, on the other hand, is essentially a rationalist, succeeding as a lawyer and attaining wealth. But he is also under the spell of the irrational: his faith in the idea of reincarnation and interpretation of Kiyoaki's diary and dreams. The ultimate physical decay of Honda and the futility of his life throw into relief the absoluteness of dream and death, which can be even more real than life itself.
The obsession with death and apocalyptic vision of the end of the world are pervasive elements in Mishima's novels. However, if we adopt the view that Mishima's work constitutes an autonomous world, these elements in themselves do not account for his own tragic death. What of the trilogy that deals with the coup d'état of 26 February 1936 ['Patriotism' 'Kiku on the Tenth' and The Voices of the Heroic Dead]…. [In these works] we should notice a change in the relation between Mishima's life and art. In his earlier works the apocalyptic wish for the end of the world is conceived by negative characters who are handicapped in various ways and cannot master life. In the army mutineer, however, Mishima represents a character who is no longer handicapped but fulfils his personal integrity through physical strength. Curiously enough, this is exactly what Mishima practised in his own life.
In the last years of his life, martial activities were becoming conspicuous…. The remarkable fact was that Mishima's physical training proved useful for his mastery of life as much as the act of writing his novels. Thus Mishima came to find complementary to each other those things which had originally seemed antithetical: the world and words, life and art, body and spirit. As a corollary to this Mishima asserted the Japanese tradition of the union of literary and martial arts and Wang Yang-ming's concept of the unity of knowledge and action. Formerly, the created world of Mishima's art was a compensation for his disenchantment with his unmanageable life. Now Mishima was the master of both spheres of art and life, and, paradoxically enough, the two spheres came to encroach upon each other in a way they did not with the I-novelists. Now the muscular and masculine Mishima could realise his desire for an apocalypse in the sphere of action, and did so in his final attempt at a coup d'état and his own suicide. (pp. 148-50)
Mishima's death … was no mere passive defeat since he had the will to control his own life. The situation was one of paradox. If Mishima had remained the type of writer who, as in his earlier years, felt handicapped in life but compensated for it by creating his work, he would have kept on living in that mode. Now he had acquired physical strength, by means of which he could extinguish his own body so that his soul could live. It seems likely that for all his success as a great literary figure the external world remained alien to him and that the content of his life, even including his last attempt at a coup, was a product of his phantasy. He lived all along in a phantasy world, which could never be authentic except through serving the ultimate purpose of being transformed into an art form. (p. 152)
Hisaaki Yamanouchi, "A Phantasy World: Mishima Yukio," in his The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature (© Cambridge University Press 1978), Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 137-52.
[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 Fertility] hours before the action of his seppuku, we are surely justified in seeking clues to his death by sword in these four novels. At the same time, the tetralogy reexamines Mishima's earlier literary preoccupations, ideas beautifully and ironically resolved in that area of the moon from which the novels take their name, the arid Sea of Fertility.
In these four novels, familiar Mishima settings, recurrent characters, and obsessive themes, symbols, and images all make their final appearance. The recurrent image of sweating flesh is even elevated to a metaphysical sign foreshadowing decay—just as these four novels foreshadowed Mishima's own death. (pp. 290-91)
At the simple narrative level, The Sea of Fertility presents a four-part chronicle of the reincarnation of a beautiful boy, Kiyoaki…. (p. 291)
[But it] is impossible to read these novels in the simplistic terms of plot: ultimately, the reader must face the metaphysical implications. At the same time, the novels of the tetralogy are linked—by character, symbol, and incident—to earlier fictions, essays, drama, even musical comedy lyrics. Mishima did indeed include everything of his life and thought in The Sea of Fertility.
Even the nagging voice of the pedagogue-author occasionally seems to be that issuing from behind the masks of earlier characters. Once more, Mishima's characters are not permitted well-developed individualized voices; the reader may well grow tired of the excess of aphoristic commentary. To replace such earlier (and unlikely) mouthpieces as a thirteen-year-old boy discoursing on "the chaos of existence" in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Mishima produces extraordinarily varied figures in his final work, however.
