Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

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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.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

On November 25, 1970, Yukio Mishima, a brilliant author of more than forty novels, short-story collections, plays, and essays, committed suicide after leading a group of his private army, the Tatenokai (shield society), into the office of a general in the Japanese Self-Defense forces in Tokyo and holding the officer hostage while he tried to rally the troops to cast off their role as a merely defensive force and honor the emperor by returning to the ancient Japanese traditions of the warrior. Mishima knew that the attempt to rouse the army was doomed and had already planned his death as a penance for having led a failed coup. He killed himself by seppuku, ritual disembowelment. (Hara-kiri, the term for this method of death which is more commonly used in the West, literally means “belly cut.”) In the final act of seppuku, Mishima was beheaded by his best friend in the Tatenokai, who was then killed in the same fashion. Not only the literary world but also the global community was stunned by what seemed an insane act that ended a prolific artistic career.

Although the manner of Mishima’s death was shocking, his suicide at the age of forty-five would not have surprised a careful reader of his works. Only two years before his death, Mishima had published Sun and Steel, in which he outlined his views on death as the ultimate tragic experience and the perfect fulfillment of the life of the warrior and the artist.

Sun and Steel consists of three parts: a long essay in which Mishima relates the story of his life from the standpoint of his intellectual, spiritual, and physical development; a shorter essay, “Epilogue—F104,” in which he describes a ride in a jet fighter; and a short poem, “Icarus.” In the long essay, Mishima describes how the growth of his mind and spirit was essentially backward; most people enter a world which they experience primarily in a physical way and then progress to the world of perception, thought, ideas, and words. Mishima, a bookish child who was overly protected by a domineering grandmother, began life by regarding words as primary and realizing only in late adolescence the importance of the body in the training of the total person. In his adulthood, he began a program of bodybuilding to which the title of the work refers—the sun on one’s skin when exercising in the open air and the steel of the weights and swordplay used in developing muscles.

As his body becomes more finely tuned, Mishima discovers that too much emphasis on words have caused him to cloud reality with ideas. He rediscovers a language of the body and learns that to be truly alive is to experience the pain and suffering which is the mark of tragedy. Moreover, Mishima believes that the ultimate experience of pain and suffering is death. Thus, Mishima’s physical and spiritual education leads him to the conclusion that a sound mind must be housed in a sound body, uniting the roles of intellectual and warrior, and that an early death in the full flower of both physical and mental vigor is desirable.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

Keene, Donald. “Yukio Mishima,” in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, 1984.

Lebra, Joyce C. “Mishima’s Last Act,” in Literature East and West. XV, no. 2 (1971), pp. 279-298.

Nathan, John. Mishima: A Biography, 1974.

Scott-Stokes, Henry. The Life and Death of Yukio Mishima, 1974.

Spurling, John. “Death in Hero’s Costume: The Meaning of Mishima,” in Encounter. XLIV (May, 1975), pp. 56-64.

Ueda, Makoto. “Yukio Mishima,” in Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, 1976.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “Mishima Yukio and His Suicide,” in Modern Asian Studies. VI (January, 1972), pp. 1-16.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “A Phantasy World: Mishima Yukio,” in The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, 1978.

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