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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Sun and Steel, the writer confronts the daunting task that is the writer’s responsibility: using words, which are always inadequate and frequently misleading, to convey the essence of nonverbal phenomena. In this case, Yukio Mishima aims to understand and help the reader interpret the relationship between the body, materiality, and mortality to spirituality, immateriality, and infinity. This general, admittedly daunting mission is exemplified by Mishima’s personal quest to improve his own body so that he can use it in the service of the spiritual. This quest is complicated by the fact that his earlier experience of physical training occurred in 1945, in the last months of World War II; despite his patriotic desire to serve, he was dismissed on the grounds of being physically unfit through illness.

Mishima presents, and only partly explains, a number of important symbols as recurrent motifs; prominent among these is the sky. He explores multiple ways in which the material world misleads all of us who must live in it. The falsity of exterior appearances, for example, is likened to an apple’s skin. Knowing the truth, or the interiority of any living thing, brings about its death, whether what one cuts open is an apple or a human body.

The reality that Mishima did not serve the Japanese empire may have generated an obsession with traditions of such service, as he writes extensively of the samurai important in Japanese history and of the kamikaze pilots who played key roles in the war. The tragedy of kamikaze suicide seems to him a glorification of mortality at the moment it ceases. Although he cannot give his own life in such service, he seeks at least a glimpse of the moments that preceded it and so describes riding as a passenger in a fighter plane—an experience that for him includes sexual arousal.

Mishima’s preoccupation with mortality and human reasons for existence and nonexistence are evident throughout the work, including a final poem. These preoccupations were not just a writer’s words, as Mishima increasingly promoted imperial restoration and took part in related political and paramilitary actions; during one such action in 1970, he took his own life by seppuku, traditional ritual suicide.

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