Mishima's earlier tetralogy, Kyōko no Ie (Kyōko's House …), had failed largely on account of its excess of philosophy over (literary) art…. And the reader not inclined to philosophical speculation finds much of The Sea of Fertility as arid as its namesake on the moon.
In The Sea of Fertility, the reader is offered a four-part education not only in reincarnation but also in the meaning of Free Will; in Hindu belief …; in esoteric elements of Buddhist belief …; in the Sutra of the Peacock Wisdom King; in a world survey of theories of transmigration…. (pp. 295-96)
Whatever the meaning of The Sea of Fertility as a whole, it is appropriate that the most insistent of the recurrent themes is seppuku, the action with which Mishima achieved his bumbu ryōdō [unity of spirit and action]. Seppuku—"beautiful" death by the sword—is muted in the first volume, where Kiyoaki specifically reacts against "militarism." In the second volume, sword and seppuku and the ideals of past warriors provide a gloss on all of Mishima's work. There are links not only with the treatment of seppuku … in his films, dramas, and fictions, but also with his discussion of the samurai code in Hagakure Nyūmon, the voices of spirits of the war dead in Eirei no Koe, and other untranslated discussions of the Japanese Spirit…. (pp. 289-99)
As the catalogue of seppuku and other deaths by sword continues …, the reader hears echoes of Mishima's voice in a hundred other settings. Isao declares: "Once the flame of loyalty blazed up within one, it was necessary to die"—the words sound like a preliminary script for Mishima's own death-scene Geki (Appeal). References to disemboweling and a dagger in the throat described as "graceful" or "brave" further suggest the language of "Patriotism." And when even the rather phlegmatic Honda dreams of "the supreme bliss of the moment of suicide," we hear once again the voice not of created character but of creator-author.
A substantial portion of Runaway Horses is a treatise on "lost" Japanese values as well as on the sword and noble death—again reminiscent of Mishima's aesthetic and his repeated references to the role of the sword in exalting the Japanese spirit. (p. 299)
In The Temple of Dawn, however, death by sword takes its metaphysical aspect from the ritual slaughter of goats, sacrifices to the Hindu Durga (Kali). And images of beautiful death by sword cannot convey the theme of decay in the final volume. In the account of The Decay of the Angel, with its metaphysics of sweating flesh, the noble image of suicide is flawed…. [For example], Tōru believes he will find true perspective "on the far side of death"; he thinks of the sexual fullness of love-suicide and foresees death in terms of pain. Mishima's words, perhaps—but ambiguous, especially when we consider Tōru's signs of decay.
The theme of beautiful death is also carried in imagery of swords—whether in a "sharp" blade of grass or the "stabs" of a cold shower. (p. 300)
Throughout The Sea of Fertility … images of beauty and beautiful death are linked to the ideally beautiful male figure that moves through all of Mishima's fictions. In Spring Snow, Kiyoaki is described in terms that show he is exceptionally beautiful, a doomed figure with "smooth" back, "grace," and "firm masculinity."… Once again, we meet a man "afflicted" by true beauty, with a predilection for suffering and an incapacity for friendship…. (p. 302)
Images of beautiful death are oddly resolved in the final volume with the Beauty—and Decay—of Tōru, another of Mishima's many sea-linked hero-gods. Tōru is linked with the sea at the most literal level…. It is fitting that this sea god should be discovered by Honda: Honda is the unifying figure who moves through each narrative to simultaneously identify the lovely Kiyoaki and speak the words of Mishima's philosophy. (p. 304)
Honda's thoughts on suicide … may hint of a deeper symbolism in Mishima's many deaths by water…. Through Honda, Mishima suggests that Time should be cut short just before the waterfall's plunge—at the pinnacle of physical beauty. (p. 306)
The dominant colors of blood, sun, and fire had been muted in Spring Snow—as in the golden sheen and scarlet reflections of the mother's fan. Garden settings in that novel provided a traditional (red) flower-in-the-mirror or moon-in-the-water image, too: the reflection of red maple leaves in the pond (although, as so often in Mishima's fictions, that image set up ripples of disquiet). In Runaway Horses, the blood red of heroic death is linked with the vermilion and gold of the symbolic sun, the "true image of His Sacred Majesty." (p. 308)
In The Decay of the Angel, Mishima uses the same palette…. The Robe of Feathers myth blazes with golden fire imagery, as Honda meditates on the tennin and the Five Signs of Decay. And the fire—like the sea—merges with images of cruelty and with sexual associations even while it hints of metaphysical meaning.
