Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1364
Although Mishima’s attempt to strengthen his body provoked the writing of Sun and Steel, the book is not a description of a bodybuilder’s regimen. Rather, it consists of a series of philosophical speculations, many of which are farfetched and disturbing. Mishima’s wild assertions have provoked many critics to voice their dismay. Sun and Steel expresses the romantic ideal of death as both the ultimate experience of life and its tragic fulfillment, a motif found in the works of such Romantic artists and thinkers as John Keats, Richard Wagner, Walt Whitman, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, Mishima was familiar with the works of these writers; unlike many contemporary Japanese artists, he had read widely in Western literature.
Mishima had set himself the difficult task of explaining the discoveries of the body in words. He notes that words are like “white ants” which eat away at reality, hiding and destroying it rather than revealing it. (Elsewhere he compares words to corrosive acid that eats at a plate on which an etching is made.) Since he must use words to explain an experience that transcends words, the book is frequently mystifying. It is easier to grasp what Mishima is trying to convey by examining the implications of certain key images that offer a glimpse of Mishima’s transcendent experience.
The first of these is Mishima’s description of a group of young men carrying a heavy portable shrine through the streets of a city during a religious ceremony. Their bodies are strained, yet each young man, although exhausted, wears an expression of happiness. Mishima notes that as they carry the shrine, they are looking at the sky, which he sees as an emblem of tragedy available to be seen and comprehended by any ordinary person. (The assumption that a clear blue sky is emblematic of tragedy is only one of many questionable assertions that the reader must accept in order to follow the progress of Mishima’s emotions and spirit.) The person with an unfit body would not be able to perform the task of the shrine carriers and thereby would be denied access to the ultimate tragedy revealed by physical action. Mishima believed that his preoccupation with the written word had clouded that basic sense of tragedy. Thus, Mishima set about improving his body. Mishima would later carry such a shrine; photographs of him taken at the end of the run reveal the beatific face he had earlier described in the essay.
The next event to which Mishima refers is a striking awareness of the sun which he experienced in the summer of 1945 during the training he underwent in preparation for his induction into the army during what he calls “the summer of the defeat.” The sun gleamed on the wings of the airplanes, destined for destruction, as it had on the blood and bodies of those killed by the war. The sun, another feature of that searing, tragic sky, becomes for Mishima an emblem of death which leads all creation on to its ultimate destruction.
Mishima notes that he then took refuge in his books and studies, hiding from the sun and its message of death, but he does not tell the reader that when he reported for his draft physical, he had a slight cold which the army doctor diagnosed as the beginning of tuberculosis and because of which the doctor disqualified Mishima for duty. Mishima did nothing to dissuade the doctor from his erroneous opinion, thus dodging military service and what would have been almost certain death. Thus, another possible interpretation of Mishima’s fascination with violence, emperor worship, and sacrifice for one’s country is that he was doing penance in this fashion for his failure to answer his country’s call at its hour of greatest peril.
In a central image which defines the meaning of his essay, Mishima asks the reader to consider the existence of an apple. The skin of the apple is all that is visible, but deep inside is the core (like the human spirit). In order for the core to experience true existence, it must be visible, that is, exposed to the sun in its capacity both to create and to destroy. Thus, the apple must be sliced open so that the core can both see and be seen. That moment, its death, is the height of the apple’s existence. To one familiar with the circumstances of Mishima’s death, the metaphor is chilling.
Mishima writes that, having sought to achieve a concise, unadorned style to match his lean and finely tuned body, he found that style in the brief messages scribbled by kamikaze pilots who were about to fly into the tragic blue sky to die for their emperor. They had already honed their physical bodies to perfection in order to become pilots. With their last brief words they distilled the essence of tragedy. Mishima describes the ultimate style which he is seeking as like the hardwood entrance hall of a samurai mansion on a winter’s day, an image which contains several key elements. The samurai mansion evokes solidity, formidability, and the sense of the heroic Japanese tradition; the winter’s day, with snow shrouding everything, is emblematic of simplicity and death. The hardwood interior matches the result of bodybuilding in which Mishima was engaged. The wood has been cut open to reveal its musculature and it has been polished, indicating the peak of perfection. Perhaps most significant in this account is what is not there—the samurai is not there, only the entrance of his house is mentioned, as if to suggest that the spare style for which Mishima aims is only the beginning of a quest which will ultimately end in physical action.
With the recognition that tragic spirit must be fused with that of a group, the last piece of the puzzle of Mishima’s death slides into place. To die merely for oneself would be only an egotistic romantic end; submersion in religion, as with the shrine bearers, is too limited and does not contain the possibility of death. To die for the emperor, however, is to die for Japanese culture—since the emperor is the fountainhead of that culture—as well as to fulfill one’s own tragic fate.
The second essay in Sun and Steel, “Epilogue—F104,” describes Mishima’s ride in a fighter plane and adds nothing to the philosophical conclusions reached in the longer essay, but makes overt the eroticism suggested in that piece. The take-off is described in sexual terms; Mishima sees himself as “spermatozoon-like” when, strapped into the cockpit of the plane, he surmises that he will soon know what a sperm cell feels at the moment of ejaculation; the clouds through which he and the pilot pass are “semen-white.” In another startling image, which combines resonances of wisdom, narcissism, and death by suicide, Mishima thinks of the band of clouds circling the earth as resembling a snake trying to swallow its own tail. Mishima and the pilot enter that blue sky at which he had seen the shrine bearers staring; near to death, he becomes a part of tragedy. As he encounters the gravitational force, his face is contorted by both pain and joy like that of a person experiencing an orgasm.
The short poem “Icarus,” which ends Sun and Steel, is, significantly, named for one who tried to reach the clear blue of the sky on wings fashioned through art and who failed and died. The sixty-one-line poem consists of sixteen sentences, fourteen of which are questions. After a long explanation of his life, Mishima wonders why he must act out the strange fate which he has contrived for himself—or is it that it has been granted to him? He is not sure. That the writer thinks of himself as a failure is clear from his identification with Icarus. Having, at the beginning of the book, declared that words are inadequate and works of art effete, Mishima, ironically, concludes with a poem. His effort to explain himself through words has been a failure; clearly, the only way to find the answer to those questions was through violent action.
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