The Sea of Fertility

by Yukio Mishima

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The Sea of Fertility: A Cycle of Four Novels is a tetralogy whose title is taken from a name on the surface of the moon. It suggests both the fertile sea of earthly life and the arid sea of the cosmic moon—being and nothingness. Mishima said that he put everything he knew about life into these four novels; the very last words of the final book were written and submitted to his publisher on the day that he died.

Spring Snow is Mishima’s version of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597). A story of star-crossed lovers, Kiyo Matsugae and Satoko Ayakura, the novel is romantic, poignant, and tragic. As the title suggests, spring is the season of love, while snow is the cold, life-covering element of death, and this novel combines the two. Satoko, the daughter of a nobleman, is engaged by imperial decree to a prince of the court, while Kiyo, also from a noble family, is a student at Peers’ School who falls in love with her. By doing so, however, he challenges the emperor himself. The lovers meet secretly, love passionately, and take terrible risks. Emotionally weak and immature, Kiyo tries to distance himself from Satoko, who becomes pregnant, gets an abortion, and, in disgrace, isolates herself in a nunnery. Kiyo, guilty and desperately ill, comes daily to see the cloistered Satoko and eventually dies for love.

Two minor characters in Spring Snow figure prominently in the second novel of the cycle, Runaway Horses. Before Kiyo dies, he tells his school friend, Shigekuni Honda, of a dream in which he sees his friend Honda again, beneath a waterfall. Another minor character, Kiyo’s tutor, Shikeyuki Iinuma, also reappears in the second novel, which takes place some eighteen years after Kiyo’s death. Honda, now an associate judge in the saka Court of Appeals, meets Isao Iinuma, son of Kiyo’s tutor, who is now headmaster of his own academy. When Honda sees the boy bathing beneath a waterfall near the shrine, he notices three small moles on the left side of the boy’s breast—the same three moles that Kiyo had. He concludes that the boy is Kiyo reincarnated, the incarnation of Kiyo’s earlier dream.

Whereas Kiyo was a romantic dreamer, Isao is a political idealist who wants to purify the corrupt Japanese government of Westernized financiers and restore the empire’s former glory. Using as his model The League of the Divine Wind, a group of student rebels who tried to overthrow the Japanese government in 1873, Isao forms his own student rebel group, whose members pledge to assassinate the most prominent financiers in Japan and to kill themselves by seppuku if their plan fails. The assassination plan indeed fails, and the rebel students are imprisoned. Honda, convinced that Isao is the reincarnation of his old friend Kiyo, resigns from the court and becomes defense counsel for the students, who are given their freedom and treated as patriotic heroes. Isao, however, more in love with romantic death than political reform, carries out his plans of assassination by killing a financier named Kurahara and then taking his own life by seppuku.

Reincarnation, something in which Mishima did not personally believe, also plays a part in the final two novels of the tetralogy. In Runaway Horses, Kiyo/Isao has a dream in which he becomes a woman. In The Temple of Dawn, he becomes that woman, a Thai princess named Ying Chan; later, in The Decay of the Angel , he will reappear as a boy named Toru. In both novels, Honda is again the central controlling sensibility...

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through whose eyes are seen Kiyo’s various incarnations.

Both The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel emphasize the decay of the final book’s title. From the earlier two novels of romantic passion and patriotic sacrifice, readers descend to a world of ugliness, corruption, and death. In The Temple of Dawn, Thailand is a place of drizzling rain and fragmented images, India a nation of beggars, lepers, and public crematoriums, and Japan a defeated nation of bombed-out ruins and perverted sexuality. Honda has become materially wealthy but physically and morally impoverished. Trapped in a sterile marriage, he is reduced to peeping at the sexual activity of others through holes in walls and behind bushes. Ying Chan, the object of Honda’s sexual fantasies, turns out to be a lesbian and dies from a snakebite after returning to Thailand. There is equal sterility in The Decay of the Angel. Honda, now seventy-six years old, dreams of angels; going to Udo Beach, where a mythical angel supposedly descended in the fourteenth century, he finds a shore littered with Coca-Cola bottles, food cans, plastic bags, and garbage. Meeting Toru, a young signalman who has the distinctive three-mole marking on his breast, Honda adopts the sixteen-year-old, but Toru turns out to be evil incarnate, a destroyer of human life and spirit, a malevolent genius who ends up blind, helpless, and isolated.

Mishima’s four novels move from spring, youth, and love to old age, senility, and death, from the romantic idealism of early twentieth century Japan to a crass, decaying, and valueless society of the 1970’s. Like his principal character Judge Honda, who serenely looks forward to death at the end of the tetralogy, Mishima himself saw at the end of his life only an empty garden, no memories, nothing.