Fire, blood, and sea are simultaneously setting and symbol. So too the metaphysical sweat that marks the decay of the heavenly being is accompanied by real sweat throughout the entire tetralogy. (pp. 308-09)
[The] hints of sweating bodies move from erotic to metaphysical meaning…. In The Decay of the Angel, the sign begins as "cold sweats," with a glimpse of Tōru continually washing his armpits. Later, Honda sweats profusely as he puffs uphill to the mystic, sunlit garden. But by then the scene of Tōru's decay—the five signs now shown in his soiled, smelly appearance and flower-decked hair—has already signaled the passage into Nothingness.
Thus The Sea of Fertility seems to end. Yet its timing does not quite coincide with the dramatic ending of Mishima's own life, in spite of his assertion he would realize his bumbu ryōdō in this dual performance. For although the fourth novel opens in the year of Mishima's death, its narrative carries us into the future, four years hence. We are thus reminded of Mishima's comments on his inability to imagine a world continuing beyond the world of his novel. There is also a profound paradox: a tetralogy taking reincarnation for action, theme, characters, and imagery simultaneously presents "words" (spoken by a woman, though!) to suggest that perhaps the beautiful Kiyoaki had never "existed."
Paradoxes, however, are characteristic of all Mishima's work—including the odd "Greek" way that he identified with noble samurai ideals of his own nation's past and his search for a renewal of Japanese "spirit" by means of such foreign devices as body-building and weight-lifting. Moreover, the values that Mishima so often said that he wished to "restore" are values that receive scant support in his imagined universe.
In all his work, there are problems of setting. Even when his characters are not moving in an exotic world of Brazilian coffee plantation, ancient Leper King court, or modern political arena, they seem to be blind to the Japanese aesthetic. In Mishima's theory of fiction, dramatic necessity does not justify a character's ignorance (even of so small a matter as the correct name for traditional furnishings). Why then, is so much of his fictional world profoundly foreign? Why are his characters so consistently blind to every imaginable Japanese value?
Mishima himself attempted to revive the spirit of Young Samurai while living in a Western-style Tokyo house filled with Greek statuary, European furniture, and the works of foreign authors. The characters in his fictions sleep not under soft Japanese quilts (futon) on the tatami but in Western twin beds, in brass beds imported from New Orleans, or in double beds whose squeaking springs are lovingly detailed. Underfoot there is parquet flooring or Persian carpeting, while crystal chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. When lovers write, they do not inscribe poems on fans or use a brush and delicate Japanese paper: they use a ballpoint pen on stationery embossed with a design from Walt Disney. (pp. 309-10)
As these characters smoke their brand-named American cigarettes or drive their (branded) American cars, they do indeed suffer those "symptoms of the disease of modernity" mentioned in Forbidden Colors. Like the boy in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, they appear to break "the endless chain of society's taboos." They reject the Japanese sense of aware and share with Shunsuke the experience of "Ionian melancholy."
This world seems entirely divorced from the lyrical Japanese feeling of Kawabata's. (p. 311)
The reader who responds to Kawabata's delicate brush strokes while being repulsed by the harsh lines of Mishima's world might at this point recall some aspects of Japanese history. For instance, readers disturbed over Mishima's enthusiasm for Western body-building techniques as a first step on the route to Japanese spiritual regeneration might well recall that Japan's traditional arts were for some years proscribed by the Mac-Arthur regime. Along with that temporary loss of the spiritual elements of their martial arts, the Japanese also suffered a separation from Shintō (blamed for "nationalistic" fervor, although it is an inseparable element also of modern attitudes toward sex). They suffered an even more terrifying loss when their Emperor—a figure whose Divine Majesty is in direct descent from the (Shintō) Sun Goddess Amaterasu—was suddenly presented to them as a man who appeared in department stores, carrying his soft-crowned hat.
This is the lost postwar world appearing in so many of Mishima's fictions. It is a world we must understand in Japanese terms if we wish to know how men as apparently unlike as Kawabata and Mishima can describe their work in terms of postwar nihilism. This is the world whose inhabitants live in the "spiritual vacuum" to which Mishima so often referred in his last years—the world he described in Taidō as one where, thoughtless, "we are rushing headlong toward fragmentation, functionalization, and specialization … toward the dehumanizing of the human being."
These are the dehumanizing crannies that Mishima explores with such obsessive vigor—unmasking all the inhabitants…. He drags them out of the soft light of a moon-viewing party into the glare of neon and the brilliance of crystal chandeliers. He shows them viewing cherry blossoms that resemble "undertaker's cosmetics" or that are only discarded paper decorations…. (pp. 311-13)
Mishima and his characters alike seem to deny many aspects of their past, but they cannot escape its meaning. (p. 313)
Thus Mishima prepared for his final union of spirit and action through the writing of four novels reexamining events and meanings of Japanese history…. If the conventional Japanese symbols appear but rarely in his pages, and seem to deny this past, we should recall the seemingly flawed maple-viewing incident at the opening of Spring Snow. Discovering a dead dog in the waterfall would seem to be a disastrously "wrong" version of autumn's traditional maple-leaf viewing. Yet it is worth noting that for the abbess of Gesshūji this does not spoil the occasion. On the contrary, it stimulates thoughts of yuishiki—of awareness or consciousness—the thread of meaning that runs through the bewildering reincarnations and transformations of Mishima's beautiful boy(s).
However barren The Sea of Fertility may seem to be, in Mishima's version it is fed by the purifying waterfall, moves with the passions of his sea imagery, is illuminated by the colors of sun and fire, and is part of the mythic memory of the life-giving (Hindu) Sea of Milk. However ugly the businessmen, the politicians, the housewives, the lovers, the priests, and however decayed the bodies of young sea gods, there is Beauty—to be glimpsed but never grasped. It is to be found in the Golden Pavilion of the imagination: not in the peeling paint of a neglected and flawed building. Thus it is fitting that Mishima's own death was a return to the past, as he performed the act of seppuku, the warrior's ultimate gesture.
That bloody, beautiful ritual death, however, can be understood only if it is recognized as a gesture linked with Mishima's view of the "heroic" and "beautiful" death in Sun and Steel, with his belief that the most profound depth of the imagination lay in death. And of course the gesture takes on added significance when it is seen as Mishima's own way of finding that "endless beauty"—cutting time short in that instant of the "radiant pinnacle"—described in the waterfall and flowing streams, the images of The Sea of Fertility. (pp. 313-14)
Gwenn Boardman Petersen, "Mishima Yukio," in her The Moon in the Water. Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima (copyright © 1979 by The University Press of Hawaii), University Press of Hawaii, 1979, pp. 201-319.
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 understand the series of complex images which make up its song-and-dance sequences, tonalities and the inflections included in its choral and orchestral accompaniments. Of import are Iwakichi's sensations; the feelings evoked during the course of the performance; the tensions aroused by the images implicit in his discourse, his gestures and pace…. All aspects of Iwakichi's stage life, as well as that of the other protagonists, are stylized and predetermined: spatial patterns woven about the stage, poses, interpretations—all add to the fascination of the theatrical experience.
Important in The Damask Drum as it had been in ancient Noh theatre, is the relationship between the stage proceedings and nature. Although the play takes place in two office buildings, there is a symbolic correlation between Iwakichi's feelings and attitudes and nature in general: a correspondence between the cosmic domain and its interaction with regard to the individual in the phenomenological world. These two realms inspire resonance and infinite patterns and distillations of sensations and moods.
The notion of timelessness and eternal becoming implicit in traditional Noh drama is clearly discernible in The Damask Drum. Iwakichi lives in a three-dimensional as well as in a four-dimensional sphere. He experiences these worlds interchangeably. In the phenomenological domain, matter and spirit only seem to operate antithetically; in reality, they are manifestations of the Taoist's yin/yang principles, a single universal cosmic force. Since matter and spirit are one in the atemporal sphere, death and life coincide, as do image and reality, fiction and fact. Duality and multiplicity exist only in the existential domain, in Iwakichi's world. The conflicts which arise are stressed by Mishima throughout The Damask Drum not only for dramatic purposes, but also for metaphysical reasons: age as opposed to youth, inanimate and animate objects, life and death, outer and inner domains, solitude and society, business and poetry…. The continuity of this duality expresses the eternal play of conflicting forces which must be endured in life. (pp. 384-85)
That Mishima has situated his drama on the third floor of two office buildings is not surprising. Verticality was always an important factor in Noh drama. The height of the office building corresponds to the mountains which figure so prominently in early Noh theatre. Motionless, still, mountains represent ethereal spheres: heaven, spirit, light circulating about the universe. So the office building in The Damask Drum reveals Iwakichi's vision: his love which is too absolute; his desire, overly encompassing; his idealization. The dichotomy between the purity of this image—that is, his ladylove (height)—and the earthiness of the woman of reality (ground) is too great to take on existence in the phenomenological sphere. It can only come to life in the imagination. Iwakichi's earthly fall in suicide at the conclusion of the first part of The Damask Drum compels him to take stock of the polarities between fantasy and reality and to rework his vision. Only in death does divergency vanish and oneness prevail.
In the collective and cosmic world of Noh theatre, nature is neither crushed nor violated, nor is it used exclusively for man's benefit, as is so frequently the case in the Western world. In The Damask Drum nature is experienced as part of a whole….
In accordance with the close correspondence between man and nature characteristic of Noh drama, Mishima's use of natural forces is implicit in his work. Wind, for example, to which Iwakichi alludes when he opens the window, is alive; it enters into the stage ritual as a turbulent force, a catalyst. (p. 385)
Inasmuch as Noh theatre is archetypal and bathes in the collective domain, specifics such as characters and sets are to be considered symbolically. Characters in traditional Noh theatre are fixed for the most part. Iwakichi, the Old Man, corresponds to the shite, the main actor. Although he does not wear a mask (nor does he under certain circumstances in ancient Noh plays), his face itself remains expressionless: it virtually becomes a mask…. Iwakichi's expressionless face severs him from the outside world. He must therefore look inward. In so doing, he injects his part with "emotional coloring" by means of a variety of poses of the head and neck and by downward or upward glances and intricate gestures. (pp. 385-86)
Iwakichi in many respects is reminiscent of a Zen Buddhist priest who is detached from the material world, which he considers meaningless. He has swept it all away, symbolically speaking, and has rid himself of the dross, the material encumbrances which tie him to life. His inner riches—his fantasy world, his dream—the realm of the absolute, are of higher value to him….
Kayoko, the young letter-carrying clerk, may be considered a kind of contemporary waki, a wanderer throughout the temporal and atemporal realm. She sets up the dialogue or chemical interchange between the two views of life….
The dancing master, the young man, the government official and the owner of the dressmaking establishment are ironic, satiric and humorous in a rather grotesque manner. They are modern counterparts of the kyogen, those ancient clowns who kept audiences amused by their farces and laughable ways. Anonymous beings who emerge from nowhere and vanish into darkness, they serve to heighten tension, to explain the stage happenings in less than poetic language. They infuse comedy as well as cruelty into Iwakichi's poignant love situation….
Although only a stage prop, the damask drum, as a symbol, is steeped in tradition. It is representational and yet remains functionless. Comparable to the koan, a device used by Zen Buddhists to banish rational and syllogistic reasoning (techniques so dear to Western mentality), it serves as a basis for experience. It allows Iwakichi to become exposed to the mysteries of existence, to intuit undreamed-of truths, to transcend individual understanding….
As stage property, the drum belongs to the logical and rationally oriented universe, the intellectual sphere and not the archetypal realm. In that it was sent to Iwakichi by those living in the temporal world, the drum represents formalism, convention, geometrical and causal reality. The dimensionless universe sought by Iwakichi and implicit in Zen Buddhism and Taoism implies a world in potentia—the notion of perpetual becoming….
In keeping with Shinto belief, everything in nature, whether animate or inanimate, is alive. Shinto deities (kami), in the form of spirits of trees, mountains, flowers, ancestors, heroes, the sun or the moon, breathe, act and react in the existential sphere. Man approaches the kami without fear and in friendship. A force or kami therefore inhabits both the essence of the drum and the laurel tree. Although the drum did not respond to Iwakichi's pleadings, the laurel tree does…. All the poetry, sensitivity and creative impact of [Iwakichi's] feelings emerge in this one symbol. Its beauty and gentleness become consoling forces for Iwakichi, who feels his loneliness with such desperation.
The laurel and the moon are recurrent images in Iwakichi's world: they usher in a mood of melancholy. The moon, symbol of transformation, represents biological rhythms and cyclical states. Frequently evoked by Japanese poets, the moon is associated with indirect rather than direct experience and knowledge…. (p. 386)
For the Westerner, The Damask Drum may lack action and conflict. For the Oriental, tension is concentrated and distilled in the images, poetry, gesture and plastic forms which move about the stage. The spatial compositions create the mood, develop and pursue the single emotion which is the sine qua non of Noh theatre.
Just as the Zen painter uses the fewest possible brushstrokes to express the world of multiplicity, so Zen poetry is also known for its sparseness. Mishima maintains this tradition. A word in The Damask Drum stands alone, bare, solitary, divested of adjectives and adverbs, and becomes an entity unto itself….
It is the intensity of sustained emotion in The Damask Drum which moves audiences and not the realistic portrayals…. (p. 387)
Bettina L. Knapp, "Mishima's Cosmic Noh Drama: 'The Damask Drum'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1980 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 54, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 383-87.
[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 means to give it logical form (by fictionalizing it). For Mishima, the novel meant the method, and the question of the novel and the question of methodology were inseparable. Indeed, for Mishima, who preferred masks to real faces, structure to lyricism, and artificial effects to real facts, "fiction" was the key term.
When it first appeared, however, Confessions of a Mask was considered solely as an openly autobiographical work, an I-novel in which a bold confession of the author's homosexuality takes place. In fact, the protagonist of the novel is meticulously presented as identical to the author insofar as his biographical data are concerned. If the novel is a confessional I-novel, then the identification of the protagonist with the author is not in doubt, and the confession of the protagonist is the confession of the author. The novel must be understood accordingly as the removal of the protagonist-author's social mask, an exposé of the real face hitherto hidden behind the mask. (pp. 182-83)
There is no doubt that Mishima meant the protagonist to be taken as the author himself, as his meticulous effort to make the protagonist identical to him indicates, and it is also evident that Mishima intended to make his homosexuality public by writing this novel. Indeed, confession exists at the core of modern fiction, and the modern novel is a means for "confession." (p. 183)
What did Mishima intend to do by letting his protagonist confess, and what did he want to reveal by wearing the mask of the homosexual protagonist? Mishima was not like Shimazaki Tōson and Tayama Katai, writers who were urged on in their art by a desire for self-revelation for ethical or artistic reasons; nor was he like Shiga Naoya, a writer for whom the search for self provided the structure and the materials for his novels. Yet in creating his prototypal, ideal heroes, Mishima was almost exclusively involved in creating heroes who reflected various aspects of his own personality. Whether Mishima was an egomaniac seeking to express himself in terms of his heroes or merely tried fastidiously to identify himself with the heroes he created, there is no doubt that the protagonists' worlds were what inspired Mishima's dream and passions as his own inner world.
Mishima's well-known dislike of Dazai Osamu certainly reflects on the surface his criticism of those I-novelists who use openly their own weakness and desperation as subjects of literary pursuit. Yet one cannot but feel that Mishima's dislike of Dazai is due to his disgust at seeing in Dazai his own egotistical inclination exposed so defenselessly. Mishima's attack on confessional I-novels and their authors—brooding, self-destructive intellectuals who could be interested only in their own inner agonies—and his criticism of the tendency among Japanese writers to identify life and art, can best be understood as paradoxical rhetoric used to hide his egotistical involvement in himself. (pp. 183-84)
Although there is no doubt that Confessions of a Mask is about himself, what is revealed by the confession is not the real face of Mishima; the novel is another "masked play," enabling him to survive not as a writer who lives in daily social life, but to survive as a writer.
Prior to writing Confessions of a Mask, Mishima wrote several nihilistic aesthetic works which appeared anachronistic in the postwar literary atmosphere. He had already discovered his central theme, the life whose beauty and brilliance are supported by its impending annihilation. His "sense of ending" had already found the metaphors of summer and sea, metaphors which were to occupy an increasingly important place in his later works. Mishima started as a writer with his "aesthetics of annihilation (ending)" serving as the raison d'être for both his life and his art. Just as Mizoguchi in Kinkakuji … felt threatened when he learned that the temple had escaped, now that the war was over and destruction no longer seemed inevitable, Mishima felt threatened by having to face the postwar era of peace in which a long life seemed assured to him, thus depriving his art of its basic metaphysics. The tragic stance which Mishima and his protagonists could assume when confronted by predicaments in which their death seemed assured would no longer be possible for them, and Mishima had to create new predicaments which would enable them to be tragic heroes, heroes in the world of his "aesthetics of the ending."
In this sense, Confessions of a Mask is his successful attempt to create a new "fate" for his hero, a fate that would condemn him to inevitable "destruction." In the novel, his destruction or death is only a social one, taking the form of absolute alienation in a spiritual sense from peaceful, "everyday life." The novel is a deliberate declaration of the identity of the author and his hero as masochistic homosexuals. The declaration is a challenge to society, but not a challenge to accept the protagonist-author as a homosexual. Rather, establishing his "abnormality" was an attempt to separate himself absolutely from the world of daily life and to force society, therefore, to condemn him.
The novel is, therefore, a rational articulation of his relation to the world and to the age. It is a novel in which Mishima made a statement about his "being in the world," to use Sartre's phrase, attempting thereby to retain the possibility of being identified as a tragic hero and thus to maintain his aesthetics of death. If Mishima "confessed" in the novel, he confessed his deep-seated fear of living in the peaceful postwar world where his raison d'être as a man and as a writer no longer existed. (pp. 184-86)
Mishima's homosexuality was a "fate" which he deliberately chose, a fate which separated him (and his protagonist) from ordinary life….
In order to make his homosexuality "fate," it was necessary for both society and Mishima himself to condemn his trait or temperament. (p. 186)
Defining oneself as an outsider, a "pagan" who cannot occupy a place in a normal, humane life, is one of the singular means artists have used for self-definition in modern industrial society, a utilitarian society hostile to art….
In modern Japanese literature, such I-novelists as Katai and Tōson converted their failure in everyday life into privileges of the novelist which would enable them to concern themselves exclusively with their isolation and to write about it. Dazai Osamu also deliberately acted out the role which others forcibly imposed on him. In Mishima's case, homosexuality presented a stronger rationale for the protagonist's isolation and uniqueness, for the isolation is physically real rather than just mental. As for Mishima himself, in like fashion precisely, his "abnormality" was the license for his art, his license for writing. (p. 189)
Confessions of a Mask is the story of the birth of an artist, that of Mishima himself. The homosexual protagonist who at once fears and aspires for pure flesh is a metaphor for the writer who, belonging to the world of intellect, writes because he aspires for the tragic intensity of life. In this sense the novel is about himself, about the search for the author. The self-search of the protagonist is identified with the self-search of the author, his ontological quest for what he is; it is the self-search of "a creature, non-human and somehow strangely pathetic." In this sense the novel can be called truly confessional.
The novel is, however, a fictional work and not a real account of Mishima's life. In his notes for Confessions of a Mask, Mishima wrote that true confession is impossible ("the true essence of confession is its impossibility"), for only a mask with flesh can confess, and that he intended to write a perfect fictional work of confession. In order to pursue the ontological quest of the mask, a mask must deliberately be worn. If Mishima's mask were forcibly taken away, we might discover that there is neither a face nor any naked facts at all behind it; there would be nothing, or at best abstract passion, which was for him the substance of life. (pp. 189-90)
Noriko Mizuta Lippit, "'Confessions of a Mask': The Art of Self-Exposure in Mishima Yukio," in her Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature (copyright © 1980 by M. E. Sharpe), M. E. Sharpe, 1980, pp. 181-90.